Could Cameron Vote to Leave the EU?


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.

Polls: Bad for Debate?


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


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


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?

Political Grandstanding and Hubris


In previous posts (here and here) I have discussed the pernicious effect that today’s 24-hour soundbite media has on the quality of our political debate and its contribution to electoral apathy. I don’t want to bang on about this but I was so outraged at the TV coverage of yesterday’s meeting of the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee that I feel compelled to get a few things off my chest so that I can enjoy the rest of my day and eat lots of hay without enduring a bad dose of ruminant indigestion.

For those of you fortunate to miss it, this all-party Parliamentary committee, chaired by the Labour MP Margaret Hodge, was taking evidence from HSBC executives on the company’s role in facilitating tax evasion schemes. Now, this is precisely the sort of core business that this committee should be conducting and it is quite right that Parliament investigates any abuse of the tax system. My objections are not to do with the subject matter but the conduct of the MPs during the hearing.

The verbal abuse of Stuart Gulliver and Chris Meares was bad enough but the treatment of Rona Fairhead was an abuse of parliamentary privilege. Unfounded accusations, inappropriate tone, confusing informed comment with personal views, refusing to allow witnesses to answer by talking over them, deliberate rudeness, contrived moral outrage and anger. The list goes on, and it only happened because the proceedings were filmed and presented an opportunity for our parliamentary saviours to grandstand safe in the knowledge that they would get a few moments of glory in the evening news.

The problem with this approach is that the purpose of the proceedings was undermined by the behaviour of the all-party committee members. The idea is to take evidence and report back to parliament, and by behaving in this way the committee members actually reduced the chances that witnesses would provide meaningful evidence and that anything consequential would eventually be reported. Moreover, whilst the MPs may have thought they were courting public opinion with their contrived anger, actually all they were doing was bringing politics further into disrepute and adding to the widespread public impression that they are solely interested in themselves rather than the public good.

It really is time to remove the cameras and have a clear out. I periodically have to do that with my sheep. Distasteful, but occasionally necessary for the benefit of the rest of the flock.

Devolution: Who’s Accountable?


Since the Scottish referendum, there has been much discussion about devolving power down to the regions, and the recent announcement by the Government that it intends to devolve a £6 billion health and care budget down to the Greater Manchester area has been largely greeted with approval across the political spectrum. For sure, it gives local authorities the responsibility to set health and care priorities and to shift cash around but does it actually increase accountability and promote value for money for the taxpayer?

Well, I expect that there are few that would disagree that centralized structures are unwieldy and often struggle to get value for money despite the attractions offered by the economics of scale. We’ve heard about the £10 Whitehall paperclip too often for this not to be true. There is also no doubt that a centralised and corrupt political system often directs resources for political purposes rather than on the basis of actual need. Where it is allocated altruistically, it is often misdirected owing to a lack of understanding about particular local conditions and requirements. Local spending also gets better scrutiny and is more transparent as budgets are smaller and easier to inspect than the national versions.

Devolved budgets look attractive then, but in my opinion it is only by owning the right to spend and to raise revenue that proper democratic accountability can be enforced. If it is only the power to spend a budget that is devolved then there is little to stop the spender using up all the cash and then pointing to the central government when it finds it has run out of resources. ‘It’s not our fault, you haven’t given us enough’ will be the excuse. Particularly from a Labour-run council with a Conservative Government (or vice versa). On the other hand, if an authority has to raise the cash that it wishes to spend then it is totally accountable for both sides of the equation. It may decide to raise more revenue through an increase in local taxation and spend a little more but to do this there will have to be a conversation with the local electorate who may see things differently. That is proper democracy at work and a powerful driver for encouraging tax-payer value for money. Moreover, if that conversation takes place at a local level then the debate is often better focussed and able to highlight the real issues rather than a centralized argument that gets lost in all the Westminster noise.

