A last plea to “Leavers” ahead of The Referendum tomorrow…

Written for Prospect Magazine:

 

By the weekend, this grim and unhappy referendum on our membership of the European Union will have passed from our national life. And what a relief for us all that will be. It has divided us against ourselves and made enemies of friends. We have seen too much of the worst of Britain and not enough of the best. Most will by now have made up their minds. But for those still deciding, one last effort at persuasion:

The Economic Argument:

If we leave Europe, we will have to renegotiate every single trade agreement we have with the rest of the world. This will swamp the civil service for decades and cause chaos untold—evolving chaos, immediate chaos—for every business, employer, employee or individual otherwise connected by trade, profession or exchange to any other nation on Earth. Assuming the British re-negotiators do the best possible job—and I am sure they would—the very most that they could possibly achieve would be deals no better than those we already have; the status quo. The process will take several years. In the meantime, the people who would suffer most in the ensuing downturn—and both sides agree there will be one—are those with the least amount of money to insulate themselves against it. There is no serious economic argument for Brexit which is why there are no serious economists making it.

The Sovereignty Argument

The fact of the referendum itself is all the illustration we should need to realize that we are a sovereign nation who can decide whether or not we continue to delegate certain areas of law-making to Europe. These areas are mainly to do with trade, working conditions, common policies for production, agriculture and fishing—things centred around a common market. We choose to opt out of the euro and Schengen. Meanwhile, we choose to legislate for ourselves on the vast majority of issues from tax to defence to health and education and so on. But the stark and obvious truth is that had we abandoned our sovereignty, we would not be able to choose tomorrow whether to be in or out. The sovereignty argument is self-evidently falsified by the very fact of our vote tomorrow.

The Money Argument

In 2014-2015 we paid just over 1 per cent of our gross national income to Europe. This is the smallest proportion of income paid by any of the 28 members. Think about that for a second. And it’s been like this for decades. Here are the 2007 figures. Here are those in 2011. Again, this is a straightforward truth. Not only do we get an excellent deal, we get the best deal in Europe—and by some distance. We are one of the most powerful members of one of the most powerful groups of nations on Earth and yet, by gross national income, we pay the least to be so and have opt outs and rebates to suit us that others do not.

The Political-Historical Argument

At its simplest, the EU has been the greatest peace treaty ever drawn up. Consider the warring history of our continent through every bloody century that preceded it and consider the Europe we now inhabit, visit and share. Nobody can seriously argue that Leaving would do anything but play against or undermine that hard won peace, prosperity and partnership. For what? Meanwhile, not a single one of our allies wants us to leave. Not one. Unless we are to count Putin.

One more consideration: the people of Wales, Scotland and London could reasonably request that they be allowed to stay in the EU if—in those areas—the vote to “Remain” was decisive. The rest of the country could not then refuse to allow them the same self-determination they have just enjoyed. I believe a vote to “Leave” is therefore a vote for the beginning of the end of the UK.

The Immigration Argument

There are two channels of immigration: non-EU and EU. The referendum changes absolutely nothing with regard to the first which is roughly half the net migration figure; we already have complete control over this. The second stream is the only real argument “Leave” have and what their case is really all about.

Let me be clear: my own opinion is that immigration is healthy, vital, positive and necessary. On the long view, all of us not born in Africa are the descendants of immigrants. On the medium view, anyone making an anti-immigration argument in England is being wilfully ignorant of our history and not least with regard to the various Royal Families that have sat on our throne—Danish, Norman, French, Welsh, Scottish, Dutch and German as they have been. On the short view, EU immigrants are universally agreed to be net contributors financially to Britain, not to mention all the other million ways through work, enterprise and culture that they greatly enhance our national life.

But there is a perception—sometimes legitimate, sometimes not—voiced by significant numbers of people (including immigrants) that our country is over-stretched in terms of services, transport, schools and hospitals.

I do not wholly subscribe to this view. But it seems to me that if you are voting “Leave,” then the only unanswerable grounds you have is that you believe this particular issue—the numbers of recent immigrants from other EU countries to the UK—is so deleterious to national life that it trumps all other considerations economic, political, historical or otherwise. In which case, a vote to “Leave” is a legitimate and honest expression of that belief.

J’Accuse

For many people, Nigel Farage’s views are somewhere between vulgar and sickening. Michael Gove’s are pompous and oddly constructed (as is his manner). And Kate Hoey is an embarrassment to everyone. But at least this ill-gathered ensemble honestly hold the positions they espouse.

