The Political Games of the EU Referendum

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There is an unsavoury alliance between the media and Westminster politicians which perverts analytical debate and promotes voter apathy to the detriment of our democracy. It infects all major political discussions and it will never change unless the media is forced to change its behaviour by public opinion and viewing taste. As such a change is highly unlikely, it is a situation which will continue to prevail which means that campaigners have to live with it and try their best to use to their advantage. I have discussed the toxic effects of this sad fact in an earlier blog. However, today I wanted to use the issue of ministerial resignation over the EU as a case study of the problem.

Now, over the weekend there was a great deal of media speculation about cabinet collective responsibility and whether ministers should be able to campaign against membership of the EU in the forthcoming referendum or whether they would have to resign from the government first. This is a touchy subject for many Tory MPs because if the matter is mishandled the effects of any party schism could last for far longer than the outcome of the referendum itself. The media has cottoned onto this and the papers are now full of speculation about where individual ministers sit on the matter. I won’t add to the speculation about this other than to say that I am told that several ministers and a large number of Tory MPs are waiting to see which way the wind is blowing before stating their position. Thus, being on the winning side is the most important factor in the decision rather than an individual’s views on the EU. Such high principles, eh?

The first question to ask is whether any of this matters, and to my mind it does but only for a short time. The euro-sceptic views of many MPs are well known so when someone comes out onto one side or the other it shouldn’t really be a surprise to anyone unless there is a major volte-face. The importance to the 2 camps is the way it is reported by the media and in particular the timing of any resignation announcements in relation to other campaign issues. If a minister decides to resign today and join the leave campaign then it will be big news….for a couple of days. If it occurred on the same day that Cameron announced that his renegotiation had been successfully completed, then the political effect could be considerable. Ministers going early will soon be yesterday’s news. By the time the phoney war ends and campaigning starts in earnest, that individual will be just another former minister like Liam Fox and his views will be lost amongst all the other noise. Now, Cameron must know this and I believe he will want to get all the bad news out of the way before he brings home his piece of EU paper and declares peace in our time. With that in mind, there will be a number of stories planted through friendly media contacts which are designed to infuriate sceptics and flush out wavering ministers early. He will judge that the earlier ministerial resignations occur, then the better for his campaign to Remain. I believe these provocations have already started and one example can be found in the Daily Telegraph today which informs us that:

“David Cameron is already preparing a pro-European Union dossier that will be sent out to British families ahead of the in-out referendum.”

“It will lead to accusations that the Prime Minister is pre-judging the result of his ongoing renegotiation with Brussels and comes amid speculation that at least one Cabinet minister will resign in the New Year in order to campaign for Britain to leave the EU. The dossier is being likened by sources to a pamphlet issued to every British household by Harold Wilson ahead of the 1975 referendum setting out an “independent” government analysis of his renegotiation, alongside the pro- and anti- campaign literature.”

Then we get the source:

“The plans were disclosed by Mats Persson, a No 10 adviser and former boss of Open Europe, in a briefing to senior Conservatives last month.”

Then the real issue:

“Conservative eurosceptics are increasingly angry at what they see as a “sham renegotiation” by Downing Street.
At least one Cabinet minister is known to be considering whether to in the coming weeks resign and join the “Leave” campaign.
Chris Grayling, Iain Duncan Smith and Theresa Villiers are all committed eurosceptics and there has been speculation about them quitting if Mr Cameron does not guarantee that he will allow members of his Cabinet to campaign for Britain to quit the EU.”

So the story originated in No 10. You would expect them to be keen on suppressing speculation about ministerial resignations unless Cameron has already decided that they are going to occur anyway and that it is best to get them out of the way before they can cause any real damage to the Remain campaign.

What a joke this game is.

Could Cameron Vote to Leave the EU?

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Are there any circumstances where David Cameron could decide to campaign for the UK to leave the EU? Well yes, according to a senior source close to one of the campaigns and I tend to agree but for different reasons than those provided. Popular opinion is currently that the Prime Minister is a committed europhile who will do anything to secure an agreement in his so-called renegotiation with EU partners. They say his list of demands has been made deliberately trivial to secure an easy agreement which he can then sell to the British people to win the referendum for the Remain side.

