Saturday, October 25, 2014

UKIP plumbs the depths with lies, innuendo and deceit.

Politics is a dirty game at times but respectable political activists in Britain rarely sink this low. What the above shows is a large group of UKIP supporters posing in front of a campaign poster of such offensiveness and duplicity that it takes the breath away. Some of them may be stupid. OK, they could be in the right Party. But others, perhaps including the candidate Mr Clarkson (sic) know exactly what they are doing.

The reference in the slogan is to the 1400 victims of child abuse in Rotherham. It was a horrific story and the negligence of the (mostly) Labour council was culpable. But this is not a Council election. It is a vote for a Police Commissioner in South Yorkshire. Labour's candidate, the Reverend Dr Alan Billings, was a parish priest in Sheffield and is currently director of the Centre for Ethics and Religion at Lancaster University. He has nothing to do with Rotherham. He is entitled to ask for support and the issue of "trust" relates only to him. His track record is impressive.

There is code in play here. The Rotherham offences were commited by Pakistani heritage gangs. UKIP doesn't like the multi-ethnicity of places like Rotherham. The fact that the vast majority of British Asians are law-abiding gets UKIP no votes. So with barely disguised rhetoric they make a link between Labour and ethnic heritage criminals. "We know what you're thinking" as someone once said. 

Labour wasn't responsible for child abuse in Rotherham - although it's negligence was a contributory factor. The Labour candidate in this election had nothing at all to do with the events. Yet UKIP implicitLy slanders him and tries to make a link which isn't there. This is what this grubby apology for a political party does. Everyone knows what the bigots of UKIP are against. But what are they for? It certainly isn't truth or decency ... 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Nigel Farage and me


A few years ago, before he became “famous”, I had dinner with Nigel Farage. A mutual friend, also called “Nigel”, invited me to join the two of them after we had all been at Lord’s cricket ground for the day. We met at a Malaysian restaurant in West Hampstead and as far as I can recall it was a pleasant evening. The two Nigels, like me, enjoyed the spicy food and Tiger Beer and that and a bit of cricket chat (mainly), was the purpose of the evening.

Farage is almost a generation younger than me – he was born in 1964, the year I left school and started work. But we have similar backgrounds. I grew up in the same part of West Kent as Farage and visited the same pubs in Downe Village (his home) and elsewhere. My father was a member of “West Kent Golf Club” (WKGC)  as is Farage. And I was at Farage’s school Dulwich College for three years in the 1950s. I know the world he comes from well.

The 19th hole at WKGC and the watering holes around the area were not known for their liberal debate. The house journal for the men was the “Daily Telegraph” and for the women the “Daily Mail”. My father, not a particularly political man, was at the heart of this for thirty years. They were, of course, all Conservatives in every way. Socially illiberal. Hangers and Floggers. Vehemently ant-Socialist. Their attitude to the working-class was generally either patronising (“Salt of the Earth”) or hostile (“Union trouble-makers”). They were against any social or what they saw as “intrusive” legislation. Especially if a car was involved. So Barbara Castle was a pariah for cracking down on drink driving and introducing the breathalyser and for making seat-belts compulsory. You get the picture. I don't recall my parents or their Golf Club friends as being particularly racist – black or Asian faces were rare in that part of Kent. But their world was a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant world and Catholics and Jews were certainly looked at with suspicion.

WKGC is a hilly course and you drive down a big hill and cross a small valley before climbing up to the Clubhouse. One day I was in my father’s car en route to the Club. I noticed at the bottom of the hill a wooden building with a corrugated roof. A few golfers were standing outside it. I asked my Dad what it was. “Oh that's the Artisans” he said. He explained that this group comprised working-class men who would not be able to “afford” proper membership of the Club. They had their own modest facilities, teed off from the 10th hole nearby. And were banned from the main clubhouse.

It does not follow that if you grew up in this world of privilege and narrowness then you developed political opinions like those of Farage. But it is fair to say that the majority did especially if, like Farage, you did not go to University but went straight into the City. Your mind certainly won’t be broadened by your friends in Downe’s “George and Dragon” ! The Conservative Party was the natural home for those politically active in West Kent. In the main they had political opinions not dissimilar to that of UKIP today – they were Right-Wing Conservatives who leaned far more towards Enoch Powell than they did to Edward Heath. Needless to say Margaret Thatcher was their heroine.

My dinner with the two Nigels was, as I have said, a pleasant evening. I don't recall Farage being particularly mad or outspoken. Although my politics are of the Left many of my friends and acquaintances are of the Right so there was nothing especially unusual about hearing a few traditionally rightist views from Nigel Farage . I’d been hearing similar for decades in my own family! I didn't take Farage seriously because he didn't seem to take himself seriously – it was well-lubricated pub banter and it seemed harmless.

The problem with Nigel Farage is not his unsavoury views about most things – you’ll hear similar all the time in the circles from which he comes. The problem, of course, is that Farage has had for some time platforms from which to spout his nonsense. My Dad and his friends didn't stand on soapboxes – they mumbled bigotry into their pint glasses and moved on to talk about rugby or cricket. Nobody would have elected them to anything more demanding than the Golf Club committee.

UKIP’s natural home is the members’ bar of West Kent Golf Club and its like across southern England. Sitting on their high stools the members would no doubt refer to “Good Old Nigel” as the “Sort of Chap who talks a lot of sense”. Dissenters (there would be some) would shrug their shoulders and smile – as I did over dinner. They might say that it was all “harmless” and that nobody was going to give Farage the keys to anything that really mattered. But now he has them, the keys to Britain's immediate political future. In Iain Dale’s Top 100 people of the Right he is at Number one – ahead of David Cameron. We may comfort ourselves that you can never fool all the people all of the time, but then you don’t need to. Dictators only get 100% of the votes when they gain power - not on their journey there.

There is no intellectual substance to UKIP’s policies – but there doesn't need to be. The support from the Golf Club bores is solid and secure. And now Farage is making serious inroads into the “Artisan” vote as well. To wander down the hill and knock on the door of the wooden building with the corrugated roof smiling your Cheshire Cat smile and pandering to the prejudices  of the people there is all in a days work for our Nigel.

You've been warned.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

We didn't withdraw troops too soon from Iraq - we shouldn't have been there in the first place.

I wasn't alone to be uneasy about the rationale for the Iraq war and for the UK's involvement in it. But a chance encounter with a distinguished British journalist and political commentator back in the Autumn of 2002 was revealing. He was, and is, a man with his ear to the ground and with impeccable contacts and credentials. Politically he could be described of being of the sceptical Right. Not a Party man, but broadly a Conservative. He told me that he had it on good authority that Saddam was a real threat to Britain. I took this information on trust, as he had. I didn't suddenly become pro the War, but I wasn't going to call the British Prime Minister (who of course was propagating the "threat" allegation ) a liar. But, as we now know, Blair was lying.

