Monday, July 11, 2016

The Coup that failed

Theresa May is hardly somebody that liberals will relish seeing in Number 10. That said she is not a darling of the Right either. As I said here Brexit was a Right Wing bid for power from the start. It all went according to plan with the recruiting of a few troublemakers like Hoey, Stuart and Field as cover. Then there was the brilliant decision to float Banks/Farage and co as a separate force of Bigots to spread the gut xenophobic message to the great unwashed. Farage's racist lies (the posters especially) were of course nothing to do with the official "Leave" campaign. They didn’t need to be. They did their bit as I said here it was Farage wot won it: .

The plotters were clever and their coup so nearly succeeded. They did the difficult thing - they won the Referendum. Then when Boris's effortless succession to power looked assured they botched it! The Leadsom nonsense was a last minute attempt to recover but it was gone by then! It’s quite funny, except that it isn't funny at all. Here we are stuck in Brexit Creek without a paddle or even a sense of direction. And Theresa May is in Number 10. Ho Ho!

Thursday, July 07, 2016

This time there's no muddling through. There is no plan.

So what now? Two weeks after the most disastrous election outcome of any sort in modern British electoral history. Two weeks after the unholy alliance of the forces of bigotry, ambition, xenophobia, and ignorance persuaded enough British electors to vote "Leave" to secure a narrow victory. Nigel Farage and his gruesome extremists in bed with the nakedly ambitious Boris Johnson. Preposterous old hasbeens like Nigel Lawson and David Owen preaching fear from the lofty eyries of their well-heeled retirements. Racists from the "BNP" and "Britain First" making common ground with frustrated fools from the Left like Labour MPs Gisella Stuart and Kate Hoey. And so on. And now? There is no plan. No "Plan A" let alone a "Plan B". There is no plan.

We are still all EU citizens - until we are not. And what happens then? Do we throw the Poles and the French, the Italians and the Dutch in Britain out? Bye bye. Thank you but off you go? Shock horror and of course the Government has no answer.  Because there is no plan. And what about the millions of Brits in the EU countries? If we expel the Spanish might not the Spanish retaliate and expel their hundreds of thousands of British ex-pats. Dunno. There is no plan.

Our trade prospects will be shot to bits outside the single market. Our economy will suffer (is already suffering). So how do  we handle this? There is no plan. The well established and successful mechanisms of cooperation between Britain and our EU partners will be dismantled to satisfy the brutal requirement of the binary choice of "Leave". We haven't renegotiated anything. We've run away. And after that? Who knows? There is no plan.

Do I have a plan? I do not. The people's choice must be honoured. The fact that this choice was made on the basis of lies and promises that cannot be delivered? The fact that this choice will harm us all, destroy our reputation in the world and deliver us to an uncertain future? Oh well some you lose - I'm sure we'll muddle through. Except that this time we won't. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Not joining the Euro was the beginning of the end for pro EuropeanBritain

When in 2007 Gordon Brown announced that the United Kingdom would not be joining the Euro few British pro Europeans like me realised that this signalled the beginning of the end for Britain in Europe. Despite the fact that almost all the major EU countries were in the Eurozone Britain had previously secured an "opt out" that it would not be a condition of its EU membership to join them. The Labour Government which took office in 1997 had declared its intention to adopt the single currency subject to certain conditions being met. But by 2007 this had looked increasingly unlikely and this led to the Government's decision not to pursue the matter further. Part of the reason was undoubtedly political. Labour was under pressure not just from the anti Euro Conservatives but increasingly from the further right "United Kingdom Independence Party" which actually had the symbol of the Pound Sterling in their logo! Politically rejecting the Euro took one area of criticism of Labour off the table. But for Britain that decision meant that we were increasingly to be on the fringes of the Union on key economic and financial issues.

The case for the Euro within the EU was always political. Membership of the Eurozone forced integration and "ever closer union" - a key EU goal. Every nation state knows  that how it manages its finances - especially its currency and associated exchange rate and interest rate levels - is a key part of its governance. So if the EU was to act co-jointly across the governance spectrum a single currency was highly desirable. By not joining the Euro the UK opted out of more than just the single currency. It opted out of being a major player in the Union at all despite the UK's size and importance in other areas.

