have been challenged to say on Facebook how I will be voting in the EUReferendum, and why, in 900 words. Here goes:
“The nation is being invited to confirm the surrender, and the permanent surrender, of its most precious possession: its political independence and parliamentary self-government, and the right to live under laws and to pay taxes authorised only by Parliament and to be governed by policies for which the executive is fully accountable through Parliament to the electorate.”There is little, if any, difference between what Powell said forty years ago and what the conservative Brexiters say today. Like them Powell was anti-interventionist, a believer in the power of the market and like Thatcher a monetarist. The quote above needs to be seen in an economic as well as a governance context. The two are linked. Powell feared that Britain would lose the freedom to apply a strict economic regime because of Europe’s removal of some of its sovereignty (the fear was unfounded as the Thatcher years showed!). That fear is at the heart of the Brexit case today. Daniel Hannan, for example, puts it like this:
“Will the United Kingdom be an independent nation, trading with its friends on the Continent while living under its own laws? Or will it be part of a country called Europe?”The European Union is, as I have said, a capitalist construct – but it is a regulated one. And broadly these regulations apply to all of its members. In pure terms this is a restraint on competition but in a pan-European context it creates a level playing field on which competitive behaviour can better operate. “Better” in the public interest sense. No member can, for example, cut prices or wages in an “unfair” way to seek commercial advantage. Of course what is “unfair” is subjective which is why there are democratic institutions (e.g. the European Parliament) where a resolution is sought.
I'm not a great fan of City Mayors including London's but the role is, despite its limitations, the biggest job in the Capital. As such you want an incumbent who is his own man (or woman). Ken before he lost the plot was a good Mayor. He handled 7/7 with dignity and the Olympics 2012 bid with skill. Boris was less of a buffoon than he seemed but his Mayoralty was unmemorable and self-evidently just a piece in the building of the Boris brand. He was lazy and dillitante and more a cartoon Mayor than a real one.
In an article on the Conservative Home website Right Wing Conservative Eurosceptic Mark Wallace calls for the sacking of Minister of State for Pensions Baroness Altmann (above) because of Lady Altmann’s candid description of her experience working with Iain Duncan Smith. This article illustrates the enormous gap between the Westminster Village and the real world. I suspect that if you asked most people what they would like to see in respect of the qualities of anyone in an important job that influences their lives competence and honesty would feature very high.
Ms Altmann is almost unique in being an expert in the job in Government she holds. A life in and around Pensions has given her unique knowledge and practical experience. But her Secretary of State had clearly treated her with contempt and when it comes to the Treasury she has had as much freedom as her predecessor Steve Webb who had not even heard about the new "Pensions Freedoms" policy until an hour or so before it was announced by George Osborne (that man again) in the 2014 Budget!
Ms Altmann's appointment was imaginative and courageous. But why choose somebody of her qualities and then marginalise her? When I interviewed her for an extended profile I wrote in "Pensions Age" magazine last December she was utterly loyal to her Department chief and her Government in what she said to me. She has been the model Minister despite the frustrations which now emerge.
So we have a supremely well qualified person in a key job which she does very well despite the constraints on her and she is also someone who has never let her frustrations boil over - at least in public. Then her dysfunctional Secretary of State throws a contrived hissy fit and storms out of Government. It seems totally natural to me, and highly admirable, that Ros feels released to tell it how it was. That's the "honesty" bit – she does “human”. It's not unique - think Geoffrey Howe or James Purnell among many others - but it's highly admirable by the standards of normal people - if not by the club rules of the Westminster insiders.
Ros Altmann is not a Westminster insider. Part of the cosy club of Tories inside and outside Government who fight their self-indulgent games. She was appointed to do a job, has the knowledge, experience and intellect to do it well. And then finds herself in the uncongenial world of Iain Duncan Smith.
The only reason to call for Ros Altmann's dismissal would be that she has stood up to the Right Wing, opinionated, self-promoting world inhabited by Iain Duncan Smith and his noxious gang. And that's no reason at all.
