March 11th sees the first ever two-tier summit, a richly symbolic event at which the 27 leaders will meet in the morning, lunch together and then divide. The ten leaders whose countries do not use the single currency, among them David Cameron, will head for their motorcades and home. The 17 others will go back into the room and debate measures to shore up their single currency area, but also plans for integration that directly touch on the EU's wider internal market.
Britain, almost alone of all the EU members, has announced it is entirely relaxed about this split. I think the British government is wrong. Indeed I am told that, behind closed doors, the question has actually inspired intense debate among ministers, and within the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.
This dramatic evolution of the EU's power structures—a subject of acute interest to politicians in almost every other EU capital—has passed largely unnoticed in Britain. Yet it has the potential to alter the terms of Britain's membership dramatically. It has already done for Mr Cameron's central Europe strategy: namely, hoping it will go away as an issue.
Regular (patient) readers will know that I share this newspaper's belief that Britain would be crazy to leave the EU. Others will disagree. In this week's Bagehot column I have left that debate to one side. My aim was narrower: to persuade readers of all political stripes that something pretty significant is afoot in Europe, and that Britain cannot afford to ignore it.
Here is the column:
BRITAIN is not about to walk out of the European Union. Opponents of EU integration may dream, but—in the near or medium term—no British government will risk a withdrawal in cold blood, in hopes of securing cut-price associate membership.
Yet there is a non-trivial chance that Britain might fall out of the EU one day. Such a falling-out would involve a hasty withdrawal from a Europe that had taken an impossibly unpalatable turn. The chances of such a messy crisis are rising. Should Britain end up out of the union, some years hence, historians may look back at two events of the present: a European Union bill currently before Parliament, and Brussels summits planned for March 11th.
Britain’s new European bill requires a referendum on any new treaty that would transfer powers from Britain to the EU. Ministers have given themselves some wriggle room—governments always do—but not that much. Because almost any European referendum would be lost in Britain (apart, perhaps, from an in-or-out vote), the effect is to bolt Britain firmly to the union’s legal status quo. Yet at the same time, thanks to the existential crisis facing the single currency, Europe’s tectonic plates are in motion.
Ask David Cameron how sustainable his strategy feels. His timetable for March 11th goes like this: a morning summit for all 27 EU leaders, enduring the worst sort of footling Brussels misery: a windy address from the boss of the European Parliament, a “family photo” with colleagues, then a working lunch to debate the tumult in north Africa (expect unimportant conclusions about this important subject). After press conferences, Britain’s prime minister will head for home, leaving his 17 euro-zone colleagues to hold a serious, substantive discussion about economic co-ordination within a “pact for the euro” (see Charlemagne).
In 2008, when a first summit reserved for euro-zone leaders was called by the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, it was termed an emergency and Britain’s then prime minister, Gordon Brown, was allowed to attend, exceptionally. To soothe the uninvited, a second and third were presented as ad-hoc responses to market turmoil. This being the fourth euro-zone summit, however, it is starting to look like a habit. That is a victory for the French, and a concession by Germany. France has long wanted more decisions taken by the euro zone, which is smaller and excludes some loud voices for free-market liberalism, such as Britain and several Nordic and ex-communist countries. For the same reasons Germany (which likes to cast a deciding vote between free-market and statist arguments) wanted Britain in the room. But shortly after he came to power, Mr Cameron told Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, that Britain would stand aloof from deeper integration aimed at shoring up the euro. That was at once a perfectly rational reading of British domestic politics, and a decision that pushed Germany into the arms of the French.
None of this is to say that Britain is poised for a swift exit. Whitehall sources argue that Mr Cameron has already secured a written vow by the 27 leaders that euro-zone deals may not undermine an achievement dear to Tory hearts—the EU’s internal market, with its free movement for capital, goods, people and services (at least in theory). Future euro-zone summits may not happen very often, they add hopefully. What is more, British opt-outs from the euro or the Schengen agreement (which abolished border controls) have successfully eased strains between Britain and its neighbours. There are free-trade advocates, such as the Dutch, inside the euro zone who still want Britain’s voice to be heard. Finally, Britain will step up bilateral diplomacy around Europe: Mrs Merkel and Mr Cameron get on famously, sources confide.
Now for the bad news
All true, no doubt. Yet the same people admit to intense debate within government about less rosy scenarios. In a private Brussels meeting this month, Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister and Liberal Democrat leader, quizzed Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, about the danger that a “two-tier Europe” was being created, with Britain in the lower tier.
It is not just Lib Dems who worry. It is “foolish to deny” that euro-zone meetings could turn into a caucus for big decisions, admits a senior Tory. If the worst comes to pass, the 27-strong EU risks being “little more than a rubber stamp”, says an official. If Britain had put its mind to it, he suggests, Mr Cameron could have demanded a seat at the table without joining euro-zone bail-outs, or even signing up to euro-zone disciplines. Meanwhile, other governments are intent on gaining access to euro-zone summits. Britain risks looking “very peripheral”.
Bring it on, would be the response of many Conservatives. Such bolshiness is a final reason to think that Britain’s relations with Europe have entered uncharted territory. The EU is evolving unpredictably. Beyond the euro crisis, the Lisbon treaty has given new powers to the European Parliament, a maddening assembly addicted to regulation and public spending. The European Court of Justice is ever more activist, handing down rulings that enrage British public opinion. At the very same time, today’s parliamentary Conservative Party is the most sceptical ever. The 2010 intake, in particular, “just find Europe nauseating”, says an MP, himself deeply Eurosceptic. Most newspapers are implacably hostile. To appease such forces while avoiding rifts inside the coalition, Mr Cameron’s government has ended up in a defensive crouch. Fatally, European decisions end up being judged against the sole yardstick of sovereignty, rather than that of Britain’s interests.
Ministers are worried and should be. Tory MPs, the press and voters already imagine Britain to be powerless in the face of EU diktats. Now Britain risks a real loss of influence—and the government is unwilling to do very much about it. How, plausibly, does this end well?
BICYCLING to Economist HQ each day, it is hard to miss the advertisments on double-decker buses, urging Britons who are not practising religious believers to tick the box marked "no religion" on the 2011 census, which is taken this month. The slogan is pithy enough: "Not religious? In this year's census say so."
The British Humanist Association is behind the campaign, and their website offers more detailed guidance.
If you are agnostic on the question of God but otherwise non-religious, we would say you should tick the ‘No Religion’ box if you don’t practise and don’t believe that any religion can speak for you
It has advice for secular Sikhs and Jews, too, advising:
Writing in ‘secular Jew’ or ‘non-religious Jew’ in the religion section may be counted as being of the Jewish religion. The ethnicity question does not have a Jewish box but it does have an ‘any other white background’ box which allows you to write in ‘Jewish.’ Doing this and ticking the ‘No Religion’ box in the religion section is therefore the best way to be counted as a non-religious Jew
UK law recognises Sikhism as both a religion and an ethnicity. If you are a practising Sikh, you can tick the ‘Sikh’ box under the religion question. However, if you consider yourself ethnically Sikh but non-religious, writing in ‘secular Sikh’ or ‘non-religious Sikh’ in the religion section may be counted as being of the Sikh religion. The ethnicity question does not have a Sikh box but it does have an ‘any other Asian background’ box which allows you to write in ‘Sikh.’ Doing this and ticking the ‘No Religion’ box in the religion section is therefore the best way to be counted as a non-religious Sikh.
Given that I am a secular sort, and would like a clearer separation between the church and state in Britain, I am slightly surprised to find I think the BHA's arguments are baloney, and even a little bullying.
I can understand why the BHA is making them. They think that modern Britain's strikingly secular character is not captured by census data reporting that a majority of Britons consider themselves Christian. They argue that this data is then used to justify public spending on faith schools, for example. That's baloney, too. The driving force behind government funding for faith schools [corrected, see comment below] has very little to do with religion, and rather more to do with the demand from middle class parents for more traditional, disciplined and/or cosy schools. Successive British governments have not protected faith schools because they fear an ear-wigging from Church of England bishops sitting in the House of Lords. It is because generations of ministers (a) know they would be lynched by voters if they closed down Church of England and Roman Catholic schools, which routinely top league tables and (b) send their own children to such faith schools (cf, Tony Blair, David Cameron and other well-known political parents).
But the BHA is unable to wish away one big problem. The census does not ask if British residents practise a religion or believe in a religion. Rightly or wrongly, it asks if they have a religion, and that is different. A non-believing Christian, Jew, Sikh or Muslim may well have a religion. And this is more than just wordplay.
For what it is worth, Bagehot is a lapsed Anglican, and it is hard to get more lapsed than that. That does not mean I have no religion. I lack faith. And that which I lack faith in is Church of England Christianity (a lesson drummed home with special force by living in non-Christian China for some years). I am marked, indelibly, by that which I do not believe. This being so, I would feel less than truthful if I ticked "no religion".
THE SUN, Britain's best-selling daily newspaper, devotes its front page today to the £50 fine imposed on a Muslim extremist, Emdamur Choudhury, after he burned Remembrance Day poppies and chanted anti-military slogans during a two-minute silence on Armistice Day last November 11th. "Hatemonger on benefits gets pathetic penalty for vile slur on war dead," says the front page strapline.
Inside, a witness described as "veteran's grandson Tony Kibble" is described telling Woolwich Crown Court that he felt "sick inside" when he saw the poppy-burning.
In a news story and editorial, the Sun contrasts the £50 fine with a £150 penalty imposed on a man convicted of kicking a Muslim's car in 2003. It argues:
Each Remembrance Day poppy symbolises the life of a serviceman or woman killed defending this country from tyranny and terrorism. Choudhury could hardly have dreamed up a more offensive act during the two-minute silence... This protest was a blatant act of religious hatred. Choudhury admits he did it "for the sake of Allah". One of the placards read: "Our dead are in paradise. Your dead are in hell." Stir up hate against Muslims and you'll rightly get community service or jail. Stir up hate against non-Muslims and you'll get less than a speeding ticket... What kind of deterrent is £50 to other Islamic fascists bent on sowing hate throughout Britain? How much longer must we tolerate their free speech over-ruling the sanctity of the Remembrance Day silence?
A lot longer, I sincerely hope. The judge in this case imposed the minimum fine after Mr Choudhury was convicted of threatening, abusive, or insulting words or behaviour. In his ruling, the judge said the chanting was "a calculated and deliberate insult to the dead and those who mourn them", but added: "Shocking and offending people is sometimes a necessary part of effective protest." Citing the right to expression enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, the judge, Howard Riddle, found that the right to protest was not unlimited. Hence the small fine.
As it happens, I think the judge was not a "feeble liberal", as the Sun puts it, but not liberal enough. I am pretty uncomfortable with the idea that non-violent political protests can lead to criminal convictions in today's Britain.
Judging by his actions and public declarations, Mr Choudhury is a nasty provocateur and possibly a religious maniac, emerging from court to brag that he could not care less about the death of British soldiers, that others would pay his fine for him, that he did not accept the authority of British law and acted for the "sake of Allah".
But I would still rather he had not been charged at all. That said, I would rather take my chances with the British courts' views on the limits of free speech than the Sun's, or those of "veteran's grandson Tony Kibble."
At a rough guess, several million people in Britain can describe themselves as the grandchildren of veterans. As it happens, I am one of them. I wear a poppy each November. I would feel very cross if I saw someone deliberately setting out to ruin the two-minute silence on Armistice Day. But it is frankly creepy to assert that "each poppy" symbolises the life of a dead soldier. What about the poppy that I found, scrunched up and forgotten, in an overcoat pocket the other day? Or the first poppy I bought last year, which I managed to rip and break? Was I insulting the memory of my relations who fought in the two world wars?
More seriously, I wonder if the Sun realises it is playing Mr Choudhury's game for him, by contrasting ugly disrespect for the war dead with attacks on Muslims as if those two groups exist in opposition to each other? Hundreds of thousands of Muslims served in British forces during both world wars. As it so happens, one of my grandfathers fought alongside some of them, serving in one of several Indian Army units with British officers and volunteer soldiers drawn from what is now Pakistan. I mention this by way of historical note, not as a claim to bragging rights. As said before, millions of Britons come from veterans' families: I would hate to live in a country that gives them some special pulpit to demand the curbing of free speech.
Mr Choudhury has been offered a valuable lesson by Judge Riddle and Woolwich Crown Court, namely that in Britain, the right to political protest is taken seriously enough that it will be weighed against public anger, even in the face of the very crudest provocations. If he is too malevolent to appreciate that lesson, that is not the fault of British justice.
WHEN it comes to drawing firm conclusions about the state of British politics, some parliamentary by-elections are like flashes of lightning over a darkened plain—illuminating the whole landscape in a single instant. Others like the by-election held yesterday in the South Yorkshire seat of Barnsley Central offer something much less definite: a hint, at most, that the weather may be about to change.
The headlines this morning focus on the desperate fate of the Liberal Democrats, who fell from second place at the May 2010 election to sixth place (losing their deposit last night into the bargain). That is fair: as is the interest provoked by the second place showing of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), an unprecedented result in a Westminster contest for this Eurosceptic party.
That said, there are good reasons for not reading too much into the result in Barnsley. It is such a safe Labour seat that—though the contest was triggered by the conviction of the former Labour incumbent, Eric Illsley for expenses fraud—the party managed to extend its majority a bit, to 11,771 votes. Between the 2010 general election and yesterday's poll, the turnout plunged to just 36.5% of eligible voters.
The full results look like this:
Dan Jarvis (Lab) 14,724
Jane Collins (UKIP) 2,953
James Hockney (C) 1,999
Enis Dalton (BNP) 1,463
Tony Devoy (Ind) 1,266
Dominic Carman (LD) 1,012
Kevin Riddiough (Eng Dem) 544
Howling Laud Hope (Loony) 198
Michael Val Davies (Ind) 60
In effect, any analysis of these results amounts to parsing a series of protest votes, inasmuch as every vote not cast for Labour in Barnsley is a protest vote.
After speaking to a couple of thoughtful MPs whose opinions I value and scanning the blogosphere, here, then, are some necessarily tentative thoughts.
1. Under Ed Miliband, Labour proved itself disciplined (or at least sensibly risk-averse) in its choice of candidate: a clean-cut, articulate ex-Parachute Regiment officer with combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.
2. The big crisis for the Lib Dems is that they are no longer seen as an acceptable vehicle for protest votes. That may seem obvious, and indeed Lib Dem grandees were all over the airwaves this morning saying that this result means very little. It is, they intoned, a natural consequence of being in government, taking the tough decisions necessary to sort out the economic mess inherited from Labour, had they mentioned the disastrous economic mess they inherited from Labour, in government, tough decisions, and so on. But if the Lib Dems are no longer a party for protest votes, what are they for? In the dead of night, Mr Clegg must wake up in a cold sweat and worry that his party will never break out beyond its irreducible core vote. And how many diehard Lib Dems are there, once you strip away people who could not bring themselves to vote Labour or Tory in previous elections. Perhaps 5% of the population?
