Wednesday, June 22, 2016

have been challenged to say on Facebook how I will be voting in the EUReferendum, and why, in 900 words. Here goes:

An aging baby boomer and his ten year old great niece. It's her future.

As a Baby Boomer, part of the immediate post war boom, I have lived through nearly 70 years of peace. Something that my parents' generation and their parents' generation did not enjoy. Without question the spur to this was that politicians in Europe in the immediate post war period, and led by Winston Churchill, decided (in his words) that "Jaw Jaw" was always better than "War War". History teaches us that, the odd civil war aside, if people are united in pursuit of a common goal then they tend not to fight one another. 

In Europe that goal has been peace and prosperity. Prosperity means economic growth and the sharing of the proceeds of that growth and a necessary condition is economic freedom. The levers which direct these freedoms include free movement of Labour and Capital, but also regulation. Europe did not need to be taught that the totalitarianism of the Right (the Nazis) or the Left (Stalin's USSR) discarded freedoms of all types. Nor that democracy is the defence to the extremes. In essence on a continent with over thirty nation States you can only guarantee these freedoms by cooperating and by (in some cases) discarding old enmities. As recently as the early 1990s we have seen what happens when this does not happen - the break up of Yugoslavia showed that violence is sadly only just below the surface even for civilised peoples living on the edges of Europe.

So the gradual growth of European cooperation was a practical response to the half a century of conflict that preceded it. But this had to be more than the creation of a "talking shop" - the League of Nations and the United Nations showed us that "Jaw Jaw" was not enough. There has, as I say, to be a "common goal". The modern world is increasingly interdependent in part in response to the sheer scale of the major players. The USA, China, Russia, Japan and catching them up the rapidly growing newer large economies such as Brazil and India are huge and this is not going to change. In Europe no single country can think to be able to match these mega powers - certainly not the United Kingdom. So economic cooperation is a no brainer. To compete you have to do it.

The European Union has gradually evolved as an economy to rival the big players. Indeed collectively it is now the world's largest economy - bigger even than the US. It is not a "Super State" as some against it charge nor is there some anonymous European culture which superimposes its will on the 28 sovereign States. The differences between (say) Sweden and Italy, or Germany and Portugal in respect of culture and character are as vibrant and enjoyable as ever they were! But a modest surrender of sovereignty has strengthened the economic alliance, created fairness with regulation, and enabled competition - that necessary condition for genuine free markets - to work.

The EU is not perfect. It needs to change. It needs to build on its already strong democracy with more of the same. I believe that not only will it do this but that it will do it better if the UK remains part of it. Our peoples will travel, work, study and improve their lives if the walls between us are as low as we can make them. I'm proud to be British but I am equally proud to be European. I dread the thought that our nation - unquestionably one of the major forces for cooperation in Europe in the post war years - would walk away. It would be a shaming moment. And it would hand a "hospital pass" to our children and grandchildren. Young people want us to be in Europe and actively so. My generation must not let them down. 

Sunday, June 19, 2016

When the reference frame moves to the Right it can have deadly consequences

If, as seems probable, Tommy Mair was a deranged person committing the ultimate hate crime this should not stop us from analysing why he hated and where his hate came from. The last few months, coinciding with the EU Referendum campaign, has seen elements of the right wing British media stirring up opposition to multiculturalism, immigration, the EU, Turkey, Islam and (of course those of us who oppose their underlying prejudice and bigotry) in their "news" and comment. Let's name names. The Express newspapers. The Mail. The Sun and often the Telegraph as well. The Spectator. Add in such pseudo-respectable websites as Breitbart and you have the widespread dissemination of Right Wing propaganda of the most gruesome kind. 

Then there's the politicians. We are used to the foul-minded and offensive lies of Nigel Farage and his coterie of bigots in the UKIP leadership. They have upped the ante recently culminating in the rightly condemned recent vile posters. But they have been joined by some Conservatives who should know better (and probably do) like Gove, Johnson and co. Ambition and obsession has made many of the Brexit Tories move towards Farage's gutter.

This then is the climate in which extreme opinions become almost normal, lies abound and previously "respectable" politicians and commentators decide that the means justifies the ends. These "ends" of course being a "Leave" vote in the EU Referendum.