We go to war on a lie. Our troops are killed without there being any honest justification for the adventure. We were part of an utterly botched exercise militarily, as we now so vividly see, and politically. We threw good troops in increasing numbers into a shambles. Some of them died too. The post war planning was non existent. We failed to understand even the first thing about the religio-political status of the region. We make a bad situation worse and kept on digging.

We didn't withdraw too soon. We shouldn't have been there in the first place. As someone said the one thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history. The rhetoric recycles every few years. "Never let it be said that Britain stood idly by..," Eden? Thatcher? Major? Blair? Cameron? - all of them. Glory hunters trying to find Britain's post Imperial role and trying to be Churchill. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Ken Clarke is right on immigration

@BBCMarkMardell: Ken Clarke,on Today warns against 'ignorance & bigotory' and says Conservatives shouldn't 'follow nonsense' about EU immigration

This issue gets caught in the Bermuda Triangle zone borderered by what is right, what is possible and what is electorally attractive. For the conscience-free polemicists of UKIP only the third thing matters.They can parrot the Anti-Immigration prejudices of the ignorant, the racists, the scapegoters and the rest without worrying too much about it. We are in Mosley/Powell/Griffin territory here. It stinks , but fortunately the vast majority of the British people will want no truck with it if we reach out to them and explain.

For respectable Parties the challenge is to do what is right, and what is possible. And then try and make THAT electorally attractive. It isn't easy to combat deep-seated prejudice but if you have a moral imperative backed by the rules of national and international law then you have a good chance. You don't need to persuade all the Kippers and their malignant leaders, and you won't. But people are concerned about the issue and you must reach out to them and explain. That is a duty. I hope the Tories accept it, it is important that they do. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Roderick Spodes will always be with us. On the margins of respectability. Let's keep them there.

Five years ago, after Nick Griffin's appearance on "Question Time", 22% of the British people said that they would consider voting BNP. Whilst one should be careful about reading too much into one poll this does ring true in the context of the rise of UKIP. That around a fifth of the British electorate are in, or lean towards, the Far Right is not particularly surprising. The message of extreme Nationalism, anti Europe, anti immigration has its gut appeal. And when there is confusion, often based on ignorance, then a seeking of scapegoats is understandable. Recently we have heard cringe-making interviews with UKIP supporters who parrot the scapegoating rhetoric of UKIP leaders without having any real understanding of the issues involved. Nigel Farage is not Nick Griffin - he is far more dangerous than the former BNP leader and a great deal cleverer. But deep down the UKIP appeal is not that different to that of the BNP.

It's worth repeating again the views of UKIP supporter and Daily Express columnist Leo McKinstry:

"An air of bewilderment and panic now grips the two main parties. But the explanation for Ukip's rise could hardly be simpler. It lies in the issue of immigration. Ukip has tapped into the growing despair of the public at the relentless transformation of our country."

The phrase "relentless transformation of our country" is of course code for "The presence of very large British Asian communities in our cities" - a consequence of past immigration in the post war decades. Although support for UKIP is more widespread than was the case for the BNP there is little doubt that the driving force, as McKinstry identifies, is the same - an objection to the ethnic diversity of modern Britain. 

Under Nick Griffin the BNP became, nominally anyway, less overtly racist. This was partly because the law required it to do this but also in an attempt for respectability. UKIP's rise since 2010 has been coincidental with the BNP's decline. But if you look at the BNP's manifesto in the 2010 General Election it is not that much different at its core to that of UKIP today. UKIP is appealing to that 20% or so of the electorate that survey back in 2009 identified. The Far Right supporters and sympathisers now have a "respectable" home for their votes and UKIP's credibility has been enhanced by the defectors from the Conservatives. David Cameron memorably called UKIP "... a bunch of ... fruit cakes and loonies and closet racists mostly". He may regret that now but as a description of the Far Right, from Mosley through Griffin to Farage, it's not bad shorthand. It is not a coincidence that the rise of UKIP has been at the same time as the decline of the BNP. The 80% of us who don't think like those of the Far Right must counter this latest manifestation of political extremism in the same way that decent British people did in the past. The Roderick Spodes will always be with us. On the margins of respectability. Let's keep them there. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Could more defections in the long run be advantageous to the Conservative Party?

The loyalty deficit in the Conservative Party is not a new phenomenon. Ask John Major. The Party that under Ted Heath had the vision to see that Britain's future was as an active member of a united Europe has for twenty years or more had a large lunatic fringe who want to undo all that has been achieved. 

In Government previous Tory Europhobes soon understand that it is overwhelmingly in Britain's interest to be part of the EU. But the antis - always outside the tent pissing in - won't go away. Until recently when the creation of UKIP has given some of them a home for their eccentric obsessions. There is a case for more defections releasing the pent up frustrations in the Tory ranks. Let the malcontents go if they want to. Regroup around a renewed One Nation, Internationalist and open Conservative Party. Indeed this may be the only way forward.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The bigotry and prejudice of Daily Express writer and UKIP supporter Leo McKinstry is disingenuous

"An air of bewilderment and panic now grips the two main parties. But the explanation for Ukip's rise could hardly be simpler. It lies in the issue of immigration. Ukip has tapped into the growing despair of the public at the relentless transformation of our country."
The above is from Right Wing commentator and UKIP sympathiser Leo McKinstry. It appeared in an article in the Daily Express which was linked in a Tweet by former Express journalist and now UKIP Communications Director (and MEP) Patrick O'Flynn. I think that what Mr McKinstry says is true. There is, as a result of UKIP's campaigning, disapproval in some quarters (maybe "despair" is a bit strong) about Britain's  "transformation" into a multicultural society. However this is a Fait Accompli and current immigration will have little effect on the quantum of this multiculturalism. So UKIP's Anti Immigration stance taps into this, as McKinstry is doing, but they can offer no "solution" because there is none. (Other than ethnic cleansing and forced repatriation - and I assume even Mr McKinstry isn't advocating that!)

