Why The FCO is the Enemy Within.

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So the former Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has come out for the Remain camp in the EU Referendum campaign joining other foreign secretaries like Jack Straw and, in all likelihood, the present incumbent Philip Hammond who has yet to declare his hand. For Hague to discard his well-documented euro-scepticism in such a public way seems surprising but in fact he is merely following a well trodden path of politicians who enter the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) with one view of world affairs and then leave their term of office with completely different opinions altogether. The questions is: why? And why should this matter to all of us?.

The first thing to say is that the mandarins in the FCO see many politicians of different complexions come and go but regard their role as ensuring that British foreign policy remains consistent and predictable, and that, above all else, there are no sudden and unexpected policy lurches in one direction or another. In essence, they see ministers as transient and the civil service as providing the continuity. Now if you think about this it does seem to make quite a lot of sense. Friends, allies and trading partners have a view of the UK’s place in the world and they want to know that at the international level the UK’s actions will be predictable and consistent. I can’t say for sure, but I am willing to bet that this point is hammered home during a new minister’s induction briefings. It is also easy to imagine that most new ministers would be encouraged to view their role in non-political terms. This makes them more susceptible to advice from their civil servants than perhaps in other offices of state. Now, whilst this may sound harmless, what if the FCO’s global perspective is based on theories that undermine the very essence of our democracy? What checks and balances are there to protect the interests of the British people who may see the arguments as largely academic even though they cut to the heart of what it means to be a nation?

The FCO’s model is essentially based on theories expounding globalisation and the inter-dependence of states. This is a complex area, and if you want to read into it then google will provide any number of long academic papers written largely in the 1990s and early 2000s after the end of the Cold War. In essence, these argue that improvements in communication and transport coupled with large global flows of people and capital have reduced the effectiveness of national geographical boundaries. They say that in this ever complex world, governmental power is circumvented and made redundant, countries are unable to solve problems alone and they increasingly have to rely on cooperation with other states to derive solutions which they cannot provide by themselves. It is a theory that promotes the idea of expending or pooling sovereignty through membership and acceptance of supranational bodies like the UN and more topically the EU. It is seen as a mechanism for peace because it suppresses the nation state and violent nationalism. In some respects, it is an argument for big government, even global, and it is an NGO’s and lobbyists’ dream. But as I shall explain, the effects of globalisation can only reach so far because of our desire as individuals to be capable of influencing the world around us and to change those things that affect our lives.

Please bear with me as we get a little technical, but it all comes down to the nation state and for a fuller explanation I recommend that you read this wiki article providing a definition and the historical and contextual background. Please think carefully about the following two quotes from wiki:

“A nation state is a geographical area that can be identified as deriving its political legitimacy from serving as a sovereign nation. A state is a political and geopolitical entity, while a nation is a cultural and ethnic one.”

In another wiki article Sovereignty is described as follows:

“Sovereignty is understood in jurisprudence as the full right and power of a governing body to govern itself without any interference from outside sources or bodies. In political theory, sovereignty is a substantive term designating supreme authority over some polity. It is a basic principle underlying the dominant westpahlian model of state foundation.”

Now, I would say that countries have evolved into nation states through common interest, ethnicity, culture and the need for collective protection. Sovereignty occurs because of the critical relationship between national leaders and those they serve. It is an agreement that sees a population bound by common ties investing in leaders whose role is to protect and serve the nation state. The leadership derives its legitimacy from the consent of the people and this is the basis of sovereignty. If the leadership is seen to subvert, undermine or pawn that sovereign power then the bond is broken, it is no longer serving the basis of its power and it ceases to be legitimate.

