Mostly Work and Politics
I head into 2019 more excited and optimistic about the future of my country than I have ever felt before. If we do, as I fervently hope we do, leave the EU on 29 March it will be one of the most exciting days of my life.
When there is so much dreary negative ranting about leaving the EU, I wanted to share with you why I am so positive, and almost as excited about Brexit now as I used to be about Father Christmas when I was five or six years’ old.
My childhood was unusual, in that my parents were much older than those of most of the friends I had at school. There’s a 1970s photograph of the family standing (rather bizarrely) in front of our new bright blue garage door. The photograph is notable because it is so out of its time: there is nothing of the 1970s in that photograph, just hats, and sensible coats, and all the men are wearing ties. It looks like the 1950s.
All of my adult male relatives, including my father, served in the Second World War, they were a generation older than others at the school gate, and I listened to their stories of D-Day, of fighting across Europe, and of the peace that followed, at first hand throughout my childhood. My Uncle Lionel landed in a glider on D-Day, my father was in the Signals in Normandy and fought his way to Germany, my Uncle Billy fought from June 1944 until the end of the war. My father talked to me once about the liberation of a concentration camp, which I can only assume from the dates was probably Belsen.
They all died when I was still young, but I probably remember the war stories I heard, or more often overheard, better than any other part of my time with them. And after they were gone, I grew up in the shadow of an anticipated nuclear war, spending leisure time at school speculating about hidden nuclear shelters under the school, where we would escape to if the sirens sounded, and watching apocalyptic films, cartoons and documentaries about the end of the world. We mostly believed, I think, that nuclear war was just over the horizon, and programmes about CND marches and the unmasking of Soviet KGB spies were as real and as anticipated as Strictly or Get Me Out of Here.
What an extraordinary childhood we had, and perhaps it’s not that surprising that I joined the navy after leaving school, where I learned the reality of how vulnerable Europe was to Soviet land invasion, and I then crossed the Atlantic on a warship in 1987, followed by a fake Russian trawler. I remember meeting an East German guy who became a good friend in London in the early 1990s and realising that we had each served in our armed forces at the same time, learning, as we used to laugh about, to kill each other.
If there is a reason to remember the past, it is surely to listen to it, and find the echoes of lessons that we were intended to find? The lessons I learned in the 1970s and 1980s formed my character, and much of my political thinking: I learned that democracy denied is the end of freedom; I learned that millions of men and women died to keep the candle of freedom burning. The first time I remember shedding tears watching the news was when Lech Walesa, the shipyard worker from Gdansk rode in an open landau up the Great Drive at Windsor to meet the Queen.
He became the first free Polish president for decades, ending years of Soviet control, and restoring nation state democracy to Poland. Poland, our great friend and ally for years, and whose young pilots flew Spitfires in the Battle of Britain, was free again, and it was Britain that made immediate promises to support newly-free Poland, and the UK that led NATO in offering the nations of Eastern Europe the security they needed then, and still need to this day.
I believe that nations of free people, able to chose their own destiny by majority, with accountable politics, rule of law, a free press, and a stable financial system are the bedrock of social development, wealth creation, opportunity and a fairer society. The more accountable our governments and politicians, the better the outcomes will be, and the faster our societies will improve. In my lifetime, the UK managed perfectly well to ban capital punishment, decriminalise homosexuality, introduce equal pay for women, pass race discrimination laws, devolve power to the nations that make up the UK, have women priests, reduce the hereditary element in our parliament, introduce welfare benefits and extend formal education to 18, not one of which had the faintest thing to do with the EU, and many of those social improvements are yet to even appear on the horizon in much of the EU. I have lobbied on social issues in the UK, and I am extremely optimistic that social developments and the progress towards a fairer society will continue perfectly well without the intervention of Romanian or Bulgarian judges.
Go try and get gay-married in Romania, become a woman priest in Greece, or find decent work as new immigrant in Italy or Germany, and let me know how you get on. The EU is not the source of fairness and equality for our future, we are ourselves when we vote and lobby and organise.
In the EU I have seen a growing series of developments, plans and ideas that run completely counter to the idea of nation state democracy, the worst of which emerged in Lisbon. The UK won’t have a useful veto over almost any of the major policy areas as the terms of that treaty come into effect, and it’s the threat or use of the veto that makes others at the European Council have to listen.
The introduction of almost universal qualified majority voting means that the EU Commission, which is the only source of legislation in the EU only needs to persuade, cajole or bribe its way to a qualified majority of heads of government to pass anything. That is nothing at all like the EU we joined, or even the one that introduced the Single Market. I have lobbied in Brussels on broadcasting and retailing issues, and as anyone who has done so knows, it is nothing like Westminster. To lobby in Europe you need professional well-funded access to intelligence and political networks in the Commission, the parliament and the voting blocs, and in 28 capital cities. Only the largest and best-funded voices get heard in Brussels, it’s farcical to suggest that ordinary voices and ordinary concerns have voice in the EU. They do not.