3. There is a painful irony for the Lib Dems here. Every vox pop interview with an ordinary voter generates the same complaints. Now that these Lib Dems are in coalition with the Tories, the voters thunder, they have been exposed as opportunists willing to sacrifice truth and principle to gain power. Here is the odd part. That is a perfectly accurate description of the Lib Dems before they came to power. They spent decades on doorsteps shamelessly attacking big party incumbents from the left or the right (depending on the seat), sucking up to every interest group that staggered into view and generally saying whatever they thought voters wanted to hear. That is why the Lib Dems, for all that they enjoyed a rather saintly image among the general public, have always been loathed by Labour and Tory politicians. Nothing, but nothing, they will tell you with a shudder of real distaste, stoops as low as a Lib Dem campaign pamphlet.
Now the sainted ones have joined the Conservatives in coalition (a decision that was arguably imposed on them by the electorate, which did not see fit to grant Labour and the Lib Dems enough votes between them to form a government), they are actually having to ditch the opportunism, keep their word and vote for endless unpopular policies that form part of their coalition agreement. And as a result they are hated up and down the land. As I said, there is an irony in there somewhere.
4. There is some evidence that this result is alarming for Nick Clegg personally. Mr Clegg's own seat of Sheffield Hallam is nearby, and Labour is adamant that part of the anti-Lib Dem backlash in Barnsley was specifically aimed at the Lib Dem leader. Writing for the New Statesman, the neighbouring South Yorkshire MP (and former Labour minister) Denis MacShane says today:
10 months ago the Lib Dems came second to Labour. Now they got fewer votes than the BNP. There is a South Yorkshire element to this. Nick Clegg is now known locally as the "Sheffield Fraudmaster" after the decision of his Lib Dem colleague, Vince Cable, to axe a £80 million loan to the Sheffield Forgemasters firm
5. Though Barnsley is a poor gauge of anything, as discussed above, it is certainly no comfort to anyone who worries that the slow decline of two party politics may pave the way for the sort of angry identity politics common on the continent of Europe. In country after country on the continent, parties that offer a palette of tough, negative messages about national identity, immigration, Islam, globalisation and/or the European Union pick up around 20% of the vote. In Barnsley, the combined vote share for UKIP and the British National Party (an outfit that until recently was closed to non-white members) came to just over 18%.
Now, nothing makes UKIP crosser than being described as the "BNP in blazers". And if you apply the useful French political shorthand of "clean right" versus "dirty right", UKIP sits on the clean side of the line, while the BNP is on the dirty side, along with the still-nastier English Defence League. Nor does UKIP peddle an anti-capitalist message of the sort popular among far-right parties in, say, France. The party wants to pull Britain out of the EU, but it is in favour of free trade.
But nonetheless, UKIP has started stressing some pretty tough policies on immigration as it attempts to move beyond its image as a single-issue party that is all about Europe. Euroscepticism is a poisoned chalice in British politics: the British public simultaneously dislike the EU, in the main, but also strongly dislike hearing about it. That means a party can be punished for over-emphasising EU-bashing messages, even when those messages chime with majority opinion.
Those worried about the rise of identity politics in Britain point to polling commissioned by an anti-fascist campaign group, Searchlight, which found a (surely exaggerated) 48% of Britons would, in the words of a Guardian newspaper report:
support an anti-immigration English nationalist party if it was not associated with violence and fascist imagery... A Populus poll found that 48% of the population would consider supporting a new anti-immigration party committed to challenging Islamist extremism, and would support policies to make it statutory for all public buildings to fly the flag of St George or the union flag
The Searchlight research has broken down attitudes to race, identity, immigration and nation into six groups. On the left are "confident multiculturals" and "mainstream liberals", comprising 24% of the population. On the far right sit "latent hostiles" and "active enmity" (totalling 23%), who share antagonistic attitudes to others and differ only in the degree of their antipathy and tolerance of extremism.The centre of British politics are the "identity ambivalents" and "cultural integrationists". Cultural integrationists accept diversity as long as there is an integrated national culture, the rule of law, and respect for authority. This is the group to which David Cameron's call for a "muscular liberalism" is targeted. They are a quarter of the population. But the real swing voters are identity ambivalents (28%): economically insecure, worried about their local community, feeling threatened but open-minded and accepting of diversity - as long as their security is not threatened. So they feel more wage and job pressure from immigration, are anxious about their family's financial future, but are, for example, much less likely to think "Muslims create problems in the UK" than cultural integrationists.Labour's vote is more weighted towards this group than any other. More black and ethnic minority voters are to be found here, and almost half of people who don't identify with a party are also identity ambivalent
Now, I do not believe that one poll, written up by an overtly political campaign group, can capture the intricacies of British views on race and identity. But that image of a public splintering into many groups suggests, to me, a potential problem for UKIP, as that party's leaders celebrate their second place in Barnsley.
IF UKIP's glass is half full, their strength lies in their ability to straddle different voter groups, and appeal to them all as the best place for a protest vote. Supporters of UKIP include social liberals and libertarians like their leader Nigel Farage, but also pretty angry nationalists: the sort of people who leave comments on blogs like this which casually refer to the dictatorship of the EUSSR snuffing out the last vestiges of British democracy. That group, I would argue, overlaps to an extent with Britons who worry about the weakening of British national identity in other ways, notably by multiculturalism and/or what they see as the dangerous power of Islam in Europe. Some self-identified UKIP supporters are, for example, admirers of the Dutch politician Geert Wilders, a populist who has called for the banning of the Koran.
But UKIP also appeals to mainstream Conservative voters who feel that David Cameron and his coalition government have betrayed core Tory principles over Europe, and that they have nowhere else to turn if they wish to stop the erosion of British sovereignty. That is an observation you will hear framed as a warning from Tory MPs such as Bill Cash, a veteran Eurosceptic. Writing today on ConservativeHome, Mr Cash says:
It was always obvious Labour were going to win Barnsley Central – but the result sends a clear message to the Coalition and the Conservative Party on their failure to deal with the European issue
Yet here is where the glass looks half-empty for UKIP, I would argue. Because—though I happen to think that the most strongly Eurosceptic Tories are wrong in their judgement of the relative costs and benefits of EU membership—such Tory Eurosceptics are not extremists. They are mainstream politicians, motivated in part by a strong attachment to parliamentary democracy (though I disagree with their over-gloomy assertion that British democracy is wrecked by EU membership).
And my hunch is that for UKIP to move much beyond its current core vote, it would have to dilute its message on, say, Islam or immigration, to pick up many more mainstream Conservatives. And that is precisely the opposite of what many core UKIP supporters want.
6. A final thought, from a Conservative MP who is actively involved in the Tory campaign for a No vote in May's referendum on switching from first-past-the-post to the Alternative Vote for Westminster elections. Though in general AV is seen as favouring smaller parties, a Yes vote on AV would make UKIP less dangerous for almost all Tory MPs, he says (because a typical UKIP voter would be likely to place UKIP first, and unlikely to give a second preference to either Labour or the Lib Dems).
The weather is on the turn. But a nationalist storm is not inevitable.
You said in that speech that multiculturalism has failed, said the student. Don't you think you are encouraging hatred? What about British tolerance?
Mr Cameron gave a slightly waffly reply. Britain was a successful example of a multiracial society, he told the students of Qatar University. What he had been criticising in Munich was the idea that Britain should be "super tolerant" about communities living separately. He was criticising "state multiculturalism, which was the doctrine that we had in our country for too long that you keep people separate". Under this doctrine, he said, it was believed that different immigrant groups should live together, speak their own language, go to their own schools and not integrate at all. I remember leaning over to the reporter next to me and saying, blimey, he is describing apartheid, not multiculturalism. All in all, the prime minister sounded a bit shrill and unconvincing.
Today in the rather chillier environment of Luton, the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, launched his own critique of Mr Cameron's Munich speech. Even before Mr Clegg had opened his mouth, the antenna of the Tory blogosphere were a-quiver, following briefing that the Liberal Democrat leader in the coalition was going to disagree with his Conservative boss.
Well, the Luton speech is now out, and it is true that Mr Clegg has picked a fight with Mr Cameron on the subject of multiculturalism.
One of the most striking bits of Mr Cameron's speech was where he set out a checklist of non-negotiable British values, that a liberal society should actively defend:
Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and a much more active, muscular liberalism. A passively tolerant society says to its citizens, as long as you obey the law we will just leave you alone. It stands neutral between different values. But I believe a genuinely liberal country does much more; it believes in certain values and actively promotes them. Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law, equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality. It says to its citizens, this is what defines us as a society: to belong here is to believe in these things.
In contrast, Mr Clegg sets out a vision of an "open, confident society" in which different values compete. He says:
Liberal societies do not expect everyone to live in the same way, or believe in the same things; conformity can crush liberty. But in liberal societies, all of us must defend the freedoms of others, in exchange for freedom for ourselves. In an open society, values compete but do not conflict.This is the background against which we have to consider the issues of multiculturalism. We have to be clear what we mean here. Where multiculturalism is held to mean more segregation, other communities leading parallel lives, it is clearly wrong. For me, multiculturalism has to seen as a process by which people respect and communicate with each other, rather than build walls between each other. Welcoming diversity but resisting division: that’s the kind of multiculturalism of an open, confident society
I will be astonished if tomorrow's press reports of the Luton speech do not focus on this tussle over multiculturalism, under headlines like: "No, multiculturalism has not failed, Clegg says".
But for my money, another ideological disagreement aired in the Luton speech counts for much more, because it leaves the realm of high rhetoric and heads squarely into the arena of active policy-making.
Mr Cameron, I was told, was quite deliberately weighing in on one side of a long-standing dispute within the British counter-terrorist establishment as it reviewed Britain's "Prevent" strategy, a central plank of the government's efforts to combat violent extremism. I wrote then:
mostly, Mr Cameron’s intention was to weigh in on one side of a debate that has gripped Whitehall for a decade: should the government fight terrorism by working with ideological extremists who claim to oppose violent acts in Britain (if not elsewhere)?In its final counter-terrorist strategy in office, Labour plumped for challenging such “non-violent extremists”. Mr Cameron is intervening because he thinks that decision has not been followed through, says a Whitehall source. The prime minister, says the source, has been persuaded by the “conveyor belt” theory—the belief that non-violent extremism is often a “way point” on the road to lethal radicalism. Mr Cameron thinks multiculturalism has drifted from a tolerance of other cultures towards a tolerance of other value systems, some of them hostile to Britain
Within the Westminster village, that dispute is often described as a conflict between the intelligence and security services (whose officers tend to the view that engagement with bad people is often necessary to ward off trouble from still worse people), and political types with more neo-conservative views (the Policy Exchange think tank is often mentioned here, and the education secretary Michael Gove).
The real significance of Mr Clegg's speech in Luton was that the Lib Dem leader signalled, very firmly, that he comes down on the spooks' side of that debate, and believes that the government and its agencies need to engage with unpleasant but non-violent extremists.
Compare and contrast. Mr Cameron said in Munich:
Whether they are violent in their means or not, we must make it impossible for the extremists to succeed. Now, for governments, there are some obvious ways we can do this. We must ban preachers of hate from coming to our countries. We must also proscribe organisations that incite terrorism against people at home and abroad. Governments must also be shrewder in dealing with those that, while not violent, are in some cases part of the problem. We need to think much harder about who it’s in the public interest to work with. Some organisations that seek to present themselves as a gateway to the Muslim community are showered with public money despite doing little to combat extremism. As others have observed, this is like turning to a right-wing fascist party to fight a violent white supremacist movement. So we should properly judge these organisations: do they believe in universal human rights – including for women and people of other faiths? Do they believe in equality of all before the law? Do they believe in democracy and the right of people to elect their own government? Do they encourage integration or separation? These are the sorts of questions we need to ask. Fail these tests and the presumption should be not to engage with organisations – so, no public money, no sharing of platforms with ministers at home
And here is Mr Clegg in Luton, explicitly defending a pair of Lib Dem ministers who attended a British Muslim conference that is, by his own admission, also addressed by some pretty radical figures:
If we are truly confident about the strength of our liberal values we should be confident about their ability to defeat the inferior arguments of our opponents.Smart engagement means engaging in argument at public events, where appropriate and at the right level. Of course these are always difficult decisions to make. But to take one example, the Global Peace and Unity conference attracts around fifty thousand British Muslims each year and is an important opportunity to engage in argument – and so Andrew Stunell, the Government’s Communities Minister did this year. Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader, also spoke at the event.Now there may well have been a small minority of organisations and individuals at that event with deeply unpalatable, illiberal views.But you don’t win a fight by leaving the ring. You get in and win. The overwhelming majority of the people attending this conference are active, engaged and law-abiding citizens. We don’t win people to liberal ideals by giving ourselves a leave of absence from the argument.Equally, smart engagement means being extremely careful about decisions to proscribe individual organisations. There are occasions when that is the right course of action. I have to say that, for me, agreeing to the proscription of the Pakistani Taliban was a straightforward decision.But proscription must always be a last resort, never a knee-jerk reflex. That is why the Pakistani Taliban is the only organisation we have proscribed since entering Government. And that is why, consistent with our agenda for smart engagement and as part of the Government’s review of Counter Terrorism powers, we decided against increasing the government’s powers to proscribe
Lib Dem sources say that Mr Clegg's speech was sent to Number 10 in advance, and signed off by Mr Cameron's team. Those same sources confirm that the deputy prime minister intended to signal an honest political disagreement when it comes to the rules of engagement for non-violent extremists.
The Prevent review will be finished shortly. Forget lurid press headlines about labels like multiculturalism. This is a fight about the best way to defeat domestic terrorism. This is the real stuff of coalition politics, not to mention life and death.
JUDGES at the European Union's highest court today made it just that bit harder to defend the EU in Britain, with their ruling that insurance companies are no longer allowed to link premiums to the gender of a driver. As my colleague Buttonwood has pointed out, it is a daft ruling given the mass of actuarial data suggesting that gender is a big risk factor, especially among young men. It is already uniting the left and right wing press in Britain in indignation, thanks to a clever and timely bit of research by the Eurosceptic campaign group, Open Europe, costing the likely impact on young women drivers once they lose a discount for not being young male drivers.
As it happens, Open Europe is not quite correct to say that the ruling was based on the Charter of Fundamental Rights, from which Britain supposedly has an opt-out. The court instead looked at a 2004 Gender Directive, which means that Britain's opt-out from the Charter remains untested.
But that cannot excuse the judges' activism. This is a clear case of ECJ judges using a sledgehammer to crack a nut: the existing EU law was rather moderate and sensible, allowing national governments to "permit exemptions from the rule of unisex premiums and benefits, so long as they can ensure that the underlying actuarial and statistical data on which the calculations are based are reliable, regularly updated and available to the public", to quote the ECJ's ruling. I have a bit of sympathy with the theoretical argument that we do not allow risk premiums to be based on race or sexuality, so should not allow them to be based on gender. But given the overwhelming evidence that young men are an exceptionally bad risk behind the wheel, and given that the exemption was formally linked to data showing that to be the case, why the judges could not let that exemption stand is beyond me.
It is not bad news for all drivers, though. Reading the headlines, I was reminded of a memorable news story I came across when covering the Europe beat: that of a Swedish transsexual who discovered that—in her new legal identity as a middle-aged woman—she was considered a worse risk behind the wheel of her Audi than when she had been a man, and was duly charged a higher insurance premium. The insurers told Swedish newspapers that becoming a middle-aged woman moved their client into a higher risk group, just as surely as if she had moved to a larger town. In a blow to dinner party chauvinists everywhere, before the relative merits of older women drivers could be subjected to more detailed public analysis, the woman in question threatened to go to the Swedish state ombudsman. In the face of negative publicity, the insurance company caved in.