If this sounds largely academic, what does it mean in practice? At this stage I would like to look at the EU because there is confusion between cause and effect. The EU is a particular case of interest because it is being forged with the tools of globalisation rather than as a consequence of it. To explain this we need to remember why the EU came about. The founding fathers always saw the EU as a means of suppressing the dangerous nationalism that caused so much suffering in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The idea was that if the people of Europe could be united by a common political structure and ideals then ‘parochial’ and ‘dangerous’ national concerns would evaporate or could be circumvented. They saw a powerful EU as a vehicle for peace, and they viewed the mechanics of globalisation as a means for breaking down national sovereignty and driving the project forward. However, it is interesting how historical perspectives influence views on these matters. For the most part, the UK has never suffered from the effects of the extreme nationalistic ideologies that we have seen on mainland Europe in the past. At least until recently, Britons have been completely at ease with our history, who we are and what we stand for. Our patriotism has never had undesirable nationalistic undertones and in fact we fought several wars against the extremism which the EU founding fathers worried about. I would also argue that our sense of national identity and common endeavour have been a catalyst for great cultural, educational and scientific innovation, and our liberal values have been an inspiration across the world. This difference in understanding about national identity is the root cause of the differing attitudes between the UK and our EU partners about the purpose and extent of the EU project. Our vision is different because we are unabashed that our rich history of national identity is in our very soul rather than the European understanding that it is something that should be hidden and suppressed. It is worse than a mere difference of understanding, however. The EU leaders are actively using the tools of globalisation to batter down national sovereignty. Think about how EU policies seek to destroy those critical characteristics of the nation state such as Schengen (geographical boundaries) and the freedom of movement of people (cultural identity and ethnicity). However, the real dishonesty is that such policies are presented as unavoidable components of free trade whereas the real intention is to use them for an altogether different purpose.

But does any of this matter? Well, I believe that the crucial relationship between the people and the leadership of the nation states is already starting to fragment, and that by imposing policies designed to weaken sovereignty, the EU is actually causing the very tensions that the project was designed to prevent. These tensions include the rise of populist and extreme parties and a dangerous electoral apathy. There is a feeling by people that their vote makes little difference and that they no longer have a voice. Trust in leaders is at an all-time low and there is strong whiff of revolution in the air. This cannot end well in my view: the bond between people and leadership is dreadfully weakened and can only be restored by bringing decision-making closer to the people not further away. People need to see that they can make a difference and that the power of globalisation will not overpower their ability to change their lives. The Westphalian model of the nation state and western style democracy remain the best way of achieving this, and I refute the idea that it has to be dismantled to prevent European states going to war with each other. Another European war is inconceivable because trade links and capital flows alone are enough to cement common interest and cooperation without any further need to unpick the very glue that binds the people together. I do accept that globalisation complicates decision-making in international affairs and that countries should cooperate to solve problems. That said, I refute entirely the notion that globalisation heralds the end of the nation state and the version of supranational government being peddled by EU leaders.

As with many things in the political arena, it comes down to balance. In my view the foreign policy wonks at the FCO need to revisit their academic assumptions on international affairs and balance them with democratic factors. As for politicians, they come and go. Perhaps we’ll get one with great vision who can spot the dangers but don’t hold your breath.

This article provides the main reason that I shall campaign to leave the EU. The fundamental reform promised by the Prime Minister could only be delivered by reinforcing the foundations of the nation state and this is something he is not seeking to change or that the EU is willing to address. We need to protect our nation state by voting to leave. International cooperation can continue afterwards regardless.

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.

Polls: Bad for Debate?

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In this general election we seem to be bombarded with polls on an almost daily basis. Whilst it is fascinating stuff for the political wonks to pour over, I wonder if it is skewing the debate in an adverse way that is bad for the democratic process.

It seems to me the polls affect matters in two ways. The first issue is the media treatment of the information. Polling has now become the main story, and instead of a forensic analysis of the relative merits of the manifestos, we instead get bombarded on a minute by minute basis with speculation about coalition building and potential alliances. Now, I am not saying that this is not important, but the matter has become so prominent that the content of the manifestos seems to have been largely forgotten by commentators and interviewers. It also means that the smaller parties, who may eventually hold the balance of power are receiving a disproportionate amount of coverage to the detriment of the main issues.

The second disadvantage is a philosophical one really, and that is that the daily polls seem to be encouraging people to vote tactically in marginal seats. As a result, votes will be cast on the basis of which policies people wish to avoid rather than on the basis of which policies people prefer. Now this seems to be a very negative aspect to me that devalues our democratic right. It may provide some instant satisfaction when a party is kept from power but the cost is that the government that does eventually form may not actually represent what people want and this will increase voter dissatisfaction in the longer term. It seems to me we should cast our vote in a positive way for what we want rather than for what we don’t.