If the reference frame shifts to the Right (it has) then those who are influenceable, and ignorant, may think that what was once extreme is now mainstream. This does not mean that the Far Right (right of UKIP from the BNP and "Britain First" to the EDL and “Liberty GB” and even further to overtly Fascist groups) has suddenly become more numerous in its support. But it does mean that these extreme groups do feature in the media and that gives them awareness – as of course does their open presence on the internet. So those whose views do naturally tend to the extreme see the Mail front pages and the UKIP posters, listen to Farage and the rest and think (however mistakenly) that they have been given cover and support for their own extreme and paranoid delusions. And it is one of these who reaches for a gun.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Why this photo makes me want to vomit. Possibly !

Ths photograph was doing the rounds on social media today and I suggested that it might make me vomit. Queue mega abuse from some fellow Twitterers! Let me say my comments here are related only to what I see. I do not know why the inhabitants of this apartment block smothered their building with the flag of St George. Maybe there is a good reason but I've no idea what it could be given that England sporting teams are not involved in any big matches or tournaments at the moment. Perhaps it's a historic photo from one of those days when England was indeed playing sport that matters.

The other explanation - and the vomit-inducing thing - is that we are in the presence of the Far Right here. The England flag has been adopted by a variety of Far Right flotsam from UKIP via the BNP to The "English Defence League". 

The Flag of St George has a regrettable ambivalence about it. When used at Wembley or The Oval or Twickenhsm it is uncontroversial and can be memorable. When used as a national flag on St George's Day likewise. But when used as a symbol of English Nationalism - that little remarked upon and often toxic phenomenon - it is a misuse that denigrates it. And when used by the repellent Right, as it too often is, well that is when it is vomit-inducing. And I make no apology for pointing this out. 

Friday, May 27, 2016

A pan- European defence initiative is a good idea

As Europe moves towards "Ever closer union" it is entirely logical that this union be supported by strong military cooperation. The European Union of 28 Nation states is both economic and political - indeed the distinction  between what is "economic" and what is "political" is unhelpful and largely meaningless. The EU is a political union of independent, sovereign Nations who have chosen to pool some of their sovereignty in their own interests and the common good. There is an element of federation about this which is consistent with Winston Churchill's original dream of a "...kind of United States of Europe". Note Churchill used the qualifier "kind of" deliberately. He was not, I think, arguing for a federal Europe. And nor am I !

So if "ever closer union" is overtly political and requires an agreed greater pooling of sovereignty (it does) what are the defence implications of this? Well countries have armed forces to protect themselves - their borders, their way of life etc. And often they do so because they perceive a military threat from a potential aggressor that they may need to repel. The EU is politically and economically the largest cooperative venture in the world. The need for the EU's nation States, and by extension the Union as a whole, to be protected from threats is self-evident. So what is the best way to do this? By cooperating with one another, as with every other aspect of the EU's operations.

Military cooperation in Europe in the Post War period is not new, of course, and NATO has been a force for good since 1949. But NATO was comprised from the start of not just European nations but also included the United States and Canada. At the time of the Cold War Europe welcomed the active participation of the North Americans and the US was obviously the only counterweight to the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. However there was always a democratic inconsistency in this. Nobody in Europe elects the leaders of the US/Canada.

The case for European Defence Force initiative firstly builds on the very fact of political interdependence. Secondly it is, where NATO is not, a purely European affair and is accountable to the political control of the European nations - nobody else. The question as to whether there would need to be a "European Army" (etc.) is not really the issue. The model is the UN where there can be UN political direction of armed forces which remain in the uniforms of their individual countries but act in a coordinated way with a joint Command centre under political control.

At present, in addition to the North Americans, NATO has Turkey and Iceland as members. And of the EU members Austria, Cyprus, Finland, Ireland, Malta and Sweden are not members of NATO. Ideally if NATO is disbanded and replaced with an EDF then all the EU nations could be persuaded to participate. Similarly there is nothing to stop the EU negotiating a military partnership with the US, Canada or Turkey – or any other country. The key point, of course, is that the EDF would be under European control - the control of the 28 members of the EU.