Let me be clear. There are around 3 million Britons of Asian heritage. In the ten years between 2001 and 2011 only just over 500,000 (50,000 per year) came from India and Pakistan. I would suggest that these new arrivals were swiftly absorbed into the existing British Asian communities. I doubt that anyone will have noticed the difference. Membership of the EU means that we have had substantial immigration from EU countries over the same period - for example 531,000 Poles have arrived. Can anyone in UKIP tell us how this has "transformed" our country? Have parts of our cities turned into Little Warsaw? Of course not. And have these people from Poland caused any problems collectively and do they all intend to stay here, or are they mostly - as I suspect - working, saving money and will in due course return to Poland. 
The anti-immigration argument of McKinstry and of UKIP is not so deep down not about immigration at all. McKinstry has come out of the closet on this as did Nigel Farage when he complained about hearing foreign languages spoken on the train. These people simply don't like people of a different cultural background to theirs. "Relentless transformation of our country" is code for "parts of our cities having become Asian in appearance and culture". I don't want here to argue whether this change (which is undeniably true) is good or bad. I welcome it, but that is not my direct point here. That point is this. That stopping Immigration completely would have little or no affect on the "transformation of our country" - if this is how you want to describe it. It has happened. There is no rolling back. 50,000 more Asians arriving each year would only add 1% to the existing population, far less than is added by normal net demographics. And the 500,000 Poles are largely invisible and if more come (far from certain anyway) they would disappear as well.
Immigration, most studies show, is on balance economically advantageous to Britain. But immigrants do often look different, have different religions and a very different culture to the White Anglo-Saxon Protestantism of the Good Old Boys of UKIP. Leo McKinstry doesn't like immigrant cultures one bit - but his claim that there is currently "mass immigration" which is continuing to "transform" Britain is a lie. That transformation has happened and there is nothing that McKinstry or UKIP can do about it!
There are good people in Britain who focus on trying to make our multicultural society work better. Who try to break down barriers and build bridges across communities. And most Britons are tolerant of  differences. UKIP is different. I eschew generally throwing the "racist" epithet at anybody. But in Leo Mckinstry's case he condemns himself in his own words and in revealing his own bigotry and prejudice.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Troubled political times. The solution? I've no idea!

With the latest opinion poll having UKIP on 26% to Labour and the Tories at 31% each Britain is in danger of descending into ungovernable political chaos. UKIP's simple and single appeal - leave the EU to stop immigration - now strikes a chord with a quarter of the electorate. It is, of course, bolstered by a strong anti-establishment imperative. The LibDems, so "establishment" they are actually in Government, are vanquished as the (respectable) party of protest. Nobody agrees with Nick any more. Some thoughtful people are favouring the Greens who are doing well. But the Conservatives and Labour? Floundering.

The Tories lost Clacton and will lose Rochester. Labour came very close indeed to losing Heywood. Both have leaders who hold on to the real party faithful but don't retain the waverers nor attract previous non supporters. Labour is losing more support (to UKIP) than it is gaining from the LibDems. The Conservatives are just losing. The LibDems are a music hall joke. 

There is a void of leadership. Nigel Farage is a preposterous character straight out of an improbable SitCom. His nearest rival, in public esteem, Boris Johnson, has a little more gravitas but is equally, to many, inconceivable as Prime Minister. Neither has the "common touch" - but that doesn't seem to matter. The socially superior David Cameron and the distant and uncomfortable Ed Miliband don't relate to the public at large either.

Matthew Parris, the Tory commentator that the Tories love to hate, blames voter ignorance. It's an elitist position, but has more than a kernel of truth in it. A UKIP supporter who phoned into LBC yesterday hadn't a clue about what UKIP's policies were - although he knew that they were against immigration. That was, for him, enough. Ignorance doesn't matter if it doesn't affect outcomes. The repulsive BNP, whose supporters have all now run to UKIP, was an uncomfortable irrelevance. Their supporters were ignorant racists but electorally they didn't do much damage. UKIP is different.

So what should Labour and the Conservatives do. To be honest I've no idea! They could try and steal UKIP's anti immigration clothes but they won't be believed. The Tories EU referendum promise has gained them nothing. If you don't like immigration or the EU you'll vote UKIP whatever the main parties say. 

Troubled times. 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The "Third Way" between the extremes of political ideologies is notjust desirable - it's the reality, and it's right!

The conventional way at looking at politics is that there are essentially two ideologies. On the Right there is a belief in the "Market" and on the Left there is reliance on the "State". So conservatives will naturally look to private enterprise to provide value while socialists will seek to have state ownership of assets to do the same thing. "Value" here means goods and services  which citizens need or want or must have. Individually, or collectively as a populace.

While the extremes of political differences can be sketched out as above this is almost entirely theoretical and academic. No country has ever been governed from either of these extremes. Arguably pre-industrial society was largely free market but in those times the economy was overwhelmingly rural with systems being developed locally in very small units. The Monarch did not "manage the economy" - it managed itself. He would impose taxes on the people to fund his court or foreign wars, but it was really only as a tax collector that he impinged on the lives of ordinary people. 

As societies got more complex and when industrialisation and urbanisation occurred governance could no longer be left to the vagaries and gross inequalities of free market systems. It took a while but during the latter part of the nineteenth century the State gradually intervened setting standards, regulations and providing services. And, of course, in the twentieth century this increased hugely as Governments provided free education, healthcare and a host of other essential services. And the private sector was increasingly circumscribed in what it was permitted to do. 

In the post-war period in Britain and most other "Western" economies we have created "mixed economies". In essence the model is that almost everywhere there is a mix between what private enterprise does and what the State does. Decision-making has not been ideology free. The post war Attlee Government was unashamedly socialist and pursued nationalisation as a goal. The Thatcher Government of the 1980s was strongly free market and privatised swathes of the British economy that had been publicly owned. Since then there have been a few more sales of public assets - most recently that of the Royal Mail. And there has been some movement in the other direction - notably when Railtrack so incompetently managed the fixed assets of our railway system that these assets had to be taken back into public ownership as Network Rail. And Government also had to rescue some banks after the banking failures at the time of the financial meltdown seven years ago.

Many of the decisions that Governments have to take are on the public/private margins. The National Health Service is one of the major battlegrounds. Labour claims that parts of the NHS are being "privatised" and that Tory free market ideology is the driver. Well it depends what you mean by "privatisation" I think. To me, others disagree, privatisation applies only when assets are sold. If you retain ownership of assets, but contract out their operation, I don't see that really as privatisation. The BBC is publicly owned and publicly accountable. But many television and radio programmes are made for the BBC by third parties. This happens across the public sector, including in the NHS. So where do you draw the line? Disposal of public assets is a serious matter and when it is NHS assets the more so. The sale of part of the Charing Cross Hospital estate has caused an uproar and on the face of it justifiably so. Even if public services will be maintained elsewhere as the Department of Health claims is it really a good thing to relinquish valued assets in this way? But putting out part of the Health Service's operations to private sector tender is different.

Part of the objection to the private sector providing public services is not so much ideological (though it may be that) but about power. This takes one back to the winter of 1973/74 and Prime Minister Heath's battle with the National Union of Mineworkers. He felt that the NUM had too much power and he held an election based on the question "Who runs Britain?" The premise was that the mining sector was publicly owned and therefore ultimately Government's responsibility. He felt that necessary changes - pit closures especially - were being hampered by the Union. The NUM saw a decline in the mining industry as reducing their (the Union's) power and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) saw it as reducing Union power more generally - potentially. They were both right. Although Heath lost in 1974 Margaret Thatcher's victory over the miners ten years later led to a rapid loss of power for the NUM which in turn led to the decimation (literally!) of the British mining industry as well as to its privatisation.  Deep-mined coal output fell from 93m tons in 1980 to 13m tons today. And Union power has declined generally over this period as well with today few Private Sector businesses having Unions strongly influencing their freedoms to act in any meaningful way. The same does not apply to the Public sector!

