In September 2016, the referendum on United Kingdom membership of the European Union is likely to be held. With less than twelve months to go, The Europe Dilemma: Britain and the Drama of EU Integration by Roger Liddle, published in 2014, is valuable reading. He provides insight into how Britain’s relationship with European institutions has affected both parties. At the date of its publication, the travails of the Conservative Party was Liddle’s main focus in his conclusion; while they are still more likely to suffer internally from divisions on Europe, the debate within the Labour Party has reignited since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader, notwithstanding his recent commitment to remaining.
Lord Liddle is an unashamed europhile, whose major regret is that Tony Blair (whom he advised on European affiars) adopted an obsequiousness towards the Murdoch press that led to the United Kingdom’s non-participation in the euro single currency. In his analysis, living within the euro would have forced a tighter fiscal policy on Britain, and slowed the decline of British manufacturing.
Liddle’s case is that Britain’s leaders from Macmillan on let their country down by not participating as they could have in the European project. He argues that Britain paid a continuing price for its late arrival. Not only were they perceived with wariness by the original members, but they lost the opportunity to shape the Common Agricultural Policy, which would later become a source of grievance for the British. In Liddle’s view, the same could be said of their approach to the euro, where Britain lost an opportunity to steer it in their favour. Rather than viewing involvement in the European Union as an important venture in global politics, in positive terms, British politicians consistently talk of standing up for national interests. Liddle analyses the attitudes of the two major parties towards Europe from the 1960s to the time of his writing, both in government and in opposition, with particular spotlights on the 1975 referendum held by the Labour government on whether to remain within the EEC, and the failure of the United Kingdom to join the single currency.
David Cameron called the referendum in response to pressure from within his own party, from UKIP outside, and from the eurosceptic press. If Cameron is a moderate on Europe, Blair was an enthusiast. Yet he found himself pushed into taking stances he could not have desired. He did not stand up to those who were less committed, many of whom were part of the New Labour project. For example, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw insisted that there would have be a referendum on the 2004 Constitutional Treaty, which Blair initially resisted, it being less important in substance than either the Single European Act or the Maastricht Treaty. This public pledge led to the referendums in France and the Netherlands, which scuppered the Treaty (though it was substantially reformulated in the Lisbon Treaty).
Liddle also highlights Blair’s weakness against Brown, allowing him to set the terms for any entry into the single currency. It is clear that Blair had begun to have doubts about Brown as a successor, yet was unwilling to confront him in any serious way. Liddle marks out as the great conundrum of Blair’s premiership, that “if Brown was so unfit to be prime minister, why did our hero Blair allow a situation in which that became inevitable”. If instead of simply demoting Robin Cook from the Foreign Office in 2001, Blair had switched his portfolio with Brown’s, to have a more committed europhile in the exchequer, he might have achieved the legacy he intended of bringing Britain into the euro.
However, Blair receives praise for his commitment to enlargement, and for waiving the 7-year derogation on the free movement of labour (which the Irish government under Bertie Ahern did too, to its credit). Unlike the Labour Party that fought the 2015 election, Blair continues to affirm the merits of this policy. Liddle writes that is “depressing that the entire British political class has run away from explaining the benefits of eastern migration to economy and society”.
Liddle is naturally more critical still of Cameron, in decisions such as Britain’s opt-out of the Stability Treaty, of which he writes that it “did wonders for his rating in the party and the country, but at the price of severe damage to national interests”. His Bloomberg speech, in which he announced his intentions to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the EU, paradoxically couched Britain’s in more positive terms than anything from a Tory leader since Major in Bonn in 1990. Cameron now finds himself looking for a symbolic gesture to present to the British public in a referendum, just as Harold Wilson found presenting a change in New Zealand milk quotas as a significant renegotiation. I would also speculate that Cameron is privately more open to immigration than his push to drive down numbers entering Britain would suggest.
Cameron should not believe that by putting this referendum, which he hopes and expects to win, that he will settle the European question for a generation, or give him rest from the anti-EU sections of his party. Such are the lessons of history from the Labour Party; eight years after holding a referendum in which two-thirds of voters supported remaining in the EEC, the party stood in the 1983 general election on a platform of withdrawal, and had lost many of its more pro-European members to the newly formed Social Democratic Party (later to join with the Liberal Party to become the Liberal Democrats). It took many years for the Labour Party to resolve these internal battles in the New Labour project.
