Three words that won it


LOOKING BACK on last month’s EU referendum, my hunch is that the “take back control” message probably swung it in the last week. As a political message it had everything, all packed into three words. I don’t know if this was a stroke of genuis on the part of someone at Vote Leave or just a happy (for them) accident. Although they never actually used these three words on their publicity material, here’s ten reasons why “take back control” was probably the most devastatingly effective political slogan of modern times.

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WATCHING EVENTS UNFOLD post-Brexit reminds me of the scene in the original Dad’s Army movie when a streamroller “driven” by Captain Mainwaring and Corporal Jones accidentally crushes a line of tents at a training camp. Mainwaring says sorry for destroying the tents, only to be told: “You will be. It was you that was gonna be sleeping in ‘em.”

No one can stop Brexit, and no one can steer or control it either. The hapless Brexit leadership, stuck in the cab like Mainwaring and Jones, have been reduced to shouting “don’t panic” in a grim parody of their campaign strategy, which was simply to ignore facts and shout louder than anyone else. This is a self-inflicted disaster pressed on us by politicians who are simply out of their depth.

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Because it’s worth it

I WANT TO MAKE a final appeal to you to vote for Britain to stay in the European Union in tomorrow’s referendum. And I want to do it by addressing the issue of migration head on.

Let’s not pretend leaving the EU won’t give us more control over migration. It will. We may not want to do it, we may not need to do it, but we would have the power to limit migration from other EU countries. Of course, It won’t do anything about migration from outside the EU, which accounts for more than half of net migration into the UK.

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Today’s Britain was made in Downing Street, not Brussels

BREXIT CAMPAIGNERS have a long charge sheet against the EU. In fact, it sometimes seems like there’s nothing wrong in Britain today that can’t be solved by leaving the union. Whether they’re talking about NHS cuts, overcrowded schools, the decline of manufacturing industry, the shortage of housing, Islamist terrorists, rural poverty, urban poverty, unemployment, low wages, unions being too weak or unions being too strong, it’s usually “Brussels” that’s to blame. The other day, I even saw someone blaming the EU for underperforming kettles and hairdryers (not a problem I even realised we had).

If even a fraction of this were true, it would be very odd indeed that 27 other countries are still EU members and many others are clamouring to join. Maybe Brexiteers really do think that all foreigners are stupid, or maybe these things only affect Britain, leaving all other 27 member states mysteriously untouched.

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Talk to the hand

DESCRIBING YOUR OPPONENTS’ CLAIM as irresponsible is a funny way of refuting it. It implies that the claim is probably true, and the would-be rebutter knows it but doesn’t want to talk about it.

The implication is not only that the threatened thing is bad, but that the possibility of it happening should be taken so seriously that it’s better to avoid discussing it at all. We don’t want to put ideas into people’s heads. No one condemns talk about an alien invasion as “irresponsible” because hardly anyone thinks it’s going to happen. It could only be deemed “irresponsible” when a lot of people think it might. That’s the thing about not putting ideas into people’s heads: the ideas are usually already there.

So it was with John Major and Tony Blair’s claim yesterday that Brexit could put the Northern Ireland peace process in danger. Theresa Villiers, who is apparently the Northern Ireland secretary as well as a leading Brexit campaigner, condemned this as “highly irresponsible”. When people try to close down a debate like this, it’s usually because they don’t have an answer they can live with. Villiers could have just said it wasn’t true, that everything would be fine, Brexit or no Brexit. But she couldn’t. That would’ve made her look stupid.

It should be self-evident that anything that drives a wedge between the Northern Ireland and the Republic will put the peace process in peril. The peace process rests on a fragile compromise: on the willingness of Nationalists to accept closer association with the Republic as a proxy for unification, and the willingness of Unionists to tolerate the Republic being treated quite differently to other foreign countries.

Brexit will throw up a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. A real border with checkpoints, passport control, police with dogs – the whole bit. It has to, because that is the logic of the Brexiteers’ own position. We have to control our own borders, remember? How can we control our borders if we have an open one with a European Union country whose borders are, in turn, open to the rest of the EU. Simple, we can’t.

Either we are going to have that border between the Republic, or we are going to put Northern Ireland in some sort of quarantine with an internal border between it and the rest of the UK. Either way, the fragile compromise will be shattered. Nationalists will feel they are back to square one – it will be as if the peace process never happened – or Unionists will be furious that they are not being treated as a proper part of the UK. All hell will break lose. As it will in Scotland if Scots vote to remain and are forced out of the EU by English voters.