The workplace pensions story is a good illustration of the differences between the public and the private sector. In the latter final salary "Defined Benefit" (DB) pension schemes have virtually disappeared as an offer to new employees (they still exist, of course, in established schemes for existing employee and pensioner members - albeit with reduced benefits in some cases). In the public sector DB schemes remain the norm and although many now base benefits on "Career average" rather than "Final" salary they are still schemes giving a guaranteed, adequate and largely predictable retirement income. This is far from the case in the private sector's Defined Contribution schemes which in terms of value to the pensioner are pale imitations of what public sector employees can expect to enjoy. Why the disparity? The main reason has to be that public sector employee benefits are protected by the Unions of which they are members whereas the disappearance (or weakening of power) of Unions in the private sector means that these employees have no such protection. 

To return to the NHS. There are twin and often incompatible forces at work here. On the one hand we as citizens want good, "free" at point of use healthcare. And as taxpayers we want that healthcare to be efficient and good value. I would argue that it really doesn't matter whether the person providing the specific healthcare service we need is directly employed by the Health Service, or not. If a nurse is provided by a third party provider rather than being an NHS employee I personally as a patient don't mind - so long as that person is competent and caring. And if that provider costs less than an NHS "owned" alternative then I, as a taxpayer, should applaud. As I said earlier this is contentious and a battleground. Not least because every service that transfers from public to private provision is likely to reduce Union power. Remember the miners! I am a supporter of Trades Unionism and believe in collective bargaining. I regret the disappearance of such bargaining from much of the private sector. That said good employers should in their own interests be sensitive to their employees needs whether their employees have Unions to help them or not. And where this isn't the case it is the duty of Government to step in and legislate protections. The minimum wage is the classic example of this.

So is there a "Third Way" between the ideologically "Right" position often called "Thatcherite" which is pro free-enterprise, anti Union, libertarian and anti regulation (on the one hand). And the ideologically "Left" position which favours State ownership, supports Unions and which argues for tighter controls on the private sector and, to an extent, on individual freedoms (on the other)? The answer of course is "Yes" - indeed there is no alternative (to coin a phrase !) to this more central position. Tony Blair's "New Labour" may have adopted the "Third Way" as a slogan but there was nothing new in it being our political norm - the Thatcher years (partly) aside. We have, as we have had for 50 years or more,  a "mixed economy" but, I would argue, this must not be cast in stone. When around 15% of Government expenditure goes on the NHS it would be irresponsible not to seek efficiencies. And if in some areas that means contracting out following competitive tenders, then so be it so long as the NHS remains publicly owned and publicly accountable, and broadly "free". Ideology should not stand in the way of efficiencies - nor should the preservation, as a goal, of Union power. (The same, incidentally, applied to education which is another big ticket item costing around a half of what the NHS costs). But there are also areas where the private sector is failing us and a much more publicly accountable provision of services is desirable - especially Water, Energy and Transport.

Private enterprise, at its best, gives customer value through competition. If you are choosing, say, a mobile phone the competition between the providers of the hardware, the retailers and the phone networks gives you a wide range of choices. It's your call. However when the competition is artificial, as it is with domestic water, gas or electricity supply, then that "choice" is phoney. Over time energy suppliers sharing single distribution networks and with similar costs will not differentiate themselves much - at least in their core business of gas/electricity supply. These services should be much more publicly accountable - not least because of the subsidy element in their finances. As far as water supplies are concerned in England and Wales this is covered by the worst form of business model of all - a private sector monopoly - or "licence to print money" as it's also known. A return to public ownership is desirable for water, gas and electricity - albeit that the ideal operational model might include a substantial amount of public/private partnership and "contracting out". The same applies to the railways where all the evidence is that the privately owned (= profit driven) model has failed. Public services need to generate margins which can be reinvested. But they don't need to generate profits which go to investors. Water, Gas, Electricity and the Railways Need to be run in the public interest as efficient "Not For Profit" activities.

To summarise my firm conviction is that in a sophisticated modern State like Britain a quantum shift to Right or Left is not just undesirable but impossible. That there are those who argue for strong neo-liberalism on the one hand or for Socialism on the other is healthy to further the debate. But the idea that we could segue even as far as (say) the United States with its broadly free market system or as far the other way as, say, Scandinavia with their strong social market norms is unlikely. Not least because our membership of the European Union places us at the heart of what is broadly a social-democrat consensus. The debate about, say, taxation is healthy and there will be differences about (for example) the extent of the progressive nature of our tax raising systems. And the link between tax revenues and public expenditure will always be a live issue. But the mixed economy and the Welfare State (albeit one somewhat reduced) are broadly non-negotiable pillars of how we are as a nation. No party could gain power with a promise to privatise the NHS and it won't happen - though, as I argue above, further moves to contracting out and to public/private partnerships are likely if efficiencies can be made. 

The room for manoeuvre in Britain is limited. Big changes like the taking back into public ownership of Energy, Water and the Railways will not be uncontentious! But the case for such services being user-driven rather than profit/dividend driven is a powerful one. It will require some clever business constructs to be created and it is essential to avoid the inefficiencies of the past in these areas. Above all we should do this not for ideological but practical reasons. This is not in any way a return to Labour's old "Clause IV" moment! Similarly making the NHS more efficient and creating service standards to be met irrespective of who provides the services is not back door privatisation. If these changes and indeed all of the above are seen as a case for the "Third Way" then so be it. Forward together! 

Friday, October 10, 2014

Thoughts on Immigration


UKIP say that you cannot control Immigration unless you leave the EU. Up to a point they are right. The free movement of labour within the EU is a cornerstone of its existence and with some minor exceptions EU citizens have the right to work anywhere within the Union. However these rules do not apply to immigration from non EU countries and they are not cast in stone. Indeed the members of the EU have a process underway looking at increasing individual member States' control over their borders.

Despite the issue of Immigration being high on the list of voter concerns it is little understood and often confused, sometimes deliberately, with the issue of multiculturalism. I have read or heard many people oppose immigration but what they are often actually against is the fact that British cities, or some of them, are now ethnically diverse. We are a multicultural society and that ethnic variety is concentrated in some city areas. So the transformation of, say parts of Bradford or Leicester, into British Asian enclaves offends some people who then blame "Immigration". The point, of course, is that past immigration has indeed caused these changes. But current immigration has little or no impact on them. And the free movement of EU citizens has little effect either. Whilst there is some clustering with some parts of London having quite large numbers of, say, Poles this hardly leads to a massively increased degree of multiculturalism!

Economic studies tend to show that immigration has been, and remains, net positive for Britain by some margin. British citizens do have a variety of cultures today and that can cause some stresses. Home grown Islamic extremism and criminal activities like the Pakistani heritage child abuse in Rotherham would not have happened without past immigration and it is wrong to deny this. But horrific though these things are they are not representative of 99% of British Asian behaviours. 