[update at 2015pm, responding to comment from Open Europe below] The ECJ's full ruling does cite the Charter of Fundamental Rights several times, but only as buttressing evidence that gender equality is a core objective of EU law. However, the substantive point of law on which the ruling is based is the 2004 Gender Directive, not the charter, and as a result I am told British government lawyers believe the charter opt-out remains untested. In fairness, I should point out that Open Europe still disagrees.
BACK in London, one final thought from the prime minister’s tour of Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman. As discussed here and in my print column this week, there is no concealing David Cameron’s view that big changes are underway in the Arab world, and that—despite the real risks that come with change—that there are reasons for optimism, from the fact that the Egyptian army refused to use force against that country’s people to the encouragingly moderate, non-religious demands of the opposition protest leaders he met in Cairo.
What does all this prime ministerial enthusiasm and optimism mean for Israel, given Britain’s already slightly strained relations with that country? There, I think the picture is a bit mixed.
Famously, during a visit to Turkey in July 2010, the newly-elected British prime minister stunned some in Israel by saying comparing Gaza to a prison camp. This week in Egypt and the Gulf, Mr Cameron said and did some things liable to reassure Israel.
On February 23rd, during his question and answer session with students at Qatar University, Mr Cameron offered a robust defence of Israel’s right to a peaceful existence. He responded to a string of sharply-worded questions about Israel by suggesting that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was used as a distraction by Arab autocrats, saying:
In too many countries in the Middle East, some rulers say to their people ‘be angry about [the Israeli-Palestinian conflict], don’t be angry about the fact that you live in a non-open society’
On Iran, Mr Cameron repeatedly signalled his grave concern about the Iranian nuclear programme. British officials briefed that their government had crossed a threshold of impatience when it came to waiting for the 27 members of the European Union to agree tougher sanctions on Iran. From now, on, they said, Britain was willing to work with a smaller group of countries that were willing to act to curb Iran’s access to international financial institutions, shipping lines and the like.
But at the same time Mr Cameron gave voice to an evolving British view that Iran is a country in need of taking down a peg or two, rather than building up into some sort of terrifying regional powerhouse. Iran’s Islamic rulers, he said in Qatar:
are already suffering from international sanctions. Their economy is weak and vulnerable and the regime only survives by cracking down on its political opposition. On its current path Iran is set to become an international pariah state with no friends, no money, nowhere to go
Asked in Cairo about the Iranian request to send two warships through the Suez Canal, Mr Cameron said he did not think that the international community should pay too much attention or “big up” Iran’s attempts to stir up trouble:
I think we should spend a bit more time actually pointing out the many and varied weaknesses in their political system
What was striking about Mr Cameron’s trip to the Arab world was that he was willing to draw attention in public to the fact that Britain disagreed with America on this subject.
Under questioning on this subject at Qatar University, Mr Cameron told the students that although America and Britain were close allies, on this subject he disagreed with America. Israeli settlement-building was a barrier to peace, he said, and a viable peace process needed the "full commitment of the US".
How does this mesh with Mr Cameron’s cautious optimism about the winds of change blowing through Tunisia, Egypt, Libya or Bahrain? I think, at the very least, there is a mood of urgency in the British camp that has yet to find its echo in Israel, amid a sense that a historic opportunity might be emerging in the Arab world.
Will that sense of urgency evolve into impatience with America, should the administration of Barack Obama prove unwilling to put more pressure on Israel over such issues as settlement building? It is too soon to say, and Mr Cameron knows full well how differently the debate over the Middle East is framed in America. But at the very least, Mr Cameron is in no hurry to conceal this difference of opinion.
Earlier on February 23rd, Mr Cameron held a joint press conference with the prime minister of Qatar, in Doha. His Qatari host raised America’s decision to veto the UN Security Council draft resolution on settlements in his opening remarks. Mr Cameron chose to respond to this in his opening remarks, declaring:
Finally, the Middle East peace process, which you spoke about. This dispute continues to fuel hate right across this region and serious, direct and substantive peace talks are needed more urgently than ever. The time for the two-state solution is running short. Britain supported last week’s resolution in the UN Security Council because settlements are an obstacle to peace and we call today for a renewed effort to achieve long-term security for Israel and justice and statehood for the Palestinians
Britain is never going to be the country that solves the Middle East conflict. But it has traditionally been seen as a country that can build bridges between an emphatically pro-Israel America and European governments that see themselves as mentors and promoters of Palestinian development and statehood. Just now, Britain looks less like a bridge-builder between two static camps, and more like an ally that fears that the American camp is in the wrong place, and needs to move.
A FEW yards from where I write this, David Cameron has just told a BBC television interviewer that he is "extremely sorry" that British nationals had a "difficult time" leaving Tripoli airport. We are in Oman on the last leg of the prime minister's tour of the Gulf, but Downing Street officials and travelling reporters alike are focused on the plight of Britons trapped in Libya. As the morning headlines pinged their way to Muscat at dawn, it became clear that the British press was in full cry on this one. British oil engineers have been speaking to the BBC from their camps in the desert, describing their situation as "desperate", and demanding to know why the government has not come to rescue them.
Outraged reports have noted that British nationals had to wait far longer for chartered evacuation flights than expatriates from other countries. Why, even Poles and Hungarians have fared better than the British, a BBC radio presenter just said to the foreign secretary William Hague, unable to hide his disgust.
The Daily Mail talks of a "farce". The Daily Telegraph expresses disgust this morning that:
The Foreign Office finally managed to load 300 Britons onto a plane at Tripoli, but only after it had borrowed the jet from BP
In a leader, the same newspaper raises the painful question of recent defence cuts, arguing:
The prospect of British nationals finding themselves trapped in the middle of a civil war prompts us once again to question the wisdom of decommissioning the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal. A frigate, HMS Cumberland, has been sent to Libyan waters to help with any evacuation – but this ship (which is itself set for the axe) has just one helicopter, while a carrier would be able to despatch helicopters and special forces deep into the desert. Is it really too late to think again?
In the Times, a former foreign secretary, Lord Owen, has issued a thunderous call for the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya.
Call me heartless, but there is something odd going on here. I hope that the oil engineers are rescued soon, and I feel for the people stranded at Tripoli airport and the docks in Benghazi. The British evacuation effort clearly has not been smooth: some scheduled flights were cancelled at the last minute, and a chartered plane was delayed at Gatwick by technical problems.
But Libya is not the Isle of Wight, and oil engineers sent to work there knew that when they took the job. I assume they are paid handsomely for working in the middle of the desert in a country run by a mercurial and ruthless dictator. Big oil companies pay huge insurance premiums for just this kind of crisis. They are used to working in tough places. Yet to hear all the hyperventilation back in Britain, it is shameful that a BP plane should be used to evacuate British citizens from Libya. Why? Why should it not be the responsibility of their wealthy, resourceful and experienced employers to get them out? Or does holding a British passport entitle you to be plucked from any spot on earth by an aircraft of the Queen's Flight, loaded with fresh cucumber sandwiches?
I think the key to the kerfuffle lies in the commentaries above, with their talk of aircraft carriers, defence cuts and the shame of being outdone by Hungarians. This fuss is all bound up with a wider loss of confidence in Britain, which is bound up with our long-term relative decline and our short-term debt crisis. The country's international reach is shrinking perceptibly, and we do not like it.
This is the fifth of Bagehot's dispatches from his trip around the Middle East with David Cameron. The previous post can be found here.
IN diplomacy, a surprising number of things are undertaken so that they can have taken place—rather than because they make especial sense at the time.
Today in Doha, David Cameron held a free-ranging question and answer session with students at Qatar University. The prime minister held scores of “Cameron Direct” sessions during the 2010 general election campaign, inspired by the town hall meetings held during American presidential campaigns. Once in Number 10, he started holding “PM Direct” meetings in provincial towns up and down Britain, and today he held his first one overseas. I felt a faint (and geeky) thrill of recognition as we filed into a lecture hall at Qatar University and saw the same sick-green PM Direct banners that I had last spotted at a question and answer session in Manchester. On our advance programmes, it had looked like a pretty good idea: a British prime minister fielding all and any questions from students in a country where unfiltered access to political leaders is not the norm. Now that it has taken place, it still looks like a good idea, mostly because of that signal of openness that it sent.
I wish I could say it was an electric encounter. It was…ok. I hope it is not patronising to say the students were impressive. They asked serious, thoughtful and knowledgeable questions, many of them pushing Mr Cameron to be more robust in defence of international law and human rights. There was a flurry of questions about the bloodshed in Libya, and why the international community was not doing more to stop the Qaddafi regime. What about humanitarian intervention and the precedent set by the Balkans wars of the 1990s, Mr Cameron was asked. He ducked the chance to call for regime change by force, instead inviting students to consider how the west had intervened to stop ethnic cleansing of Muslims in the Balkans, disproving the canard that the west hates Islam. There were questions about a speech he gave in Munich earlier this month on British multiculturalism, about why he did not condemn repression in Saudi Arabia and several about the Palestinian-Israeli dispute. Mr Cameron said he had not condemned Britain’s multiracial society, but merely condemned state policies that had encouraged different communities to live separate lives. He dodged the Saudi question, and on the Palestinian question said a two state solution was the only feasible ending to this tragic conflict.
When it was over, I asked some of the students who had asked questions whether Mr Cameron had changed their views of British foreign policy. Not really, they said. It was good that he had come to answer questions freely, but he was a professional politician, and he had not given much away. Fair enough, and still, it is on balance a good thing that the event took place.
The same is true of the various press conferences that have taken place in vast, marble palaces all along this whistle-stop tour. In the flesh, they were not very exciting. But in at least one case, in Kuwait, it was the first time that the local prime minister had ever faced the press for unscripted questions. The Kuwaiti prime minister must be a quick learner in that case, because on his very first outing he managed to duck and dodge the questions put to him, and instead answer questions that had not been asked at all.
Again in Kuwait, Mr Cameron gave a speech to the parliament which clarified some important elements of his policy towards the Arab world. On paper, it was a revealing speech, that fleshed out Mr Cameron’s worldview in interesting ways. The very fact of giving the speech in one of the Gulf’s more lively and free parliaments was also, in and of itself, a sensible idea, sending a message about Britain’s support for universal suffrage and accountable government. But, sitting in the room, your correspondent could not help noticing empty chairs, a low hubbub of chatter among the Kuwaiti VIPs invited, and the rather louder hubbub of those members of the audience who answered their mobile telephones during the speech to conduct quite long conversations.
More broadly, Mr Cameron’s visit to Kuwait coincided with multiple celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the state’s independence from Britain, the 20th anniversary of Kuwait’s liberation from Iraqi invasion, and the fifth anniversary of the accession of the current emir. To recognise all these anniversaries, we were told that Mr Cameron would be receiving a formal welcome, alongside Britain’s prime minister during the first Gulf War, Sir John Major, and the Kuwaiti prime minister of today.
Our rag-taggle press corps duly headed for the Emir of Kuwait’s official tent in the Bayan Palace complex. We were due to see the three prime ministers past and present review a royal salute from Kuwaiti armed forces, then an honour guard of Grenadier Guards and veterans from the first Gulf War.
On paper, the solemn ceremony was a valuable reminder of the blood ties between these two allies. In reality, the parade ground was a small car park in front of a palace guesthouse that resembled an upmarket Holiday Inn. The Kuwaiti soldiers were not terribly martial. The guardsmen marched out of the guesthouse in their red tunics and bearskins and were technically splendid. There was much impressive shouting from a British warrant officer to make sure each man was in perfect alignment. Mr Cameron gave a short, well-judged speech. But all in all, it still looked like a group of Englishmen in curious uniforms marching around a sun-baked car park far from home. I do not mean to mock. I am quite old-fashioned when it comes to veterans, and nobody put a foot wrong. But stripped of all context, it looked plain odd.
What I thought, standing there squinting in the sun with my notebook, was irrelevant, of course. The ceremony mattered because it mattered, because it was going to take place, and then because it had taken place. In diplomacy, the message often is the message, I realised. What actually happens is merely physical evidence for the sincerity of that message.
This is the fourth dispatch from Bagehot's trip around the Middle East with Mr Cameron. The previous post can be found here. The next one is here.
IN LAWN tennis and European Union budget fights alike, the British are fond of a heroic struggle that ends in defeat.
No sign of tennis on day three of David Cameron’s tour of the Arab world, which has now reached the theme-park-like glitz of Doha, but British officials are briefing up a storm about a looming scrap with France and other “Club Med” EU members in Brussels. The battle is over the billions of euros in EU aid sent to north Africa and parts of the Middle East over the years, without a great deal to show for it by way of political reform. With the brushfires of revolt still burning across the region, Britain thinks it is high time for a serious debate about what, exactly, all this money is for.
The EU is good at imposing regulations on exports from the Muslim south, and hot as mustard on setting up such worthy, Euro-friendly bodies as a consumer protection agency in Egypt. Try selling milk or car parts from north Africa in Europe, and EU-funded inspectors will be all over you. Yet despite pouring millions into the regime of Hosni Mubarak, the EU never seemed to gain the leverage to stop his secret police torturing people.
In the words of one British official travelling with Mr Cameron: “There are very few solid examples of progress. We have continued to pour money into Egypt and other countries in the region, with very little conditionality applied.”
The British are right. Under the European Neighbourhood Policy, the EU is a huge donor in the region, indeed Europe is by some way the biggest source of aid to the Palestinian Authority. And yet Europe has gained pathetically little leverage with all this money.
Mr Cameron raised the lack of political and democratic strings attached to EU aid money at a recent European Council in Brussels, we learn. British diplomats have been primed to press home their point at a meeting to discuss the neighbourhood policy today,
Yet here is the thing. The British are going to struggle to win this argument, and I suspect they know it. The EU’s neighbourhood policy has always divided the club. There is a Club Med group, involving France, Spain, Italy and the like, who have a strong and understandable interest pumping European money into countries that are (a) former colonies, (b) ancestral homelands for lots of their citizens and (c) a potential source of waves of illegal migration. There is a Nordic/ex-communist group which would like to see neighbourhood money heading to countries in the ex-Soviet sphere, from Ukraine to Moldova.
That leaves Britain looking, as so often, to the same handful of fellow budget-hawks for support, such as Germany and the Netherlands. Germany may be on side with this one, but long experience has taught the British not to put too much faith in such support: the Germans have a habit of sliding over to the French camp in the end.
So why fight? Well, from time to time, a fight on principle does a bit of good. What is the point of Europe bragging about its soft power, if it is all soft and no power? Agreeing the EU’s next multi-annual budget is going to be a huge slog, and Britain wants to put down a few markers about the good use of taxpayers’ money. To be a bit more cynical, in the world of British Euro-politics, a heroic defeat plays well back with voters home. Just ask Tim Henman about his fan-base.
To be still more cynical, the British have less to lose than the Club Med countries with their push for tough conditions on EU aid for despots in the south, for two big reasons.