So, it’s an open and shut case: we should devolve the maximum power down from the centre. Well, perhaps not. Whilst a centralised treasury sometimes misdirects resources through corrupt politics or incompetence, it does allow the central authority to at least have a stab at resolving geographically competing needs. If we fully devolved tax-raising and spending powers to small regions then the sparsely-populated or poorer areas would be completely disadvantaged, and it is unlikely they would be able to offer the same standard of services. In extremis, this could encourage significant population movements
to the metropolitan areas which could be destabilising and suddenly increase the pressure on services in particular areas. On a more philosophical note, I suppose one aspect of belonging to a country is that the population has a common interest in looking after each other regardless of location. Isn’t that why we have the Barnett formula for Scotland? That collective insurance would soon disappear as the devolved regions started to become more like autonomous mini states.

I am instinctively against big government and so the devolved solution looks attractive. But it is not a straightforward case and it requires careful thought. It may be that a half-way house solution that partially devolves tax and spending would provide the right balance of efficiency and accountability. In this regard, a locally levied sales tax (with commensurate reduction in VAT) might be one way of devolving tax raising powers without going the full hog. However, our Union has already suffered some shocks recently following the Scottish referendum and I think we need to move cautiously to avoid the unintended effects of any fiscal actions we take too hastily. It is probably a question of scale. The Soviet Union was too big to run from a centralized authority but, on the other hand, we can’t live in little tribes. Thoughts?

Political Leaders’ TV Circus

Bun Fight cartoon

Oh Dear, the TV companies have agreed the dates for our lords and masters to strut their stuff live on the telly. There will be two TV debates where 7 of the party leaders will engage in a political soundbite melee, and a final event where just David Cameron and Ed Miliband will go head to head. They will be screened on 2, 16 and 30 April so my advice would be to attend your pub quiz night on those dates as you are likely come away better educated and, I suspect, a good deal more cheerful.

In my post, Avoiding The Debate I discussed the reasons for the poor quality of the political debate in the UK and the adverse effect it was having on the electorate. Forgive me for sounding cynical but is this really going to help the situation? The media will talk up the programmes and tell us they are bringing politics to the people when in fact all they really want are the viewing figures and the hope that someone trips up so that the story can be kept going for a few days. Forget any idea of a considered discussion on the strategy-led policies of the various parties. Instead it will be a fest of soundbites, faked outrage and manufactured drama. It will be Eastenders meeting Westminster in a Christmas panto special. The audience will boo and hiss, the protagonists will roll their eyes at each other and those at home will think solely about who got the better of who in the war of pre-rehearsed wit and soundbite.

And how could it be otherwise especially in the two debates where there will be seven parties (Con, Lab, Lib/Dem, UKIP, Green, SNP, Plaid Cymru). There will be no time for any detailed argument just the same old inane point scoring that has turned so many people off politics and politicians.

The only hope is that the whole thing falls apart and gets cancelled although the TV companies have said that if anyone pulls out, the programmes will continue with an empty seat on the stage.

Enjoy your quiz.

The Religious State


Today, I would like to write about the interface between religion and the State. Before I start, I would just like to say that it is not my intention to offend anyone that holds strong religious beliefs although I will make some difficult points that reflect my perceptions as an educated non-believer. I will also mention radical Islam, not because I want to single out any particular set of beliefs but because it perhaps represents a threat to our immediate peace, security and community cohesion.

Whilst I personally lack any belief that there is a God or a creator that provides a higher purpose for us in life, I do accept that many religions provide a moral framework with teachings that are sensible and advantageous to follow such as peace, goodwill, forgiveness and respect for our neighbours. It is also interesting that many of these principles are common across the religious spectrum even between religions that are opposed to each other in the manner of their implementation. I also accept that for many people religious beliefs can provide comfort in times of bereavement and inspiration for endeavour. These have immense value for those that embrace the ideals, and I would not wish to denigrate their beliefs or those advantages.