It is interesting that some countries such as France, Italy and Spain ban polls in the run up to elections, and I wonder if we should consider doing the same. The media wouldn’t like it because it gives them daily fodder to talk about, but it might improve the outcome of the result. There would need to be a discussion on when the ban should start but I would have thought 3-4 weeks prior to the election should do it.

When Two Tribes Lose the War

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With only 17 days left until the general election, the polls suggest that the two main parties seem to be roughly tied on 35% with the remainder of voters’ intentions spread across a number of different smaller parties. Historically, Labour and the Conservatives would command a much greater proportion of the vote than this, and both sides must now look back at the past with a degree of nostalgia and wishful thinking. But how is that two party politics has fallen away to such an extent? It is my belief that they only have themselves to blame.

In the past, electoral campaigns were couched in terms of competing political philosophies. Specific policies could be traced back to the main intellectual bedrock, and when voters made their mark they were making a choice as much about the philosophical arguments as they were about specific spending plans or tax cuts. It was classic left versus right, with key questions argued over endlessly about such matters as the role of the state, property ownership, wealth creation and wealth redistribution.

Today this intellectual foundation is missing from the most of the campaigns. Instead we have piecemeal and standalone policies aimed at specific sections of the electorate, and supported by no obvious underlying philosophy. So for example, we have Labour targeting commuters by promising to renationalise the trains, and the Conservatives trying to lure tenants by promising to allow them to buy housing association homes. Neither side couches these policies in terms of the role of the state or the benefits of property ownership. They are purely for the benefit, of a particular section of the electorate, and without the ideological discussion of why these policies benefit the wider country, they are of little interest to the rest of the electorate.

This situation has arisen because Party strategists, started by New Labour in 1997, decided that there was electoral advantage to be gained by directed polices and by avoiding the ideological contest. It confused and smeared the political spectrum, uniting different and opposing wings of the party and was an effort to broaden the appeal to a wider cross section of the public. It is not just Labour, however, and the same principles have been embraced by the Conservative Party. There are a number of unintended effects, however.

First, campaigning has become characterised by media management, spin and, in the eyes of the electorate, intellectual dishonesty. This has resulted in voter apathy and a complete lack of respect for our democratic processes and Parliament. That is worrying enough, but in adopting ideologically barren campaigns, the two main parties have sown the seeds of their own demise. Voters have become confused. Previously, they may have felt energised by the old ideological battles and were willing to to take a stand on principles rather than specifics. Now, they have been encouraged to vote on the individual and narrow policies that personally affect them. However, the problem for the main parties is that these policies may now be on offer from the smaller parties too. In fact, voters may find attractive policies within the manifestos of a number of different parties and find an obvious choice hard to find. Combined with the electoral cynicism I mentioned earlier, this has encouraged the electorate to vote on the basis of how they are personally affected rather than on the basis of what they feel would be best for the country. The smaller parties have profited massively from this situation, and as the old allegiances have fallen away they have been able to campaign on quite narrow issues such as immigration in the case of UKIP, for example.

This creates a huge amount of uncertainty for the main parties as they flail around trying to find the policy equivalent of a golden goose. Without a change in voting system, it is hard to see the situation changing unless there is a resurgence of political awareness and a return to an ideological based system of campaigning. Instead we are doomed to suffer the uncertainty and watered down politics of coalition government. More warm and fuzzy and less confrontational maybe, but in my view less effective. But perhaps that’s what they want in the sheep shed.

Sterile Debate

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Well, HM The Queen has been informed, and they’re off although it’s hard not to think from watching recent performances at PM’s Questions that Westminster has been electioneering for at least a couple of months. It’s only Day 3 of the official campaign and the main parties have yet to publish their manifestos, but already it seems that all sides will play it safe and that the electorate are going to have a particularly tedious 5 weeks.