Firstly, when it comes to trade with the Maghreb, say, Britain has much less at stake than France or Spain. And, to be fair, France is not only concerned about its commercial interests. I remember a big squabble over imports of cheap clothing from China, when I was based in Brussels. France was keen to see tariffs slapped on things like cotton shirts from China, and it would have been easy to assume that protectionism was at work. Except, I was told by French industry sources, the real concern in Paris was actually political: lots of cheap shirts on sale in France were made by young, male factory workers in north Africa, they said. The then president, Jacques Chirac, was worried that Chinese competition would destroy those factories, sending angry young men onto the streets of the Maghreb. Secondly, Britain does lots of trade with non-democracies and autocratic states in the Arab world, but—handily enough—they mostly do not need EU aid because they are rich petro-states. So a clamp down on EU aid will not touch them.
If you think I am too cynical, I would merely mention the case of the Palestinian Authority. For better or for worse, a push to link aid to political reforms, human rights or good governance by the PA could prove deeply destabilising, in a corner of the world that does not need less stability. And funnily enough, when asked about the PA and European aid, British sources are not quite so gung-ho about imposing political conditions. Our enthusiasm for conditionality is conditional, in short.
More from Qatar in a bit.
This post is the third in a series chronicling the Prime Minister's trip to the Middle East. You can read the previous post here. The next post is here.
DAVID CAMERON woke this morning in the surreal surroundings of the Bayan Palace complex in Kuwait—a city within a city with its own (heavily guarded) motorway exit, well-irrigated gardens filled with lawns and topiary and vast government guesthouses inside which each corridor leads to yet another drawing room or dining room groaning with a full buffet of food, seemingly waiting for peckish VIPs at any hour of the day and night.
February in Kuwait offers crisp, sunlit mornings. The birds are tweeting and the coffee at the palace is good. Alas, Bagehot (who is travelling with the British prime minister) suspects that Mr Cameron's mood may have been soured by the headlines from London. Several newspapers harrumphed at him for travelling with a business delegation that includes executives from eight defence and aerospace companies. This, it was argued, amounted to shameful hypocrisy given that Mr Cameron has been loudly calling for Arab governments to pay heed to the aspirations of their peoples for "basic rights" including free speech, freedom of association, the rule of law and the right to peaceful protest. The charge is that Mr Cameron cannot reasonably say that governments such as Libya and Bahrain must refrain from violent repression, while seeking to sell Arab governments guns.
This is a pretty silly argument, and Mr Cameron duly gave it a whacking a few moments ago at a press conference with the Kuwaiti prime minister (Kuwait's first ever prime ministerial press conference, we were proudly told). Yes, I have executives from firms such as British Aerospace and Thales with me, he told British and Kuwaiti reporters gathered in the Emir's official tent (size of a submarine pen, oil paintings on the walls, big chandeliers). But are you seriously saying that countries are not allowed to defend themselves, or if they are allowed to, that they may only defend themselves with arms they make themselves? This, Mr Cameron went on, warming to his theme, was a particularly odd argument in a country like Kuwait, a small ally that was invaded by a bullying neighbour just two decades ago, prompting a military liberation which cost the lives of 47 British servicemen, among many other victims.
In general terms, Mr Cameron is surely right, though his appeal to the particular case of Kuwait was also a giveaway. There is a world of difference between selling arms to a responsible ally and empowering a thuggish regime that cannot be trusted not to use them for repression. Even Mr Cameron admits that he has been struggling to find out what is going on in Libya, watching the latest images from Tripoli and Benghazi with horror. If there were confirmed reports of British weapons being used against Libyan civilians, from arms deals signed since Britain took the political decision, under the previous Labour government, to embrace Muammar Qaddafi, well, then Britain would have a political problem on its hands.
And yet. If Mr Cameron's intended message on this Gulf trip is not undermined by the arms makers riding up front in our chartered airliner, that does not mean that his intended message actually makes sense. Mr Cameron is here in the Arab world to set out the latest plank of what he calls his "liberal conservative" view of foreign policy. It is a sort of third way of foreign policy, if you will. It essentially splits the difference between what the prime minister calls the "naive neoconservative view" that democracy can be dropped from an airplane at 40,000 feet (take that George Bush and Tony Blair), and the "calculating" view that "Arabs or Muslims can't do democracy" (take that, generations of Foreign Office Arabists, cosying up to Sandhurst-educated sheikhs and offering to help them sort out their rivals with the help of some tanned Englishmen in Land Rovers with no names and no cap badges).
His formal thesis was set out in a speech to the Kuwaiti parliament. In what seemed to be a direct swipe at the ultra-realists of the Camel Corps (as Foreign Office Arabists are traditionally known), he said it "borders on racism" to say that Arabs or Muslims cannot cope with democracy. He went on:
For decades, some have argued that stability required highly controlling regimes, and that reform and openness would put that stability at risk. So, the argument went, countries like Britain faced a choice between our interests and our values. And to be honest, we should acknowledge that sometimes we have made such calculations in the past. But I say that is a false choice. As recent events have confirmed, denying people their basic rights does not preserve stability, rather the reverse. Our interests lie in upholding our values – in insisting on the right to peaceful protest, in freedom of speech and the internet, in freedom of assembly and the rule of law. But these are not just our values, but the entitlement of people everywhere; of people in Tahrir Square as much as Trafalgar Square.So whenever and wherever violence is used against peaceful demonstrators, we must not hesitate to condemn it. The whole world has been shocked in the last few days by the appalling violence which the authorities in Libya have unleashed on their own people.Violence is not the answer to people’s legitimate aspirations. Using force cannot resolve grievances, only multiply and deepen them. We condemned the violence in Bahrain, and welcome the fact that the military has now been withdrawn from the streets and His Royal Highness the Crown Prince has embarked on a broad national dialogue.If people’s hunger for a job and a voice are denied there is a real risk that the frustration and powerlessness people feel and the resulting lack of connection with the way their country is run: can open the way to them being cut off from society or worse drawn to more violent and extremist responses. That’s a problem for the Arab world but it’s a problem for the rest of the world too.
In a direct swipe at naive neoconservatives, Mr Cameron also said:
...democracy is a process not an event. And important though elections are, participatory government is about much more than the simple act of voting. Democracy is the work of patient craftsmanship it has to be built from the grassroots up. The building blocks have to be laid like the independence of the judiciary, the rights of individuals, free media and association, and a proper place in society for the army. It can’t be done overnight. And if you want evidence of that just look at the history of Britain, a constitutional monarchy which has evolved through time, and where so many of our rights under our laws predate our right to vote by 700 years. My second belief is this. Political and economic reform is vital but it has to be pursued with Al E’htiram with respect for the different cultures, histories and traditions of each nation. We in the West have no business trying to impose our particular local model
If you want the short version, I think it can be boiled down the prime minister's repeated use of the phrase "false choice". In Egypt yesterday and Kuwait today, he has told us that the supposed trade-off between stability and freedom is a false choice.
And this is where I think his strategy does not quite hang together. My problem is that his thesis is so dependent on events, or rather the events that he chooses to highlight. He told the Kuwaiti audience:
History is sweeping through your neighbourhood. Not as a result of force and violence, but by people seeking their rights, and in the vast majority of cases doing so peacefully and bravely. Across the Arab World, aspirations are stirring which have lain dormant.They can take inspiration from other peaceful movements for change, such as the Velvet revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe, the civil rights struggle in America, or the peaceful transition to democracy in Muslim countries like Indonesia.It is too early to say how things will turn out. Too often, in the past, there has been disappointment. But there are some grounds for cautious optimism. Optimism, because it is the people – especially the young people – who are speaking up. It is they who are choosing to write their history – and doing so for the most part peacefully and with dignity. It is they who are showing that there is more to politics in this region than the false choice sometimes presented between repression and extremism
First, this is a pretty selective account of what is going on. There is plenty of force and violence going on in Libya, and it would be making still more of an impact if there were foreign reporters there to see and film it.
Secondly, Mr Cameron is deliberately conflating the articulate young protestors he met from the Tahrir Square movement with the entire range of opposition forces in the Arab world. But even in his own telling, there is a world of difference between Twitter-feeding students in Cairo, and frustrated millions of Arabs angry at problems that are not going to be solved overnight. In his words:
One of the most remarkable things about the historic events we’ve seen in Egypt and Tunisia in these past weeks is that it is not an ideological or extremist movement but rather, a movement of the people – an expression of aspiration predominantly from a new generation hungry for political and economic freedoms. A British businessman who had been in the square in Cairo during the demonstrations told me how when the extremists turned up and tried to claim the movement as theirs they were shouted down and disowned.This movement belongs to the frustrated Tunisian fruit seller who can’t take his product to market. And to the students in Cairo who can’t get a fair start, and the millions of Egyptians who live on $2 a day. In short, it belongs to the people who want to make something of their lives, and to have a voice. It belongs to a new generation for whom technology – the internet and social media – is a powerful tool in the hands of citizens, not a means of repression. It belongs to the people who’ve had enough of corruption, of having to make do with what they’re given, of having to settle for second best.
This is optimism posing as a strategy. There is a difference between saying something being a false choice, and it being a false choice. Mr Cameron's assertion that stability and freedom are not in opposition cannot protect him from the possibility that, depending on events, his government may yet be forced to choose between them.
If stability wobbles, or Islamists loom, Britain will also have to choose between its interests and the values that Mr Cameron says he cherishes. And he cannot give himself an escape route by watering those values down, and defining them so broadly that he can call even a semi-free petro-monarchy like Kuwait a "democracy". His strategy of triangulation is dependent on events working out the way he hopes. To go further, I am not sure Mr Cameron is steering a course mid-way between Camel Corps calculation and naive neo-conservativism. I think Mr Cameron is offering two strategies dressed up as one.
If events go well, and greater freedom continues to be compatible with stability in important countries such as Egypt, then he is actually offering something akin to low-ambition neoconservativism: a belief that slow, patient steps on a journey towards democracy will keep the lid from blowing off the Arab street.
And if events go badly? Well, his speech was full of references to trade and economic interests, and included this bit, which is as weasel-like as anything penned by the most shimmeringly-smooth Foreign Office realist:
It is not for me, or for governments outside the region, to pontificate about how each country meets the aspirations of its people. It is not for us to tell you how to do it, or precisely what shape your future should take. There is no single formula for success, and there are many ways to ensure greater, popular participation in Government
In short, I think if things go badly and Britain has to choose between interests and values, Mr Cameron is a man with a pretty clear sense of Britain's national interests.
A new foreign policy vision? No. A fair-weather, watered-down version of neoconservativism? More or less. Do I think that is inherently foolish as a starting point? I don't think I do. But I do think it is a bet on events, rather than a strategy.
This post is the second in a series covering Mr Cameron's trip to the Middle East. You can read the first post, from Egypt, here. The third post, from Qatar, is here.
IT HAS been a while since a British prime minister spoke for a global super-power. But that does not mean British prime ministers cannot wield some clout on the international stage, with the right sort of luck. David Cameron looks lucky today. Thanks to a happy accident of diary planning Mr Cameron became the first big country leader to arrive in Egypt after the fall of its former president, Hosni Mubarak.
He arrived in Cairo today at noon, a few hours ahead of his nearest rival for the prize of first-foreign-VIP-in-Egypt, the European Union's foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton. Bagehot is travelling with the prime minister, and will be with him all week as he flies on to other destinations in the region. Mr Cameron was already on his way to the region for what is essentially a trade promotion tour (his plane is stuffed with business chiefs, including eight from the defence and aerospace sector). At short notice, a day in Egypt has been tacked on the front of the trip.
Mr Cameron's talks with Egyptian military chiefs, members of the transitional government and selected opposition leaders (not including the Muslim Brotherhood) would be a test for any foreign leader. They pose some specific headaches for Mr Cameron. He is relatively new in his job. He is busy managing a painful economic squeeze back home. He represents a former colonial power that staggers under the weight of specific historical baggage in Cairo. Most acutely, perhaps, he represents a mid-ranking power with a strictly limited ability to influence events far from home.
Somewhere high over Italy or thereabouts, Mr Cameron popped back to see the travelling press, and to set out his views of what Britain can and should do amid these fast-moving events. I think the Cameron view of diplomacy can be summed up as: keep calm, keep it bilateral, focus on the national interest and hope for the best of British luck.
Foreign policy for mid-ranking powers is in part an exercise in the management of impotence and in part (to put it more kindly), a study of the art and possibilities of leverage.
This suggests various strategies for countries in Britain's league. One involves over-reach, a strategy currently being given a rest by Britain after being tested to something approaching destruction during the Blair era. Another involves loud claims to speak for the international community. France—something of a mirror-image of Britain in terms of scale, fragile wealth, and colonial baggage, at least when seen from Cairo—is a master at this last strategy. If the motorcade parping and wailing through Cairo's gnarly traffic today were carrying Nicolas Sarkozy, it is easy to guess that the French president would be loudly appointing himself a spokesman for some wider international community.
France currently holds the rotating chair of the G8, so perhaps the president would be claiming to speak for that group of big powers (though good luck agreeing a common position with G8 members like Russia or China). Perhaps Mr Sarkozy would be claiming to speak for Europe, after consulting with other EU leaders in a flurry of telephone calls. This stuff comes naturally to France, a nation that has perfected the art of offering to serve the multinational interest, while never losing sight of its own national goals.
Britain manages its relative decline in different ways. Mr Cameron is in Cairo on a bilateral visit as a British prime minister, and emphatically not as a representative of or spokesman for any other power, powers or club. His right to be heard is framed in terms of Britain’s long history, its status as an investor in Egypt, a trading partner and even as a source of tourists (British officials are keen to point out that the Foreign Office never took the economically devastating step of warning British tourists to stay away from the big resorts on and around the Red Sea). Ask officials about coordination with other European governments, and you will hear talk of pushing the EU to spend aid money in the Arab world more wisely. That is about it for European cooperation. Interestingly, there is not much chat about close coordination with America, either. At least presentationally, this is a very British operation.
As mentioned above, there are lots of specific reasons why this trip could be pretty sticky for Mr Cameron. Britain has spent decades forging close commercial, military and intelligence ties with some of the Arabic regimes and monarchies now struggling to contain unrest, or at the very least nervously watching the larger squares, roundabouts and traffic islands in their capital cities. Under Tony Blair, Britain was close to Mr Mubarak, and led the charge to normalise relations with Muammar Qaddafi after the Libyan leader very publicly abandoned his programmes to build weapons of mass destruction. As Mr Cameron took off from Heathrow at dawn this morning, the front pages of some British newspapers carried speculation that Libya, in particular, was using British-made weaponry in its ferocious repression of anti-government protests.
Britain is, of course, far from alone in finding its former allies on the wrong side of history. Mr Cameron is following his own path, however, in handling this ticklish moment. As he approached Cairo, he took a leisurely canter towards the moral high ground, while never allowing himself to lose sight of his primary goals for British foreign policy. In short, his take is that Britain's two big priorities are tying the country economically to fast-growing regions around the world, and maintaining close security ties with countries that can help Britain with the threat of international terrorism. His argument is that promoting reform over repression bolsters those two goals in the long term. Why is this not a neoconservative pitch? Well, British officials say that Mr Cameron thinks the neoconservative blunder was to imagine that democracy can be dropped from a plane at 40,000 feet, and equates to holding elections.