So what’s not to like? Very little in my view – the benefits – especially in respect of democratic accountability – seem strongly to outweigh the disadvantages. Seventy years on from the end of the Second World War the political, economic and defence/military scene in Europe is vastly changed. Our military capabilities need much more closely to match our increasingly integrated political and economic situation.   

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

These are not scare tactics: If you really want to demolish the NHS, the BBC and the Trades Union movement vote Brexit

There have been some unedifying scare tactics use on both sides of the EU debate and it is hard to see the solid wood of the arguments for and against at all through the dodgy obfuscating trees. So to make it clearer here is the bottom line. "Brexit" is a pathway to the takeover by the political Right in Britain. All the rest is noise.

In 1990 the Conservative Party committed matricide. After eleven years in office the blessed Margaret Thatcher (Peace be Upon Her) was unceremoniously booted out of office by her own Cabinet. That Cabinet had had enough of Thatcher's increasingly strident style - especially her growing antagonism to the European Community (as it then was). Europe was the final straw, but as now it was cover for a battle for the soul of the Conservative Party.

Both Labour and the Conservatives have been (at times fragile) alliances between Right and Left. Indeed at present both of our main parties are fighting bitter internal battles. The Tory one is of longer duration, however, stretching back uninterrupted to that fatal day in November 1990 when Thatcher was forced out of office. Uneasy has lain the crown on the heads of her successors. John Major, a decent man for all his lightweight persona, struggled and largely failed against the still Thatcherite internal opposition in his own Party. (The country at large rather liked him and surprisingly re-elected him in 1992). In succession to Major the Thatcherites tried to get control again with a series of leaders who they saw as being "One of Us" - William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard were all Thatcherites and all failed because the country had solidly embraced the centre ground with New Labour.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown knew that Britain can only be governed from the centre (that Thatcher decade apart). In 2005 the Conservative Party, after a third successive Election defeat, got the message as well. David Cameron, a clever pragmatist, won the leadership defeating the Thatcher choice (and initially favourite) David Davis along the way. The Conservative Right didn't like it much - Cameron positioned himself not as Margaret Thatcher's heir but as Tony Blair’s! This reached its apotheosis when Cameron did a deal with the "Soft Left" Liberal Democrats after the inconclusive 2010 election.

So whilst Cameron and Clegg carried on governing as New Labour had - from the centre ground - those Conservatives   who didn't like this regrouped and plotted. This plotting was fairly open. Michael Ashcroft established the Conservative Home website which whilst nominally evenly balanced was in fact firmly in the hands of the Thatcherite Right. At "The Spectator" the tone was similarly neo-Thatcherite. Newspapers like the Mail and the Telegraph - always Conservative - now fell into the hands of the further Right (the Express went Far Right and became an organ of UKIP). Crucially the Murdoch press (The Times and The Sun) was recruited as well - though in the case of The Times this was a little more subtle.

The 2015 election confused the plotters. They expected Cameron to lose and were positioning themselves to install a "One of Us" successor when he did. But the Great British Public stymied them again. With "Call me Dave" safely back in Number 10 the Conservative Right played their final card. Cameron had promised a referendum on Britain's EU membership and by God they were going to ensure he delivered one! This referendum promise had been an attempt by Cameron to satisfy the demands of his Right Wing - as well as to reduce the appeal of Conservative defector Nigel Farage's shallow but simplistically effective United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). There was little interest in the country at large in having a battle over Europe. There were other priorities for the Government than this surely?

Well actually the "Leave" campaign thought there were "other priorities" as well! "Brexit" (that hideous, but clever, neologism) was nominally, of course, about Europe. But it was deep down really about what the Right calls "Freedom". This "freedom" predicates free markets above all. This has become known as "Neo-liberalism" and is associated especially with laissez-faire economics. It advocates support for extensive economic liberalisation - privatisation, fiscal austerity, deregulation, and substantial reductions in government influence on the State and expenditure. The Thatcher credo.
The European Union is essentially a capitalist construct - which is why opposition to it was initially (in the 1960s and early 1970s) mainly a Left Wing concern. But even forty plus years ago there was a hard core of conservative objection to Britain being part of the project for European political and economic integration. During the 1975 referendum Enoch Powell, effectively the leader of this faction said this:
“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.
The libertarian right and believers in so-called “business freedom” like The Freedom Association are, of course, opposed to regulation generally and regulation from Brussels in particular. And they are prime movers in the Brexit campaign. And this brings us to the heart of the subject. On the Right there is a precise correlation between support for Brexit and support for this kind of free enterprise. Not any old wishy-washy mixed economy free enterprise. Hard , rigorous, “libertarian” neo-liberal free enterprise. Thatcher plus if you like.