Whilst I acknowledge some of the practical benefits, I have difficulties concerning the implementation of some belief systems. Throughout time, religious leaders have imposed their ideas on people through the fear of retribution, violence and even bribery. Whether it is fear of purgatory, the Inquisition, witch trials, catholic and protestant persecutions or, more recently, the rise of Islamic State, then the common thread is always about the imposition of a belief system on the flock by those that seek to exert control. It is all about, ‘I am the upholder of this religion, I am right and if you don’t agree and conform then x,y and z will happen’. This way of imposing belief systems is apparent within many religious texts which are reinforced by ideas that prophets and religious leaders are qualified and entitled to uphold religious tenets. It is almost as though the authors of these texts wrote their own job specification. There is also the threat of divine retribution against those that demur from the stated ideals. Historically, it is through such certainties that leaders have been able to exert control. It is rule by fear.

Whilst much of this is historical, there are still problems today even though most religious texts were written hundreds or even thousands of years ago. On a positive note (in my view), things are gradually changing. It is interesting that as educated populations and liberal democracies have spread then it has become ever harder for religious zealots to impose their doctrine, and religion in these countries has become more of a voluntary matter. Clerics are still able to influence the public debate but in secular countries it is more by cajoling than enforcement which reflects a distinct and welcome reduction in political power and authority. It is almost certainly why hard-line extremists in places like Afghanistan are so against democracy and threaten to punish people who take part in elections.

And yet we are nowhere near total enlightenment. Some branches of Christianity still issue threats of eternal damnation, and Catholic attitudes towards some matters like contraception are still controlled by an unelected hierarchy in Rome. More worrying are the atrocities that take place in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia where religion dominates most functions of the state. Or, even worse, in lawless parts of the world like Syria, Libya, Somalia. In these places effective government has completely collapsed, and ad-hoc groups use religion as the justification for unspeakable acts of violence as a means of exerting control over a terrorized population.


Closer to home, we have no majority group religions that are actively seeking to supplant our system of government. There are some single-issue Christian groups like the pro-life lobby that are vociferous but they are restricted in their objectives and they largely eschew acts of violence even if they can be quite intimidating in the manner of their approach. However, there is a small but growing minority of the Muslim community that is attracted to the ideals put forward by radical clerics originating from non-secular countries and who are willing to use violence to enforce them. In extreme cases, some proponents would replace our whole legal framework by a system of religious law. Religion and the state would become inseparable and, presumably, the arbiters of good taste would be the self-appointed religious leaders. This is not just a cultural variance but a matter that directly challenges our whole way of life, our system of government and our system of rights born out of Magna Carta. Having baldly stated the challenge, I must at this point be at pains to state that such views are attractive to only a tiny portion of our Muslim population which at 7% is itself only a small minority. However, small though it may be, violent Islamic extremism does seem to be a growing problem with security ramifications that need to be addressed if community divisions are to be avoided.

It seems to me that as the problem centres on a radical interpretation of Islam then the problem can only be addressed from within the Muslim community, and this means within homes, mosques and schools (in that order of importance). The problem (and I tread warily of generalizing here) is that within the Moslem community there seems to be a cultural reluctance to challenge religious certainties and teachings. There seems to be much more respect for religious leaders, and this makes it less likely that statements heard in the mosque will be challenged in later discussions around the family dinner table where in my experience most children learn to find their way in life. This religious deference is indeed a weakness being exploited by those that seek to influence opinion, and one that must change if a battle of the cultures is to be avoided. I do sense that were there to be a home-grown outrage then there could be a significant backlash resulting in community divisions and unrest so the matter does need to be addressed urgently. And it can be addressed with Muslim leadership, determination and community action. Witness the heartening photograph on Twitter of a group of moderate Norwegian Muslims surrounding a synagogue to guard it in an act of symbolic unity. Now let’s see a huge march in London for the same ideals.

It is a measure of how difficult the situation has become that I found that last paragraph very difficult to write. Whatever the reasons (and perhaps we will address some of these in my next post on immigration), cultural divisions and misunderstandings really do exist in our society. I am no social scientist, and I have written my perceptions as a white middle-class Englishman but they are only my perceptions and I am very open to counter-arguments. As a result, I would welcome informed Muslim comment if I have misunderstood the situation. It is only by eating our hay together and ruminating that we will increase our peace and mutual understanding.