By far the worst man of the hour has been Boris Johnson. Why? Because he cannot and does not believe most of what he says. Read his confected books on Churchill and London. Watch the TV shows he has made. Listen to his speeches as Mayor. Every strand of his intellectual and emotional DNA was bent towards Europe until the start of this campaign. And yet, throughout, he has curried popular favour with one oafish falsehood after another. He has deliberately misled audiences in order to gain personal political advantage. He has put himself above the nation that he claims to love. Hubris does not cover it; even last night, he continued to evince a belief that this whole referendum was about him and his career; the audiences’ view of him, the viewers’ view of him, his view of him, the endless onlookers (real and imagined) that he needs to bear witness to his life.

I hope the Tory party and the rest of the country now have the good sense to side-line Boris Jonson for good. Too long have we indulged his facile amour-propre as personality, his weasel cunning as intelligence, his lumpen bombast as argument. The clumsily deployed classicisms and the cultivated candy floss hair are chimera behind which you will find simple narcissism. He knows better. He understood these arguments. So either he is consciously attempting to manipulate the British people or his mendacity is so deeply subconscious that he cannot be trusted with any serious office henceforth. His remarks regarding President Obama and Hitler were, I think, a personal nadir and richly indicative of the man he has become. I am not alone in finding his contortions genuinely saddening—since, for a while, he embodied the better kind of Conservative. As to the naked attempt to recruit Churchill to Project Self-Aggrandizement—well: Boris Jonson is to Churchill as Dan Quayle was to Kennedy. Memo to Tory Party members: Napoleon was wrong—we are not a nation of shopkeepers and we do not wish to be led by a shopping trolley.

The Future

And yet a vote for “Remain”—my vote for “Remain” at least—is not a vote for the status quo. I want to see a much more accountable EU. I want it to set about dealing immediately with those tasks that only it can deal with: the refugee crisis, the insufficient payment of corporation tax by certain global corporations, our unfolding environmental concerns. The current minister for Europe, David Lidington, will have to go and we need a new high profile appointment who should be personally charged with making clear progress on such issues. We need to take our urgent demands into Europe with the same determined energy and engagement with which we have disputed this referendum.

Thatcher was wrong of course: there is such a thing as society. Indeed, the agreements of human civilisation are all there is between us and barbarism; the rest is a Farage-Gove fantasy of flags and civil-wars and tribes and Gods and a Europe in which the Enlightenment never happened.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, we are living at the exciting dawn of an age of super-technology and super-connectedness. Every year brings the planet closer together. Not in a bogus hippy way but in real way to do with what you eat, the weather, your pensions, the sport you enjoy, where the components of your phone are from, what you breathe, see, suffer and enjoy. We are all of us beginning to understand that what happens in the Antarctic or the Amazon or Aleppo affects everyone. There is no going back. Isolation is not just a bad idea; it is a now impossible idea that insists on an ignorance to which we cannot return expect by blinding and deafening ourselves. Just as our problems are global problems, so our solutions must be global.
The EU is far from perfect but in my view it is our best route to security, prosperity and the future of civilisation. Because, in the end, we human beings have a common destiny or we have no destiny at all.

Be British tomorrow. Be European. Be part of the greatest continent mankind had ever known. For that is what you are. Vote “Remain”.

There were Two Oppositions in the Last Parliament

Written for The Guardian:

 

There were two oppositions in the last parliament: Labour and the Liberal Democrats. And, this week more than ever, it is worth saying that only the latter made any difference to the real lives of real people. Why? Because they were in government. But thanks to their brutal contraction and the subsequent departure of Don Corbyn de la Mancha for his knight-errant’s tour of windmills, we now have no effective opposition at all (unless you count the House of Lords). And this is about to matter in lots of painful ways to millions of people when the chancellor announces what cuts he plans to make in the spending review in his autumn statement on Wednesday.

You may recall that George Osborne used his conference speech – oratorically at least – to parlay his clammy mortician’s charm into something altogether more Nosferatu: a claim for the centre ground. But the spending review will disperse the swirling mists of his rhetoric and we will now see – in hard and detailed figures – exactly what this Conservative government looks like. Remember: Osborne has ordered the non-ringfenced government departments to find ways to slash their budgets by up to 40% by 2019-20 in order to meet the extra £20bn in savings in public spending that he was vowed to deliver.