In a previous post called avoiding the debate, I mentioned some of the factors that have broken the British political debate resulting in electoral apathy and a dangerous cynicism of the modern democratic process in the UK. These included the lack of proper argumentation and the one-sided and repetitive promotion of policies without even a nod to the counter-arguments or an acceptance that a policy is rarely ‘right’ but merely ‘the best’ course of action. This type of campaigning is the result of an unholy alliance between an army of politicians’ media advisors and the media itself who rarely have time for much more than a quick soundbite.

What is rapidly becoming apparent is immeasurably more cynical and disturbing, and that is a ploy by the parties deliberately to avoid clearly stated positions aside from vacuous statements such as ‘I want a country of opportunity’ or ‘we want prosperity for all’. The saddest part of this problem is that it is a deliberate ploy. By taking a firm position on a matter and producing a firm and directed policy to support that belief, it is likely that a floating voter, somewhere, will disagree and switch to the other side. With conventional 2 party political in free-fall, every floating voter has to be courted and issues that might encourage him to vote for the other side avoided. The debate is therefore reduced to dishonest and meaningless platitudes with discussions on personality and looks rather than political substance. It also encourages the promotion of polices targeted at single-issue or niche voters. This provides a poor foundation for proper government as such policies are inefficiently piecemeal and lack an intellectual basis or strategic framework. In effect they are bribes.

In an ideal world, a Party would start with a political philosophy, then develop a strategy for applying that philosophy and then develop policies that fit within that overall intellectual framework. It’s what we used to have before politics became fragmented and it made it interesting which is why voters engaged and, by in large, viewed parliament with respect. The problem is that the more that party politics fragments, then the more the parties will behave in the current manner putting us in a downwards spiral of electoral discontent. The sad thing is that the media advisors are wrong. The public is crying out for a debate based on solid political conviction and belief. Ed Miliband came close to it the other evening during the TV debate which is probably why he polled quite well afterwards.

Things won’t change soon, however, and the sterile debate will get a lot worse before we eventually have to overhaul the system, probably by a change in the voting system. I would also like to see a British Federation to bring politics closer to the people and improve accountability but more of that soon.

More hay, Sir?

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?

Twitter Wars: The Tribal Politics of Unmentionable Racial Issues

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Yesterday I reviewed a Sunday Times article by the journalist Trevor Phillips (also here in the Mail but scroll past the DM political hype to get to his piece), and I praised his candour for highlighting the woeful lack of debate about some of the practical problems posed by multiculturalism. After I published my blog I issued a tweet advertising it and then had an interesting exchange with one individual that I believe illustrates the real problems presented by tribal politics in our quest for meaningful debate.

I have left out the name of my sparring partner but an examination of my twitter account will reveal his identity if you’re curious. I have also offered him a full right to reply by blog on this site if he so wishes. Here is the exchange that took place:

Me: Brave, brave Trevor Phillips tackling unmentionable issues like race. His article reviewed here…link to the ruminating sheep blog.

F: dog/whistle rubbish for the Tory Press. Sadly Trevor’s realised there is a lot of cash to be made as a right- wing black guy.

Me: What’s right or left got to do with it? We’re talking about multiculturalism and ability to debate issues free of censure.

F: claiming all Jews are rich, and all blacks are criminals, is little to do with multiculturalism.

Me: Read the article. His point was the inability to discuss the subject and the dangers therein. You’re twisting it (poorly)

F: I’ve read the article. It’s very racist.

and

F: We’re not allowed to say ‘most black people are criminals’ for a reason – it’s judging a human being purely on their race.

Me: He’s not saying most black people are criminals. I will blog about our exchange tomorrow and give you full right to reply.

Now there is a delicious irony to this exchange which I will come to in a moment, but before then I feel it is right to address the implication that Trevor Phillips has written a racist article. First of all, a quick read of Phillips’ bio reveals that this is a man who has consistently promoted equality, diversity and social opportunity over a long career as a broadcaster and more latterly as a public servant. Second, there is nothing within his article that I could construe as racist. The context ( and I urge you to read the whole thing) – is about the barriers to a meaningful discussion on racial and multicultural matters. The focus of F’s objections seems to be this:

“If African Caribbeans are statistically more likely to commit some kinds of crime than other people, as indeed they are — we are especially proficient at murdering other African Caribbeans, for example — it might make some sense to understand why, so we can stop it happening. Not all Jewish people are wealthy; in fact, some are extremely deprived. But if — as is true — Jewish households in Britain are on average twice as wealthy as the rest, might it not pay to work out what makes these families more likely to do well? Is there something that the rest can learn from their traditions and behaviour? We all know why these things cannot be said. The long shadow of slavery and the Holocaust rightly makes us anxious about the kind of slack thinking that led to the dehumanising of entire populations.
Yet should history prevent us from understanding the differences between us — especially if those insights might improve life for everyone?”