There needs to be more light and less heat on Immigration and more analysis and less prejudice. There needs to be better understanding of the benefits and where there are problems more thoughtful solutions. In truth it is usually the terminally prejudiced, the sort of people who object to hearing foreign languages spoken on the train or to having a Mosque on their High Street, who make the most noise. Most of us welcome Britain's mature cultural diversity. And make it work as best we can. 

Thursday, October 09, 2014

The tactical anti UKIP voter's choice in Clacton or Rochester. VoteConservative (Aargh!)


I would vote Conservative in Clacton or Rochester. Anyone who knows me would know how bizarre this admission is but it is forced on me by our FPTP electoral system. Over the years I have voted for whichever candidate in a First Past the Post election had the better chance of beating the Conservative. In 2010 that was Vince Cable in my constituency of Twickenham. However in more proportional elections like the London Mayor or the EU elections I vote for the candidate(s) I really believe in. Labour, Independent, Green, LibDem... Never Tory.

The Clacton/Rochester elections admission (theoretical, of course, as I don't have a vote in either constituency) is not because my preference would be for a Conservative in either place. Obviously! But because I would want to stop UKIP. I heard both Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless speak at a ConHome conference earlier this year. The former impressed me as a hard-working local MP whose efforts had made a previous Labour seat into a Tory stronghold. He is clearly a good and decent local MP. His belief in changing politics to hold MPs more to account I agree with. He is a democrat, albeit his defection to UKIP was strange to understand. Until, that is, you look at Carswell's obsessive Anti EU position. He has been at odds with his Party on this issue for sometime. I think his views are totally wrong and I don't think that he argues his case very well either. He reminds me of the sort of bloke you meet casually and chat aimiably with until the EU comes up - then he goes into rant mode. You run screaming from the bar to avoid hearing more. Carswell is a pub bore on Europe and rather a humourless one. 

Mark Reckless has none of Carswell's dull charm. He is a charmless undertaker type who wears what look like good suits but spouts extreme positions that are borderline bigotry. He's one of the most unpleasant politicians from any party it's been my misfortune to meet - albeit at a safe distance. His new leader Nigel Farage, who I once had dinner with (!) is good company, funny and clever enough. Reckless would be the sort of bloke that Nigel would in the past have avoided like the plague. But the Rag, Tag and Bobtail UKIP "leaders" need a bit of gravitas and Reckless, awful though he is, by comparison with them does I suppose provide it.

Anyway both Clacton and Rochester are straight Tory/UKIP fights and tactical voters must surely choose the lesser of two evils. FPTP forces them to do this. I don't want obsessives like Carswell or pompous bigots like Reckless in Parliament and I'd even vote for a Tory to keep them out!  

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Opposition to TTIP is increasingly paranoid, especially its alleged impact on the NHS

There is no chance that an individual State would feel obliged, as a result of TTIP,  to open up a public sector operation, like the NHS, to competition if it didn't want to. And to say as some are that it would mean the NHS being privatised is just absurd. The Health Service is already a puhlic/private partnership. Some parts of its operation are contracted out to the private sector and if this means greater efficiencies and value that's good. 

The NHS is not, or should not be, a giant bureaucratic public sector job creation scheme. Taxpayers pay 18% of our taxes for the Health Service and we want value. So long as healthcare  within the NHS , is of a high standard and broadly free I don't care who provides it. 

Opposition to TTIP is pretty obviously from the same bodies who object to contracting out in the Health Service. In my view this contracting out is not privatisation but, if it's properly done, a commonsense way of getting lower and a more efficient way of working. If we allow TTIP to improve the value and quality of those parts of the NHS we choose to contract out that has to be good

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Denial that the driver of Islamic terrorism is religious belief is profoundly unhelpful

Let's go back, for a moment, to 1972 and the massacre, by terrorists, of Israeli athletes at the Summer Olympic Games. These killers were Palestinians, but they were also Muslims. However that group, Black September, was not primarily driven by its religious beliefs but by its political goals. Later a successor to Black September, The "Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine", had a more overt religious driver though its political goal was the same. Now let's look at a State, Saudi Arabia, which is Islamic and as a consequence of this has a Sharia based legal system. This system has established a crime and punishment and social control regime that would be unthinkable not just in the West but throughout most of the rest of the world. Finally let's mention "Islamic State" the armed group which reports suggest is some 50,000 strong and which is attacking militarily the Governments in Iraq and Syria. It is also, of course, committing grotesque atrocities against innocent civilians, some of them foreigners.

The common theme across these randomly selected groups is how their Muslim beliefs, to a greater or lesser extent, drive their behaviour.
Does the fact that some rogue States, political activists and terrorists are Muslim mean that Islam is an evil religion? Of course not. The vast majority of Muslims live peaceful, unremarkable lives and many States where Islam is the majority religion are not oppressive. But does the fact that Al Qaeda and ISIS follow a distorted version of Islam mean that we should factor Islam into our understanding of and response to them. I would argue emphatically “yes”. For me Islamic terrorism in all its various guises (including when it is State sponsored) is Islamic as well as terrorist. I argued here that most religions have extreme elements in them, but that that doesn't make them in some way not some part of that religion. Some religious “observance” at the extremities is benign. When it is terrorist is is obviously not. At the height of the “troubles” in Northern Ireland Catholic leaders condemned the IRA and Protestant leaders condemned the UVF. But they could not deny that the former was catholic in its roots and the latter protestant. No more can Muslim leaders today claim that Al Qaeda or ISIS are not Muslim.

The frequently heard rhetoric that ISIS “has nothing to do with Islam” is an expression not of the reality (which is that it it has) but of an emotional and intellectual belief that it should have nothing to do with Islam. Islamic scholars who reject the idea of the Jihad favour a peaceful and non- aggressive version of their religion. And they would also, perhaps, accept that Sharia must be subordinate to secular laws in any one legal jurisdiction. But beyond this peaceful Islam is a more aggressive version which places Sharia above man-made laws and which argues for a Jihad on the opponents (as they see it) of their faith. In this version the beheading of innocent victims is justified by the need for the Jihad.

So whilst we all - many Muslims and non-Muslims alike - argue for the peaceful variant (and perhaps mainstream) of Islam we cannot deny that many other variants are not peaceful. So when David Cameron said of ISIS “They are not Muslims. They are monsters,” he was only half right. Denial of the Muslim drivers of ISIS and the rest is both untrue and profoundly unhelpful. Because if the principal reason tens of thousands of Muslims join the armed struggle is precisely because they are Muslims (albeit a very extreme version) then we must acknowledge this. And when studying the origins of young Muslims’ conversions to religious extremism we must look first at the Mosques and the Madrassas and hunt down those active there in promulgating it.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

It's time to unite against the UKIP threat.