The EU is a body that has military power and ambition and is already the source of rules of engagement for naval forces in the Mediterranean and off the coast of Somalia. I think that is wrong, and it concerns me hugely. I don’t believe anyone who voted in 1975 did so with the idea that the EEC intended to form a navy and an army and have it led by a retired unelected ex Italian Communist politician. If that doesn’t terrify you, then I think you are mistaken, it isn’t how the modern world was intended to be, and I think its utterly bizarre that British Forces have been put under their command. Fortunately, the missions so far have been uncontroversial in nature, but what happens when the use of force is required? A drunk ex-Prime Minister of Luxembourg and an Italian communist directing our new carrier in operations? No thanks.
Those who use such vast powers have to be held to account directly by the people. In the nation state those that wield power are accountable to the people they serve, and every member of our parliament faces regular elections, and even the Prime Minister has to walk the streets and leaflet her constituency and attend surgeries if she wants to keep her seat. Throughout his time in office David Cameron was available to his constituents in Witney and he was a regular part of the local community. I saw him more often in the Coop than I did in Downing Street.
The EU Commissioners face no election, and most of us haven’t the faintest idea who they are. They come from countries we may never have visited, were appointed in back-room agreements in trade-offs between member states, and never, not once, not ever, do they have to leaflet the streets of their home town or face angry citizens in surgeries. They are, by definition, a self-selecting elite, one that according to the terms of the proposed transition agreement, can never in their lives face a tax bill or investigation in the UK. They remind me of the Russian politburo, unelected and accorded special and extraordinary rights.
The mysterious systems they control to create new European law are complex, and those systems have been criticised as secretive by the EU itself and enable only those with access to the participants in what they call trilogue negotiations to influence policy and law. The political blocs by which the European Parliament votes never produce manifestos that face a single voter, they are not political parties, but yet they whip MEPs and they make decisions that affect the lives of hundreds of millions of Europeans. I’m not happy that a group of people I never voted for, who take the whip from a bloc that never faced a voter, meet in secret with unelected Commission officials and decide on the laws that run our country. They may be right and well-meaning in what they do most of the time, but the system itself is wrong, undemocratic, and enables those in power to exercise power, and ensures those without pan-continental power have no effective voice.
And so, to the biggest reason why I voted to leave, the adoption and subsequent management of the Euro. The EU was not the source of the global financial crisis, but the actions it took to protect the Euro have created an almost unfixable situation in which the disparities between different economies have been swept under a half trillion Euro carpet, which is the value of the unpaid balances between members state banks. What was clear from the Five Presidents’ Report, and is obvious anyway, is that the primary purpose of every sinew of the European project for the next decade and beyond will be to protect that currency. It is in our interest as a trade partner that they succeed, but they have done so up to now by the open and deliberate setting aside of the decisions made by voters in their nation states.
62% of Greeks voted to reject the terms of the EU bail-out, but their wishes were ignored. Italians voted in a government in 2018 sworn to breach the EU’s deficit limits, but they are being brought to heel by the technocrats, at least until they call another election to get an unambiguous mandate. France is now planning to breach the rules too. At its core the EU has to act as one economic, fiscal and monetary unit if the Euro is to survive. The clear and published ambition is to harmonise tax policy, which when the tax gap (the difference between the amount of VAT that should be collected and the amount that actually is) ranges from less than 2% in the UK, to over 35% in Romania, is patently a mammoth task. The EU’s leadership wants to see EU tax officials and competition offices in every member state, controlled from and by Brussels. I can understand why, but I absolutely reject the idea that British monetary and fiscal policy should be determined by unelected civil servants from other countries, and whose primary intention is to defend at any cost a currency we are not part of.
Brexit is an amazing opportunity to reject the drift towards unelected technocratic government by the intellectual elite of our continent, and to return to a system of government where the people who stuff leaflets in your letter box, and who hold surgeries in your town or village hall, are properly accountable for the decisions that they make. Not since the 1970s has that been as true as it will be after we leave the EU. There are huge things we need to address as a country, how we fund health, what we do about social inequality, whether government is a deliverer or enabler of services, how much tax we should pay, and a refreshed engaged parliament with voters fired-up and concerned about the future will be a catalyst for dynamic change. Voting systems, decisions-making, social spending, the role of the second chamber in parliament, all these things are going to come back on the table as we fight politically to agree a future for the UK.