The New Stateman asked this week, Can anything sink the triumphant Conservatives? With Labour out in Scotland, thanks to the SNP, and undergoing an identity crisis since Corbyn’s election (watch Shadow Justice Secretary Lord Falconer outline the differences he holds with his party leader, and these tensions are there across the shadow cabinet), it might seem like the Conservatives are indeed in for a few years of plain sailing. But if anything can put them off course, it may be this referendum, and the divisions within the party, whatever the results.
Do check out Liddle’s book over the course of this debate!
I arrived in Edinburgh this afternoon, less than a day before polls open in the most important vote they’re to have here in surely any of their lives. I had long planned to visit the land of Adam Smith and David Hume, but to be here for this vote is definitely an added bonus.
While the media cling to that trope of any poll in the high 40s of it being too close to call, I’d be quite surprised if this were to pass. I’m not sure either how much I’d be pleased or excited either way; but what would place me as a slight Yes supporter is a gut instinct that they can do it alone, that they can confound the fears supposed by No campaigners and Unionist leaders south of the border. I think an independent Scotland could thrive, just as we in Ireland did, or other small European countries like Denmark or Norway have too. In the longer run, I don’t see the structural benefits of being part of the United Kingdom, or the difficulty in leaving it, would outweigh the benefits to managing their own affairs.
A few things have struck me about the campaign. To be domestic about it, I’m surprised how little Ireland has featured as an example in this debate. Being a neighbouring isle with a border with different currencies, and the only other instance of a departure from the United Kingdom. Granted, there often seems to be a mist of ignorance for many in Britain surrounding the constitutional status of either part of Ireland. But we’d surely be a relevant context.
This referendum seems like it could only have got this close for independence with a Conservative Prime Minister in Downing Street. It’s notable how much this has been about social policy. Perhaps they assume it’s taken for granted by voters, but I’d have expected more emphasis on how Scotland would be taking its place among the nations of the world, a seat at the United Nations, a European Commissioner, embassies worldwide. That angle might have been a response to those who wondered how it differed from devo-max.
The left-leaning nature of the politics at the moment makes me curious about how politics might have evolved under independence, might the Scottish Nationalist Party have adopted a more centrist stand, to be perhaps the equivalent of Fianna Fáil. And would the other parties have changed their names, to break the link with their southern counterparts to broaden their base. Would the Scottish Conservatives again become the Progressive Party?
The currency and Scotland’s place within the European Union under independence remain uncertain. To some extent, they’re linked, as new members are committed to join the euro when they can. Scotland may well try to continue to use sterling without a tie to the Bank of England, and use the United Kingdom’s Maastricht opt-out. That will be difficult. But in the unlikely event of a Yes vote on Friday morning, I believe Ireland should act as a friendly neighbour, with whom we have some cultural ties, and do what we can to facilitate their entry/continuation in the EU, and compete with them ruthlessly too when we can!
I was sorry to hear of the death of Tony Benn. I had the pleasure of meeting him in early 2007, when he was one of the first first guests of my time as correspondence secretary of The Hist. So I was with him for the best part of that day, from the airport, to Newstalk for George Hook, arriving to the GMB for his talk to the Hist with little time for a snack, and then to his hotel. Though he hadn’t eaten much that day, he was happy with a short bite to takeaway to eat because he didn’t want to keep the crowd waiting. He enjoyed talking with the taxi driver, who let him smoke his pipe.
Most of the crowd were various assortments of Dublin left, the first question from the floor (I noted in my own diary) was, “I’m from Trinity Labour. What can I do to promote socialism?” The few there from the Hist Committee asked questions not on socialism itself, and he told us the figures of the twentieth century he most admired were Gandhi and Desmond Tutu.
Of course, my own political views differ from his substantially, whether on the role of unions, the control of the state on the economy, or European integration. While he at his most influential in the Labour Party, it was, I believe, far less fit to govern than in the years before or after. But underlying it, he had a democratic, republican instinct, stretching back to the old English radical tradition, which I could certainly identify with. That day in the Hist, and on many other occasions, he proposed five questions demanding accountability we should demand of all those in power:
what power do you have?
where did you get it?
in whose interests do you exercise it?
to whom are you accountable?
how can we get rid of you?
Though I would not tout many of his as the best of political ideas, in character, determinism, charm, intellectual engagement and commitment, he typified politics at its best.
