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 Government is superceded by the serendipitous choice of a largely ignorant populace on any one day.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.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Answering Michael Gove on Europe - a quick few words

If you haven't read Michael Gove's statement on why he is backing Brexit you can do so here:

Gove's  statement

And here is my brief response: 

Gove was trained as a Journalist and writes well. And as the most senior dissenter in the Cabinet he is right to tell us why he has take the action he has. But he, like so many Eurosceptics, look back not forward. Back to some distant "Golden Age" where Britain Ruled the Waves. I was born just after the end of WW2. That "Golden Age" has not existed in my lifetime and I think you probably need to go back to before WW1 to find it. As Churchill so rightly predicted and argued in the year of my birth if the follies of conflict were not to be repeated yet again we needed cooperation between nations not isolation. It took a while but now it is here it isn't going to go away. Thankfully. Yes Britain could slam our doors and hide. Yes we are large enough to survive on our own. But it would be folly to do so. "Folie de grandeur" that most stupid kind of hubris. 

The modern world is interdependent and even a Nation as substantial as Britain cannot ignore this. The new "Golden Age" for the UK could be as one of the leaders of a united Europe. What a rich prize that would be! What a proud new tradition we could create if we let that happen. Far, far better that than to pull up the drawbridge. The chance to move forward together with Britain at the centre of European progress that may never come again in our lifetimes. Better together. By far.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Tories playing personal ambition games with Britain's position in Europe

Boris Johnson, finessing his position on Europe to suit his personal advantage, is not alone. But why single Boris out for criticism? Virtually everyone in the Payroll vote is playing a game where personal advantage is the driver. There are one or two Ministers (etc.) who are enthusiastically pro UK in EU and rather more who are anti. And perhaps a few of the latter will do what their conscience (rather than their ambition) tells them. But why, if you're a young Minister in your first ministerial job, would you do what the Leader doesn't want you to do? For you and me it's fun to be a rebel. But however rebellious I was as an employee at (say) 40 I didn't want to screw up my career by being too much of a non-conformist! 

Although I think Tories (or once Tories) like Dan Hannan and Tim Montgomerie and Douglas Carswell and their like are very wrong on the EU question I do not question their sincerity and I admire their decisions to put their beliefs before personal advantage. Jeremy Corbyn I'm pretty sure did not do this. Like Michael Foot and Tony Benn before him he's a natural "outer". Only when he became leader did he become an EU enthusiast. I'm glad he did this and I'm pleased that his Party (a few oddballs excepted) is solidly pro "Remain". But like those pragmatically getting in line behind whatever nonsense Cameron "achieves" in his phoney negotiations Corbyn is part of the secret conspiracy to keep us in Europe. Boris may be as well. I hope it works, but I don't like it much!

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Emma was right – we are a bit “grey”–but in Europe there is hope for us !

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 !

Tim Montgomerie is moving away from the political mainstream by leaving the Conservative Party

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.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

A vote to leave the EU would reduce our democratic freedoms not enhance them.


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.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Marco Rubio's rejection of the world outside the United States is athrowback to "America First"

Marco Rubio

Marco Rubio made a fool of himself in the latest Republican Party debate but in repeating his soundbite (as above) he revealed what is a key part of his pitch - America is not like the rest of the world. This bizarre and nationalistic claim was not a random accidental cry. It was pre-scripted and rehearsed as his opponents were quick to claim. It is also, in the minds of many Americans, not just true but a good thing.

American politicians like Rubio (he's far from alone) reflect the dominant American belief that America is Beautiful and the rest of the world dangerous. Probably full of Muslims and other dangerous and heathen non-Christian folk. A minority of Americans travels beyond their shores and an even smaller minority knows much about the world outside the home of the American Dream. Which means that in key areas where the rest of the Western world has moved on (Gun laws or Capital Punishment for example) America is stuck in the past. But reference the rest of the Western world and the response is likely to be, as Mr Rubio puts it, "We don't want to be like the rest of the world".

The most significant change in the post WW2 world has been the internationalisation of the planet. Fuelled by the transport and communications revolutions we are, if we choose to, able to travel almost anywhere we want. And when we travel we learn - often subliminally - about other cultures and other ways of doing things. Some of us are luckier than others in this respect of course. I once had a job in Shell which in the course of a year or two took me to around 50 different countries. Whilst doing this I read a book "Riding the Waves of Culture" which has become, rightly, essential reading for anyone engaged in an international enterprise. The core message is that countries and cultures are different and that if you want to be successful you better try and understand that! An obvious message you might think - but add to it the opportunity to learn as you travel and you will not only be more sensitive but better at what you do.

