Saturday, March 26, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 21, 2016

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



In an article on the Conservative Home website Right Wing Conservative Eurosceptic Mark Wallace calls for the sacking of Minister of State for Pensions Baroness Altmann (above) because of Lady Altmann’s candid description of her experience working with Iain Duncan Smith. This article illustrates the enormous gap between the Westminster Village and the real world. I suspect that if you asked most people what they would like to see in respect of the qualities of anyone in an important job that influences their lives competence and honesty would feature very high.

Ms Altmann is almost unique in being an expert in the job in Government she holds. A life in and around Pensions has given her unique knowledge and practical experience. But her Secretary of State had clearly treated her with contempt and when it comes to the Treasury she has had as much freedom as her predecessor Steve Webb who had not even heard about the new "Pensions Freedoms" policy until an hour or so before it was announced by George Osborne (that man again) in the 2014 Budget!

Ms Altmann's appointment was imaginative and courageous. But why choose somebody of her qualities and then marginalise her? When I interviewed her for an extended profile I wrote in "Pensions Age" magazine last December she was utterly loyal to her Department chief and her Government in what she said to me. She has been the model Minister despite the frustrations which now emerge.

So we have a supremely well qualified person in a key job which she does very well despite the constraints on her and she is also someone who has never let her frustrations boil over - at least in public. Then her dysfunctional Secretary of State throws a contrived hissy fit and storms out of Government. It seems totally natural to me, and highly admirable, that Ros feels released to tell it how it was. That's the "honesty" bit – she does “human”. It's not unique - think Geoffrey Howe or James Purnell among many others - but it's highly admirable by the standards of normal people - if not by the club rules of the Westminster insiders.

Ros Altmann is not a Westminster insider. Part of the cosy club of Tories inside and outside Government who fight their self-indulgent games. She was appointed to do a job, has the knowledge, experience and intellect to do it well. And then finds herself in the uncongenial world of Iain Duncan Smith.

The only reason to call for Ros Altmann's dismissal would be that she has stood up to the Right Wing, opinionated, self-promoting world inhabited by Iain Duncan Smith and his noxious gang. And that's no reason at all.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

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


"Why are you interested in politics?” friends often ask me with a follow up that it is a grubby business full, of power mad degenerates who in the main you wouldn’t let into your home. My answer is that I’m actually not interested at all in the minutiae of political manoeuvring and not THAT interested in Party Politics either. I am interested in issues and in laws and governance. I like Parliament and am impressed by some of the debates and nearly always by what goes on in Committees. And I also believe that most politicians are decent people and want to be good public servants.

Issues are what matters. That is why I am sometimes intemperate when they are subsumed into political and party political advantage games. The idea that the British population was clamouring for a referendum on our membership of the European Union is preposterous. We are only having it to help heal Conservative Party wounds (it won’t of course). So now our Governing Party is split at every level. On the ground, in Parliament and even in the Cabinet. It is unworthy and dangerous. The negotiations were a charade and to sell the outcome as “Good For Britain” disingenuous in the extreme. And of course it is Europe which really lies behind the IDS shambles.

Margaret Thatcher fell over Europe. John Major’s premiership was bedevilled by the subject. Cameron has tried to finesse it but IDS, Boris, Gove and co aren’t having any of it. Commentators who are pro Brexit are almost exclusively from the Tory Right. The website “Conservative Home” (to which I contribute from time to time) is a forum for Anti EU rants. As is The Spectator, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, The Daily Telegraph, The Sun and the rest of the increasingly Right Wing and profoundly Eurosceptic press. Support for the Government’s position comes only from The Guardian and the Daily Mirror – and a few of The Times’s correspondents (if not its proprietor!). How odd is that?