When the world was rocked by the financial meltdown and banking crisis of 2007 onwards the Eurozone as a whole was hit hard and some countries within it especially. The single currency was work in progress - the most ambitious experiment in trans-national economic cooperation ever attempted. It was going well. Businesses and citizens alike were benefitting from the lower costs that resulted from no longer needing to pay to  exchange currency. You could drive from Holland  to Belgium to France to Spain to Portugal and pay in one currency (and effortlessly compare prices along the way if you wanted to). If you used your Dutch credit card in Spain you paid what you paid - there were no currency exchange costs added when your monthly bill came in. The business case was also very strong indeed - for the management of the supply chain it was a boon. Costs of procurement, transport etc. were  transparent and no currency hedging was necessary. But at a national governance level it was more difficult. 

A Eurozone member could not fix its own dollar exchange rate - especially important if you are a net importer of dollar denominated commodities like oil and gas, as most Eurozone countries are. The exchange rate is a mechanism of fiscal management and potentially crucial in the control of your balance of payments - you can boost your exports,  if that is what you wish to do, or similarly lower your import costs if you feel that is necessary. The Eurozone members forewent the this crucial lever of national economic control in return for participating in and benefiting from the single currency. Technically each member of the Eurozone participated in the setting of the external exchange rate but in reality it was the big players - Germany especially - who ruled the roost. For a while this was not a problem but the turmoil of the banking crisis from 2007 meant that the "one rate for all" imperative of the Eurozone came under pressure. 

The introduction of the Euro saw some convergence of interest rates  - but countries in the zone remain free to determine their own rates - especially important in managing Government expenditure as well as being a means of boosting growth, or dampening it down to control inflation. 

The response to the financial crises from 2007 onwards was made more difficult because some countries - notably Greece - had entered the Euro at an exchange rate which overvalued their currency, the Drachma. This, combined with an economy which boomed in the good times but crashed in the bad, caused the Eurozone's biggest crisis. Doom merchants forecast not only that Greece would leave the single currency but others as well leading to the Euro's complete collapse. British politicians across the parties congratulated themselves that we had had the good sense, as they saw it, not to join the Euro. But Greece is still in the Euro and the single currency has shown that it is robust to turmoil. So far the merchants of doom have been proved wrong - but the rescue of the Greek economy has been and still is at a cost. Unemployment, especially among young people, is shockingly high as a result of cuts to Government expenditure and other austerity measures. The crisis has also caused a rethink of some aspects of the Eurozone's processes and priorities. 

Britain has largely been on the sidelines as all this has been going on. Gordon Brown played an important part in the European response to the financial crisis but he was not a player on the crucial currency issues. And Cameron's Governments have been largely sidelined in Europe on matters relating to the single currency and the management of the Eurozone. The gradual modification of some aspects of the way the Euro is managed has been without Britian's involvement. Most notably the recognition that the single currency is a political tool and that you have to have more central control of essentially political matters - like the levels of Government expenditure by nation States - has occurred without any meaningful input from Britain.

The European Union is about more than economics and currency management. Britain and other non Eurozone countries play a constructive part in the EU on such matters as trade - but the single market is more effective when currency exchange is not an issue. Not least because trading arrangements can be longer term when fears of exchange rate fluctuations between trading partners are removed. For Britain and other non Euro countries the penalty is either higher costs (via currency hedging) or greater uncertainty which is never good for business. But it can work and has been working.

As I say the decision of the U.K. not to enter the Euro was a mistake - in the longer term anyway. The recovery from the crisis of 2007 onwards in Britain was partly helped by the UK retaining the pound and managing its own foreign exchange (etc.) so, yes, in the short term it was beneficial. But looked at strategically and politically Britain would have been better at the centre of the EU/Eurozone than on the fringes. And in time all the other benefits of the single currency would have justified a bit of short term pain. 

