The phoney myth of our "Free Press" and how the BBC is a beacon of light in this murky darkness.
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.
Britain “a tiny little cloud-bolted, rainy corner of sort-of Europe, a cake-filled, misery-laden, grey old island”.
Emma Thompson has caused a bit of furore with her remark - the dim and the humourless have been up in arms as has “The Sun”. So all good so far!
Ms Thompson was arguing that Britain should stay in the EU and that she will be voting in favour of this outcome. What her critics failed to spot was that by drawing attention to the picture of our “grey old island” ( a picture that we all share from time to time !) she was being affectionate not critical. We are a small island. We do have clouds. It does rain a lot. We do have a cake fetish. We can be miserable sods at times. We can be very grey indeed. Above all we are “sort-of Europe”.
Travel in any of the other 27 members of the European Union and you will see the EU flag flying all over the place, usually alongside the national flag. There is nothing remarkable about that – at least to the nationals of those countries. They know that you can be French or Portuguese (etc.) as well as being European. Such a statement of the obvious will never be made because it doesn't need to be. It is self evident. But here say that we British are also European or suggest that the European flag flies alongsdie the Union Flag on your Town Hall and you risk abuse! This is the “sort-of Europe” that I think Ms Thompson was referring to.
As long ago as 1980 I drove from The Netherlands (where I lived at the time) to Spain, a trip involving four European countries, without showing my passport and mostly without even slowing down except for a few seconds at the border. And since then this freedom has further developed to the extent that 19 of the 28 EU countries use a common currency. I still get a sense of huge satisfaction from spending Euros I got out of a cash machine in Paris a few hours later in Barcelona or Munich or Milan. Meanwhile at London’s airports travellers are being ripped off as they convert their Pounds into Euros! Our “sort-of” Eureopeaness couldn't permit the idea of surrendering the good old Pound could it? Silly old French and Germans and Dutch and Belgians and Italians and Spaniards and the rest in not seeing that they needed to hold on to their ancient banknotes…Foreigners, what do they know? Ha!
And yet… English is the lingua franca across Europe and (mostly) our European partners rather like us. And don't we travel to see them? I doubt that you could wander for more than five minutes in any European capital without encountering a few Brits. We have been increasingly at home across Europe for decades – and not just in the Benidorms where everything is geared up for us! The irony is that some British people who are anti the EU in their attitudes are often those who most enjoy travelling in or doing business in our fellow EU countries.
I hope that if we do vote to remain in the EU in the upcoming referendum that this will lead to a confidence in us all not only that we are Europeans but that we can be proudly so. Again I think that that is also what Emma Thompson meant when she said”
“I do like the European Union, I think it's important that we are all united and I think we need to be better united.”
In short its not whether we are British or European (a binary choice) but a realisation that we are both – and much, much the better for it. We may be grey, but we can be gay (in the old-fashioned sense of the word !) as well. Emma was right–we are a bit “grey” – but in Europe there is hope for us !
The political commentator Tim Montgomerie has left the Conservative Party and explained why in The Times here. (£)
I know Tim Montgomerie slightly having met him a couple of times and talked and occasionally corresponded with him. I like him despite what is on the face of it a fairly wide gulf between us. I am a good generation older and a Leftie, albeit one without a Party affiliation and with non-traditional views on some things. Like him I would find it hard to be a member of the Party which is closest to my views – Labour in my case the Conservatives in his. I admired Tim’s role in the launch of the “Good Right” with which I have some sympathy in respect of goals if not entirely in respect of the path to reach them! And, if we take out the wrong and gratuitous reference to immigration, I can sympathise completely with Tim’s statement about the present Government
“…the overall direction of housing, tax, pensions…and family policy has been to intensify inequality between the propertied and the unpropertied, between the old and young, and between those without children and those with.”
Tim told me a while ago of his distaste for David Cameron but as I felt it was a remark made confidentially I did not refer to it in my own Blogs or elsewhere in social media. Tim used to refer to himself as a NeoCon though I think that he does not do this now. But his personal allegiance would still seem to be to political point on the heavy Right albeit without any of the bigotry and prejudice that many in that position have. He is not a Farage supporter though I guess Dan Hannan and Douglas Carswell as well as Robert Halfon would be bedfellows on many things.
My departure with Tim then is not personal and not because I am a Party hack pushing a Party line (any more than he is). It is because I believe him to be wrong and dangerously wrong on too many things. As it happens these are also the things that he says divide him from David Cameron which suggests that Tim is moving even further to a positon which is very distant from the political mainstream. He is not a politician but a thoughtful commentator – more Seamus Milne than Jeremy Corbyn. He won’t like that analogy but I'm sure that it is valid!
Tim was nine years old when Margaret Thatcher came to power and a teenager for all of her time in office. He clearly had no idea what was going on from personal experience. I was working in Glasgow during the miners’ strike and was close to the action. To believe that the vicious confrontation which she sought and drove onwards was justified you have to be either deluded or ignorant. Or in primary school as Tim was and receiving information through wide gauze filter! Thatcher, the only Prime Minister in modern times to be thrown out of office by her own colleagues, is a strange hero to have. Tim clearly thinks that Thatcher’s goals (The “ends” she wanted) justified the means. If he had been like me in his early thirties when she came into office rather than in short trousers and in a proper job at the coalface (metaphorically!) rather than working on his three Rs he might think differently.
Tim is wrong about the European Union and to suggest that “…nothing registers more strongly on the social injustice front than recommending staying in the EU” is borderline Faragist in its ignorance and bias. The EU, as well as being the primary reason for peace in Europe in our times, is also a force for social progress and for the cross-border sharing of responsibility. It is already clear that in Greece, the most troublesome problem the Union has faced, the social-democratic solution instigated by the country’s leaders in collaboration with their EU partners is working. The Eurosceptics were wrong on Greece as they have been on everything. The doom-laden scenarios peddled by the likes of Tim a year or so ago just haven’t come to pass.