Avoiding The Debate


There is nothing more frustrating and boring than watching a politician avoid answering a question, and it is little wonder that public respect for MPs and the political process has sunk so low. But how is it that we have arrived at this point and are MPs solely to blame? The mother of parliaments was once regarded very highly, and its members were largely seen as public-spirited and principled. Now the electorate yawns at the day to day political tussle, and MPs are mocked and set alongside merchant bankers in the court of public opinion.

To my mind, the primary reason for this state of affairs is the manner in which the political debate is hosted and targeted. Modern communications are instantaneous, and fickle media outlets provide such fleeting opportunities that politicians often only have time to spill out some short and catchy, yet inane, sound-bite that they hope may later command a headline in the following day’s paper. There is very little opportunity for considered argument about the pros and cons of a policy: only its one-sided and instantaneous promotion.

This problem is made worse by the misreporting of any kind of admission by a politician that a counter-argument may have some merit even if he believes that those disadvantages are outweighed by the advantages of his own position. What tends to happen is that if a politician acknowledges both sides of an argument then it is often the fact that he has acknowledged the disadvantages of his proposal that is reported as the main thrust of the story. As a result, his reasoned debate that might well have interested the audience is left unexposed.

But why are political discussions reported in this way? It is quite clear that many media outlets have their own political allegiances and will spin a story to suit their own political allegiances. So, for example, from the same interview content, The Telegraph would report that a Minister favours tax cuts to stimulate the economy whereas The Guardian would report that the Minister wants to cut services to make tax cuts for the rich. The party whip system also makes this situation worse. So utterly tribal has party politics become that absolute adherence to the party line is demanded and anyone caught going off message is immediately dragged into the Whip’s office for a metaphorical (or real, who knows?) spanking. The problem with this approach is that it not only discourages MPs from discussing matters rationally, but it encourages the media to make the thrust of their story the very fact that a minister or MP has raised their head above the parapet to occasion proper 2-sided debate.

Finally, I suspect that there is another altogether more cynical component to this issue. With the erosion of 2 party politics has come the rise of the special interest groups and ever more research into the polls. Rather than steering public opinion through good leadership and strategic vision, parties now seek to be all things to all people in the hope that they can court the maximum vote. This is a strong driver for avoiding reasoned debate because any clearly stated position risks alienating a potential voter somewhere. How intellectually dishonest is that? It is obfuscation, and it is driven purely by the thirst for political power rather than a desire to make the world a better place.

I don’t know where the answer to this problem lies. In the first instance, I really wish that media outlets would act more responsibly by encouraging fair reporting and creating the conditions to allow politicians to make their arguments properly. Second, the local party associations, whips and party apparatchiks need to recognize that opinion cannot be uniform and that it is not necessarily damaging for both sides of an argument to be exposed. Indeed it is healthy for the country. Finally, it is possible that we will have to re-examine our electoral system. Whilst I was always a supporter of the first-past-the-post system, perhaps the other factors I have mentioned mean that it has finally had its day. Whatever the answer, we cannot go on with matters as they are. Democracy relies on proper debate and voter engagement, and we don’t appear to have either at the moment. Anyone got some good ideas?

Welfare: Redistribution or Contribution?


It seems to me that the intricacies of the British welfare system have become so complex that we have stopped thinking about who and what exactly it is for. Is it a safety net or a means of redistributing wealth within our society? These days, politicians would never discuss this question in such politically bald terms, but if you turned back the clock 40 or so years and you would find no such shrinking violets. In some respects, I feel this is a shame. At least the old class warfare discussions were politically principled and had a touch of intellectual honesty about them. Today, it is almost as though politicians have mislaid their politics or conveniently forgotten them as they seek to confuse the floating voter. As a result, arguments about welfare become foggy either through dissembling, complex technical discussions or, worse, piecemeal and inefficient reforms which are largely advanced to court the voting approval of narrow interest groups. But in my view the lack of a clear vision about the purpose of welfare makes reform difficult as the lack of a strategic framework encourages ad-hoc and expensive changes that rarely achieve the intended purpose. It also encourages that modern scourge of government: political meddling in operational matters.