Britain has always been an unconvincing European partner. Maastricht opt outs, rebates from the budget, and above all the failure to join the Eurozone have made us at times peripheral. But this could have changed and, I think would have changed had we voted "Remain". We had the chance to at last be at the centre of Europe rather than on the edges (I have no doubt that in time this would have seen us adopt the Euro). But sadly that is gone and we have chosen the wide open sea. It's desperately sad. 

Monday, June 27, 2016

It was Farage wot won it…

The “Good Cop/Bad Cop” theme is at the heart of much Police drama. You know the story. The police operate, and especially interrogate, in pairs. One of the cops is blunt, tough, forceful. The other is your friend. Understands you. Maybe even places a reassuring arm around your shoulder. And between them they get you to sing.

The “Leave” the European Union campaign was split down the middle – or so, at least, both sides wanted us to believe. The official “Vote Leave” campaign (the “Good Cops”) had a Board of Members of Parliament and well known political figures including Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Lord Lawson, Lord Owen, Liam Fox  - mostly, but not all, Right Wing Tories. They were the “respectable” face of the Leave campaign. Alongside them, but not openly connected, was the “Leave.EU” group – the “Bad Cops”. Their political face was the most famous anti EU politician of them all – a man who has built his whole career on this single issue – the UKIP leader Nigel Farage. The ties between “Leave.EU” and UKIP were strong – the main funder of the campaign was Arron Banks also a major donor to UKIP.

There was barely disguised warfare between the two Leave groups throughout the referendum campaign. Many in the media and politics generally thought that this split was a weakness. As it turned out it was a crucial strength. The official campaign was (comparatively) cerebral and restrained. It seemed to be directed primarily at Conservative voters and as such it can be judged to have succeeded – 58% of Conservative voters voted “Leave”. “Leave.EU” however had a different target.

For some time now it has been clear that in the UK, as elsewhere in Europe, the main breeding ground for support for the hard Right is among the working class. In Austria recently an extreme Right presidential candidate almost succeeded – and his core support was in the working class areas of the cities, especially Vienna. In France Marine le Pen of the Front National gets substantial support in the “classe populaire” . In their book on the rise of UKIP “Revolt on the Right” Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin identified the working class vote as being UKIP’s most fruitful recruitment area. In the 2015 General Election 39% of men who voted UKIP and 33% of women were in the C2DE social class. That’s around 1.5 million voters.    

As this graphic from Lord Ashcroft Polls shows 25% of the “Leave” vote was delivered by those who voted UKIP at the 2015 General Election. Add in the 21% which came from Labour voters and you have nearly half of the total “Leave” vote coming from voters whose main class demographic is C2DE.

If the official “Leave” campaign was comparatively (!) cerebral that from “Leave.EU” was far from that.. They understood that the target group they were trying to reach was unlikely to be persuaded by elegant arguments or by a long manifesto. Or by the likes of Lords Owen and Lawson for that matter. And while Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith would reach out to Conservative voters who shared their politics these three, and their Tory “Leave” colleagues,  would not appeal to the majority of the C2DE electorate. But Farage would! And Farage’s campaign – and that of “Leave.EU” as a whole - made a simple gut feel appeal to the this electorate. The poster at the top of this blog is the most notorious of its advertisements. But it is not atypical. Anti immigration, a fear campaign over Turkish entry to the EU (barely disguised Islamophobia) and the dog whistle “Take back control of our country” ( a deliberately ambivalent slogan which could mean “take back control from the EU” but also “take back control from immigrants”) was the core campaign.     

So UKIP voters made up a quarter of the “Leave” vote  but Nigel Farage delivered almost as large a number from Labour. And it is this final statistic that was crucial. Labour could not persuade sufficient of its own supporters to back “Remain” nor could it “get back” any from its traditional working class support who had switched over the years to UKIP.

Whether there was actual collusion between the two “Leave” campaigns and an agreement that one would be the “Good Cops” and the other the “Bad Cops” I do not know. It wouldn't surprise me. But collusion or not the split was clever with both target groups being covered. And this made the difference. But in a tight race the delivery of the UKIP and Labour vote to “Leave” was the crucial factor. The former could be assured. But it was Nigel Farage’s delivery of a substantial number of Labour voters that swung the outcome in Leave’s favour.
It was Nigel wot won it. 

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.