The problem with Mr Rubio and all the others who peddle "America is the greatest country on Earth" meme is that if you think that you will never either understand or learn. The "American Way" becomes the only way. The great hotelier Conrad Hilton created his international chain based on the principle that each hotel, from Paris to Peru, would be an American oasis in a strange and hostile land. Cruise ships today do the same. Whatever your port of call you return at night to the cultural comfort of your ship! Better than not traveling at all you might think, and I agree. And if as a result of a day in Naples or Nagasaki you see things which challenge your established assumptions then all to the good.

I love the United States of America and can quite understand that its extraordinary physical diversity offers such variety that many Americans will not feel the need to leave its shores. Many of the world's greatest cities and National Parks (etc.) are in the US and they are unmissable travel destinations. But the overriding culture and attitudes are American everywhere. Watch a News programme on the television and if there is any news from abroad it will come long after the traffic reports or the sports update. Only a third of Americans have a passport which means that the perception of other countries of the majority of non-travellers is conditioned substantially by the media. How else could Donald Trump’s mad call to ban Muslims from entering the United States be supported by at least half of American adults?

America could have a world role which extends beyond their economic and military clout – which is, of course, considerable. But their at best ambivalent attitude to the United Nations shows that at the heart of the American psyche is an indifference to the rest of the world, unless they perceive it to be a threat. Over the past twenty years the United States is more known for its bellicosity that for its role as a peacemaker. There was historically always for some an “America First” mentality which eschewed the case for the world’s most prosperous nation to play a world role. Mario Rubio’s comments are consistent with this. If you are so certain that what the United States does is right that you don’t want in any way to be “like” the rest of the world then you are unlikely to be open to new ideas – if they are foreign.   


This graphic helps illustrate my point about the lack of an international perspective of US citizens:

Monday, February 08, 2016

The EU referendum–the Devil has the better Communications tunes

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:

  • I want Britain to be a free nation again – as free as America, Japan, Australia and other great nations
  • We need unfettered control over our borders and it is up to us, nobody else, to choose who has the right to live in the United Kingdom.
  • The Great Britain of Queen Victoria and Winston Churchill has become not much more than a supplicant county council… the British people did not choose to subjugate themselves [in this way]
  • It’s Europe rather than Britain that is weak… an ageing, heavily regulated and welfare dependent Europe is the world’s only regional economy not to have enjoyed any kind of sustained recovery
  • The single currency has condemned millions of young Europeans to unemployment…

And so on! The communications positioning and potential slogans which emerge from this (and elsewhere) are something thing like:

  • We are a big successful Nation we should take our own decisions
  • We must control our own borders
  • Europe is failing, the UK is recovering
  • Our net contribution to the EU is the second highest of any nation – what do we get for these costs?


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!


Saturday, February 06, 2016

So what actually is Englishness ?

I'm sitting wearing my England rugby shirt as I write this and later today I will be off to Murrayfield to cheer on the England rugby team against the Scots. No ambivalence about the importance of my Englishness there ! In sport to be English means two things. Support for England and also support for Britain (eg in the Olympics). But what about away from the sporting arena? Do I feel a distinctive "Englishness" which is distinct from my "Britishness". If I was Scottish or Welsh (Northern Ireland is more complicated!) there would be no problem. Scots are Scottish first and foremost and then British (or 55% of them anyway!). For the English it's different.

How is "Englishness" distinct from "Britishness" ? Only by exception, I would argue. Obviously "Englishness" excludes the Celts. But that's about it. Take a sample of English people and ask them to define what being "English" means. And take a matched sample of English people and ask them to define what being "British" means. The results would be identical except that the latter group might emphasise that being British means having the Celts as our compatriots. But as far as values are concerned I doubt that you would find any difference. Does the "British" bit of me have different values from the "English" bit ? Of course not.

Obviously English history prior to the Union was not British history. It couldn't be, Britain as a Nation did not exist. Similarly Shakespeare was not British, except in retrospect. He is as English as Robbie Burns is Scots. Actually Burns is an interesting case. He died in 1796 a few years before the Act of Union. He is no more British than Shakespeare was. And roll forward to, say, Edward Elgar. Was he distinctly an English rather than a British composer? You could argue that either way I guess and it doesn't really matter. Like me he was both English and British.

Our cultural heritage for the last 215 years is British and the way we are as a United Kingdom has evolved over that time. It was the "British Empire", it is the "British Broadcasting Corporation" - we talk about "British values" and "British Food" and "British weather" and so on. It was the "British Spirit" which won us the war. We have "British institutions" , and, of course, a "British Parliament". The Pound is "British" , as is the weather!

If the Scots break away from us formally Britain will start to disappear and gradually we English will revert to being the country of "Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Harry Potter and David Beckham's right foot" as Hugh Grant's Prime Minister put it in "Love Actually" - though we'd have to drop Sean Connery. Mind you he's dropped us hasn't he ?