However, there are also those of us who think there is a cleverer strategy at play here which will be revealed once the current political theatre has achieved its purpose of providing a smokescreen. This plan would see David Cameron eventually announce a new deal for the UK offering Associate Membership of the EU. This status would be sealed by a new EU Treaty which would see the eurozone states forge a much closer political union with others, like the UK, on the periphery. Whilst it would undoubtedly be hyped as a special arrangement, probably referred to as the British Model, in reality it would leave the UK in its current situation, still subject to the same disadvantages of EU membership but in a far weaker position on the periphery. It would be sold as a new arrangement but would actually be a solution securing the status quo. It would not, in popular parlance, be Brexit and it would not allow the UK to realise any of the benefits of leaving or joining a looser trading arrangement like EFTA. This hidden strategy is explained in detail by the Bruges Group in this excellent paper here. Worryingly, their analysis envisages that even if there was a vote to Leave, it would still result in Associate Membership being offered as the only choice in a follow up referendum. This highlights one of the fundamental weaknesses of the current Leave campaigns which are seemingly unable to offer an alternative Brexit model and which instead make vague references to an undefined future bilateral agreement that would hopefully be secured after a further negotiation. The choice is thus about staying in the EU under the Prime Minister’s arrangements or something undefined. This leaves the Leave side wide open to scaremongering by the Remain side who will rely on voter fear, uncertainty and aversion to risk during their campaign.

Whilst I do agree with the Bruges Group that Associate Membership is the likely offering, I wonder if there is an even more complex and multi-layered approach to David Cameron’s strategy. My source tells me that Cameron is mildly eurosceptic but he felt in the early stages of his premiership that it was unnecessary to expend much energy and political capital on the EU issue. I am told that Cameron believes it is, on balance, in the UK’s interest to be part of the single market but finds the political process tiresome and unnecessary. That said, my source also says the Prime Minister does not like to be taken for a fool, and like a friendly grandfather provoked beyond reason by a petulant child, he could lash out at EU colleagues if they don’t cave in to his demands or seemingly humiliate him. In these circumstances, my source could see the PM returning home from Brussels and campaigning to leave. Now, the problem with political sources is that they often superimpose their own agenda or, more charitably, their hopes on their analysis of a situation. In this case, I think the source could see Cameron on the Leave side as a winning asset and he was therefore applying a large dose of hopium to his thoughts. However, his remarks did set me thinking about Cameron’s motivations.

One thing that marks most national leaders is that they tend to start doing things to ‘secure their legacy’ especially when they have had more than one term in office. In many cases this includes forays into foreign policy and global affairs. In David Cameron’s case, the referendum is likely to mark the end of his premiership, and the outcome of the poll will forever define his legacy rather than the last years of domestic politics which in historical terms have been relatively unremarkable with the exception perhaps of the Scottish Referendum. In political terms, a vote to leave could be of monumental importance constitutionally but it could also have huge geo-strategic and governance implications for the EU, Europe and to some extent the world. With this in mind, I believe that for Cameron, the most important factor, above anything else, is that he is associated with the winning side of the referendum even if that turns out to be a vote to Leave. Bearing in mind the Bruges paper, even a win for the Leave camp could still result in Cameron’s preferred outcome of Associate membership. He could therefore attach himself to a winning Leave campaign and rely on his successor to secure Associate Membership. So, whilst Cameron would probably prefer to avoid the diplomatic fallout of a volte-face to the Leave side, his legacy is uppermost. He is likely to see which way the wind is blowing (like many of his Conservative MPs) and then position himself accordingly especially if it seems his opinion is being marginalised and overtaken by events. If Leave really starts to make headway expect the renegotiation talks to seemingly stall and for dark mutterings to emerge about the duplicity of our EU partners. The announcement could then take the form of an embattled Prime Minister addressing the country and telling it that there is no option but to vote to leave.