Targets of this group in the past (apart, of course, from the EU) have included the BBC, the NHS, the Trades Union movement – indeed anything that rings of public control, public ownership or social democracy. They want no less than a revolution with privatisation and free enterprise being the norm across the economy. But they know that they cannot do this when Britain is in the EU as the rest of Europe and the EU, as its legislative glue, has embraced the mixed economy – albeit one that has capitalist underpinning.

So the Brexiters strategy and the strategy of the “Free Enterprise” brigade are inextricably tied together to the extent that the joins are seamless. Tactically the sequence is:
  1. Britain is persuaded to vote “Leave” on June 23rd
  2. A leadership contest in the Conservative Party commences
  3. A Right Wing leader is chosen (or more likely the self-interested front man Boris Johnson – a man unburdened with ideology or beliefs).
  4. Johnson’s cabinet is stuffed with Right Wingers who launch the revolution.
  5. The leadership lacuna in the Labour Party allows the Conservatives to win a mandate for their Right Wing economic agenda in a swiftly called General Election.
The rest will be history – as will be the United Kingdom as a modern nation.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

London chooses decency over lies and innuendo

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. 

So Goldsmith had to promote the rationale for his candidacy based on his personal qualities. Instead he surrendered his independence to the very worst part of the Central Office machine. The dysfunctional overrated spin doctor Lynton Crosby and his malignant team. Goldsmith is MP in Richmond near where I live. I thought that he was the better type of Tory. His Green positioning seemed genuine similarly his opposition to LHR expansion was principled (he was wrong in my view but I didn't question his sincerity). 

But cometh the hour cometh the shallow opportunist. As candidate for London Mayor he was truly awful. He should have been his own man but he let himself be led into one of the most disreputable political campaigns of modern times. And there's the rub. If he can be so easily led as a candidate it suggests two things. First he will sell his principles to,the highest bidder. Secondly that he is prone to follow not to lead. The electorate saw this and rejected him. Good riddance.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The phoney myth of our "Free Press" and how the BBC is a beacon of light in this murky darkness.

So the BBC is under the Government's control and will do what it's told because its Charter is under review or it is trying to undermine the Government and John Whittingdalle - because its Charter is under review! You pays your money and makes your choice !

The reality of the  Media scene is that you can trust nobody completely but if you can trust anyone on any issue it is likely to be the BBC. If you run through the so-called "Free Press" they are a gruesome bunch:

The Times: some great writers and a superbly produced product, especially online. But the puppet-master in Chief, the hideous Rupert Murdoch, ultimately calls the tune. In the end the Thunderer thunders to its master's voice.

The Sun: A grotesque propaganda rag which Murdoch uses to pander to the prejudices of a vulnerable, unsophisticated and easily swayed CDE2 population. This shameful "newspaper" has a long history of dysfunctionality and deceit and is a crude campaigning battering ram for Murdoch and the political Right.

The Telegraph: Once the house voice of the Conservative Party now under the Barclays this has become a tabloid as crude as The Sun albeit wrapped in a broadsheet veneer. When Peter Oborne left in disgust he wrote about the Telegraph's management and priorities - a shameful exposure of the adage that power corrupts.

The Guardian: Those of us on the soft Left revere The Guardian - a decent, liberal newspaper in a hard right world. It can be smug and it can be wrong. And its influence is minor overshadowed as it is by the weight of the very "unfree" "Free Press" around it.