Just over two years ago, I supported the Liberal Democrats going into the 2010 Westminster election and I looked forward to the coalition agreement. I’d broadly have been supportive of the government in our neighbouring country, a test of policy in a country with similar culture yet in many aspects of politics quite different to our own. I’d even have supported most of the ideas in George Osborne’s recent controversial budget, be it the pasty, granny or caravan taxes, as I’d have a strong instinct against tax exemptions or expenditures, so was disappointed with the u-turns.
I’d have supported the AV referendum, and would generally support the need for political reform and renewal of institutions. It’s interesting to watch the debate on the House of Lords given the current debate in Ireland on the future of our Seanad. What was particularly interesting watching the debate last Monday was the small number of MPs from both Labour and Conservative sides who argued for complete abolition of the House of Lords, something I would sympathise with, but would be a major departure in the case of Britain given its traditions of parliament.
The problem of designing an upper house both in Britain and for those in Ireland who think the Seanad should be reformed is balancing democratic legitimacy of legislators with avoiding gridlock between two houses claiming democratic legitimacy.
The proposal in the House of Lords bill was for 80% of Lords to be elected for 15-year non-renewable terms using proportional representation by the list system in regional constituencies, as Britain currently elects its MEPs. The problem with this proposal is that it grants democratic legitimacy of an election, without accountability, as this set of legislators would not face the legislature after their decisions. While the current Lords have never faced the electorate, this very fact means that at least since 1945, they have deferred to the primacy of the House of Commons. The more I listened to speeches from Labour and Conservative MPs against the proposal, the more I felt it was a bad bill that deserved to be defeated.
It’s a very unfortunate measure for the Liberal Democrats to find themselves tripping up over. As a party, they have a reputation for being particularly wonkish, more interested in issues like political reform than the other parties. It seems to me indicative of why they are losing support in the polls and finding it difficult to gain ground. While reform of the House of Lords will gain them credit with their members, and is an important constitutional issue, they should not have allowed this to the one to cause such a backbench rebellion rather than any other proposal. They have lost political capital against their Conservative colleagues, particularly at the backbench level. They put too much faith in the government whips to deliver on this bill. I found myself agreeing very much with Conservative MP Louise Mensch on Twitter last week, finding common terms for reform but identifying the flaws in this proposal, and that beyond this issue, a real priority for the Liberal Democrats should be to work for equal marriage.
The Liberal Democrats can come back from this, but last week showed that while the coalition was working relatively smoothly at the cabinet level, there are clear tensions and resentments below.
The Iron Lady was not without some great moments, but it is disappointing that this film will probably mean that a figure as a monumental in British politics as Thatcher will not get the cinematic treatment she merits for some years to come again. Sure, it’s up to the director, Phyllidia Lloyd to portray her subject as she wishes, to choose the focus of her film, but it was certainly not the film I’d been hoping for.
Till early yesterday morning, I thought I felt generally indifferent to the prospect of the visit of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland. I knew it was a good and necessary step in the relations between these two countries, but not something I found myself emotionally involved in one way or other, just as the recent royal wedding was just another new event.
But then as I was at home, I started watching, and properly felt why it mattered. That Eamon Gilmore was there to greet her at Baldonnel, as our Minister for Foreign Affairs would with any visiting head of state. Our governments have worked closely at various levels, certainly since the 1950s, when they jointly negotiated entry to the European Communities. Eventually from 1985 with the Anglo-Irish Agreement, they acknowledged the joint interest in Northern Ireland and have worked together up the present day, with the Downing Street Declaration in 1993, the Belfast Agreement in 1998 and the St Andrew’s Agreement in 2006.
So this should have been possible before now, but because of the nature of the monarchy and its hereditary link with centuries of the past, it was naturally more sensitive. It may be customary for a visiting head of state to acknowledge our history by visiting the Garden of Remembrance, but it is of a different order for the head of state of the country from whom we won independence to do so. For Elizabeth to lay a wreath there as she did today is one of further steps in the reconciliation between our countries, continued today with her visit to one of the most notorious sites of British military outrage on the people in this part of the country, when she visits the site of Bloody Sunday ninety years ago in Croke Park.