So, returning to my question. Yes, Cameron could campaign to leave if he felt he was in danger of being on the losing side. I would accept that it is an unlikely prospect because under the present campaigning it all seems to be heading towards his preferred option of a Remain win along with Associated Membership. That said, never underestimate the power of political hubris, self-interest and opportunism to trump high principle. Importantly for Leavers, the Prime Minister’s endorsement does not mean that he would be an asset to the Leave campaign. The various Leave campaigns need to wake up to the Bruges Group paper. The only counter is to offer an alternative brexit model to voters (in my view membership of EFTA) so that the poll is about competing visions of Europe rather than the Prime Minister’s recommendation. To achieve this the main campaigns need to unify and campaign under one banner and message. There needs to be a defined brexit model. Otherwise, The Bruges Group Catch 22 situation will prevail and we will never escape this madness. Please lobby your campaign leadership accordingly.

Campaign Issues for All Leavers

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This is a plea to Leave Campaigners of all complexions.

We seem to have entered a phoney war for the various EU Referendum campaigns. The ‘Remain’ side has clearly got a strategy that it is so far unwilling to reveal whilst ‘Leave’ is divided into various camps dominated by LeaveEU (linked closely to UKIP) and VoteLeave (linked to Westminster Eurosceptics). There is also a number of smaller campaign groups with some good ideas and I will refer to one of these in particular later on. As a committed Leaver, (reasons here), I am concerned that the Leave side is putting out contradictory and confusing messages which will fatally weaken the campaign and that some groups are adopting tactics that will fail to convince the undecided centre ground who will ultimately determine the outcome of the poll. We will only have one shot at this so it is important that everyone sets aside political tribalism and preconceived ideas for a higher purpose and to ensure that we get it right. To this end, I thought I would cover a few factors that I believe are key to our success. If you agree, I ask you to lobby your camp with these ideas.

The first is unity. The various Leave campaigns must come together and agree a consistent message. If not, ‘Remain’ will exploit the differences and portray leavers as inconsistent and lacking any clear plan for what would happen following a vote to leave. George Osborne has already made comments to this effect and we can expect much more of the same unless things change. There are positive reasons for a Leavers’ union too as both camps could bring important strengths to a combined campaign. VoteLeave could provide media and westminster access, expertise and personalities whist Leave.EU has an existing army of well-organised, extremely enthusiastic and dedicated UKIP activists that could be easily tapped into for local campaigns and doorstep campaigning. Such a union would also allow a single campaign to disassociate itself from any particular political party and all the tribalism that such associations promote. Whilst the grassroot supporters of VoteLeave and Leave.EU seem amicably disposed to each other, their respective leaderships are too wrapped up in egotistical arguments over leadership and related tribal politics. The news yesterday that the two sides had failed to agree to any kind of merger is a massive blow to Leavers of all camps and I would recommend that supporters of both sides lobby their leadership to make them think again especially as it seems the differences are more about leadership personalities than campaign technicalities. If we enter the referendum with these two large camps operating separately then Leave will lose the referendum. Its as simple as that. More background to this issue can be found in an article here.