One of UKIP's battle cries is its assertion that Britain's three main political parties are all the same - this they illustrate by the use of the constructed word "LibLabCon". It is a powerful message which captures the spirit of the times - an anti-establishment war cry but one, which like all of UKIP's slogans, has little ground in reality.

Whilst the Coalition has inevitably forced the Conservatives and the LibDems together there is still clear water between the two parties. The width of the water can be expected to widen in the run up to the 2015 General Election. And the Labour Party is different from the Conservatives in its history, core ideologies and especially in its membership and support.

That the centre ground of politics is crowded - especially after Blair and Brown created "New Labour" - is true. There is little wriggle room in economic policy given the size of the budget deficit - to be spending £30billion a year servicing debt is unsustainable and a wasteful thing to do with our taxes. And there is a reasonable consensus on social issues as well - the liberal society that has been established over the last fifty years is here to stay and there is little argument about that.

The leadership of the three main parties is also reasonably united on Foreign policy, even on Europe. Where there are differences, however, they come not from the leadership but from the rank and file. Far more Labour MPs were opposed to the air strikes in Iraq than those that actually voted against. And, of course, the Conservative Party is as split as ever on the EU. But power brings responsibility and Cameron and Co. know that for Britain to leave the EU would be irresponsible. As, of course, do the Labour and LibDem leaderships.

The coincidence of core policies on economic, social and international matters is not a function, as UKIP's sloganising would like to suggest, of a conspiracy between the parties. There is no formalisation or official agreement, nor does there need to be. And there is plenty of room for policy differences on some key issues, such as (among others) the NHS, taxation policy and an EU referendum.

In opposing the status quo UKIP creates policy proposals that appeal to the gut but have little or no basis in reality. However their policies all derive from their core Europhobia. They focus on immigration but say that to "Regain control of our borders and of immigration" is "only possible by leaving the EU". This is a powerful message and there is little doubt that UKIP's 2015 election campaign will revolve around it. It isn't true, but that won't stop its promulgation.

The position of the three main parties is that membership of the EU is essential to the UK's future. True the Conservatives in response to the UKIP threat and, as ever, that from their Europhobe wing, are nominally wavering a bit - for example Boris Johnson's recent speech in which he said that his "preferred option" was to stay in a reformed EU, but added "I think we can get there; but if we can't, then we have nothing to be afraid of in going for an alternative future..."

Nigel Farage is peddling snake oil - but he is good at it. People respond to simple messages especially if there is a hard core of faux patriotism in them. UKIP says "As a party we are unashamedly patriotic: we believe there is so much to be proud about Britain and the contribution it has made to the world." The not so hidden implication here is that by supporting the UK's EU membership the three main parties are in some way unpatriotic. We know that playing the patriotism card is, as Dr Johnson put it, the "last refuge of the scoundrel". Nigel Farage does it unashamedly.

Standing up to UKIP is the only way forward in these febrile times. The pro EU message is harder to encapsulate in a slogan than the anti one. To deny a referendum can be painted as undemocratic - the Conservatives are certainly throwing this jibe at Labour at the moment – but in fact Cameron is playing with fire in respect of this quite unnecessary referendum promise - as he did with the “IndyRef” in Scotland. This very well summed up in this short leader in "The Independent “recently.


The truth is harder to sell than the lies - but we must do it. Labour, the LibDems and (most) Conservatives are not united in their support for the UK's membership of the EU because they have conspired to be so. They take this position because it is indisputably right. UKIP will continue to preach the message that the EU is the main reason for many of Britain's economic, social and other difficulties. From their different ideological positions the three main parties must refute this strongly and expose it for the lie it is. Time to come out fighting.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The brave protestors in Hong Kong deserve our unequivocal support.

When I arrived in Hong Kong in 1986 for what would turn out to be a four year stay I was told that Hong Kongers had no interest in politics. The conventional wisdom was that money, family and food (with a sprinkle of sex) were the drivers of the lives of the 5m locals! Certainly the twin Gods of mammon and ancestor worship drove Hong Kong's people and the temples were Happy Valley racecourse and the Stock Market (the two strongly resembled one another). And the fast ferry to Macau with its casinos were always busy. Family life was also strong. Elderly parents were looked after as a matter of course - and children spoilt and a bit indulged! It was for most a happy fulfilled life and there seemed no real need for politics.

The approach of the handover to Communist China in 1997 was, however, focusing a few minds. Those who could afford to sought a foreign passport as an insurance policy against trouble post handover. (Canada and Australia were popular destinations as Britain pretty much abandoned its HK Chinese citizens). And a nascent pro democracy movement, driven by the splendid QC Martin Lee, gathered some support. When he arrived as the Last Governor in 1992 Chris Patten did try, with some success, to establish some democratic processes. But it was really too little and too late. The terrible events in Tiananmen Square in 1989 had concentrated minds and made one realise that Margaret Thatcher's "Joint Declaration" with the People's Republic was a bit of a sell-out.

In June 1989 the Chinese dictatorship had brutally suppressed the peaceful protests of (mostly) students and other young people in Peking. I had around 30 HK Chinese staff, mostly graduates in their twenties. They came to see me and asked whether I would mind if they joined the march through Central District that was planned to protest against the Tiananmen Square massacre. I of course gave them my blessing and full support. They saw the Mainland protestors as kindred spirits - part of the same Chinese family of which they were members. I watched the march from my office - the young people had turned out in their hundreds of thousands. 

So when I look at the new generation of protestors in Hong Kong today I am reminded that there is more to politics than political parties and political processes. There is more to it than endless bickering on the margins. At its rawest and most important politics is about freedom of expression and about the most basic liberties. It is about the premise that we all, as individuals, have inalienable rights. The men in power in Peking and elsewhere may have the might to suppress these freedoms if they choose to use it - which in the past they have. But right is not on their side. It's on the side of the brave young people who once again gather in Central to protest. They deserve our unequivocal support. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

If Cameron is Heath, and Farage is Enoch Powell - who will be the Conservatives new Margaret Thatcher?

"This is the first and last election at which the British people will be given the opportunity to decide whether their country is to remain a democratic nation, governed by the will of its own electorate expressed in its own Parliament, or whether it will become one province in a new European superstate under institutions which know nothing of the political rights and liberties that we have so long taken for granted"

This is not, as you might reasonably surmise, a preview of a speech next year by Nigel Farage, Douglas Carswell or Mark Reckless. Nor of someone from the Anti-Europe Right of the Conservative Party like Daniel Hannan. It is from a speech by Enoch Powell in 1974 - a "Forty Years On" moment which shows that there is nothing new about Europhobia on the Tory Right. Powell was still, just, a Conservative MP when he made that speech but he was in the process of abandoning the Party, encouraging the electorate to vote Labour and then later joining an overtly Nationalist political Party the Ulster Unionists. Deja Vu?