Her visit to Trinity College, while not explicitly alluded to, should remind us of how our countries are entwined in cultural as well as political history. While two of the constituent universities of the National University of Ireland, UCC and NUIG, were originally Queen’s Colleges, established under royal charter of Victoria in 1845, as a college which in its long title¹ still refers to its foundation by her namesake in 1592, Trinity was an obvious stop on her visit. Though English-speaking Irish culture is clearly distinct from that of Britain, the influences from one to the other are undeniably strong. True too of course of American culture, but proximity naturally affects the degree. And of course as with any country, we should be particularly proud of our native culture, we should promote the distinctiveness of Gaelic culture, and its continued vibrancy, without it being seen in competition with acknowledging our links across the Irish Sea. From a personal level, it was nice to see the Hist represented there as one the few student bodies within college.
We should also be mindful of this visit with an eye to the longer-term political project in this country. In the words of the amended Article 3, “It is the firm will of the Irish Nation, in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland, in all the diversity of their identities and traditions”. For the Unionist community, Elizabeth is their queen. That our president and government would welcome her can only serve to bring the people of this island closer. I hope that there will come a day when Northern Ireland will become part of this state. While that would mean that Unionists would lose the political connection with the British monarchy, it will be important that they would not feel that the cultural ties would thereby be lost. In this way, the visit is not just about how the two states themselves relate, but about all the people of Ireland.
Of course, the visit necessitated a major shutdown of activity in the capital. This will be a small temporary setback for those working there, and of course it would be better if Elizabeth weren’t presented with a ghost town. We won’t know how much of this was truly necessary, but from the scenes of the small numbers of violent protestors, some of whom who could find no more suitable attire than a British football jersey, there clearly had to be something measure of this. They constitute a miniscule proportion of the population, and cannot even claim to represent more than that, and in what little impact they have, in what small way they are ultimately counter-productive in achieving their stated aims, this will be overshadowed by the wider welcome she has received.
¹ College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth, near Dublin
I had it in my mind from the middle of last week that my next entry would be on David Laws, but had thought to write little more than a few words on the praise he had been receiving from Tories. In Thursday’s FT, I read the comments of Edward Leigh, Conservative chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, who asked “Can I welcome the return to the Treasury of stern, unbending, Gladstonian liberalism?” and he he been described as an unreconstructed nineteenth century liberal. ConservativeHome reported on how Laws refused a potted plant in his office and cut the Treasury’s budget for potted plants. He also declined the use of the Treasury’s £100,000 limousine, which his predecessor Liam Byrne has used and which he was entitled to use, saying that with a London home, he wouldn’t need it.
Consider that much in assessing his character. He was not someone who went into politics for the money or the perks. He found himself tripped up by a form of words, not fully confident in himself that he could describe his relationship as that between cohabiting partners. They had been in a committed relationship since 2001, but did not outwardly live as a couple. When he first started to claim his rental allowance, it would seem fair that he would not have to detail his budding romance. At what point in the intervening nine years would they then have become partners as defined by the rules? My instinct would be some time before they moved house together, but considering how private they were, that even their family and many friends did not know, let alone his stated justification of separate bank accounts, I can understand how he felt they didn’t fit the description.
Yes, as a millionaire he did not need the money, but all MPs from outside London are as entitled to a housing allowance as their salary. And it should be said that had he acknowledged their relationship, he could have claimed even more from the exchequer through an allowance for mortgage repayments. He is not someone who set out to defraud the state.
That he was in the closet helps understand a lot of small things about his political career. He was offered a front bench position in the Conservatives by George Osborne, and could well have found himself as Chancellor of the Exchequer, but Laws likes to tell of how he told Osborne that “I am not a Tory”. A profile of Laws last week, before the controversy, gave Conservative support of Section 28 as his reason for not joining, a provision banning promotion of homosexuality and the “acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship” in schools, introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1988 and supported by the Tories including David Cameron until its repeal in 2003. Of course, there are prominent openly gay Conservative MPs, such as Alan Duncan and Nick Herbert, both now junior ministers, but I’d imagine it was far more comfortable for him to be a closeted gay man in a liberal party than it would have been in a conservative party.
It also might have played a part in his ruling himself out of the 2007 leadership election, following the resignation of Sir Ming Campbell. After the leadership election of the previous year, in which the supposedly happily married Mark Oaten had withdrawn after controversy with a rent boy, and a second candidate Simon Hughes admitted that while he was not gay, he had had relationships with both men and women, Laws would have spurned such public scrutiny. I remember wondering during that contest in early 2006, whether I might find myself in some such situation later in life. Thankfully, I think I have now set aside that possibility.