The second dynamic is the Leave message. If we are unable to offer a clear and easily understandable vision of life outside the EU and what would happen after the vote then Remain’s tactic of preying on voters’ fears of the unknown will prevail and we will lose the poll. Undecideds do not like strategic risk as we saw in the Scottish referendum. The problem is that many leavers have conflicting visions of life after Brexit and are rarely able to agree a model which, to some extent, is a matter of political taste. With this in mind, we need a known entity that at one stroke could be supported by all leavers, defeat the fear mongering and provide reassurance to voters. That solution is initially through membership of The European Free Trade Association often known as the Norway model. At this stage, I should refer readers to a very clever individual called Dr Richard North who heads up an organisation at eureferendum.com. Dr North and his denizens have devised a strategy that would see us apply for EFTA membership to protect access to the single market and to allow a controlled exit from the EU. Importantly, the plan envisages membership of the EFTA as only a first step towards adopting a more global position in the world. It would allow a controlled withdrawal from EU institutions and from laws that have 40 years of complexity and inertia behind them, and it is therefore less risky (and therefore more voter friendly) than a bilateral brexit agreement that could be acrimonious and disadvantageous. Importantly, it would protect UK interests (including access to the single market), make exit negotiations far easier (as EFTA is an existing entity) and finally it offers voters a known brexit model that would allay fears. Now detractors would say that EFTA membership would still mean that the UK would be subject to single market rules including freedom of movement and that is partially true but the important point is that this would only be a first stage and one that would make a referendum victory much more likely. Most importantly, Dr North’s plan is a process it is not just about membership of EFTA which is only the first step. In my opinion, Dr North’s commitment and frustration occasionally affects the tone and accessibility of his site, and I feel his treatment of the media and the 2 main leave campaigns is mistaken and counter-productive because it deters some who might otherwise be supporters. That said, I utterly endorse his well-researched proposals for this brexit model and I believe we should all rally around his ideas. I have very much simplified his work and the plan is far more comprehensive than I can represent here. Whatever your political complexion and allegiance, if you are a leave campaigner do nothing else today except read this paper and think about how Remain and Leave will try to convince the crucial uncommitted voters in the middle ground. Dr North’s strategy is known as FLexCit and can be found here. You can also hear him describe his ideas on this 30 minute video.

Turning next to timing, it does seem that the current media focus on a renegotiation decision by February parrots Remain propaganda. The media is making much of the forthcoming EU summit this week but in reality there is a far more complex strategy in play here. Cameron’s so-called ‘demands’ are actually an irrelevant side-show whose only purpose is provide media theatre so that when the actual agreement is produced it can be heralded as a great victory for Britain in the face of severe opposition from the other states. And this agreement will be called Associate Membership. It will no doubt be referred to as the British model but in effect it will relegate the UK to the periphery of the EU and allow eurozone states to further integrate towards political union. It will be portrayed as a great victory but will actually change nothing from the current situation except make the UK a more irrelevant sideshow. Now, Cameron’s strategy is very clever as you would expect from a PR executive but can be easily countered if his fox is shot early before it is produced. With this in mind, I would implore leavers to publicise this briefing note on the Cameron strategy to supporters but also directly to reporters of the mainstream media. You will see from the flow diagram that Cameron’s is trying to engineer a position whereby Associate Membership occurs whatever the outcome of the referendum and in my view this is another reason why the Leave Campaign should be based on the EFTA solution. We need to ensure that the vote becomes a plebiscite between competing models rather than Associate Membership or…er…Associate Membership which is what Cameron is trying to engineer. A last point on timing. In my view, there will not be a vote on this for a long time and we need to careful that we don’t bore people with all the arguments too early. This is a time for getting the campaign infrastructure sorted out. We need cash, activists, a combined campaign and an agreed message. This can only be provided by campaign leadership but I fear it will only occur if supporters make it clear to their leaders that the outcome of the vote trumps all other concerns. Please write to your leaders and make your views known as this is too important to ignore.

I would like to end with a note on media (I don’t admire them but they are unfortunately a necessary evil (My views are here). This is one area where I do disagree with EUReferendum.com’s approach. They correctly identify the problem concerning the lack of proper analysis but they seem to react to this by throwing brickbats at individual reporters and media organisations. The tone is aggressive, and in my view will alienate the very people that we need to culture in order to get key messages across and to prevent the slick propaganda machine of Remain having primacy. They refer to them as ‘legacy media’ but I feel this might be wishful thinking by committed individuals who perhaps feel somewhat ignored. It is fine to suppose that social media and the blogosphere will provide the platform for transmitting messages but these hit the wrong target. The vast majority of the undecided middle ground is not following bloggers or twitter feeds that discuss the EU referendum. Social Media audiences are largely (but not exclusively) composed of other bloggers, activists who have already made up their minds or journalists looking for feeds. We are talking to ourselves and missing the main target. Where social media is useful is for making contact with individuals and organisations and seeking to modify their attitude towards your campaign (which I suppose I am trying to do here!). So, for example, we should be lobbying individual mainstream reporters about the Cameron Strategy discussed above, and using persuasion not brickbats to get them to look more deeply into the situation. It will also culture useful contacts for the future. I would propose that campaigners address friendly and persuasive tweets to individual reporters on the subject matter such as the Bruges paper mentioned above. If enough people do it, then eventually people like the BBC’s Andrew Neil will take notice and set the news agenda which is what we need.