There is another possibility, of course: I could be wrong and closing the border may not be necessary at all. But that would mean the Brexiteers were also plain wrong about the effects of the free movement of people. And they’re never going to admit that, are they?

Now, that’s really irresponsible.

Photo: Kelvin Boyes/Northern Ireland Executive/

Why it’s hurting but not working

broken-toolsOne of our favourite economists at English Economic (yes, one or two are all right) is Oxford University’s Simon Wren-Lewis. Simon has been one of the most trenchant critics of Britain’s Tory government within mainstream economics, and his clear and straightforward arguments generally go unanswered by government supporters. Simon is also one of the few academic economists to make a concerted effort to reach out to non-economists, both through his Mainly Macro blog (which caters for both economists and the rest of us) and his campaign against “media macro” – the distortion and misinformation in the mainstream media which does so much to promote right-wing economic ideas and always seems to favour the interests of the rich and powerful.

One of the most important questions Simon has been tackling recently is why all the extraordinary measures taken in the UK and the Eurozone in recent years have failed to get the economy moving. Put very simply, there are two ways for the authorities to stimulate the economy quickly (in what economists call the “short-run”), so we can see some economic growth and start getting pay rises again. The government can either spend money itself or it can encourage other people to spend money. Either way, someone somewhere has to start putting some money down.

Read the full article on English Economic.

Let’s stick together

I THINK WE’D BE better off staying in the EU, but I can’t honestly say whether my family will be £5 or £5,000 worse off if we leave. I’ve no idea what sort of trade deal we will get with the EU if we leave, but I can’t see it being better than than the one we’ve got already. Brexit will give us more control over some types of migration, but that will come at a considerable price. I’m fairly certain it will do nothing to protect us against Islamist terrorists. Although I’ve been lobbing around the same statistics and arguments as everyone else, the real reason I will vote to stay on 23 June is much simpler: I’m pro-EU simply because I’m a European – and if you’re part of something, I think it’s better to be an active participant than a passive bystander.

As an Englishman, I speak a language which is basically a mixture of German and French, with some Danish and Celtic bits thrown in. The land we now call “England” has been ruled over by Celts, Romans (Italians), Anglo-Saxons (Germans), Danes, Frenchmen, Welsh, Scots, a Dutchman, then Germans again. We were a profoundly Catholic nation which became profoundly Protestant, then profoundly secular; these are all solidly European traditions. Our culture – cuisine, literature, music, art, sport, politics – is eclectically European, mixing French, Italian and German traditions with later influences from across the world. When it comes to the things we really want, we tend to choose European things – French wine, Greek beaches, German cars, Italian clothes, Scotch whisky and Spanish villas. And for all Paris’s charm and Berlin’s youthful dynamism, everyone knows the real capital of Europe is London. If we’re not European, what the hell are we?

Most Brexiters don’t deny our European heritage, but like to say the EU is not Europe. Sorry, but it more or less is. The only sizeable European nation outside the EU who don’t want to join are the Russians (not that Putin has asked them). More importantly, the EU is where the power is. Other countries know this – despite all the EU’s problems and failures no one else is anywhere near the exit door. Even Greece, which has been treated like shit by the rest of the EU, is desperate to remain. Greeks know that, like it or lump it, the EU is where the destiny of our continent is decided.

We’re in the club, whether we like it or not. So why would we want to be skulking in the corridor outside the committee room when the important decisions are taken? It may suit tiny but super-rich Norway and Switzerland – a money-laundering operation pretending to be a country – to stay outside the EU, but the price they pay is having less influence over European affairs than Slovenia or Estonia. That’s not good enough for a big internationalist country like Britain.

I’m not a pro-European because I like the way EU institutions are run or because I like everything the Commission comes up with. I’m not even pro-European because I like the overall direction of EU policy, which – contrary to what Europhobes pretend to think – is far too free-market and plutocratic for my taste. And, yes, I know the EU institutions aren’t very democratic.

But so what? Nato is even less democratic than the EU but you don’t hear many Brexiters demanding that we leave that Brussels-based institution (and you won’t hear it from me either). Many people, from left and right, don’t much like the way the UK parliament works either. An electoral system which hands so much power to a man as short-sighted and divisive as David Cameron, with the support of less than a quarter of the people, is ridiculously undemocratic. In common with most Brits, I don’t like government policies on austerity, schools, housing, transport or the NHS. I detest this government’s spineless kowtowing to Beijing over the future of our steel industry. But none of this makes me want to leave the UK or do away with parliamentary democracy altogether.