Douglas Carswell and now Mark Reckless are unashamedly Powellite. Their nationalist political philosophy is indistinguishable from Powell's and it was perhaps only a matter of time before they followed in Powell's footsteps and jumped ship. While UKIP does not, of course, call on voters to vote Labour (as Powell then did)  it knows that the larger the UKIP vote in 2015 the larger the Labour majority. The enemy, despite the protestations, is not Labour but a Conservative Party that, as they see it, has sold out on Europe and on immigration. Pure Enoch Powell of course. 

Nationalism is a powerful political force because tub-thumping and flag-waving is visible, simple and has an instant appeal. Margaret Thatcher used it to brilliant effect during the Falklands War and bolstered her then shaky political position as a consequence. Nigel Farage only needs to compare the merits of our Parliamentary democracy with the threat of an unelected "new European Superstate" to get the Union Flags waving enthusiastically in support

The three essential tenets of UKIP (Anti Europe, anti immigration and anti the political establishment) are like the legs of a three-legged stool - remove one and the stool falls over. And by joining the Party Carswell and Reckless clearly are happy to embrace all three. The Powellite comparison is also strong in respect of a contempt for the new political order. This is what Farage said back in 2008:

"You can agree or disagree with much of the Powell doctrine, but his belief in the state having less of a say over our lives, in us not having our laws made in Brussels and having sensible controls over our borders - whilst his language may seem out-of-date now, the principles remain good and true.

And here is what Mark a Reckless said yesterday:

"I remember the promises I made to my constituents in Rochester and Strood, and I intend to keep them. I promised we would cut immigration, cut the deficit so we could reduce taxes, decentralise power and promised we would have a more open and accountable politics. And above all, I promised we would get our country out of the European Union."

All politicians are products of their political time. Enoch Powell had by 1974, at the age of 62, not given up the hope of more political power and whilst his political positioning was from way out of "right field" he had spotted an exploitable niche in the British political status quo. Nigel Farage has identified that same niche and acknowledged that Powell's "principles" are the same as his. The 1970s were febrile political times and Powell exploited the same fears as Farage and Co. are exploiting now. Powell was never going to become Prime Minister as an Ulster Unionist - but arguably his articulation of strong nationalism shifted the political norms sufficiently to prepare the way for Margaret Thatcher. Nigel Farage is never going to take UKIP to any sort of meaningful position of power either - but perhaps his new Tory recruits like Carswell and Reckless hope that UKIP's shock tactics will change the Conservatives as arguably Powell did in the 1970s? 

So if Farage is Powell, challenging Cameron as Powell once challenged Heath, who will be the White Knight who will be a modern day Margaret Thatcher?  Is Boris Johnson subtly (for him) shifting to the Right to be the modern day saviour of the Conservative Party? Or is there some other figure with charisma and an authentic message on the Tory Right who can pick up the sword. There are many in the Party who must be hoping so! 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Only major constitutional reforms at Westminster and at Brussels will securely hold our Union together.

What now for the Scottish National Party? As I wrote after the outcome of the Independence referendum was known they were a one trick pony, and that pony has been shot. This conclusion was strengthened by the decision of Alex Salmond to stand down as leader. He was saying "That's it" - or it is , as he put it "for a generation". Salmond’s  subsequent backtracking and the emergence of the “45” movement makes little sense. He got it right the first time around. The independence game is up for the foreseeable future.

The SNP's single manifesto position was independence for Scotland. They pursued it doggedly, secured 45% of the vote both in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election and in the referendum campaign and have run Scotland for seven years. But with independence not on the agenda - at least for a very long time - what will the SNP and Scotland do? That will be for the electorate to decide of course as I don't imagine that the SNP will disband. Power is addictive, they have it and I doubt that they will give it up willingly. But given that the General Election in 2015 and the Scottish election in 2016 will not be about independence, and that further devolution to Holyrood should have been agreed before both, why would a voter choose the Nationalists ahead of the broad manifesto parties Left, Soft Left and the Right?

The three main UK parties have to offer policies on all major issues at General Elections. It would lack credibility for them not to do so. While one or two issues may be dominant - the Economy, the NHS, immigration (possibly) - and while the character and personality of the Party leader is important they still have to present a broad manifesto. Single issue parties don't have to do that - if, as in Scotland, that single issue is all pervasive they can win and gain power.

Fitting the SNP on the Left/Right political axis has always been difficult. When I lived in Scotland in the 1980s they were sometimes referred to as "Tartan Tories" though they weren't very successful from this position. More recently, and knowing that to win the referendum they had to persuade Labour voters, they moved to the Left - the referendum campaign was unashamedly Left driven. The SNP could build on this and become a sort of Scottish Socialist Party and challenge Labour from that position but I doubt that that would be likely to succeed. Most voters, understanding that independence is off the agenda for the foreseeable future, will surely prefer to chose whether they want to be governed from Centre-Left (Labour, LibDems) or Centre-Right (Conservatives) and vote accordingly. I would expect the outcome of the 2016 election to be a Labour Government, possibly in coalition with the LibDems, with the Nationalists and resurgent Conservatives (helped by the PR system) vying to be the official opposition.

Which brings us to the “UK Independence Party” which like the SNP is unashamedly (though differently) nationalist. UKIP is not a “broad manifesto” party – ask even their supporters what their position is on any subject other than the one of nationalism and they wouldn’t know. Indeed their leader also seems not to know sometimes.  UKIP’s nationalism is based on xenophobia – which the OED defines as a “deep dislike of foreigners”. These foreigners are the apparatchiks in Brussels, the EU citizens who have the temerity to exercise their right to come and work in the UK and the multicultural Britain that now exists following decades of immigration and the growth of “ethnic” families. This extreme xenophobia is illustrated by, for example, the admission by Nigel Farage that he feels “uncomfortable” when he “doesn't hear English in the train” ! Trivial though this borderline paranoid silliness is it illustrates neatly the inward-looking nationalism that grabs at the Union Flag to symbolise the party – (as the even more extreme nationalist British National Party does):Nigel-Farage-008Linked with the nationalism of UKIP, and a key element in the SNP’s Independence referendum positioning, is the rejection of traditional politics. For both parties Westminster is the villain – in UKIP’s case for having sold Britain’s soul to the devils of Brussels. This is an appeal to the guts and, of course, a convenient opportunity to blame somebody. The growth of UKIP has been fuelled not by the chattering political  classes but by those who feel disenchanted and disadvantaged. In Scotland the “Yes” vote was much stronger in the more deprived areas such as Glasgow (53.5%) than in the much more prosperous one like Edinburgh (38.9%). UKIP’s strength in seaside Essex (Clacton etc.) is the same.

History teaches us that radical often single-issue parties do well in times of economic difficulty. If that difficulty is unfairly being experienced by one segment of society then that is a happy hunting ground for extremists. By any definition the break up of the United Kingdom was a pretty extreme proposition, but 45% of the Scottish electorate voted for it. Similarly the raw and often bigoted nationalism of UKIP is extreme, but 28% of UK voters in the European elections chose it – more than any other Party.