The prime minister admitted to being “particularly keen” on being among the first foreign leaders to visit Egypt after the departure of Mr Mubarak. He had some calm, sensible things to say about the need to judge the new transitional government by their actions over the next few weeks and months, starting with their willingness to bring opposition leaders into their administration and allow concrete works on the “building blocks” of democracy.
He had stern words for Libya, calling the violent repression there “vicious” and “completely appalling”. Asked if he would meet the Muslim Brotherhood, Mr Cameron said no, but rejected the idea that Egypt and its neighbours faced a simple choice between autocracy and Islamic extremism. Under Mr Cameron, Britain pins a lot of hope on the rise of a range of moderate opposition parties: the talk is of supporting elections notable for their quality, not their rapidity. In Egypt, the prime minister told us:
What is so refreshing about what's been happening is that this is not an Islamist revolt, this is not extremists on the streets; this is people who want to have the sort of basic freedoms that we take for granted in the UK
The sang-froid continued on the ground in Cairo, as Mr Cameron met leaders of the Egyptian military. According to pool reports, he told his hosts Britain was “very keen to be helpful”, before adding with a nice blend of good manners and steel that:
As old friends of the Egyptian people, we come not to tell you how to do things but to ask how we can help you do what we know you want to do
It is hard to take issue with any of those statements, in and of themselves. But Bagehot is struck by just how much luck Mr Cameron will need if his strategy (keep it British, keep it imperturbable) is going to work. He will need to be lucky when it comes to Egypt, and hope that the revolution continues to look refreshingly wholesome. He can only hope British weapons or riot control equipment are not used to murder Libyan protestors. He will need to be lucky when it comes to his stirring advice for neighbouring regimes: Britain’s lofty calls for Arab leaders to avoid repression and embrace reform will sound swell as long as their countries do not lurch into civil strife, worse forms of autocracy or adopt aggressively anti-western or anti-Israeli policies.
It must be relatively easy for Mr Cameron to feel lucky in central Cairo today. Tahrir Square, the focal point of the protests that toppled Mr Mubarak, feels remarkably peaceful (superficially at least), except for a line of conspicuously unarmed, young military police guarding the central roundabout (but making no moves to stop flag-waving families from walking onto the traffic island to take souvenir pictures). There are tanks guarding military buildings and the hotel where Bagehot is typing these words, but young women in headscarves were posing in front of the largest tank, as a soldier grinned from a hatch. The smart posters stuck to every other lamppost turn out to be fresh calls for people to avoid dropping litter, in the name of serving their country.
Things were so calm that Mr Cameron went for a quick stroll in the square just now. I am indebted to my colleagues from the Press Association for a pool report. They say some members of the public called out “very good, very good” at the British prime minister. Mr Cameron then stopped to speak to a young man, who was identified by an older friend as Mohamed, aged 15. Mohamed “loves the new freedom”, his older friend told the British wire agency, adding: “Lovely-jubbly, tally-ho, tally ho.”
All very jolly, but the news flowing in from places like Libya is anything but cheerful. Mr Cameron is due here to brief us on his talks in a few minutes, then it is off to the airport and the next country. More later.
update at 1550GMT
Mr Cameron just briefed the travelling press pack. He paints an upbeat image of his brief walkabout in Tahrir Square, telling us the young people he had spoken to were articulate and "hugely inspiring". It is easy to see why they are such an attractive image for a visiting foreign leader. Quite apart from the historical resonances of young people demanding freedom in a city square, the moderate youths described by Mr Cameron have (today at least) provided him with a perfect reply when asked awkward questions about the Muslim Brotherhood, and his decision not to meet them. In his words:
Part of the problem is that people say, either you have the Muslim Brotherhood or the old regime. But actually most of Tahrir Square was taken up with people who want more openness and freedom... My argument is that by opening up societies, opening up participation, you give particularly young men something to believe in other than a more extreme Islamic route
They also provide a neat coda for his calls on the military transitional government to embrace reform. The army has played a "very positive role" in allowing the demonstrations to take place, the prime minister says. Now the interim government has to show this is a credible transition towards democracy. Mr Cameron says he told the defence minister, Field Marshal Muhammad Tantawi, and the prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, that the more the army opens up and includes opposition figures in its transition government, the more it can take its time establishing the building blocks of democracy. He lists steps that Egypt's new rulers should take: these include lifting the emergency law imposed after the murder of President Anwar Sadat and allowing new political parties to register.
He ended with a stirring peroration:
If Egypt is successful, we can demonstrate a huge and positive impact elsewhere in the region
Our next stops will take us to countries that are not democracies in the western liberal sense (we are not allowed to reveal the prime minister's itinerary in advance, for security reasons). Will they see the events in Tahrir Square the same way?
You can read Bagehot's thoughts from the next leg of the trip - in Kuwait - here
THE current debate about British voting systems and the structure of Parliament has a habit of drifting into the realm of dry theory. In a bid to plumb the real-world consequences of one big change on the table—the redrawing of almost every parliamentary constituency in Britain—Bagehot took himself off to the Isle of Wight for this week's print column. This small island off the south coast of England won a surprising victory on February 15th, fighting off attempts to split the island into one and a half seats, with the half seat added to a chunk of territory on the mainland.
Speaking to campaigners from the One Wight campaign (a cross-party outfit which lobbied for the right to keep the island as a single constituency), I was struck by their talk of the strong bonds between their community and their member of parliament. These were not party activists: indeed more than one said that their sense of connection with the "island MP" regardless of party. Some praised both the sitting MP and his predecessors, naming island MPs going back four or five decades, and recalling specific bits of legislation that they had promoted.
The same thing came up talking to journalists at Isle of Wight radio, who kindly arranged introductions to some local politicians. It was further confirmed when I started pestering members of the public trying to get on with their shopping in the largest town, Newport. In an unscientific straw poll, I stopped and asked a whole string of passers-by their views of the One Wight campaign, of the local MP and—in a final piece of cheek—asked them if they could name their MP (Andrew Turner, a Conservative). With one exception (a teenage mother wrangling with toddlers at a bus stop) every single islander I stopped named Mr Turner without hesitation. That would not be true in every seat in Britain.
People take their politics seriously round here, I was told several times. The island controversy of the moment involves plans to close nine of eleven public libraries as part of a general austerity drive. Public meetings held to discuss these closures have been so well-attended that they have had to move to larger halls. After expressing involuntary surprise that an island of 140,000 people had 11 public libraries, I followed up with some sincere admiration at this display of civic activism.
Several people offered explanations: life on the island is slower-paced; everyone knows each other; this is an old-fashioned sort of community; the public sector (a hospital, a large prison, the council) is the biggest employer; and so on. Doubtless these are all good points. But a couple of people mentioned something else that caught my attention. A typical commute from work is considered long if it lasts longer than 10 minutes. (The radio station has given up describing its morning and early evening slots as "drive time", because there is no rush hour. For most listeners the hours of seven to nine in the morning, and four to seven in the evening are thinking-about-setting-off time, or got-back-home time, I was told.)
David Cameron's Big Society drive to increase civic activism and localism is often dismissed as a wheeze most suitable for affluent communities, such as his own constituency in Oxfordshire. Yet the Isle of Wight is not especially affluent: local wages are below mainland levels, though the island does have a fair number of wealthy retirees or sailing-enthusiasts with second homes. What does set it apart is a lifestyle that offers unusual amounts of time (only 15% of islanders commute by ferry to the mainland for work). I suspect that explains quite a lot. Localism works, when everything really is local.
Here is the column:
IN THE summer of 1488 some 440 men from the Isle of Wight—a small island off England’s south coast—decided to declare war on France. Conceived by an ambitious local overlord, the plan went awry. Legend has it that a lone survivor straggled home, accusing the islanders’ allies—a bunch of rebel Bretons—of abandoning them in battle near Rennes. A memorial plaque to this fiasco, hailing the gallantry of those involved, hangs in Carisbrooke Castle, just below the room where local bigwigs locked Charles I after the civil war. (The king was on the run, and peeved islanders with further escape attempts, one of which left him wedged in his bedroom window.) When it comes to defying higher authority, in short, the Isle of Wight has form.
Now the island has done it again. On February 15th the government was forced to drop plans to split the Isle of Wight into one and a half parliamentary seats. The half-seat was to be joined to a chunk of the English mainland, creating a constituency divided by several miles of sea. Victory honours go to Lord Fowler, a former Conservative Party chairman and longtime island resident. Fully 196 peers, among them seven former Tory cabinet ministers, backed his House of Lords amendment that makes the Isle of Wight an exception to a government plan to redraw almost all British constituencies to fit a quota of 76,000 voters, with only small variations allowed. The Isle of Wight constituency (Britain’s biggest) currently boasts 110,000 electors.
Desperate to pass a wider package of electoral changes by a self-imposed deadline of February 17th, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition blinked, adding the Isle of Wight to a list of only two other exceptions, both of them sparsely populated Scottish seats. Unexpectedly, the government also said it would chop the island into two constituencies of 55,000 or so voters apiece (a local, cross-party campaign to preserve the island’s electoral integrity had offered to stick with just one MP, even though this would leave islanders under-represented). Cynics note this generosity suits the coalition, as the Isle of Wight is Tory territory with Lib Dem pockets.
Political scientists talk of a tension between the “mathematical” model, in which an MP represents a set of people, and an “organic” model, in which members represent communities. The Isle of Wight knows where it stands. “They are an island people, this is their bit of the country,” explains Lord Fowler. Andrew Turner, the sitting Conservative MP, talks of “a feeling of us-ness”. In Newport, the largest town, islanders say a mainland MP could never understand their home: a handsome backwater of green hills, chalk cliffs, beaches and yacht harbours, where the state is the largest employer. The islanders have duly defended an organic vision of politics, but—looking at the national picture—theirs is a lonely victory.
Not gerrymandering, but…
Governments have been fiddling with constituencies since 1832, when reformers swept away “rotten” boroughs with handfuls of voters, and enfranchised new industrial cities. Each time, their motives have blended principle and partisan calculation. The latest plans follow that tradition: coalition leaders point to disparities in the size of today’s seats—with the average Welsh seat, for example, boasting 56,500 voters, compared with 72,000 in England—and thunder about “the broken scales of our democracy”. In private, Tories gloat that the process may take perhaps 20 seats off Labour—and all in the name of fairness. There is nothing new about that, either: most constituency redistributions in modern times have been perilous for Labour, thanks to long-term population movements away from the party’s inner-city strongholds to more Tory-friendly suburbs.
But this time is also different. By insisting that almost all seats contain almost exactly the same number of voters, the government has made it impossible for constituencies to remain neatly inside county boundaries, as most do today (London is an outlier, with seats spreading across borough lines). Talk of a seat straddling Cornwall and Devon already has campaigners in the south-west incensed. Many more county borders (and rows) will follow. David Cameron and his coalition wax romantic about the pent-up power of organic, living communities. But in their plans for Westminster’s constituencies they look more like coldly rational Roundheads, sweeping aside ancient boundaries to create a parliament of pure, mathematical equality.
The mathematical camp does have a point. Its hero is Edmund Burke, the philosopher and MP who (rather bravely) informed his 18th-century constituents that he was not an agent for their narrow interests, but merely their elected representative in a national, deliberative assembly. And some Isle of Wight voters can sound pretty parochial. An MP shared with the mainland would “never be here,” says a woman shivering at a bus stop in the rain, “and if they did come, it would be at the convenience of the ferries.” Another talks of the island’s unique “needs”, mostly involving public cash.
But the government’s radical approach involves dangers. First, says one thoughtful Tory, most of his colleagues have yet to wake up to how sitting MPs will have to fight each other as safe seats shift or vanish (the House of Commons is set to shrink from 650 to 600 seats). A “disaster”, he mutters. More importantly, Britain has largely escaped the curse of outright gerrymandering: parliamentary boundaries are drawn by neutral civil servants, even if partisan appeals by party officials are common. The coalition’s plans still leave civil servants in charge. But by ignoring the historic boundaries of lots of tight-knit communities, they will further fray the ties between electors and the elected. With trust in short supply, it is an odd time to start alienating voters.
THERE was an odd whiff of the student debating society in the air today as David Cameron squared off against his deputy, the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, for a carefully choreographed start to the campaign over the Alternative Vote. With the filibustering over in the House of Lords, and a referendum on moving to this new voting system set for May 5th, the two party leaders had to set out why they dislike AV (in the case of the prime minister) or favour it (in the case of Mr Clegg).
But, like student tyros at a union society debate, there was a curious sense of formalised combat between chums, both of whom knew that their arguments consisted of a mixture of good points and try-ons. In parallel speeches and newspaper editorials, they were both exceedingly careful not to tear into each other. It was nothing like the atmosphere at Prime Minister's Questions, for example, which can often be genuinely venomous.
Mr Cameron's best argument for sticking with first-past-the-post?
It was when he said that with the AV system (in which voters rank candidates in order of preference, and votes for the least favoured candidates are redistributed until someone crosses the 50% line):
there could well be an occasion where we have a genuine second-choice government. If the last election was under AV, there would be the chance, right now, that Gordon Brown would still be Prime Minister
Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of AV (there will be time enough for chewing those over between now and May, believe you me), that line has real emotional resonance.
I have never forgotten the miserable atmosphere in Manchester last September when Ed Miliband won the Labour leadership after a leadership ballot conducted under the AV system. Part of that, of course, was down to the fact that the party members and MPs in Manchester had mostly voted for the elder Miliband brother, David, and resented the fact that Ed won on the back of union votes. But it was also the experience of watching the votes stacking up and being redistributed on a giant electronic screen, and seeing MiliD in the lead for the first three rounds, only to see him overtaken in the final round. So this is what AV feels like, I wrote at the time:
and it does not seem to feel so very good. Nobody here is threatening a coup. Nobody here in Manchester is suggesting that Ed Miliband did not win fair and square. But rather few here seem to feel exactly delighted, because so many of them voted for somebody else as their first choice
Mr Clegg's best point came when he framed his desire to see more weight given to third party votes with a concession. Yes first-past-the-post had worked well when two parties dominated British elections, he said, but those days were over:
The old system made sense when everyone voted either for the Conservative or Labour Party as they did 50 years ago. At the last election the two big parties mustered just shy of two-thirds of all votes, so you've got lots and lots of people whose voices simply aren't being heard. We need a system which reflects the variety of opinions which have developed in Britain over time
I think that it was smart of him to concede that there is a decisiveness to FPTP that is rather attractive, and to attack it now more in sorrow than in anger.
Mr Cameron's dodgiest argument?
I think that came when he argued that voters for fringe or extremist parties like the British National Party get extra votes compared to mainstream voters, because they can be almost sure that their second, third or even fourth preferences will be end up being added to the score of the eventual winner. Well, yes, that may happen, but something tells me that if a BNP voter's fourth preference results in a win for a Lib Dem candidate, that will not exactly be a cheering experience for the BNP voter. Also, in the system being proposed in Britain, nobody will be forced to fill in all the blanks on the form: voters will be allowed to place an X next to just one candidate. And something tells me that the angriest fringe party voters may do just that.
Mr Clegg's most spurious line?
Change in the way we do our politics come along once in a generation, whether it's the emancipation of women or giving the vote to millions of working people in this country
Yeah right. Last year he called AV a "miserable little compromise", and this year he is invoking Mrs Pankhurst.