The Mail: Newspaper of the year because it is cleverly managed and well presented (including online). But of course the reality is that it is as much a propaganda tool as The Sun which it strongly resembles in its ethos. Its target is upmarket of The Sun and it tells its lies to a readership which has no interest in checking them. The malignancy of Paul Dacre and the no doubt wealth-creating proposition of his creation is dangerous. The only valid response to the "I read it in the Mail" meme is contempt.

The Express: Beaverbrook must be turning in his grave at how his great achievement has turned into a Comic. And not a very funny one either. Like the Mail it is home to bigotry and prejudice but it is even cruder than its competitor. If the political ethos of the Mail is Conservative hard right the Express is UKIP for which it is the house newspaper. If supporting a free press means we have to tolerate this disgusting parody of a newspaper I'm for Leveson - and more.

And so on...

Yes a Free Press is important. But the power of the media remains a blunt thing if it as roundly abused by the print media as it is. And a very dangerous one. How fortunate we are that the BBC which has a charter requiring impartiality is by far the most important medium we have. The Jewel in the Crown of our nation. Is it perfect? No. Can it be improved? Yes. Is it head and shoulders above the gruesome bunch of right-wing newspapers which are only as "free" as their all-powerful owners want them to be? You bet !!

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Weve already long since taken a decision - we are European as well as British.

The arguments on both sides of the EU Referendum debate are strident and will no doubt be increasingly so as June 23rd approaches. Part of the reason for this is that actually it is a very complex matter so there is no doubt a perceived need for the protagonists to indulge in reductio ad absurdum. Soundbites and ever more extreme claims to try and grab the attention of a (so far) largely indifferent electorate.

During the Scottish Independence Referendum I thought that in the ballot box the Scots would vote more with emotion than anything else. Did they believe that they would be happier personally living in an independent Scotland or did they want to stay British as well as Scots? In fact it seems that many were swayed to vote “No” not by emotion but by reason. Issues like the Currency and the fate of North Sea Oil were at least as important as the emotional case – for many anyway. This may also be true for the EU Referendum

I'll leave it to others to make the rational case for staying in the European Union. It is strong and it needs to be made forcefully and clearly. The “Remain” campaigners haven't done this yet and they need to get their act together quickly. The “Leave” campaign has the easier task as I wrote here. The rational case for Brexit is dodgy at the very least and I suspect they know it. So they go for the emotions and the soundbites. And above all they focus shamelessly on immigration and the “migrant threat”. We saw this only minutes after the terrorist attack in Brussels – Brexiters (or some of them) were quick to use this terrible event as a reason to support “Leave” – and once they had made this claim trying to deny it became a tit-for-tat which is just what “Leave” wanted! 

The reality of the modern world is that we are all far more mobile than our parents generation (and before) could ever be. Look at this extraordinary map of Brits living outside the UK in mainland Europe:
Add the fact that we are a great nation of travellers – most European resorts have Brits as their main visitor nationality – and you see that we have already effectively become Europeans as well as British. In the same way that a majority of Scots is happy to be British as well as Scottish.

If we are integrated members of Europe by choice as well as by Treaty this leads to what I think may be a clinching argument for “Remain” – if they can find a way to present it. The argument starts with a question. “Given our geography and given our predisposition as individuals to be an active part of Europe would you agree that Europe is important to the United Kingdom?” . That's a slightly leading question I admit but not a dishonest one. If the answer is overwhelmingly “Yes” then the clincher follow up question can be posed. “Given that Europe is important to the UK do you think that we could better influence what happens in Europe from the inside or from the outside?” And there you have it. Europe is going to carry on being together as  the EU whether the UK is in it or not. They are going to carry on as 27 united nations even if we pick up our ball and run away. They are going to carry on taking decisions that will impact upon British citizens - and not just the nearly two million Brits who live there! As a member of the EU we can take part in discussions and decisions about all the changes. As a non-member that would be far more problematic.

As a member of the EU we are a major player in the process of moulding the European future and in influencing the detail. With members in the European Parliament we take take part in debates. With officials in the Commission we participate in steering the management of the Union. Despite our semi-detached attitude at times we have generally  been good Europeans most of the time. And proudly so. The Anglo-Saxon Europeanism may be less romantic than that of the French and less hard-nosed than that of the Germans but it is no less valid. Europe needs it. And we need Europe. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

Ros Altmann does human–and the Westminster village is shocked !