"Why are you interested in politics?” friends often ask me with a follow up that it is a grubby business full, of power mad degenerates who in the main you wouldn’t let into your home. My answer is that I’m actually not interested at all in the minutiae of political manoeuvring and not THAT interested in Party Politics either. I am interested in issues and in laws and governance. I like Parliament and am impressed by some of the debates and nearly always by what goes on in Committees. And I also believe that most politicians are decent people and want to be good public servants.
Issues are what matters. That is why I am sometimes intemperate when they are subsumed into political and party political advantage games. The idea that the British population was clamouring for a referendum on our membership of the European Union is preposterous. We are only having it to help heal Conservative Party wounds (it won’t of course). So now our Governing Party is split at every level. On the ground, in Parliament and even in the Cabinet. It is unworthy and dangerous. The negotiations were a charade and to sell the outcome as “Good For Britain” disingenuous in the extreme. And of course it is Europe which really lies behind the IDS shambles.
Margaret Thatcher fell over Europe. John Major’s premiership was bedevilled by the subject. Cameron has tried to finesse it but IDS, Boris, Gove and co aren’t having any of it. Commentators who are pro Brexit are almost exclusively from the Tory Right. The website “Conservative Home” (to which I contribute from time to time) is a forum for Anti EU rants. As is The Spectator, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, The Daily Telegraph, The Sun and the rest of the increasingly Right Wing and profoundly Eurosceptic press. Support for the Government’s position comes only from The Guardian and the Daily Mirror – and a few of The Times’s correspondents (if not its proprietor!). How odd is that?
Minister of State in the DWP Ros Altmann says about IDS:
“He seems to want to do maximum damage to the party leadership in order to further his campaign to try to get Britain to leave the EU”
I have no doubt that is true. So ignore the noise - this is all part of the Tory EU battle which is, of course, also a battle about the future leadership of the Party. Boris Johnson wants to be Leader (nothing wrong with ambition) and will finesse his positions on anything to try and achieve this (Ugh). Europe is the key to everything at the moment – as a nation we have had inflicted on us an unnecessary Palladium Pantomime with Boris as Widow Twanky, Gove as Principal Boy and now IDS as the Wicked Fairy. Meanwhile the rival show at the Victoria Palace has an equally improbable cast with Jeremy Corbyn as Jack, Ken Livingstone as Dick Whittington and John McDonnell as the Big Bad Wolf. Whether we hiss at Boris and Co. or at Jeremy’s cast of acolytes is tribal I guess. A plague on both their houses might be the more mature decision. Which brings us to Dave
Cameron is caught between a rock and a hard place. He has a job to do which leaves little time for extracurricular games. So does his Chancellor. Are they as Iain Dale has said today seeing power “ebb away from them”? Well maybe they are in which case I say be very careful what you wish for! Perhaps, for now, better to hold on to Nurse for fear of something worse!
To those of us who are not Westminster insiders the idea that a senior Secretary of State like Duncan Smith has little policy freedom where expenditure is concerned and must at all times kowtow to the Treasury is bizarre. In the Business world (of which I am more familiar) a senior executive running a Division which spends (most of them) would submit a Budget and seek approval from the Board (I once did this in Shell for a $1.5billion project). The Board discusses and approves, modifies or rejects the proposal. Once accepted the Executive then gets on with implementation. But in Government, or this one anyway, there seems to be no such process. The Chancellor (and colleagues around the Cabinet table) do not approve a budget such as that for Work and Pensions and then allow the Secretary of State to implement. The Chancellor actually decides the policy and announces it! (The same for Education recently).
In the past couple of years I interviewed for magazine articles both Steve Webb (Smith’s Pensions Minister) and Ros Altmann his successor. Both told me (my words not precisely theirs) how their hands were tied by the Treasury. (Incidentally neither even mentioned Duncan Smith, their Boss, and I got the impression that (unlike the Treasury) he was not involved much in the detail of Pensions policy. Or at least in its implementation)
Two things are in play here. First the idea of collective Cabinet responsibility. The Cabinet does not seem like the Board of Shell or any other big Corporation which has a real (and legal) collective responsivity for steering the business. Policy seems to be dominated first by the Treasury and second by a very few key players. Oddly the Prime Minister (unlike either of his two most recent predecessors) seems quite remote from decision-making. (He may not be, it’s just how it seems to this onlooker. He’s quite Presidential and seems above the fray and the nitty-gritty. It is obvious that he never served time as a Minister or Shadow Minister).