When it comes to simply dreadful arguments, however, the official No campaign is making all the running. For reasons only they can know, they have decided to lead with the charge that a switch to AV would cost £250m, at a time when the public would rather be spending precious resources on schools-n'-hospitals or other worthy causes. Toby Young at the Telegraph blog site has a screen grab of a truly dismal poster showing a male model dressed up as a very unconvincing soldier, with the catchline:
He needs bulletproof vests NOT an alternative voting system. Say NO to spending £250m on AV. Our country can't afford it. No to AV
Mr Young makes the valid point that it is pretty depressing to obsess about the cost of a switch to AV (especially when the £250m number is pretty ropey, and involves adding up the cost of a referendum, voter education and the electronic voting machines that would supposedly be needed if Britain switched to AV) while ignoring the serious political arguments against such a voting system.
I have a still simpler objection. While I am as keen as the next man for British soldiers to be properly equipped, since when did we in Britain suggest that the cost of holding elections should be traded off against funding for the military? I imagine the cost of running a General Election under present rules is not nugatory. Is the No to AV camp suggesting we cannot afford proper democracy? Should we elect the next government by acclamation?
Still, clever of them to dream up a poster so dodgy that—should it fail to work in Britain—the No to AV camp can sell it to Colonel Muammar Qaddafi or the Egyptian military junta for use on the streets of Tripoli or Cairo, with only minimal alteration.
TIMBER! So shouted the wags on the opposition benches of the House of Commons yesterday, as David Cameron said he was not happy with how his government's plan to privatise English forests was going. Labour hecklers might also have been referring to the career of the cabinet minister in charge of forests, Caroline Spelman, which now resembles a tree freshly struck by lightning: still upright and covered with leaves, but stone-dead beetle-food at the core.
Late last night, more formal word came: a public consultation on selling hundreds of thousands of hectares of state-owned woodland is to be cancelled, and instead a panel of experts will meet to discuss woodland biodiversity and public access. In plain English, an about-face for the government.
Much has been said about the government's ineptitude in selling this policy, some of it by me. When I visited a woodland the other day for a print column, I also came away with the distinct impression that—especially in the wake of the credit crunch—the public is wary of the idea that the profit motive can co-exist with altruism. That is a big problem for Mr Cameron's Big Society, which does not really add up if it does not include a hefty role for the private sector.
Much has also been written about the slightly puzzling maths of this privatisation, notably when it turned out that an impact assessment conducted by Mrs Spelman's own department predicted that it would not save very much money. There is also the fact that the Forestry Commission rather efficiently cross-subsidises its stewardship of nice pretty woods and forests by flogging timber from the dark, ugly conifer plantations with which it disfigured the landscape in the post-war decades.
Defenders of the policy have also pointed out, correctly, that opponents of the privatisation have been spreading all manner of ludicrous scare-stories, implying that ancient woodlands like the Forest of Dean could soon be ringed with barbed-wire fences, while new private owners raze the trees within to build golf courses and holiday villages. Other opponents seem upset by the thought of anyone making money from cutting down trees at all, which is akin to weeping when a farmer harvests a field of wheat. Timber, after all, is also a crop.
I think one more aspect of this sorry tale needs wider circulation. This was not a bad idea because it was a privatisation. It was a mess because it was on its way to being seen as a rushed and bungled privatisation. And even the flintiest free-marketeer knows to beware botched sell-offs of state assets: few things are as deadly to public acceptance of an economy based on competition.
I spoke to the Environment Secretary for my column, and she admitted up front that the scheme was "not principally about revenue-raising." Instead, the plan emerged from the incoming government's decision to review all arms of the state and its associated agencies, bodies and quangos, and examine which of them made sense. When Mrs Spelman took office, she discovered that her sprawling department of the environment, food and rural affairs funded 92 arms-length bodies. Various tests were applied to each of them. The most important principle was this: that the state should only do what only the state can do.
In Mrs Spelman's view, the Forestry Commission—a regulator that was also the seller of 70% of the timber entering the British market—failed this classic test that has triggered countless privatisations over the years. "The Forestry Commission is selling Christmas trees, for goodness sake. What is the state doing selling Christmas trees?" she asked me.
And here is the thing. The principle that the state should only do what only the state can do is a pretty sound starting point for policy-making. It is just that—with the benefit of hindsight—the Forestry Commission does not pass this test in a clean-cut way. At least, not in a way that is so cut-and-dried that a simple public case can be made for it.
If the commission only owned commercial timber plantations, it would be easy to know what to say: sell them. If instead the commission only owned a few "heritage woods", it should not have been beyond the wit of Whitehall to transfer their management into the hands of willing charities like the National Trust, with suitable guarantees about back-up funding. But the problem is that the commission is neither fish nor fowl. It owns ugly, profitable woods; it owns ancient and famous forests; and it also owns a whole host of small and medium-sized woods that are used for a mix of commercial forestry and recreation; it employs scientists who track diseases and pests that threaten British trees; it is also a regulator. It once had a terrible record of planting conifers in straight lines all over the country, but in recent years has become much more concerned about restoring ancient broadleaf trees, so it is also an environmental protection agency.
Quite probably a privatisation was still the right way forward, with a better minister to sell it and more willingness to spend political capital and defend from first principles the shrinking of non-essential bits of the state. But why was the Forestry Commission so high on the government's agenda, in its first year in office, given that it is a small, cheap and relatively efficient bit of the state?
Thinking back to Mrs Spelman, dutifully scanning her 92 arms-length bodies, I recall waves of press stories about the new government's plans for a "Bonfire of the Quangos" (I also recall how most of the stories focussed on the pay and pensions of those agencies' bosses, a populist angle much encouraged by government spin-doctors). It would be pretty depressing if the forests were added for the sake of bulking up that pyre and attracting a few quick headlines, rather than because they were prime candidates for a well-crafted sale.
DAVID Cameron was out today re-launching the Big Society, trying to hack a clear narrative path through a subject that has most voters pretty baffled. And no wonder, after the government spent months talking up the idea of volunteering, community groups and charities getting involved in the delivery of public services—only to run into a torrent of complaints from leading charities about cuts to their funding.
Fans of the Big Society argue that the heavy focus on volunteering is missing the point, as their radical programme is also about decentralisation, transparency and encouraging citizens to take more responsibility for their communities after years of an expanding, infantilising big state. They also argue that charities losing grants from local councils will be able to tap into far larger pots of money once big reforms come through in policy areas like the National Health Service. Charities will be able to bid for contracts worth millions, they enthuse.
I confess this last argument has me unconvinced: the pot of money going to charities is not as fungible as that, surely. If you are a tiny charity running an arts and drama club for the elderly and you lose council funding, it is a stretch to expect that same charity to turn itself into an NHS provider able to bid for contracts. Surely the reforms will involve the withering away of some charities that became dependent on state funding, and the growth of others that have the scale and the flexibility to thrive in a new funding environment.
Conservative MPs hang their heads in dismay at the inept communication of the whole project. I have found they talk with particular venom about Caroline Spelman, the cabinet minister in charge of selling the privatisation of England's state-owned forestry estates. One newly elected MP I bumped into at Westminster this afternoon was complaining that he has precisely no Forestry Commission land in his constituency, and yet had still been swamped with letters and emails from voters demanding that he halt the privatisation of a local wood, to preserve its open access to the public. As the wood in question is and has always been privately-owned, it was proving hard to know how to reply, the MP sighed.
But it was another Tory new boy who captured the mood among his side at Westminster best, I think. The Big Society was not cover for cuts, this MP argued, it was a fairly radical attempt to decentralise a very centralised country and inject competition into public services. It was just that the government had talked almost exclusively about allowing volunteers and charities to do more marvellous things. This, said the MP with some passion, is what happens when you try to sell right-wing policies with left-wing arguments.
The bad news is, I think the speech was seriously muddled and as a result unconvincing, for reasons set out below.
I also think something else, though, which did not fit in the print column. I think that Mr Cameron, a man of strikingly good manners most of the time, forgot his natural courtesy. For starters, I agree with critics who say it was clumsy to give what was essentially a domestic speech about Muslims in Britain at an international security conference, as if implying that the presence of Muslims on British soil was essentially a question of national security and counter-terrorism.
Speaking to one MP last night, he suggested that Mr Cameron was trying rather crudely to position himself as an ally of the German chancellor Angela Merkel (who was at the Munich conference) and the French president Nicolas Sarkozy, both of whom have come out swinging against multiculturalism in recent months. I think there is a lot to that. Indeed, in a sort of inter-governmental relay race, on Thursday evening Mr Sarkozy told French television he agreed with Mr Cameron that multiculturalism had "failed".
Read in full, Mr Cameron's speech was actually more subtle than the rather crude rhetoric of either Mrs Merkel or Mr Sarkozy. He was at pains to say that piety and extremism were two separate things, and that to talk about the idea of an inclusive British national identity open to all.
At one point on TF1 last night, Mr Sarkozy seemed to suggest that French Muslims questioned the idea of young girls going to school, as if they were the Taliban. Not for the first time, he also echoed complaints first made by the far-right National Front, in this case the idea that it is un-French to pray in the street. Marine Le Pen, the new leader of the National Front (who also opportunistically praised Mr Cameron's speech this week, to Downing Street's dismay) recently compared Muslims praying in French streets with German occupiers. Mr Sarkozy avoided that degree of bone-headed bad taste, but did say: "We don't want people praying ostentatiously in the street in France," though mosques, he conceded were a "normal" part of life.
The problem for Mr Cameron is that very few people read speeches in full, as he well knows. And this is where his manners failed him. Because lots and lots of people who read only the media reports of his speech came away with the impression that he had said multiculturalism had failed. In fact he was more careful/tricksy than that, talking about the "failed policies of the past" at one point, and at another point talking about the problems with what he mysteriously called "the doctrine of state multiculturalism".
And among the people who came away with that impression were some of the moderate Muslims working in Britain to try to promote the good thing that they consider to be multiculturalism: meaning, simply, a mutual respect between different cultures.
Researching the column, I came across a fascinating 2010 report on preventing extremism by the all-party House of Commons select committee on communities and local government, which took evidence from a huge number of different people (it is 300 pages long, but I recommend a look). My curiosity was piqued by one of the witnesses, a Birmingham historian, Jahan Mahmood, who works with young Muslims, especially those in trouble with the law. Mr Mahmood's passion is the remarkable and largely-forgotten history of the Indian troops who volunteered to fight for the British in the second world war, many of them with extraordinary courage. There was no conscription in India, though it was part of the British Empire. More than 600,000 Muslims volunteered to serve. Many of them were from tribal regions of modern-day Pakistan: areas which had supplied warriors to empires and dynasties for centuries, and many of their descendants now live in Britain. Given that Mr Cameron's main complaint was that young Muslims felt rootless and unable to connect with any form of British identity, this project sounded like just the sort of thing of which Downing Street might approve.
So I telephoned Mr Mahmood, to ask about his project, and his own reaction to the Munich speech. Now, this is only one anecdote, but with that health warning given, here is what he said.
In Birmingham, he told me, whites and young Muslims too often feel that very little connects them. Describing his work with young offenders, he gave the example of some young Muslim men from Sparkbrook, "getting into all sorts of madness", and who—he discovered—had downloaded videos of a British hostage being beheaded in Iraq on their mobile telephones. "I said, why have you got these downloads, and they said: Britain hates us, Britain hates all Muslims, so we hate them," he told me.
While trying to persuade them that they were wrong, Mr Mahmood told them about his own uncle, a Pakistani who fought with the British in Burma. One of the young men later asked his own grandfather about this, and found out the old man had a Burma Star campaign medal at home: it was a link that had never been discussed before.
Mr Mahmood's presentation, which he has given many times at community centres, describes the gallantry of these Indian Army units, the medals they won, and how some of the youngest soldiers in the war were 15 year old volunteers from the sub-continent. Does it work? Well, Mr Mahmood makes no wild claims for his project. It makes a difference for some, he says: he is proud of having brought together Muslim and white youths, and showing them how their grandfathers had fought and died together. Others respond less well, he concedes, angrily telling him that he is just describing colonial exploitation.
But the point is, Mr Mahmood is surely the kind of community volunteer that Mr Cameron would like to encourage: his work is precisely aimed at showing Muslims how they have been proud actors in British history for a long time. And yet, Mr Mahmood was discouraged by reports of the prime minister's speech.
"This country is built on multiculturalism. It means appreciating and respecting other people's traditions," he said. He cited stories about British servicemen defending Afro-Caribbean comrades in British pubs during the war, when American soldiers refused to drink alongside them. "There were punch-ups between the Americans and the British over it," noted Mr Mahmood. He agrees with Mr Cameron that Britain had not done enough to ensure its different communities met and knew each other. "I wouldn't have started my work if there weren't a gap," he said.
But he thought he had heard that Mr Cameron thought multiculturalism had failed, and that hurt. "For him to say what he said, it put me on the backfoot."
Here is this week' print column:
ON FEBRUARY 5th David Cameron gave a speech about Islamism and British values at a conference in Munich. Back home, the rows have not stopped since. Much of the fuss has a distinctly synthetic tang. Absurdly, Sadiq Khan, the Labour shadow justice secretary, accused the prime minister of “writing propaganda” for a far-right group that held a rally on the same day. Conservatives chortled that Mr Cameron had hailed the end of multiculturalism. What he actually said was that a doctrine of “state multiculturalism” had encouraged Britons to live segregated lives. In its stead, he proposed a “muscular liberalism” that confronts extremism and promotes a British identity open to all.
In short, Mr Cameron’s big speech was not as ferocious as his critics charge or some of his fans hope. The bad news is, large parts were an unconvincing muddle.
Much of it was not new. A year after the London bombings of July 2005 Ruth Kelly, then the Labour minister in charge of community policies, asked whether—in its anxiety to avoid imposing a single British identity on diverse communities—multiculturalism had encouraged “separateness”. In December 2006 Tony Blair gave a speech on multiculturalism that reads like a list of Mr Cameron’s talking points. Both prime ministers called for tighter controls on Muslim groups receiving public funds, an entry ban on foreign preachers with sulphurous views, a tougher line on forced marriages and an expectation that all British citizens support common values, from the rule of law to a rejection of discrimination. As for identity, under Mr Blair and his successor Gordon Brown the government was obsessed with “Britishness” (Mr Brown briefly floated plans for an annual “Britain Day”).
Why, then, did Mr Cameron bother to give a speech that was greeted by one weary official with the lament, “here we go again”? Politics, partly. Few prime ministers can resist denouncing what Mr Cameron dubbed the “failed policies of the past”. But mostly, Mr Cameron’s intention was to weigh in on one side of a debate that has gripped Whitehall for a decade: should the government fight terrorism by working with ideological extremists who claim to oppose violent acts in Britain (if not elsewhere)?
In its final counter-terrorist strategy in office, Labour plumped for challenging such “non-violent extremists”. Mr Cameron is intervening because he thinks that decision has not been followed through, says a Whitehall source. The prime minister, says the source, has been persuaded by the “conveyor belt” theory—the belief that non-violent extremism is often a “way point” on the road to lethal radicalism. Mr Cameron thinks multiculturalism has drifted from a tolerance of other cultures towards a tolerance of other value systems, some of them hostile to Britain.