Good campaigning to you all. I’ll be the one carrying a pile of leaflets.

EU: Making A Failing Democracy Worse

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I promised that I would dip a toe into the acid bath of EU matters, and with my feet well protected in rubber boots I will wade in….ankle deep at any rate.

Whatever your viewpoint, the first fox that needs shooting is that the EU is primarily an economic organization. In my view, that is a diversion. It is actually a political structure that lists economic management as one of bailiwicks, and uses economic arguments to further its statist ambitions. Once you accept this proposition then the debate about whether we should stay in the EU or leave becomes more a matter of political taste and where you sit on the tribal spectrum.

It was the vision of European leaders that the EU would use political, economic and social policies to unite the continent in an ever closer union in order to suppress the nationalistic tendencies that did so much damage during 2 world wars. For the founding fathers, political union was accepted as being a long game but it would become inevitable once centrally imposed social and economic policies developed poorer countries and ultimately bound them together in a unified political process. Harmonised fiscal and social policies, a single currency, a parliament, commission, foreign policy and, as recently announced by Juncker, an aspiration for an EU army, are much more than an economic single market. They are the trappings of a state.

Now there is no doubt that the EU has been beneficial for former Soviet Union countries like Poland. However, the question is whether a political union is still necessary to save Europe from itself and maintain stability in the post Cold War era? In my view it is no longer necessary. For a start, it is pie in the sky to think that the EU could ever deploy its own army. There is just too much historical baggage and a plethora of differing opinions for effective policy formulation. Think about the current and past EU foreign policy disagreements such as the Yugoslavia fiasco, and more recently, the different attitudes within the EU towards Russia. This is why NATO, acting solely as a security mechanism and backed by a strong US should remain the foundation of Western European security. The alliance has a clear mission that is universally supported by its members, and its security focus is unencumbered by the distraction of European political state-building. Moreover, it is my view that free markets in goods and services will ensure the economic interdependence of states and act as a far tougher glue than any social or political engineering by a central European authority.

Turning to the politics, the EU is essentially dominated by socialist and social democratic parties that have an altogether different viewpoint that is at odds with the political culture here. Despite the current polling balance of left and right parties in the UK, I believe that the British instinct is essentially Conservative in nature and not in the mould of European social democracy although I would accept that the situation in Scotland currently seems to be different to elsewhere (but watch what happens when they are responsible for raising their own taxes). This difference in political culture is readily apparent by the behaviour and constitution of the European Parliament which by British standards is as left-wing as anything we have seen here in the UK since the Michael Foot days. Whilst the British electorate periodically elects Labour governments it only does so when the Party moderates its politics towards the centre, and in my view this demonstrates that mainstream Britain sits further to the right of the political spectrum than most of our European neighbours.

Whilst differences in political culture causes practical problems for policy, my main issue with the European project relates to its size. I have previously discussed some of the factors that seem to be undermining the credibility of our political process here in the UK, but perhaps the main issue is the feeling that politicians are too remote and that voters feel unrepresented and unable to affect the outcome of the political debate. For many, it seems that a vote cast has little value, and voters therefore feel powerless and disenfranchised from the decisions affecting their lives. This problem is not just confined to the UK and is characterised by the rise of extreme and populist political parties at each end of the spectrum with potentially destabilising implications. When voters become disenfranchised they eventually take matters into their own hands by voting for decisive change with unpredictable results. Witness the rise of the far right in France, for example.