The EU isn’t democratic because democracy mostly operates at the nation state level – which is exactly what Brexiters say they want. But if nation states are to survive and prosper (and I rather like nation states), they have to work together. We live in a connected world and you can’t pretend, as Brexiters do, that it hasn’t happened. Complete sovereignty has probably never existed, but it certainly doesn’t exist now – not for us, not even for America. When it comes to money, trade, information, ideas, pollution, disease – or even people – the national borders Brexiters are so desperate to “control” have vanished. Almost everyone recognises this – that’s why we have the African Union, the Arab League, the Organisation of American States – and Nato. Leaving the EU won’t stop bad things happening to us. But it may stop some good things and it will certainly stop us from having a say in what the good things are.

Europe makes sense as a group of countries working together. We are a close-knit group of mostly related peoples packed together on and around a small peninsula. Our common heritage includes democracy, the rule of law, Christianity and secularism, booze, scientific method, the dignity and rights of the individual, distinct national and liguistic identitites, the Roman Empire and everything good and bad that flowed from it. That is Europe. During the last 60 years, one of our worst traditions – killing each other in wars – has become almost unthinkable within the EU. I can’t prove the EU is responsible – maybe it’s just coincidence. But history suggests countries which co-operate politically and economically don’t make a habit of fighting each other.

Brexiters never explain why we would we better off with less influence over European affairs. They never explain why we should go through this rigmarole in order have less access to European markets (I don’t care how well the post-Brexit negotiations go, we’re not going to end up with more, are we?). Or why Britons should have less freedom to move around than other Europeans.

The idea that America and the rest of the world will pay more attention to us than to the collective weight of 27 other European countries, including France, Germany, Italy and Spain, seems to come from the peculiarly English delusion (it doesn’t affect the Welsh, Scots or Irish so much) that we’re somehow special or even superior to other European countries – or that we’re not really a European country at all. But this English exceptionalism doesn’t make us special, it just makes us weird and irrelevant. It isn’t patriotic, it’s demeaning.

Maybe we could afford to stand aloof from Europe when we ran a global empire. Standing aloof now just makes us look silly. We would be negotiating our way out in order to negotiate our way back in as a second rate nation. Why are even thinking about this? Why are we being so stupid?

Photo: © 2013 European Council/Creative Commons 2.0

IDS and the cluster bomb budget

IF THE LABOUR PARTY wasn’t in such a state, lefties like me would have enjoyed the last few days. The IDS resignation affair is omnishambles, squeaky bum time and headless chicken syndrome all rolled into one. Just ten months after his triumphant re-election, David Cameron now leads a sort of rump cabinet, despised by many of its own backbenchers, and reviled as heartless by – of all people – Iain Duncan Smith.

IDS says he never agreed with the proposed cuts to disability benefits and only reluctantly went along with them because he accepted deficit reduction was the government’s overwhelming priority. I’m inclined to believe him. But when Osborne unveiled his budget, it turned out deficit reduction wasn’t that important after all. The priority was tax handouts to the better off. That is count one.

Count two is that Cameron and Osborne, faced with a barrage of criticism they – bizarrely – weren’t expecting, pressured IDS into defending the cuts. Accepting collective responsibility, IDS dutifully did so in that “Dear Colleague” letter on Thursday. But within hours, Cameron and Osborne had abandoned the policy, hoping that they had left IDS holding the stinking package. Osborne – never one to underestimate his own genuis – probably thought this was very clever. Ha ha! That letter would make it impossible for IDS to resign over the issue. Like so many of Osborne’s improvised political devices, it blew up in his face.

I’ve no idea what IDS’s real reasons for resigning are, but the ones he gave seem perfectly reasonable to me. People have resigned over far less. It may well help the Brexit campaign, but so what? Cameron and Osborne pissed IDS off, then gave him the ammunition, primed the gun and put it in his hand. Did they really expect he wouldn’t fire it? Yes, he may well have some personal scores to settle with Osborne, but when you serve in a cabinet, the personal is always mixed with the political. I can’t think of any resignation over policy that hasn’t been spiked with some personal animosity.

As for Downing Street’s briefing over the weekend that IDS is half-mad and “a fraud”, that only begs the question why Cameron appointed him in the first place and kept him in charge of such an important department for six years (and apparently begged him to stay last week). Judgment, especially over appointments, has never been Cameron’s strong point (his retention of Osborne now being another example). Cameron is always at his most peevish when responding to criticism he knows to be valid; Downing Street’s petulant and highly personal attacks on IDS will only strengthen the feeling, especially on the Tory backbenches, that he’s got a point.