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.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

After IDS is is best to hold on to Nurse for fear of something worse?


"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!

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Treasury versus the rest – and the EU Referendum. The players in the IDS departure

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.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Syrians fleeing their devastated country are not "migrants". The Westhas a moral obligation to help and we need a "Marshall Plan"to rebuildSyria.

A humanitarian crisis has been under way and only one thing matters. How can we all help these people? They are not "migrants". A migrant is someone who voluntarily chooses, for whatever reason, to move to live and work in another country with the intention that this should be a permanent. Those fleeing Syria had no choice but to leave. Their towns, their homes and the basis of their lives had been utterly destroyed. But they are not "migrants" in the conventional sense at all. Just people and families who want to live. To survive.

Syria can and will be rebuilt. We need to help this process - a modern day "Marshall Plan" if you like. Those Syrians who have fled their country will mostly return. In the meantime the rich West has a moral obligation to help. That's what the Germans and the EU as a whole is doing. This issue is not about "immigration" - it is about helping refugees. 

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Labour's problem is not their policies - it's their nightmare team

"The shift to the left has electrified the Labour base, but many party MPs fear it will alienate the wider public..."

An article by Tony Helm in "The Observer" today makes this claim and it is one that will get plenty of heads nodding - it's all about policy innit? The Reds have taken over. Labour is unelectable. I think that there is a scintilla of truth in the claim, but only that. Modern day politics is more, much more, about personality and perceptions than it is about policy.

In the country at large there is far more support for quite left wing policy positions than the conventional wisdoms suggest. 68% of the public want energy companies in the public sector and and only slightly less the railways.  Half the public does not want Trident. And so on. And yet Ed Miliband, who adopted none of these policies in the 2015 election nor any others that were overtly socialist, was rejected by the voters. It wasn't because he wasn't "Red" enough (except, perhaps, in Scotland though even that was complicated by the independence issue).  It was because he wasn't sufficiently credible as a Prime Minister.

There is nothing new about political leaders as brands uncomfortable though this idea may be for policy wonks and purists. Back in 1960 John Kennedy was all about style and personality and very little indeed about policy. In 1997 Tony Blair was arguably even more so. Gordon Brown's policies as Prime Minister were identical to what Blair's would have been - yet Blair would quite likely have won the 2010 election which Brown lost. Politicians love to argue that it is policy that matters because this gives them status and separates them from the vulgarity of commerciality. Tell them that they are brands which have to be sold and they will sniffily bridle. But that is the reality. 

In 2015 David Cameron's brand was strong enough to win votes on the margins, where it mattered. He is not (sticking with brand speak) a "Superbrand", but he didn't need to be. To escape the polar bear attack you don't need to be a fast runner - just faster than the person you're with! Cameron was a lot faster than Miliband and (crucially) Nick Clegg. Which brings us back to the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn.

These two opinion polls published on the same day and based on similiar (maybe identical) samples tell the story. Only 31% of the population think that George Osborne has done a good job as Chancellor but 45% want him to carry on and only 29% want him replaced by the Labour alternative! 

Jeremy Corbyn and the (I suspect) little known John McDonnell detract from Labour's appeal rather than add to it. And it's not their policies that are the problem, it's them. Add in the toxic Ken Livingstone and the opinionated and ultra-sensitive Diane Abbott into the mix and you have a nightmare team!  

A charismatic and credible leader and Shadow Chancellor could adopt identical policies to those of Corbyn and McDonnell (give or take a nuance or two) and wipe the floor with Cameron and Osborne at the moment. And should - as the polls suggests. This is a tottering, divided Government replete with deeply unpopular members (Osborne, Hunt, Gove, Duncan Smith, Javid...) and led by a Prime Minister who has never established himself as a popular brand except for a very few. He should be there for the taking. (I am not underestimating him - like Napoleon's preferred Generals he is lucky - a precious asset!). 