The second thing in play is personal ambition tied for the moment to the EU referendum – rather more, I think, than the “indirect link” suggested by Paul Goodman. IDS allied himself emphatically and noisily with Gove and Johnson on Europe and took on the Prime Minister in a full-frontal way. These three and Dominic Raab, Chris Grayling and Priti Patel have gambled their political futures on this one issue. But then so have Cameron and Osborne. This is not a surrogate fight it’s hard and bitter and bloody. Cameron was reported to be “furious” with Boris Johnson – is he likely to have been any less so with the others? The referendum is of the Conservatives making and it isn’t going well! A divided Party, a divided Cabinet and a population which (a few obsessives like me on both sides apart) seems indifferent to the whole thing. That on June 23rd we will be deciding not just Britain’s future but that of the current Government and Prime Minister and Chancellor is one of the most bizarre things to happen in my lifetime. What a can of worms David Cameron opened when he so foolishly agreed to a referendum for one reason only - to try and heal the open wounds in his Party.
"The shift to the left has electrified the Labour base, but many party MPs fear it will alienate the wider public..."
I'm not sure what "Left Wing" means any more. Common ownership of the means of production has gone. Largely because the goods and services the private sector produces are not labour intensive any more. What's the point of nationalising them? Where we do have high labour intensity is in the public sector - the NHS and Education for example. Despite what some on the Left say neither of these sectors have been or are being significantly privatised. The threat is largely a fiction.
I am, in principle, against Nuclear Weapons. What person in their right mind would not be? Their only use in anger to defeat Japan in WW2 remains highly controversial. Did they actually need to drop an Atomic Bomb on two cities to show to the Japanese what a threat to them they were? I doubt that.
During the Cold War there was a Nuclear threat from and to the Soviet Union. The Cuba Missiles Crisis was a close run thing. I do accept that at that time the deterrent effect of having these weapons of mass destruction was real. That is not a case for the things per se. It is a case for having them if a State that is a declared enemy and threat - the USSR was - has them. But Ronald Reagan wanted a world free of Nuclear weapons and he was right. In the modern world I see no threat to the West that is a State nuclear threat.
There is a danger of terrorists getting their hands on a "dirty" nuclear bomb and finding a way to deliver it to a Western target. But the response to such a horrific event is highly unlikely to be nuclear. You don't fight terrorists with nuclear weapons ! And the fewer of the things that there are around the less chance there is they could get into terrorists' hands.
So I would like to see nuclear disarmament. I support the CND and always have. Until there is an international agreement (especially with Russia and China) to disarm I reluctantly accept that as a bargaining tool the West has to hold on to its stockpile. But there is no need to add to it and absolutely no need for the UK to expand it with Trident. I use the term "The West" advisedly. There seems to be no case for Britain to have an "independent" nuclear capability if others in our alliances (principally NATO) do have it. This, for example, is the position of Germany which has the status of a "Nuclear weapon sharing" State.
I am not arguing that the UK should get nuclear protection (such as it is and as doubtfully necessary as it is) "on the cheap". We should pay our way in NATO and if our current status as an independent nuclear power has an accumulated competence then we should share this as well. But there should be no "Big Boys Club" of nuclear powers membership 0f which we are entitled to as a result of our once status as an "Imperial Great Power". Those days are long gone. We are a big player in Europe on military matters as well economic and cultural. The extent of our military, and the nature of its weapons, should only be seen in this pan-European context.
“… the referendum would be about whether to accept the fact of membership on the basis of “renegotiated terms”. The Foreign Office, strongly pro-Europe, had approached the re-negotiations with trepidation, unclear whether or not the Government meant what it said about remaining in Europe only if satisfactory terms could be secured. There was no need to worry. “It soon became clear to me that the objective was to create conditions in which we could stay in” says one former official who was closely involved. “[The Prime Minister] was obviously quite determined from the word go to stay in, but he needed to a price to pay to satisfy the mood in [his Party] . The final deal exacted that price. It was not meaningless, but it was fairly cosmetic.”
From Ben Pimlott “Harold Wilson” about the 1975 Europe referendum ! Plus ca change.