I say “deliver”, as if the figure for these cuts were not an ideological choice but somehow undisputed and scientifically required. But it is important to remember that the pace of “austerity” is a strategic decision that Osborne has taken and then written into the narrative tectonics of the three-act play that he has devised for us all to sit through. (Spoiler alert: act three concerns widespread national rejoicing at The Surplus, miraculously coincident with the election of an Osborne-led Conservative government.)

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Are we Sleepwalking to Brexit?

Written for Prospect Magazine:

 

The European Union referendum now lies splayed across the political event horizon like a giant jellyfish with which we are all soon going to have to wrestle. History will explain how Nigel Farage, whom I have interviewed for this magazine, tortured the Conservative Party into wasting the nation’s time and energy on what is essentially a Tory in-house disagreement. But this is his dream come true; and what a many-tentacled nightmare it turns out to be.

Make no mistake: in less than a year, Great Britain could be out of the EU and no longer Great or, indeed, Britain. David Cameron’s departure will surely follow Brexit, which will also be followed by Scotland’s attempted split from Britain. The splenetic strain of the Conservative Party will be left running Little England—for that is what we will be—and its business for decades to come will be the treaty-by-treaty renegotiation of our relationship with every other country in the world.

Why are we in danger of sleep walking to Brexit? Two reasons: the “in” campaign and the “out” campaign. The former is tangled, confused and complacent; the latter replete with experience and a fierce vitality.

The “ins” as presently configured, are, of course, bedeviled by macro politics that stall and occlude their purposes… What concessions can the Prime Minister get from the EU? When will he start campaigning? How exactly does all this play into George Osborne’s succession plans for himself? Which cabinet members will campaign to leave the EU? How can they then be part of the government? Where is Boris Johnson in all of this? Theresa May? But let us for a moment take the “ins” at face value.

Their first problem is their ostensible leader. Stuart Rose looks and sounds like the great chief executive of Marks and Spencer he once was—focussed and wiry, he radiates competence, work ethic and a steady mercantile understanding of high-street footfall. He is the opposite of what the “in” campaign needs. At the launch, which I attended, he seemed under-prepared for the political fray and actively to dislike cheerleading, rhetoric or enthusiastic case-making of any kind. He looked and sounded cautious, unwilling or dragooned. His speech was poorly structured, poorly written and poorly delivered—all in a salt-dry voice. Certainly, the “ins” need Stuart Rose on hand to make the many calm and clinching business points. But surely the leader’s job is to promote the case with warm and passionate conviction as well as authenticity. Even if—as with Rose—all he is doing is holding the fort until Cameron and Osborne mobilise.

Then there’s the authority question. Will Straw, the “in” campaign’s Executive Director, might one day be a force for good in the country. He’s decent, willing and impossible to dislike. But he looks and sounds out of his depth. At a recent debate, the first between the campaign leaders, he was properly pitted against Dominic Cummings, the battle-hungry director of what will surely become the main “out” (“Vote Leave”) campaign. This was Straw’s first real public test. He did not do well. As soon as the debate opened to questions, it became clear to the audience that Straw was not across the detail. He was unable, for example, to counter the demonstrably false figure of the “out” side that it costs £55m a day to keep us in Europe and instead the chair had to do it for him; and then—staggeringly—he had not even heard of the Rotterdam Effect.

What’s the Rotterdam Effect I hear you cry?

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Forget the ‘Ajockalypse’, this was ArmaCleggon

For Prospect Magazine:

Hell yeah, we were pumped up. And so we came at last to Sheffield Hallam, the constituency of Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister, a national media seeking answers. How many red lines were needed to draw a U-turn? On which party would he bestow the still-glittering orangey-gold crown? The Tories might do better than expected. Or Labour might lock them out. But the one thing we knew for certain was that the Liberal Democrats were going to be the “surprise story” of the 2015 election and nobody would be able to govern without them. Sure, the polls were deadlocked with the party stubbornly entrenched below ten per cent, but when we took account of “incumbency” and “grass roots” and being “dug in deep”, we were looking at between 25 and 35 Liberal Democrat seats. Which job would Clegg ask for? Which job would he get? Could the Tories win enough seats? And, if they did, how was he going to take his two dozen colleagues with him? If Labour, how would the master negotiator renegotiate?

But we were asking the wrong questions. In the wrong universe. What we were about to experience was not the re-appointment of a kingmaker; it was nothing short of ArmaCleggon.