History suggests that the feeling of disenfranchisement gets worse as political structures get larger especially if power is retained centrally. It is far harder to represent an individual voter’s opinion if he/she is one individual in a massive sea of people with different political views and culture. On the other hand, whilst smaller structures improve representation they can be inefficient and prevent administrations from balancing competing needs between regions. It comes down to balance again, but one things is for sure, if the existing UK political structures have become too large and distant for voters, then we are making the situation worse by hitching our wagon to the European monolith where the democratic deficit is magnified tenfold.

I am increasingly concerned about voter apathy, cynicism and disenfranchisement and where we might end up if we don’t fix this democratic deficit soon. The more I have reflected on the matter, the more I am favouring a massive devolution of power, including taxation, away from a central federal government based at Westminster down to some newly created English regions plus Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We have a population of 65m, and with other countries operating very well with populations of 6 million or even less, there is plenty of scope to design our regions such that they would be economically viable and capable of operating more like the states in the US. Decentralisation to a federal model would increase local political accountability and promote voter engagement. Crucially, as part of this project, we should take back powers from Europe and return them to the British people. Decision making needs to come closer to the people not further away from them.

There are many that argue that we would be damaged economically if we withdraw from the political structures of the EU but I believe this is a disingenuous distraction with political undertones. I will offer one fact that illustrates why trade with the mainland would continue whatever political alterations are made to our relations with the EU: half of the cars that are made in Germany are purchased in the UK. We just buy too much of their stuff for them to close their trading doors to us.

This is a political matter not economic. We need to bring decision making closer to our electorate, and EU integration is going in the wrong direction. I would vote OUT in a referendum at the moment but I remain open-minded about potential reform. The changes would need to be significant, however, rather than superficial.

More hay and rumination, Fritz and Pierre?

Unpicking the Immigration Debate

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Today’s release of the latest ONS quarterly immigration statistics has caused a predictable political storm, so I thought I would dip my toe into this emotive matter. The problem with the immigration debate is that people always start by shouting about EU controls and racism before considering the facts and trying to come to a considered conclusion. I can’t promise I will achieve this but I’ll give it a go. Please also note that when I refer to ‘national interests’ in this essay I mean the interests of all those currently residing here whatever their origins. And, yes, that includes those that arrived here as immigrants. Its a longer post than normal but bear with me.

When we discuss UK immigration policy we do have to distinguish between EU and non-EU migration because the law currently regards each category separately. I will mention both but initially I would like to discuss some general factors.

It would be fair to say that global population movement is becoming ever more straightforward. Improved global communications have made it much easier for potential migrants to learn about possible destinations and to compare their present situation to what they hope might be possible elsewhere. The over-riding desire is for a better life but that may be prompted by a number of drivers including economics, employment, corruption, poverty, war, disease, religious discrimination and any other number of the horrors that we see across our screens each day. In the worst case, these push factors are ruthlessly exploited by organized crime syndicates who traffic people in the most amoral and dangerous ways. Few will fail to be moved by pictures like this one taken near Australia.

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The UK is clearly an attractive destination for many, and I was struck by a recent BBC interview of migrants rescued in the Mediterranean by the Italian Navy, many of whom identified the UK as the place they wanted to go to. It is easy to understand why. The economy is prosperous, we have a solid legal system that protects individuals, by and large, from persecution, crime is low and we protect ourselves collectively with our welfare system (see my previous post on welfare). A key pull factor is the existence of trans-national networks in the form of relatives or friends who have already settled in a country and of course this is certainly the case for multicultural Britain.

The worrying aspect is the number of people that want to move. If you want to judge the potential scale of the problem then have a read of this Gallup paper. It takes a global perspective on migration but there are aspects of it that are startling for the UK. Some key facts are as follows:

* 700m adults worldwide would like to migrate to another country if they could.
* The US is the preferred destination followed by Canada and the UK
* The paper concludes that developed countries such as our own could be overwhelmed if aspirations became intentions.
* The desire to migrate is highest in sub-saharan Africa where 36% or 166m people would migrate if they could.
* In third place, the UK would attract 46m people with France 39m and Germany 26m

It is very hard to know for sure how many people would actually leave their own countries but as transport links and communications improve it will become easier, and if even a small proportion of those who aspire to migrate actually moved, then a great number of people could try to reach our shores. It is worth pondering these two images. The first shows the projected increase in the UK population, and the second redraws the map of the world according to population density. Compare the size of the UK with, say South America or the US. We already have lot of people.