I have not at any point in the last six months joined the baying Blairites (I use the term as it is conventionally used as a term of abuse by the Corbynistas not because I like it or think it to be accurate). I wanted to get to know Jeremy Corbyn and felt that he deserved a chance. I actually think he has done quite well, that his policies are broadly OK and that he is a much more decent person than the media and his political critics would allow. But as a brand he is a disaster. He lacks credibility and has no hope of establishing it. No chance at all. He has a place in British politics and should be listened to. But his place is not in 10 Downing Street. The idea is preposterous.  

Monday, March 07, 2016

Are the Left v Right battles a phoney war - one being fought by people on the fringes ?

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. 

Defence is not a Left/Right issue. Trident is opposed by Michael Portillo as well as Jeremy Corbyn. Actually Defence is really a Foreign relations issue. It is blindingly obvious that the UK only needs a small independent capability. Our real Defence is via alliances. 

So what else? Should some things be better managed in the public interest than they are? Energy. Yes. The Railways. Yes. Does that mean nationalise them? Not necessarily. The Tube and the John Lewis Partnership might be models here (different ones of course). No need for ideology.

This Conservative Government is shifting the Left/Right balance in society slightly. But the mixed economy - the national Public/Private partnership - is much as it has been for 20 years. Social Democrats and Red Tories have much in common - a fierce determination not to have government by the extremes. That common ground is shaken sometimes. But it stands firm in the end. Usually! 

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

England as an entity has no exclusivity of role in Europe separate from that of Britain

It really doesn't get much more bonkers than this ! To suggest that England, a country without a Parliament and few institutions other than the sporting, is somehow separate from Britain is nonsense! Yes of course England has a long history - but its status was long ago subsumed into that of Great Britain. The only way you can define "Englishness" as opposed to "Britishness" is by exclusion. They are the same thing - without the Celtic bits. Ask Englsh people to define what being British means to them and ask a matched sample what being English means and you'll get identical answers. 

England's interests in Europe are identical to Britain's. There is no specific English requirement at all - again except by exclusion of the Celts. Scotland and Wales do have specific needs in addition to the Britsh ones they share with the rest of the UK. England as an entity does not. The English regions and cities certainly do but not as a collective "England". London has nothing in common with the North East, but both have distinctive needs. 

Argue that all parts of the U.K. have special needs peculiar to their Region/area (as well as general British ones) and you would have a good start point for a debate. Argue that England as a collective has needs separate from British ones and you'll be talking poppycock.

Monday, February 29, 2016

We are stuck with this stupid EU Referendum which at the moment we need like a hole in the head

The use of a referendum in the UK is a recent phenomenum and a regrettable one. It is profoundly undemocratic. Our Parliamentary democracy for a couple of centuries or more was based on the premise that we chose Members of Parliament to govern us. Immensely complex issues are debated and Parliament decides. True there are Whips and it is true also that elected Governments usually get their way. That's how it should be - but there are checks and balances. There are also Civil Servants to analyse these complex issues and advise Governments (and Oppositions) as they make their decisions.

A referendum is a blunt weapon which forces a (usually) binary choice on the electorate. Complex issues are reduced , absurdly, to YES/NO choices. Parliament is bypassed. Government is superceded by the serendipitous choice of a largely ignorant populace on any one day. Was the Scottish Independence referendum really about independence ? Only partly. Mostly It was a protest vote against a Conservative Government. Will the EU referendum be about the myriad (and complex) aspects of the UK's membership of the European Union? Of course not. If anything it will be about immigration and many people will see it as a chance to protest about multiculturalism. Listen to Nigel Farage if you doubt that !

Governments and Parliaments abrogate their responsibilities when they resort to referenda. Usually, certainly in this case, it's because a Party Leader cannot control their own rebellious Party. And do they work? For a while maybe. But issues are never really put to bed. If there is a "Remain" vote will the likes of Dan Hannan and Nigel Farage shrug their shoulders and say "The People have spoken"? Of course not. And if we vote "Leave" ? My guess is that the disaster that would entail will prompt much soul-searching and some sort of fudge that will broadly maintain the status quo albeit with a thin veneer of difference for Britain ("Associate" member status ?) that could be sold as UK having "left" the Union. Though actually we wouldn't have! What a farce.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

CND, Trident and the need for a European context.

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.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The past is the same country. They did things the same there…!

“… 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.