The Lonely Rationalist: Nick Clegg Interview

For Prospect Magazine

I sit down opposite the Deputy Prime Minister just as the Prime Minister calls. We’re on a Great Western train from Bristol to London. Outside, the English afternoon is passing by in a blur of Betjeman and Brunel. We have cups of tea. Over the fields are massed a flotilla of Boris Johnson clouds—vaguely alarming, bulky and off-white.

This is early May and the Daily Mail has just published leaked private correspondence between Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander, his party colleague and Chief Secretary to the Treasury, that shows that the Liberal Democrats are “resisting” Tory plans to introduce mandatory sentences for knife crimes. When he arrived at Paddington, I heard Clegg say that he was “pissed off,” but now

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The relentless charm of Nigel Farage – Interview

For Prospect Magazine

We are approaching a significant moment in our national history. And somehow the hitherto fringe figure of Nigel Farage is at its centre. Yes, the UK Independence party, for all the farrago of its local election successes, is still a minor party; but it has become the point around which the debate on Europe and immigration is now revolving. Ukip does not have to win a single seat in the 2015 election to change the course of British politics. It has already set the terms. It has caused the current spread of Conservative fissures and pushed David Cameron to propose legislation guaranteeing an in-out referendum on membership of the European Union. And it has inflamed the one debate that even our Gilbert and George coalition might not survive. Meanwhile, Ukip is making the Labour party react—and nervously so. How has this happened? To begin with, the answer is best understood by watching its leader, Farage, in his element: on the campaign trail.

I am in South Shields—Labour heartland in the northeast. It is the day before the by-election caused by David Miliband’s resignation. The next day, on 2nd May, Ukip will alter the geometry of British politics by winning 139 seats on local councils and taking, on average, one in four votes nationwide. But Nigel Farage doesn’t yet know this. He is out campaigning on behalf of Richard Elvin, his party’s candidate. The northern sky is wide and bright, though it’s unreasonably cold if you stand in the shade. We are in the main pedestrianised street. Farage is talking with (not “to” or “at”) yet another enthusiastic supporter, a man in his fifties and a former Labour voter.

“Yes, well, that’s often true,” Farage says, leaning in to respond to a complaint about the perceived lack of visibility of David Miliband previously. He extends the point to include every Westminster politician: “The other three parties are all the same. That’s why we are drawing support very evenly across the country—now that is a strength but it is also a weakness under first past the post.”

A German journalist interrupts. She is non-specifically cross. Typically, Farage seeks to flatter her, even as he goes on the attack: “Ah, well, under your system where you have two ballot papers”—he smiles, he means the German electoral system which he is implying is more civilised—“we would have had representation many years ago. But under this system it is tough and we haven’t yet broken the dam.”

What the journalist doesn’t appear to know—surprisingly few do—is that Farage’s second wife, Kirsten Mehr, with whom he has two young daughters, is also German. Later he tells me that he “is careful to keep the family out of it.”

Peter Mandelson – Profile

 

For Prospect Magazine

On 6th December, 30 years ago, on a dark and miserable night in south London, a few streets from where I am writing this, a young Peter Mandelson was elected as a Labour borough councillor to the world’s most insane local council—Lambeth. Representing Stockwell, the 26-year-old Mandelson found himself sitting on a Labour council led by a man called “Red Ted,” who was backed by a grim cast of Trotskyites and Bennites. Though few pause to consider it now, this was Mandelson’s first experience of real politics. It was winter 1979 and the Labour party was just about to forget about the British people altogether in favour of a long and enthusiastic tour of the hinterlands of lunacy and irrelevance. Mandelson was living in a tiny flat in Kennington. His bed—in the living room—folded into the wall.

On 17th February this year, Baron Mandelson of Foy and Hartlepool was attending a drinks reception at the Manhattan penthouse that is the official residence of the British consul-general in New York. The secretary of state for business, enterprise and reform was in America to talk up the British economy. The centrepiece was a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations. But, as he waited at the studios of CNBC during a busy day of interviews, Mandelson overheard the chief executive of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, claiming that Britain was in “a downward spiral.” On screen Mandelson reacted robustly; later on though—at the party and in the presence of journalists—he let fly: “Why should I have this guy running down the country? Who the fuck is he?” he was overheard to say. Thus a mini-media storm was set in motion. And yet there was a further, more private, layer to the evening’s events. At some point, Mandelson took a moment to send a text to the young daughter of a close friend who was also in New York and with whom he had been in touch throughout his visit—a text to the effect that the evening was deeply tedious and that he wished they had gone to the Armani party instead as they had discussed. It was New York fashion week and he would much rather have been with David and Victoria.

The two dates are illustrative.