So where do I sit on this? Well if pushed, I would fall on the safety net side of the argument but with some provisos. Ha Ha, they shout, the old ram wants to pick on the poor and disadvantaged. Rename him, Ebenezer at once! But, actually, not at all. In my view, it is a measure of a peaceful, successful and humane society that we should help those that fall on hard times or become sick such that they are unable to support themselves. We will discuss religion (I don’t do it) in future posts but the texts of many religions nonetheless demonstrate that as a species we have long demonstrated an innate sense of compassion and consideration for our fellow beings even if it is not always put into practice (which I very much intend to return to).

It therefore seems that our basic instincts are to act compassionately, and I would certainly like to think that I live in a civilized society. Yet in my view that aspiration shouldn’t extend to using state spending as a means of redistributing wealth. That model has clearly been shown historically to fail. Look at the disasters in the former (and, increasingly, existing) Soviet Union or in Venezuela. At face value, state-manufactured equality sounds attractive but the principle always gets mismanaged and corrupted, the rich flee, the economy suffers and everyone gets poorer defeating the primary objective of the idea. No, to my mind welfare is a safety net, and it is certainly not a mechanism for making poor people better off. The best way of achieving improved living standards is to provide a framework that encourages individuals to compete through education and civil rights, and then to encourage innovation and individualism to allow people to achieve their maximum potential. Note though, that potential cannot be the same for everyone no matter how much we meddle or wish it otherwise. That is not a fact of politics, it is a fact of genetics and the way of the natural world. This is the key point that nobody will discuss because we don’t like the idea that we can’t control every individual’s outcome in life.

Having said all that, it doesn’t solely have to come down to the survival of the fittest, and we have it within our ability to set moral limits and achieve some kind of balance. If someone is ill with a life-threatening condition or something that would materially affect the quality of their life then I feel that we should find the cash to look after them. That shouldn’t extend to boob jobs, tattoo removal and varicose veins, though, and it doesn’t mean that a patient should get a free consultation with the GP just because they have a cold. The principle of self-reliance rather than collective-reliance should always come first and this should be applied as the first test. Its not just in health matters either; the same principle should apply to the benefits system. I really don’t like the way that some try to stigmatize those in receipt of benefits, and whilst generalizations may appeal to the Sun readership, it cuts no ice with me. That said, it is right that people should be encouraged to return to self-reliance and the only way of achieving this is by setting limits on the amount of collective aid that will be provided and by limiting the conditions that may prompt its delivery. The Coalition government recognized this, and in my view was quite right to point out that nobody on benefits should receive more than an average wage. Quite where the level should be set, however, is a serious matter for debate and I would be interested to hear views.

Lastly, we’ve talked about the need for balance in our welfare state, but before we get carried away by dealing in absolutes, let’s take a look at redistribution in terms of one of the less savoury aspects of capitalism. Twenty years ago I would have argued that the free market should run free and unencumbered. Certainly, it seems to provide the best framework for successful trading and commerce, and ordinarily this would benefit all. However, globalization, improved communications and porous borders have decreased the power of national governments and allowed unaccountable multinational corporations to trump elected officials. This has undermined our system of liberal democracy to such an extent that I do fear that we are in danger of a political retrenchment brought on by popular antipathy. I find it ironic that those who have benefited most from globalization have accumulated such wealth whilst exhibiting such little awareness of the wider world that they may have already endangered their own existence. By any measure, it just cannot be right that 1% of the world’s population owns 80% of the worlds wealth. That means that the benefits are not being shared out equally. Oh wait, you don’t mean redistribution, Old Ram? We thought you were against it?

Its a conundrum for sure. I instinctively feel that we should be wary of regulation yet as a very minimum, all corporations should be made to pay the tax due in the countries where they conduct their business. That doesn’t mean to say they should necessarily be taxed more because they are large, but it does mean they should pay their way. Its a question of balance again. I’m not sure of the answer to this one and it demonstrates the dangers of dealing in absolutes, but I’m sure if I eat some more hay and ruminate a little something will come to me. Over to you.