Sometimes the left will win these battles, sometimes the right will be triumphant, but I know that groups with agendas and campaigns will be meeting their MPs and lobbying ministers, and marching on Westminster to advance their causes, and I think that’s the most exciting thing that’s happened in my lifetime. In 1950 84% of voters went to the polls in the general election, and in 2005 it was a shade under 60%. I have met so many young people when I’m out canvassing who say to me that there’s no point in voting, it makes no difference. Fully a quarter of the electorate in some places have given up voting, because they see no point in doing so. I suspect that number will rocket up now, and that’s exactly the boost democracy needs.
This isn’t just a British phenomenon either, I am constantly fascinated that those countries which have received most in financial support from the EU, seem to be those with the largest political movements opposing it. Polish, Hungarian, Greek and even German voters are making it increasingly clear that they are not happy with external government from Brussels. The more sensitive and difficult the subject, the stronger the feeling. Germany and the EU effectively invited millions to migrate illegally across the sea to Europe, but then refused to actually help those migrants cross the continent to get to their new promised new home. Parts of Greece and Italy are overwhelmed with migrants that Angela Merkel invited to cross the sea, but has now left in migrant camps or living on the streets across the south and east of Europe. People are very angry about that, and borders between EU Schengen member states are being put back up, and unpleasant right wing political movements have been given new life as a direct consequence.
We don’t have a significant history of extreme right-wing politics in modern Britain, with the miniscule vote for what passed as the extreme right collapsing in recent decades. By leaving the EU we are tearing away the last puffs of oxygen from those groups, because our immigration policies and borders will be solely ours. Britain needs migration, and we provide a welcome home to millions, which I think is part of the core of being British. How brilliant is it that we can have a system that treats a doctor or nurse or researcher from Uganda or India the same way as it does somebody from Romania or Bulgaria? We want people to come and make their lives in Britain, but it was clearly absurd that a scientist from Nigeria needed to arrive at the Embassy with signed and sealed documents from at least five grandparents, conduct an interview in Latin, and pay thousands for a visa, when an unqualified criminal can come the UK and live just by getting a bus, if they happen to be an EU citizen. Nobody sane thinks that was right.
Tony Blair told us in 2003 that the UK didn’t need transitional controls because about 50,000 EU migrants would come to Britain. Between 3 and 5 million came, more than the population of about half the countries in the EU. Nobody was prepared for that, public services weren’t prepared for that, schools and doctors’ surgeries weren’t prepared for that. In sleepy Wisbech in Lincolnshire, some formal council estimates are that half the population is newly-arrived. Londoners with Polish nannies and enjoying the services of Uber, or Amazon deliveries, or nights out at bars and restaurants paying their migrant workforce the minimum wage have depressed wages, reduced opportunities for British workers, and been sucking up the benefits of an effectively infinite pool of minimum wage migration. I think that is morally dubious and smacks of the Dubai model of Indian labour.
Wages are already rising as EU migrants have reduced in number in the uncertain climate, and I find it puzzling that so many of the people I see posting endlessly about remaining are also those who post about food banks and low wages and income inequality. These two things are inextricably linked, and yes, reducing minimum wage migration will have an inflationary impact, but that’s exactly what people voted for. It’s also what those who post about low wages and food banks should have voted for.
I’m absolutely certain that the UK will be able to do exciting deals with countries right across the world. Our economy is huge, bigger than India, and our consumers are hungry for products from across the world. Despite comments to the contrary I see posted everywhere, the UK has increased in size as a manufacturer too, climbing the league tables as we recorded a 23-year industrial output boom in 2017/8. We have great universities, a legal system that encourages investment, an entrepreneurial outlook and millions of hungry consumers. The UK is in great shape to face the world, and whilst it is true that it lacks the economic weight of the whole EU, it is nonetheless a top ten economy, and won’t be tied down by the painful decision-making structures of the EU. Free trade with the USA? What a massive boost for the UK economy that would be.
For me, 2019 is a year that promises excitement and opportunity. I’ve never claimed there won’t be challenges and problems along the way, only a fool would suggest that a course of action as dramatic as Brexit won’t have some negative consequences, some inevitable and some unintended, but at the end of it we will have a newly-invigorated Britain with the ability to move fast, make quicker decisions, attract investment, trade with the fastest-growing parts of the world on new terms, and become once more a global voice on free trade, on social issues, on fairness and on development. I hope we can do that in friendly cooperation with our EU neighbours, but contrary to what Mr Juncker said the other day, it’s absolutely for the EU to say how they would like to work with us too. The UK is their biggest customer, and don’t forget, the customer is always right…
I haven’t touched on the political process here, there’s plenty on that to come, but as we start 2019, I just wanted to say why I am bouncing into this year filled with hope and excitement, and however you voted in 2016, I hope some of my enthusiasm can rub off on you too.
Happy New Year!