By giving a huge boost to the Brexit campaign, Osborne’s ridiculous budget may end up doing far more damage to the economic interests of working people than any of the silly measures he announced on Tuesday. Some of Osborne’s budgets have a short fuse and blow up almost immediately. Others have a long fuse and blow up further down the line. This might be the first to have both. Thank God it’s probably his last.

Photo:© 2014 UK in Spain/Creative Commons 2.0.

British politics goes continental

With UKIP’s success in the local elections and recent polls, Britain may be moving rapidly to a four-party system before we’ve got used to a three-party one. In fact, the trend towards continental-style multi-party politics has been going on for some time. The share of the vote taken by the two main parties – Conservative and Labour – has fallen from 96.8% in 1951 to just 65% in 2010. The scores of the three largest parties – 36-29-23 – have a very European look about them. And it’s not just UKIP: the SNP are well established as a party of government in Scotland; Respect and the Greens have MPs at Westminster.

Giulio Andreotti's often chaotic governments presided over considerable economic success.

Giulio Andreotti’s often chaotic governments presided over considerable economic success.

Until now, Britain has had no real experience of multi-party politics or the sort of shifting coalition governments which are common on the continent. Brits tend see multi-party systems as unstable, riven by bickering (both personal and political), prone to repeat elections, collapsing governments and a revolving door of prime ministers. We think of Italy, above all, which after a brief period of two-party pendulum politics seems to be reverting to post-war type, or the supposedly chaotic French Fourth Republic, which Charles De Gaulle put an end to with his presidential system in 1958. We tend to overlook Germany’s long and distinguished record of coalition government, perhaps because its two-and-a-half party system looks very similar to ours.

But the era of collapsible governments and multi-party politics coincided with what many see as a golden age in Europe. Italy may have had 48 governments between 1946 and the collapse of its post-war party system in 1993 (Giulio Andreotti, who died last week, was seven times prime minister between 1972 and 1993), but the Italian republic was a remarkable economic success during that period. Chaotic it may have seemed to the outsider, but Italy worked; the saying at the time (supposedly taken from Galileo) was eppur si muove – ‘yet it moves’. In 1987, Italian politicians celebrated il sorpasso: the moment when Italy briefly overtook Britain – stagnating under Thatcher – as the world’s fifth largest economy. It didn’t last long, but it’s a wonder it happened at all. Then came Berlusconi and a period of more ‘stable’ governments, and the Italian economy stagnated, then sunk without trace.

In France, there were 38 governments between 1946 and the end of the 1970s, when France’s political system began to crystallise into the left-right blocs we see today. (France’s tradition of multiple parties right, left and centre survives thanks to the two-round voting system, but only two are really parties of government). But this was the time of les trente glorieuses – the thirty glorious years – when France’s economy boomed and its generous welfare state reached its height. There’s no need to point out Germany’s success, achieved with perpetual coalition government since 1949.

Of course, there’s no proven link, and not everyone sees the post-war decades as a golden age. But at the very least we can say that multiparty politics, government instability and coalition administrations are not always a disaster. Fractious, argumentative – even chaotic – political systems can work.

The unfortunate Pierre Pflimlin, last prime minister of the French Fourth Republic, whose 1958 administration lasted just two weeks.

The unfortunate Pierre Pflimlin, last prime minister of the French Fourth Republic, whose 1958 administration lasted just two weeks.

Maybe governments just don’t matter as much as we think they do. Belgium managed quite successfully without a government for 16 months after the June 2010 election. Another reason may be that the constant dialogue that has to go on in multi-party governments: the much-derided ‘smoke-filled room’. In Britain and the US, we tend to elect one party and leave them to get on with it for four or five years, with the opposition carping impotently from the sidelines. With multi-party systems, you may have to negotiate on every bill or every significant tweak in economic policy. This itself brings a kind of stability. Things get talked about a lot more, decisions are taken more slowly, and perhaps a lot of bad ideas fall by the wayside.

Perhaps the most important factor is that for parties to work together long-term they have to share some common values about what the country can or should be, or some sense of overriding common purpose. We saw this in Britain with the Churchill’s wartime coalition, but in France it survived in the idea of the Republic, to which almost all major parties subscribe, and the notion of social solidarity it entails. The main German parties all support the social market model. I’m not sure what common purpose Italian parties have; perhaps it’s just the need to – somehow – keep the show on the road. Italian politicians seem to relish an atmosphere of permanent crisis, and a battle for national survival can be a powerful galvanising force – as we saw again with Britain’s wartime coalition.