In these febrile times, with a hard core of deep resentment among many who voted “Yes” in Scotland and those who vote for UKIP in England, it would be dangerous if the traditional broad manifesto parties do not respond. I say “dangerous” advisedly because while both the Scottish referendum and the rise of UKIP have been peaceful that may not continue. Extreme nationalism, history also teaches us, can have a violent edge to it. Mosley's blackshirts were militaristic – as, of course, was the IRA. The SNP – a Party in many ways akin to Sinn Fein – does not have a military wing, but it could.

The response to the SNP has to be simultaneously to build on the “No” vote by strengthening British institutions, while honouring in full commitments made to greater devolution to Holyrood. These twin objectives are not incompatible. A Federal and elected Upper Chamber in Westminster looking after pan-British interests is, for example, an option worth considering. At the same time UKIP can be defused by working with our partners in the European Union to implement more fully the Union’s principle of “Subsidiarity”. There is a direct parallel here. Delegate to our Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies everything that logic says would be better devolved. Create an English assembly to do the same for England. Meanwhile ensure that these same principles apply in Europe. Our membership of the EU is undisputedly of great value, though the case is not always well made. But that does not mean that it should not change and that certain things that are done in Brussels should in future be done in London – or Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast for that matter.

Self-interest, particularly Party interest, should not dictate something as important as constitutional change. The “West Lothian”  question is long overdue to be solved – and the narrow interests of the Labour Party should not stop this happening. Scottish MPs should no more vote on English matters than the reverse! And we should create, at last, a proper written Constitution for the United Kingdom – one that will endure and be the glue that holds us all together much longer than a generation!

Yes, an English Assembly and perhaps a Federal Britian makes sense.

Nadhim Zahawi

"When we left Iraq it was Britain where we made our home" says Nadim Zahawi in an article today.

It is a very important comment. It was not England, but Britain. I suspect many of those whose recent ancestors emigrated to the UK would feel the same. But so do I and, as far as I can tell, my forbears have been British since the time of the Normans! I have never felt particularly "English" - indeed sporting events aside I'm not sure what it means. I have a "British" passport and when I have travelled and lived abroad it was Britain that was my home. England means very little to me largely (a) because it is emotionally indistinguishable from "Britain" in my mind (b) it is so diverse and has such cultural differences within it. 

I am "English" because I am not Scottish, Welsh or Irish and because England is that part of Britain, by this exclusion, to which I belong. This fact is now increasingly being institutionalised  in the Governance as the United Kingdom. Devolution to Holyrood, Stormont and Cardiff  has happened and the process will continue. I have no problem with this at all. It is consistent with the principle of "subsidiarity" which also governs our presence within the European Union. I see no intellectual inconsistency in the idea that if Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are partly self-governing on domestic matters then England should be as well.

If the principle of a self-governing England is accepted alongside the others the challenge becomes to put it into effect. A United Kingdom Parliament for those matters NOT devolved is the start point. Then the creation of an English assembly to match those in the other "countries" of the UK. The fact that England is much bigger than the other three parts doesn't matter. The creation of another tier of Government with phoney Regional assemblies would just add cost and bureaucracy. Similarly there would be little point in having the English assembly anywhere other than Westminster. The chamber exists - let's carry on using it!

So now the challenge is to establish an electoral system that gives effect to these changes. Let's solve the West Lothian question once and for all! Let's acknowledge that a UK Parliament needs far fewer members if many matters have been devolved to English, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish assemblies. Let's eliminate for good the undemocratic nonsense of Scottish (or Welsh, or Irish) elected members voting on purely English matters. If all of this leads to the creation of what is effectively a Federal system then so be it. And if these constitutional changes leads us also to review our absurd undemocratic Upper House all the better. 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Brown comes out from the cold to do what he's good at


The rebirth of Gordon Brown is one of the more surprising, but pleasing outcomes of the Scottish Independence referendum. Brown was the one that the political and media establishment loved to hate during his years as Prime Minister. On the contrary his ten years as Chancellor were mostly lauded, at the time, by an often supinely admiring political class. Did he spend more than Britain could afford in those years? In retrospect yes, but remember that before the financial crisis the Conservatives promised to match Labour’s spending plans!

If Brown was a less good Chancellor, in retrospect, than he seemed at the time (not least his failure to curb the casino behaviour of the banks) he was arguably a better Prime Minister. His handling of the financial crisis, particularly the international dimension, was generally praised as was his chairmanship of the 2009 G20 summit.

Since his 2010 election defeat Brown has been rather a brooding figure. But unlike his predecessor he has not sought to enrich himself by cashing in on his ex-PM status. He has also remained a member of the House of Commons and assiduously looked after the interests of his constituents. But on the great affairs of State he has been mostly silent, except in his writing and the the occasional speech, often unreported. But when the Scottish referendum seemed to be going suddenly wrong for the “No” campaign he emerged from the shadows – and how!

The speeches Brown made over the last few weeks of the Referendum campaign were truly outstanding. Passionate, fluent, emotional and of course intellectually robust. I say “of course” because intellect has always been Gordon Brown’s greatest asset. He always “gets” an issue however complex - sadly he did not always “get” the political fallout from problems when he actually did what the highly developed logical left-hand side of his brain told him to do! In retrospect it is sad that the Left brain driven Brown and the Right brain driven Blair could not build on the powerful logic of the early years of their partnership. That Britain's two most outstanding and complementary modern politicians fell into an acrimonious war reflects badly on both of them.

But since 2010 Brown has had the moral high ground whilst Blair has become a figure of derision. This means that Blair could never return – a fantasy of some Blairites that took a while to go away. Brown on the other hand has returned – honourably and successfully. He also has his man in the Labour leader’s job and another as Shadow Chancellor. Whether they now seek to use Brown in some way we will see – but my guess is that it is in Scotland that his future may lie.

The next elections for the Scottish Parliament are in May 2016 but if Gordon Brown has ambitions in Holyrood he could perhaps become an MSP before then in a by-election. Clearly the outcome of the 2016 Scottish election will be heavily influenced by the aftershock from the Referendum vote and by the 2015 British General Election. Whether the Scottish National Party can reform itself and its platform when, as Alex Salmond admitted, a referendum could happen only ‘once in a generation’ remains to be seen. My guess is not. The SNP is a one trick pony and that pony has been shot and buried. This means that Scotland could revert to the Left v Right political character which once dominated it – and which is the norm in most jurisdictions around the world. SNP Votes ought to flow back to Labour and allow them to return to power in Scotland in 2016. Gordon Brown could help this happen and I rather suspect that he would like this. If he then became a “Father of the House” figure or something else we would have to wait and see! But First Minister of the Parliament in his homeland that he helped establish and in the context of a sound Union over which he once presided, and which he defended and even rescued, would be a nice coda to a remarkable political career.