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cartogram population map

But does a large and growing population matter? Well it depends on your point of view and what matters to you. A sudden increase could place pressure on services, but if the economy was growing then this could be accommodated so long as there wasn’t a sudden surge. We also have space for new development at the moment but as a countryside dweller I would not wish to see our green spaces become totally covered over with concrete. That said, I am sure that there are many readers who love the city life who would place their cosmopolitan lifestyle high up the wish list of life. There are also the cultural changes that would undoubtedly occur as people from overseas became residents and brought in their own cultural norms. Now personally, I don’t really mind about these either. But I might if cultural diversity started to challenge the fundamental things that make me feel British such as our democracy, legal system and rights. I have touched on one component of this issue in my recent post The Religious State.

One important factor that is often ignored is the security implications of large-scale migration and this seems particularly relevant today. I have mentioned the number of people in sub-Saharan Africa wishing to move and you only have to look at the chaotic scenes in Italy as migrants are rescued, disembark and then disappear from holding camps to make their way illegally across Europe often without documents proving their origins. Whilst I am sure that the majority are just looking to improve their lot in life, it would be relatively straightforward for an organization like ISIS, for example, to deploy sleepers, amongst the throngs who may eventually come to these Isles to do us harm. There is also evidence that ISIS intend to use migrant movements to destabilise Southern Europe and shipping routes in the Mediterranean. This is certainly something that we need to bear in mind without assuming the worst in all those that make the treacherous crossing over the Med.

And then there is the economy. A key advantage of net immigration is that it can fill shortages of skills when the economy is growing fast. Whilst this perpetuates growth and suppresses inflation, it can be a double-edged sword. For example, we currently restrict the number of medical school places available for UK residents whilst bringing in trained foreign doctors to fill jobs in the NHS. There can be doubt that we have loads of bright kids that could fill additional places to study medicine and yet we choose to restrict the numbers to save money. I do like it when we save money, but I don’t like to see our kids stymied in their aspirations. More broadly, the danger is that we save money by outsourcing training and education to other countries who probably can’t afford the costs anyway and who suffer disproportionately when they lose domestically-trained individuals. It is a tricky one; where does the national interest lie, and whose national interest is it? The same applies to low-paid workers. We bring in foreign workers to do jobs on the minimum wage that many of our own people would decline. This keeps industry competitive but it also encourages some to rely on the welfare state which I discussed in the post linked earlier. If the entry of unskilled low-paid foreign workers was restricted then pay would rise and in-work benefits would subside…to the benefit of taxpayers but at a cost to industrial competitiveness.

Looking at these issues, it seems to be a problem of degree. We want migrants to come here but not in such numbers that we are overwhelmed or which disadvantages the people already resident here. Acting in the national interest is why we have countries. On balance, this does mean that we should implement comprehensive border controls. We do have one advantage and that is geography. Our Island status makes it easier to control entry and exit to the country although we would have to spend more than the existing and pitiful 1.7% of our tax revenue to so so. Neither should we distinguish between EU or non-EU migrants. We should judge each application on its merits and only take those immigrants that we have identified as being advantageous to accept according to our needs at that time. Now, that is not to say that we wouldn’t negotiate bilateral agreements that would waive visa requirements with certain countries but, in the case of the EU, it would be on a case by case basis. I have yet to understand why the free movement of people within the EU is such an important component of the internal market and it seems to me to be more of a measure designed to socially engineer economic equality rather than free trade. I will eventually write a post on the EU as I expect there will be no getting away from it, but for the moment it is sufficient to say that the EU is essentially a political structure and therefore all things can be negotiated if there is a will.