Minister of State in the DWP Ros Altmann says about IDS:

“He seems to want to do maximum damage to the party leadership in order to further his campaign to try to get Britain to leave the EU”

I have no doubt that is true. So ignore the noise - this is all part of the Tory EU battle which is, of course, also a battle about the future leadership of the Party. Boris Johnson wants to be Leader (nothing wrong with ambition) and will finesse his positions on anything to try and achieve this (Ugh). Europe is the key to everything at the moment – as a nation we have had inflicted on us an unnecessary Palladium Pantomime with Boris as Widow Twanky, Gove as Principal Boy and now IDS as the Wicked Fairy. Meanwhile the rival show at the Victoria Palace has an equally improbable cast with Jeremy Corbyn as Jack, Ken Livingstone as Dick Whittington and John McDonnell as the Big Bad Wolf. Whether we hiss at Boris and Co. or at Jeremy’s cast of acolytes is tribal I guess. A plague on both their houses might be the more mature decision. Which brings us to Dave

Cameron is caught between a rock and a hard place. He has a job to do which leaves little time for extracurricular games. So does his Chancellor. Are they as Iain Dale has said today seeing power “ebb away from them”? Well maybe they are in which case I say be very careful what you wish for! Perhaps, for now, better to hold on to Nurse for fear of something worse!

Saturday, March 19, 2016

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

To those of us who are not Westminster insiders the idea that a senior Secretary of State like Duncan Smith has little policy freedom where expenditure is concerned and must at all times kowtow to the Treasury is bizarre. In the Business world (of which I am more familiar) a senior executive running a Division which spends (most of them) would submit a Budget and seek approval from the Board (I once did this in Shell for a $1.5billion project). The Board discusses and approves, modifies or rejects the proposal. Once accepted the Executive then gets on with implementation. But in Government, or this one anyway, there seems to be no such process. The Chancellor (and colleagues around the Cabinet table) do not approve a budget such as that for Work and Pensions and then allow the Secretary of State to implement. The Chancellor actually decides the policy and announces it! (The same for Education recently).

In the past couple of years I interviewed for magazine articles both Steve Webb (Smith’s Pensions Minister) and Ros Altmann his successor. Both told me (my words not precisely theirs) how their hands were tied by the Treasury. (Incidentally neither even mentioned Duncan Smith, their Boss, and I got the impression that (unlike the Treasury) he was not involved much in the detail of Pensions policy. Or at least in its implementation)

Two things are in play here. First the idea of collective Cabinet responsibility. The Cabinet does not seem like the Board of Shell or any other big Corporation which has a real (and legal) collective responsivity for steering the business. Policy seems to be dominated first by the Treasury and second by a very few key players. Oddly the Prime Minister (unlike either of his two most recent predecessors) seems quite remote from decision-making. (He may not be, it’s just how it seems to this onlooker. He’s quite Presidential and seems above the fray and the nitty-gritty. It is obvious that he never served time as a Minister or Shadow Minister).

The second thing in play is personal ambition tied for the moment to the EU referendum – rather more, I think, than the “indirect link” suggested by Paul Goodman. IDS allied himself emphatically and noisily with Gove and Johnson on Europe and took on the Prime Minister in a full-frontal way. These three and Dominic Raab, Chris Grayling and Priti Patel have gambled their political futures on this one issue. But then so have Cameron and Osborne. This is not a surrogate fight it’s hard and bitter and bloody. Cameron was reported to be “furious” with Boris Johnson – is he likely to have been any less so with the others? The referendum is of the Conservatives making and it isn’t going well! A divided Party, a divided Cabinet and a population which (a few obsessives like me on both sides apart) seems indifferent to the whole thing. That on June 23rd we will be deciding not just Britain’s future but that of the current Government and Prime Minister and Chancellor is one of the most bizarre things to happen in my lifetime. What a can of worms David Cameron opened when he so foolishly agreed to a referendum for one reason only - to try and heal the open wounds in his Party.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

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

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

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

Sunday, March 13, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 07, 2016

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

I'm not sure what "Left Wing" means any more. Common ownership of the means of production has gone. Largely because the goods and services the private sector produces are not labour intensive any more. What's the point of nationalising them? Where we do have high labour intensity is in the public sector - the NHS and Education for example. Despite what some on the Left say neither of these sectors have been or are being significantly privatised. The threat is largely a fiction. 

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

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

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

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

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