Tim’s own arguments are contradictory. He says that “Austerity” in Greece is causing hardship but he wants the UK’s deficit to be addressed. And the only way to do this would of course be with Austerity. Not good for the Greeks but OK for us. Very odd!
Maybe Tim is not a natural Party man and there is no shame in that. I admire his social conscience and am certain that it is genuine. But his politics are so far from the “Art of the Possible” that they are almost Corbynesque! David Cameron governs from the Centre not because he believes it is right but because he believes it is electorally effective to do so. The General Election proved that he was right. There has only been one extremist Prime Minister in my lifetime and she is the one that Tim reveres. All the rest from Macmillan to Wilson and Heath and Major via Blair to Cameron have been from the Centre – and they have been internationalist as well. I very much doubt that the policies being articulated by Jeremy Corbyn are electable and I am certain that those being pushed here by Tim as his reason for leaving the Conservatives, along with the narrow nationalism, wouldn't be electable either.
There is nothing disrespectable about governing from the centre. It’s not going to go away Tim. It really isn’t.
The European Union is not as democratic as it might be but it is still more democratic than the national parliaments of some of its members – including that of Britain. We choose who will represent us in Strasbourg and Brussels (the MEPs) via a fair voting system under which every vote counts. In Britain we have an unfair voting system and even a whole Upper House that is not elected at all!
The MEPs the 28 member nations choose are there to legislate. At any one time they can agree on policy to be implemented. So of course, as with our national Parliament, laws passed can be unpassed and decisions made can be modified or changed. That’s how democracy works. The Treaty/Constitution of the EU can be altered if the MEPs on behalf of their constituents agree collectively that it is right to do so.
One of the most important of the checks and balances is the application of the principle of “Subsidiarity” which says that decisions will be taken at the lowest level practicable. This is often national Parliaments but it could be at a lower level in the hierarchy. In Britain again we fall short of the democratic example set by the EU in that, apart from the Celts, we have no significant legislatures below Westminster. We fail the democratic test again.
We now have a bizarre situation where the British Government, the leadership of all our respectable political parties, virtually every one of our national institutions, the majority of our Members of Parliament, virtually every major Business (and more) acknowledge the necessity not just of remaining in the EU but in improving the effectiveness of our participation. And yet because of the Prime Minister’s need to try and hold his fractious party together (he’s failed) we have a preposterous referendum which could put our future at risk. And the war cry of the “outers” is all about improving our democracy by leaving when, as I have shown, the reverse would happen.
The quality of the debate so far has been dire. The attempts to reduce an immensely complex matter to soundbites has led to a simplistic shambles of a polarised shouting match - Jingoism and Nationalism battles scare tactics. Referenda do this and I agree with those who say that the referendum will come down to an instinctive choice (gut feel) in the polling booth. This is not an argument for a referendum, it is an argument against. We trust our Parliamentary democracy (flawed though it is) to take decisions for us - but not in this case. No matter it’s going to happens so let’s make sure the side of reason and real democracy wins it not the side of chauvinism and bigotry.
If I was running a Communications agency pitching for a brief in the EU Referendum Campaign – and was indifferent to the issue – I would far prefer to get the brief from the “Leave” campaign than from the “Remain”.
All mass communications relies on the creation of clear, simple messages which can be rapidly absorbed and which relate to needs of the target group. A political campaign is archetypical “mass communications” – especially when the suffrage is universal as it is with the referendum. And the “needs” need not be physical needs but can be, and in this case are, purely emotional in character. Placing an X on a ballot paper is a powerful act and whilst self-interest plays a part it is primarily an act of commitment, support, rebellion, protest, backing for a particular candidate or choice.
In the referendum the choice is binary (spoilt ballot papers or abstentions apart). And emotions will rule for many. There are complexities in the In/Out choice which even those with the time to do so will be reluctant to explore. For the vast majority of the electorate there can be no expectation that the minutiae of the Common Agricultural Policy or the extent of the implementation of the principle of Subsidiarity will be explored. The hand hovering over the ballot paper will be driven to Remain or Leave by strong, but far from necessarily well-informed opinions, prejudices and emotions.
For the “Leave” campaign it is possible to break down what they believe to be the benefits of the UK leaving the UK into a few simple messages. Messages which are indeed clear, simple and easily absorbable. As hard-core Europhobe Tim Montgomerie put it in The Times:
And so on! The communications positioning and potential slogans which emerge from this (and elsewhere) are something thing like:
That four bullet point summary of the seminal messages of the “No” campaign is enough - triggering as it does powerful visual images like the one above . To register these messages in the minds of the voters is all they need to do. This can be done with all the usual communications tools and imagery.
The rational case for Britain in Europe is strong but the no campaign has the advantage in respect of imagery and emotional appeal. Never underestimate the power of patriotism and the inherent fear of the foreigner in the British psyche!
Let's say I run a Transnational corporation which produces minerals in Harrovia. One of them is called "Slytherin" which costs me £4 a tonne to produce. In the UK Slythern has a value of £10 a tonne. It costs me £1 to transport. So my actual profit delivered in the UK is £5 a tonne. With Corporation tax at 20% I pay £1 in tax. But in Harrovia I have a long-standing tax holiday. The Harrovian Government wants me there. So my operations are tax free. Better to make a profit in Harrovia than the UK. So I assess the value of my Slytherin at £9 a tonne as it is loaded on the ship in Harrovia. When it is sold in the UK I make no profit (having paid my £1 a tonne transport cost).