That stress on values raises some daunting problems. First, there is a tension between values and tactics. The most coherent critics of dangerous preachers are often imams who hold “pretty unpleasant views” themselves, argues a senior official. Groups beloved by ministers—such as the Quilliam Foundation, which backs calls for sweeping curbs on radical preachers—have “no credibility” among ordinary Muslims, another official says. Mr Cameron calls it “nonsense” that extremists help keep vulnerable Muslims away from violence. But he cannot wish away the trade-off between liberal values and street credibility.
Next, a lot of people outside the secular British mainstream reject at least some of Mr Cameron’s list of non-negotiable British values: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law and equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality. That sits awkwardly with his “Big Society” plans to deliver public services through community bodies, and especially his enthusiasm for faith schools. Many of these are essentially selective state schools in disguise, barely troubling the happy hypocrisies of British live-and-let-live agnosticism. But others offer a sharper challenge: evangelical Christian schools, Hindu academies, Orthodox Jewish schools or private Muslim ones that—quite legally—devote half the day to theology and Koranic studies and shun all arts and humanities subjects apart from religious education. This points up another muddle. For all Mr Cameron’s talk of failed policies, something like state multiculturalism (ie, offering public support while ignoring tricky differences in values) remains the British default response to religions other than Islam, whose angriest fringe has overwhelmed unmuscular liberalism.
Good diagnosis, dodgy prescription
One final muddle. At the Munich conference, Mr Cameron correctly observed that some on the left think Islamist terrorism might be fixed by addressing grievances such as poverty or Western foreign policy. This, he noted, ignores the fact that many terrorists are middle class, and that lots of people loathe Western foreign policy without resorting to violence. He might have added that tackling poverty and changing foreign policy are anyway pleasing prospects to the left. Politicians are always tempted by the idea that something they already favour might be a magic solution to a problem.
But the prime minister then fell into the same trap, suggesting that some young Muslim men find it hard to identify with Britain “because we have allowed the weakening of our collective identity.” That is catnip to Tories who want to teach children patriotic history. But that “because” is a logical stretch. True, young Muslims cannot identify with a vacuum. But filling it with assertive Britishness is no guarantee of winning hearts and minds.
Mr Cameron has committed Britain to a national contest of values with radical Islamism. That would be ambitious even without the muddle that underpins his challenge. Ignore his hysterical critics, and swooning cheerleaders. Mr Cameron has much more persuading to do.
DAVID Cameron decided to ride the tiger of populist anger today, more or less urging Conservative MPs to vote for an amendment challenging a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), in which the court's judges objected to Britain's blanket ban on voting by those serving prison sentences.
Mr Cameron has a track record of being both bold and lucky as a politician. If he is lucky then he will leap nimbly from the tiger's back, pocket a massive House of Commons vote in favour of the motion, which is non-binding, and tell the European court that he has a problem enforcing their ruling: namely that his sovereign parliament strongly opposes the idea of votes for prisoners. At which point, if he continues to be lucky, the ECHR will fold or do a minimal deal allowing the vote for only the most minor offenders serving very short sentences: after all, its justices raised three big objections to the blanket ban on prisoner voting, and one of them was that Britain's parliament had not debated the issue properly. By tonight, that last objection will have been dealt with.
(A brief point of information here. The ECHR, which sits in Strasbourg, is nothing to do with the European Union. Set up in 1959, it is the court that polices the European Convention on Human Rights, an international treaty drafted shortly after the horrors of the second world war, and which binds the 47 member nations of the Council of Europe).
If Mr Cameron is less lucky, the ECHR will stick to its guns and insist that very large numbers of prisoners are given the vote (British government lawyers currently guess that prisoners serving four years or less might have to get the vote to satisfy the ECHR). In a worst case, the ECHR not only continues to order Britain to let prisoners vote but hands compensation to all prisoners currently serving in British prisons. During today's debate, the attorney general Dominic Grieve noted that there are currently 73,000 people behind bars at the moment, and each could in theory win £1,000 or £1,500 in compensation and costs. Until Mr Cameron started his tiger-riding, that risk of paying out many millions of pounds to old lags was his government's main argument for making the smallest possible concession to satisfy the ECHR.
As late as yesterday, the justice secretary and Lord Chancellor Kenneth Clarke (a rumpled barrister type and hate figure for those on the Tory law-and-order right) was to be heard saying that the government would have to abide by the judgement of the court, and insisted that the idea that rapists and murderers would get the vote was "alarmist nonsense". But, he went on: "I think the Prime Minister, like everyone else accepts like everyone else that Government complies with its legal obligations."
Soon afterwards the prime minister decided to co-opt the rebellion gaining unstoppable momentum in the Commons, announcing: "I don't see any reason why prisoners should get the vote. This is not a situation I want this country to be in."
That was interpreted as the prime minister contradicting Mr Clarke. That underestimates the care with which Mr Cameron chose his words, I suspect. Mr Clarke thinks Mr Cameron will bow to his legal obligations. Mr Cameron does not want the country to have to give prisoners the vote. Those two statement may yet prove to be perfectly compatible.
The problem for Mr Cameron is that the tiger of anti-European populism has been well and truly unleashed, and may prove hard to re-tether should it become clear that Mr Cameron (who has said that the idea of prisoners voting makes him "physically ill") is going to endorse some sort of fudge. The Daily Mail, tribune of Tory middle England, splashed today with the banner headline:
STAND UP FOR BRITAIN'S RIGHTS
under the sub-head:
By overturning Europe's ruling that British prisoners must have the vote, MPs today have a historic chance to regain control of OUR laws
If tigers can have perfect storms, this is one. By huge majorities, Britons oppose giving prisoners the vote. Most Britons also think that the House of Commons should decide this question, not "unelected judges" (as the papers always call ECHR justices, as if British judges were elected). What is more, these justices are from Europe (the EU/Council of Europe distinction is deemed irrelevant), and in some cases are law professors sent to Strasbourg by their home governments, rather than being trained judges. Some are from small countries, and some are from rather nasty countries. In the revealingly contemptuous words of today's Mail editorial:
The "one country, one judge" rule means that Liechtenstein, San Marino, Monaco and Andorra each have a seat on the bench, despite their combined populations being smaller than the London borough of Islington...Nine judges, including those from Azerbaijan and Russia, are from national internationally categorised by Freedom House as "not free" or "partly free". Yet they are allowed to dictate the laws of Britain—a country with 60 million people, which invented the concept of human rights hundreds of years ago.
As if all this were not enough, the ECHR is an increasingly activist court, whose rulings draw on the spirit rather than the letter of the convention. Its rulings have at times been calculated to cause anger in middle England, as when they have blocked the deportation of terrorist suspects to home countries where they might be tortured, or ordered compensation for unpleasant criminals arguing, for instance, that prosecutors took too long to bring them to trial. Indeed, the starting-point for this latest fuss was a claim brought against the British government by a man jailed in 1979 for killing his landlady with an axe. That claim was upheld by the ECHR five years ago, but the then Labour government did nothing about it, apparently hoping the politically toxic issue would somehow go away.
At time of writing, the Commons debate was still underway, but it seems certain that with ministers abstaining and Labour saying it opposes votes for prisoners, a huge majority of MPs will back a motion tabled by the former Labour cabinet minister Jack Straw, and David Davis, a right-wing Tory known for Euroscepticism but also a commitment to civil liberties. Their motion is more moderate than some would like.
There have been calls from outfits like Policy Exchange, a centre-right think tank, for Britain to consider withdrawal from the jurisdiction of the ECHR if the court does not agree to major reform. That would probably force Britain out of the Council of Europe, and cause at the least a messy tangle around Britain's membership of the EU (because the EU as a legal entity is bound by the convention in many of its actions).
But the Straw-Davis motion nods to the convention's binding nature on Britain. The key part reads:
[This House] acknowledges the treaty obligations of the UK; is of the opinion that legislative decisions of this nature should be a matter for democratically-elected lawmakers; and supports the current situation in which no prisoner is able to vote except those imprisoned for contempt, default or on remand.
So (deep breath). After that smidgeon of background, what do I think is going on?
1. Though this row is being presented as a push-back against absurd, politically-correct rulings and the horrid idea of prisoners voting, I think that the really revealing fury is centred on Britain's submission to foreign judges. There is a real push underway, strongly supported by Conservative MPs and especially newly-elected Tories, to reassert Britain's sovereignty in some way, any way possible.
The Policy Exchange paper is especially revealing: it essentially argues that Britain should undertake to police tough and far-reaching British human rights laws in its Supreme Court, and then hope that the manifest quality of British courts silences doubters overseas who might be tempted to dub Britain a rogue state. Lest anyone doubt what is really up, the author of the paper begins with a declaration of British exceptionalism, of a sort that would be entirely recognisable to many American readers, but which is rather unusual within the polite confines of Europe:
The starting point for this report is the view that the United Kingdom has a valuable and relatively rare political tradition unbroken by foreign occupation, civil war, totalitarian rule or revolution. (Admittedly, the conflict in Northern Ireland has had some of the features of civil war but thankfully on a lesser scale than in countries such as Spain.) Because of this tradition, we can afford to have a truly democratic government. We mean by this a government, no matter the colour, which the British electorate have good reason to be confident can be (and often is) removed as a direct result of an election. Because of this, we can afford to have a powerful executive. The consequence of this is that assurances of human dignity and well being emanating from a supra-national institution, including those involved in promoting human rights, carry significantly less force than in countries that do not enjoy the same tradition of democratic continuity. Criticism of these bodies does not stem from any nationalistic motives but from the realisation that they are remote, unaccountable and, therefore, comparatively inefficient.
This is important stuff. This passage, I think, represents a sighting of authentic, present-day mainstream British Euroscepticism, as believed by most Tory MPs. This is how such MPs solve for themselves the mystery of proud, sovereign nations like France or Germany bowing to nagging from the ECHR: the French and Germans were just not blessed to be born British (many Conservatives will also assert, with more confidence than evidence, that France simply ignores any European court rulings against it, and good on them).
2. I think the ECHR really does have a problem of credibility as an increasingly activist court. Speaking in the debate today, Jack Straw was right when he said:
By extending their remit into areas way beyond any original conception of fundamental human rights the court in Strasbourg is, I suggest, undermining its own legitimacy and its potential effectiveness in respect of the purposes for which it was established
3. But this debate has also made it embarrassingly obvious that the whole question of removing the vote from prisoners has more to do with emotion and arbitrary ideas of punishment, than any coherent theory of citizenship. This newspaper (and this blogger) support voting rights for prisoners.
It is a give-away that the press keeps writing about the outrage of giving the vote to "violent thugs and killers" or paedophiles and sex offenders. This is a beauty contest in reverse: the clear message is that voting is not for the most wicked in society. Well, if wickedness is the criterion, not all the wicked people in Britain are in prison. Some may have finished long prison sentences: I have yet to see even the hardest-line MP calling for prisoners to lose the vote for life. Some may not have broken the law. I dislike the idea of all kinds of wicked people voting, such as those who vote for racist or extremist parties. But Britain has universal suffrage for adults, and nowhere in that legal principle does it talk about quality control.
Prisoners have rights, of course – the right to decent treatment, to be properly fed, clothed, and housed – but we should not confuse them with the more general rights of free British citizens. When you commit a crime which is sufficiently serious to put you in prison, you sacrifice many important rights – your liberty, your freedom of association, and your vote. When you break the law, you cannot make the law.
In the Commons debate, another Conservative MP, Robert Walter, said:
For more than 200 years our criminal justice system has been guided by a simple and sound formula: if you're convicted of a serious crime, you forfeit the right to freedom. If you breach the contract with society and compromise that right, you've compromised the right to participate in civic processes.
A Labour MP, Michael McCann, pitched his argument still lower, saying: "The public know instinctively when something is right or wrong." I wonder if Mr McCann takes the same view on capital punishment, which retained majority support in public opinion years after its abolition by Parliament.
But things do not become settled legal history just because an MP says them.
An excellent briefing by the House of Commons library traces the roots of the prisoner voting ban back to the mediaeval concept of civic death, and from there to the idea of felons forfeiting their land (which meant that they failed to meet the land-owning test applied to voters before the extension of suffrage in the late 19th century). The Forfeiture Act 1870 removed the rule by which felons forfeited their land, but took the vote from anyone sentenced to more than 12 months in prison. This law was tweaked and modified and indeed toughened so that currently Britain is one of only 13 Council of Europe members with a blanket ban (the others are Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Moldova, Russia and Slovakia).
A lone voice, the Liberal Democrat MP, Tom Brake, noted this afternoon that we do not as a country still believe in civic death:
Prisoners have committed a crime, their punishment is to lose their liberty - that is fair and just. What is then gained by seeking to inflict civil [sic] death on them? In what way does it benefit the victim and does it increase the chance of rehabilitation? What is the logic behind this ban? We do not remove prisoners' access to healthcare or we don't stop them practising their religion, so why should we impose a blanket ban on a prisoner's right to vote?
The Labour MP Denis MacShane went further, telling the Commons that Russia has a blanket ban but in that country criminals also get elected, so is a poor role model, adding:
We are turing our back today on more than a century and a half of prison reform. Someone may enter prison as a criminal. But hopefully they will leave as a future citizen.
The House of Commons briefing includes some fascinating quotes from former prison governors and prison chaplains, supporting the right to vote inside prison, including this one from Peter Selby, former Bishop to HM Prisons:
Denying convicted prisoners the right to vote serves no purpose of deterrence or reform. What it does is to state in the clearest terms society’s belief that once convicted you are a non-person, one who should have no say in how society is to develop, whose opinion is to count for nothing. It is making someone an ‘outlaw’, and as such has no place in expressing a civilised attitude towards those in prison. The notion of civic death is applied selectively. People serving a sentence of any length continue to contribute financially to society from within prison. They pay tax on their savings, capital gains and any earnings they may receive during their sentence. If they are civically alive when it comes to financial contributions, they should be treated in the same way when it comes to basic human rights.
4.In their zeal to take back sovereignty, it is startling how many MPs are ready to contemplate breaking international treaty obligations. Here is David Davis again, arguing that Britain cannot be forced to obey the ECHR:
Britain cannot be forced to give prisoners the vote or to pay compensation to prisoners who sue the government. The Strasbourg Court has no power to fine Britain for non-compliance with its judgments.The Council of Europe has failed to expel Bulgaria for police brutality, Moldova for torture and Russia for atrocities committed in Chechnya, so it is hardly likely to expel a country for standing up for its proper constitutional rights. If Parliament rejects the proposal to give prisoners the vote, the matter will simply remain on the long list of unenforced judgments reviewed by the Committee of Ministers.
5. And here, weary reader, is where I end. Given that even the hardest-line critics of the ECHR want to see human rights law monitored by the British Supreme Court, and given that British judges are pretty hot on upholding human rights, I suspect that British human rights would not deteriorate dramatically were we to take the course suggested by Mr Davis, Policy Exchange et al.