I doubt anyone will look back on the Cameron-Clegg era as a golden age. But the Coalition isn’t really a coalition at all: it’s just two parties locked in the same (smoke-free) room together, waiting for someone to find the key. It hasn’t worked because neither side really expected it to last, or sees coalition as a permanent feature of the political landscape. The Tories in particular seem to think the result of the 2010 election was a statistical fluke. But all the signs are that European-style multi-party politics is here to stay in Britain. We’d better get used to and start trying to make it work.

It’s up to Europe’s democrats to save capitalism from itself

Battered by the economic crises of the 1920s and and 30s, European politicians clung to the gold standard because it was the only thing they knew. The gold standard dictated permanent austerity and relentless downward pressure on wages. The result was stagnation followed by collapse, soaring unemployment, and massive social and political upheaval. The dead hand of the gold standard was only lifted when European voters began to flex their muscles and put the austerity parties out of office. It didn’t end happily.

Today’s European leaders are in the same position, trapped inside a similar orthodoxy. For the gold standard read ‘German’ monetary policy – an obsession with the phantom threat of inflation and a scorched-earth approach to reducing debt. The austerity and wage cuts follow as a matter of course. Voters can see this, which is why they are felling incumbents across the continent like old dead trees.

Europe’s leaders have no political strategy, just a defunct economic one. And without a political strategy there is no hope. It doesn’t matter if orthodoxy dictates that austerity is the ‘right’ economic policy. Parties who keep offering up the same meagre fare will be pushed aside. People who think they can preserve our existing form of capitalism and democracy are deluding themselves in a bubble.

Democratic parties – on the centre-left or centre right – must either reinvent capitalism or be swept away by wilder forces who are no friends of either free-market capitalism or democracy.

Some on the democratic right (mostly in the UK it has to be said) want seize this opportunity to impose more free-market reforms, more deregulation of labour markets, deeper and deeper cuts in government spending. They dream of completing the Thatcherite revolution on the broken backs of the Eurozone economies. We can argue the toss about the economic consequences of this, but politically it’s a dead letter. It’s not the way European voters are facing.

European voters can’t make up their mind whether to turn left or right in response to the crisis. But even those turning to the right are not voting for more of the same. They are flocking to parties like the Front National in France, Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party in Holland, the True Finns in Finland, even the openly pro-Nazi ‘Golden Dawn’ in Greece. These aren’t free market parties. Their economic programmes often have more in common with the resurgent left-wing groups like Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Front de Gauche or Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza movement in Greece.

Take Marine Le Pen’s Front National, which is locked in a battle to the death with Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP for dominance of the French right. Leave aside the casual racism, xenophobia and repressive social and penal policies that would fill France’s jails with half its workforce (I exaggerate, but only slightly). She also wants to end the European single market, introduce protectionist trade barriers, stop the free movement of European labour, impose capital controls and nationalise banks.

This is not exactly communism, but it’s no free market nirvana either. Sour, insular and repressive, if you want to know what Marine’s Le Pen’s France might look like, look at Putin’s Russia.

But these ideas are gaining hold with European voters because they at least try to address people’s fears. Because they seem to be a genuine break with the past. Unencumbered by economic orthodoxy, parties like Le Pen’s can offer a explicitly political programme.

If Europeans on the centre-left and centre-right, who have more in common than they usually admit, want to preserve liberal democracy and a mixed economy, they need a political strategy to address (among other things):

Insecurity – austerity and free market ‘reforms’ create insecurity which leads to the instability which markets hate. Fearful people do not make contented or industrious workers. Or voters.

Disenfranchisement of working class people – these are the voters who are turning in increasing numbers to the undemocratic parties of the right and left.

Falling/stagnant wages – in the last 30 years too little a share of economic growth has gone into wages. Working class incomes have been largely stagnant in Europe (and the US) for many years. Now they’re falling off a cliff. In a democracy, this is unsustainable.

Globalisation – those who say we must buckle under and cut our wages to compete with China and India can forget it: you will be swept away long before that happens.

If we can’t reinvent liberal-democratic capitalism so it works for ordinary people, what right do we have to expect that it should survive? Decide now: are you for democracy or the free market? You might not be able to face both ways for much longer.