I just don’t see that as racist especially in the context of the main thrust of his article. He is merely stating facts and explaining why they are relevant to his thesis. Note also that Philipps is of Afro-Caribbean descent himself.

Now to the irony. In previous posts, Avoiding the Debate and Toxic policies I explained some of the factors preventing proper analytical political debate and how this was causing electoral apathy and cynicism.  Some of these factors include media hyperbole, tribal politics, political dogma and the party whip system. Importantly, it also includes certain nefarious activities like evasive politicians attempting to be all things to all people and pressure groups and organisations suppressing debate by calling into question the integrity and motives of anyone attempting to discuss certain matters.

The whole point of Trevor’s article was about the suppression of the multiculturalism debate. By accusing him of having financial motives and of making racist remarks, his detractors would seem to be using ad-hominem accusations to avoid discussing the substantive issue. This precisely and extremely elegantly proves the exact point made by Philipps in his article. Quad erat demonstrandum.

I have no idea of the motivations of ‘F’ in his twitter remarks but tribal politics and his instinctive defence of multiculturalism as a political rather than social phenomena seems to have played a major part during our exchange on twitter. That is tribal politics at work and neatly illustrates how it raises barriers to proper debate. I have offered ‘F’ the right of friendly reply with a post of his own here in the sheep shed, and I would be interested to hear his perspective. Let’s hope he will eat hay with us and ruminate in the spirit of constructive debate.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Postnote: ‘F’ has posted his reply in comments which you can find below or by following the link here. I still feel that he is viewing the issue through a political lens which in my view is unhelpful but probably realistic in today’s climate. I would nonetheless like to thank him for his constructive contribution to the board. Perhaps others have a view?

Unmentionable Racial Issues

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In a previous post, I talked about how some subjects are never discussed because they are, or have been made, politically toxic. As a result, important issues lie unmentioned and simmering with politicians preferring to ignore them rather than raise their heads above the parapet. With this in mind, it was extremely refreshing to read an article in The Sunday Times by journalist and former chairman of the Racial Equality Commission, Trevor Phillips, on the deep racial problems lying within our multi-cultural society and our inability to discuss them.

In his brave article (unfortunately behind a paywall), called Ten Things About Race that are True but we Can’t Say, Trevor highlights how New Labour’s attempts to tackle discrimination failed to addressed the problems of multi-culturalism in practice. He says that local authority funds promoting multi-ethnic diversity have been misused by community leaders who benefit from preserving isolation. He highlights that many young people are “trapped behind walls of tradition and deference to elders”, and identifies that the Charlie Hebdo shootings in France were partly of a consequence of segregation within Muslim ghettos. He believes that similar issues lie behind our own 7th July bombings.

The article would be incendiary if it wasn’t written by a well-known and respected black journalist, and perhaps this is the point. Trevor is absolutely correct that in our desperation to avoid causing offence we are ignoring critical issues and he cites as an example the institutional reluctance to tackle the grooming of young girls by some young Pakistani men in our cities. He also points out that the recent fury over Benedict Cumberbatch’s use of the term ‘coloured’ meant that his important point about the need for more black actors to be employed got completely lost. His key point is that it is “more and more difficult to address problems in our society because we are too afraid to describe them”

Bingo! This is exactly the point I tried to make in my previous post on toxic policies, and Trevor is also correct to highlight that unless we are brave enough to overcome this reluctance, then the far right, already ascendant in some European countries, will continue to make electoral progress for merely ‘speaking the truth’

Trevor Phillips will develop his theme in a Channel 4 documentary on Thursday at 9pm, and I for one will be interested to see it. Well done Trevor.