Finally, we cannot ignore the components that drive migration. We cannot resolve economic inequality by throwing open our doors but we can try to address some of the less desirable factors by playing a full role in the international community and by directing our overseas aid budget more strategically. And I will post on that too before long. But that is enough for now. Please be polite to me and one another.

Russian Bears

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Welcome to the return of the Cold War. The news today takes me back a long time to another life when I was a cold war warrior. What is interesting is that the Russian bombers that I used to chase around in the North Atlantic are the same type of aircraft that British RAF Typhoons are presently chasing around in the English Channel. Presumably, in the intervening years the Russians have spent a bit of cash on upgrading the aircraft although they look remarkably similar. I should also add that my log book is almost as old as these bombers and has been gathering dust in the drawer for a long time so I’m sorry about the quality of the header image! It looked more impressive in the flesh, honestly!

It does seem unimaginable that a war could come to our shores from the East, and it is tempting to conclude that Putin is merely posturing at a time of increased international tension. Putin loves sending messages, and he is rarely subtle so it is probably worth remembering that the Litvinenko Inquiry is still ongoing and it is quite likely that Putin is going to be implicated in the poor man’s murder in some way.

Whilst a full-on war seems most unlikely, Putin’s actions in the Ukraine are destabilizing the international order that had settled out following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. I have noticed that the pages of several broadsheets are packed full of comments by Putin supporters, spreading misinformation and painting the man whiter than white. I wonder if the Russian Embassy will venture into our sheep shed to do the same? The key questions to ask these agents provocateurs is how have the separatists obtained some of the latest Russian military equipment including advanced artillery, surface to air missiles and tanks? And if the Russians are not providing men to operate this kit, how did a butcher from Donetsk learn how to operate a missile battery. Oh, you know, the missile battery that he captured from the Ukrainian Army whilst brandishing a meat cleaver! Laughable.

Yes, laughable to us but deeply worrying to those Baltic states that have thrown their hat in with the EU and NATO and whose populations include a sizable Russian ethnic minority that could easily be subverted by FSB tricks straight out of the KGB manual that Putin knows so well as a former colonel. The situation in Ukraine may already be lost. The Eastern half of the country is effectively annexed now and there can be little prospect of any kind of meaningful withdrawal. But in my view Eastern Ukraine should not be lost without a major cost to Putin otherwise he may miscalculate and be tempted to repeat the venture in countries where a NATO response is required by treaty. Sadly, he only responds to power not prevarication.

Since 1989, European NATO countries have rightly run down their forces to gain a peace dividend but this now needs to be reviewed. The Russians have spent billions of petro-dollars renewing and upgrading both their nuclear and conventional forces (notwithstanding the remarks about the bomber earlier). However, to match the Russian build up will take years, and in these times of austerity it will be very difficult to achieve especially as there does not seem to be the political will to re-arm in many western countries. Yet in my view we do have a powerful alternative. It will hurt and there will be great ructions, but it will be cheaper and it could be deployed immediately. It is financial.

When the wall came down, Russia stepped into the capitalist world. Their version may be corrupt, unenforceable by law and oligarchical but it still relies on western finance and capital to operate. So far, Europe has stepped back from meaningful sanctions, largely owing to German reluctance and dependance on Russian energy supplies. But to corrupt a saying from Game of Thrones, Summer is Coming! Proper hard-hitting economic warfare could bring Russian banks to their knees within weeks. The currency would plummet even further, inflation would run rife and the economy would be tipped into the most terrible depression. It would hit Putin right where it would hurt most: in the pockets of his supporters. I’m not proposing incremental measures but a full-on economic first strike preceded by quiet warnings away from the cameras.

Yes, this would hurt us too but nowhere near to the same extent. For sure, German exports and European energy supplies would suffer, and growth would probably turn negative. However, western economies are extremely strong and resilient and would recover soon enough. Most importantly, it would be cheaper than a long arms race, less existentially threatening and nobody would have to lose their life. Which has to be quite a positive for all of us.

Seeing those Russian bears in the English Channel has made me feel all nostalgic! Pass me the hay…