I can tell you what would happen though. A British pull-out from the ECHR, or a British decision to reject a ruling by the court, would give great comfort to just those governments cited by Mr Davis above. The ECHR is attacked in this country for having a huge backlog of thousands of unheard cases. Much of that backlog involves Russian cases, because the ECHR has become—in the words of one old Moscow hand—the "unofficial supreme court of Russia". Look at the list of countries that have flouted ECHR rulings in the recent past. Russia is there, as is Azerbaijan (a country with a noted enthusiasm for jailing journalists, among other things).
The ECHR is very far from perfect. But a country lucky enough to enjoy the rule of law, like Britain, should think long and hard before flouting international treaties which offer perhaps the only hope of legal recourse to people in much less lucky climes.
Above all (and with apologies for a very long posting) though prisons are full of nasty people, they are also full of adult citizens of this country. Declaring that such citizens have lost the moral authority to vote just because they are behind bars is an arbitrary decision, not a principle carved on the granite of the common law. Let them vote.
A LOT OF heat, and some light, has been generated by the news that the Liberal Democrat leader and deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, is to thump the table and tell the bosses of British universities to do more for social mobility. Mr Clegg, we are told, will say that universities wishing to charge the highest fees allowed under the forthcoming £9,000 annual cap will have to show a correspondingly high "level of ambition" when it comes to admitting students from poorer backgrounds and state schools.
In a piece of calculated cynicism, aides to Nick Clegg (Westminster School, then Cambridge) have briefed leftish papers like the Guardianthat they are concerned by the number of privately educated pupils at Oxford and Cambridge. The Guardian cites a "source close to Clegg" saying:
These statistics demonstrate just how closed many of our universities are to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Universities should be the greatest agent of social mobility that we have in this country, but too often instead they are serving as instruments of social segregation.
Duly rising to the bait, rightish papers like the Daily Telegraph have thundered about the iniquity of obliging Oxbridge to lower its admission standards for state school pupils, predicting a torrent of appeals from parents of privately-educated rejects, and concluding in a leader:
The UK’s top universities have been an island of excellence in a rising tide of mediocrity. We undermine these elite institutions, in pursuit of an egalitarian agenda, at our peril
In the Wall Street Journal, Iain Martin makes the perfectly reasonable point that it would be nice to hear a government with ideas for improving state education overall, rather than crudely jamming its thumb on the scales at the moment when comprehensive pupils try to get into top universities. In his words:
Of course there is a crisis in social mobility. Politics and the professions are becoming much more difficult for the poorest to penetrate. Look at the cabinet featuring Cameron (Eton), Osborne (St. Pauls) and Clegg (Westminster). Britain’s best universities are increasingly dominated, much more than they were in my day, by the products of those and other top schools.But the answer is not to water down entry requirements to the best universities. Or discriminate in favor of groups of children that government ministers might feel guilty about having let down by failing to supply them with a good enough education in the state system.The answer is to dramatically improve state education (will this idea ever really catch on?) so that far more children from poor and modest-earning backgrounds get the grades they need to go to a top university. Previous generations used grammar schools to help boost standards and to achieve this. They unleashed a wave of social mobility. The government is in favor of free schools, but will that reform alone be enough? I can’t see that it will be
Mr Martin also makes the good point that this is yet another example of a coalition leader coming over all bossy and dirigiste, while all the while pledging loyalty to the idea of bodies like universities being freed from central control.
Much of this is right. The gulf between Britain's best and worst schools is indefensible.
But there is also something deeply bogus about this fuss, from the spectacle of Mr Clegg banging his fist on the table and demanding that top universities stop being "closed" to poorer students, to right-wing attacks on dumbing-down entry standards.
Why? Well, because top universities including Oxford and Cambridge already make much lower offers to promising students from poorer backgrounds, difficult family circumstances or state schools where Oxbridge entrance is almost unknown. And what is more, they have been doing it for years. The country's best universities could fill all their places several times over with hard-working, expensively-trained but rather dull private school pupils who would all cruise smoothly to 2:1 degrees. But the thought of that fills dons with horror, and has for decades. Back in the late 1980s, when I applied to university, it was well known that it was harder to get in from private school, and that always seemed perfectly fair. In fresher's week, apart from making bad mugs of instant coffee and asking people about their GAP years, one of the more tragic topics of conversation revolved around what A-level offers people had been given, and what grades they had actually got. It was no secret at all, and nobody made a secret of it, that pupils from tough comprehensives had been made lower offers.
Later, as we all got to know each other, it still seemed fair. Some people were from private schools that sent dozens of pupils to Oxbridge every year. Some told of schools where nobody had been to Oxbridge for years, and where one or two devoted teachers mugged up on old notes from their own university days to prepare their lone candidate for the examinations.
Still later, in the swirl of twenty-something London life, another penny dropped, and it occurred to me that perhaps the biggest advantage of an expensive education does not even lie in examination results, but in something else, between self-confidence and a belief that a top university is an achievable, reasonable goal.
In conversation, ferociously ambitious and clever people would talk about how they had never even dreamed of applying to one of the top universities because it was not what people from their school did. Oxbridge, they had believed aged 17 or 18, was for posh people. But now, they would say, they kept meeting posh Oxbridge graduates who were not very clever or impressive and thinking, hang on, if you could get in, I could have too.
It is an inescapable fact that if you go to a school in which half of the sixth form gets into Oxbridge each year, and you are well up in the top half of pupils for your year, applying to Oxbridge is an entirely rational act. It is still stressful and demands lots of hard work. Pupils at such schools will frequently hear conversations about how they will have to do especially well to overcome the handicap of being from a posh background: this is a universal lament already among parents who send their children to the top schools. But, and it is a big but, there will be something exceedingly normal about the whole endeavour. Given that entrance offers are already much more flexible that many commentators admit, this confidence gap must be one of the biggest drivers of social immobility.
What does that mean for policy-makers? Well, I suspect it means that the slow, hard grind of outreach programmes, summer schools, mentoring schemes and the rest are more important than ever. But perhaps it also means that those worried about social mobility and tuition fees need to think carefully about using responsible language.
I am sure Nick Clegg thinks he is on the side of the angels here (as well as trying to pick a fight over social mobility to recover from his public humiliation over tuition fees). But if even one bright 16 year old picks up today's Guardian in the sixth form common room of his or her state school, reads that the top universities are "closed" to people from poor backgrounds, and decides that applying to such a university is a cruel waste of effort, then Mr Clegg has done something rather wicked.
A RELIABLE filler-item for newspapers the world over is the sponsored survey. You know the sort of thing: articles headed "Children who eat breakfast cereal do better in school", which reveal in the final paragraph that the "new research" was paid for by a cereal-maker. These stories are annoying not just because they are lazy journalism, but because so often they muddle up cause and effect. I am perfectly willing to believe that children do better at school, on average, if they begin their day with a proper breakfast sitting at a table with a spoon, bowl and glass of milk, compared to some desperate child who has to hunt for a packet of Monster Munch in the cupboard to start the day, because the rest of the family is still asleep.
But what you are picking up there is not, I suspect, primarily a story of the nutritional superiority of cornflakes over crisps. By the same token, I am sure that you could conduct surveys that show better school performance for children whose shirts are clean and ironed each day, or for children who take violin lessons each week. But would you be picking up an interaction between brain chemistry and Persil, or the sound waves of a well-tuned violin?
I mention all this because of a recent flurry of commentaries from the Tory right, complaining that David Cameron is not doing enough to reinforce the traditional family, and the institution of marriage. Peter Oborne, in today's Daily Telegraph, makes some reasonable points about how New Labour moved away from tax policies that favoured marriage, and notes that all manner of illiberal left-wingers, from the Bolsheviks to Marx, have seen the family as an enemy to be broken.
He cites research by the Centre for Social Justice, a conservative think-tank founded by the former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, that suggests that family breakdown has devastating effects on adults but still more on children. That sounds plausible and worth exploring. But Mr Oborne then goes on to state that the research also:
showed that marriage had a massive effect on protecting family stability.The figures are shatteringly eloquent. Children who do not grow up in a two-parent family are 75 per cent more likely to fail at school, 70 per cent more likely to be a drug addict, 50 per cent more likely to become an alcoholic and 35 per cent more likely to sink into welfare dependency.Now consider this: the data suggest that scarcely one in 12 married couples splits up by their child’s fifth birthday, while half of all parents who are cohabiting do so. Of course, these findings are still sneered at and dismissed by ruling-class institutions such as the British Academy and the BBC
Trust me, I am not sneering when I say that I think such research may not be as clear-cut a proof as Mr Oborne hopes. At a time when marriage is increasingly rare in Britain, the kind of people who choose to marry before having children are more than ever a self-selecting group. And while some of them may simply like white dresses and fruit cake, I would be very surprised if that self-selecting group did not also include a disproportionate number of the kind of people who believe in commitment, monogamy and a stable family structure. We are back in cornflakes for breakfast territory.
I have a final, big problem with the blanket call for family values. Tim Montgomerie, the editor of the ConservativeHome blog, and a powerful voice on the traditionalist wing of the party, wrote an excellent and revealing essay in the New Statesman this week about the unhappiness of many Tory MPs, who feel that Mr Cameron and the coalition government are snubbing a whole set of what Mr Montgomerie calls "mainstream Conservative" policies. He defines these usefully, writing:
"mainstream Conservative" policies... include a tough approach to crime, investment in defence, repatriation of powers from Europe and support for the family. They are the policies that motivate the Tory grass roots to raise money for their party and to stuff leaflets through letter boxes on wet Saturdays. They are the policies that most distinguish the average Conservative from the average Lib Dem or Labour activist. And you may have noticed they are barely part of this government's agenda. They are the policies that Nick Clegg has vetoed. As midterm unpopularity reaches record depths, as I predict it will, Cameron won't be able to reach for the mainstream policy toolkit for measures to sweeten the mood of his party
But here is the thing. What, exactly, would be the sort of central government policies that would strongly support the family? Advocates of marriage commonly talk about tweaking tax credits or married couple allowances to make marriage more attractive. Mr Oborne calls for the government to reinstate questions about marital status on official forms, saying that their disappearance from such forms under New Labour amounted to a bid to "obliterate marriage from the official record."
But do any of them really, seriously think that the tax rules or boxes on forms have a decisive impact on whether people marry or not? To dip into anecdote, there were many reasons why I proposed to my wife nearly 13 years ago, but the tax implications were not high on the list. In fact, though I am painfully conscious of the tax that I pay, I am not even sure I could tell you, hand on heart, precisely what impact marriage (as opposed to co-habitation) has on our family tax affairs.
As it happens, a couple of months ago I went through the exercise of consulting one of the biggest social surveys conducted in 1950s Britain, by the sociologist Geoffrey Gorer, for a Bagehot column on the current popularity of talking about the importance of character. Gorer describes a Britain in which extra-marital sex was considered taboo by most people. The overwhelming reason was a fear of pregnancy outside marriage, which brought social disgrace.
There was a stigma attached to illegitimacy as recently as the 1970s, when I was at school. Now, mostly, there is not. That must have a huge effect on marriage rates: in short, it is perfectly possible to be a respectable middle class Briton, and have children out of wedlock. Traditionalist politicians may regret that, but do they really think that tweaking the tax code can reverse that trend?
This is a serious question. Frank Field, a Labour MP but a vocal supporter of marriage, recently wrote a report on parenting for the coalition government, arguing that "We are the first generation in human history that has no compelled fathers to support their children, usually by living with their mother." Mr Field says that harms the children's interests and that sounds plausible. I do not sneer at such arguments. He may be right. But I do wonder where such arguments take politicians in today's Britain. As I wrote back in December:
as a glance at history reveals—something benign (stable family structures) was underpinned by something harsh (social stigma attached to illegitimacy). Gorer found marriage a bedrock of society. Except among the very poorest, most were opposed to sex outside wedlock. But this was not to obey some universal moral code (even in 1950s England, about 40% of adults rarely or never went to church). More practical concerns dominated. Women who strayed risked the “worry and disgrace” of a baby, wrote a teenage girl, while “the man just has his fun.”In most British communities (and more for good than ill) disgrace is a greatly weakened force these days. Mr Cameron’s supporters talk of “libertarian paternalism”, or nudging people to make better choices. Perhaps that will work, though the “tough love” of the past involved sharp prods, not nudges. As each new government discovers, the English are a stroppy lot, and hard to help
I still believe that. I also believe that nostalgia—buttressed by a perverse, chicken-and-egg muddling of symptoms and causes—is a poor substitute for practical policy-making.
FOR many commentators, Wednesday's prime minister's question time brought final proof that the government is in trouble over its proposal to privatise England's state-owned woods and forests. Many detected a whiff of panic, if not an imminent about-turn, when David Cameron said he was "listening to all the arguments in this case." They further opined that the government's agonies were rooted in the unusual importance of trees and woods to the British psyche. An editorial in the Times this morning declared:
In Britain's conception of itself, as Tory image-makers so recently knew, the myth of the wooded island looms large. William Shakespeare put his fairies in the forests. It was forestry that sheltered Robin Hood from tyranny. Oaks built our navies, which sailed the globe.
I respectfully disagree, twice.
I knew the government was in real trouble on Tuesday, when the Daily Telegraph's revered "Matt" drew a front page pocket cartoon of Winnie the Pooh and Piglet locked out of a privatised Hundred Acre Woods. As a rule of thumb, when the country's most loyally Conservative newspaper accuses a Conservative government of hurting Winnie the Pooh, things are going badly wrong.
It is also untrue that the British are unusually attached to forests. They may think they are—or rather may enjoy reading soppy leaders in the Times telling them that theirs is an ancient nation in touch with its woodland past. In truth, Britain has rather low levels of forest cover, compared to other European countries. And lots of our neighbours are frankly obsessed with forests, wolves and bears: every other French children's book features a wolf, for instance. Instead, for all our fantasies of rural purity, we are a car-loving, suburban nation of assiduous shoppers. It is telling that one of the main attack lines from the anti-privatisation camp concerns a patch of trees called Rigg Wood, which has closed its car park since passing into private ownership. Never mind that footpaths still run into Rigg Wood, if the 21st century British cannot step from their cars to the first trees, they have suffered a grave injustice.
That said, I do agree that the government is in real trouble over its plans to sell off the Forestry Commission's 250,000 hectares of woodland and forests. But why I think this really matters is because it shows, yet again, that the public does not really trust the whole thrust of Mr Cameron's vision for a Big Society, in which a centralised state gives way to a patchwork of local community groups, charities and businesses. Most pertinently, the public is mistrustful of any vision for Britain that blends altruism with the profit motive. And that is a big problem for the Big Society, which just does not add up if it does not include a dose of private enterprise.
For my print column this week, I went to talk to a bunch of volunteers in Buckinghamshire who are already living the Big Society, giving up six hours of their time every month to clear scrub, brambles and saplings from a wood near Wendover. The wood is currently owned by the Forestry Commission, and these volunteers rather liked it that way. They were, above all, hostile to any idea of a private owner. If someone were making a profit from the site, one suggested, they would be much less willing to donate their time for free. That strikes me as a real headache for the government.
Are people more hostile to private enterprise now than in the past? You could legitimately argue that all privatisations are unpopular in Britain, but (with luck) come to be accepted later as services improve. Well, I think something is in the air just now. I was not very surprised, I admit, when one of the volunteers noted that the Forestry Commission costs only £10m a year to run, and mentioned all the money spent bailing out the banks.
Whatever else can be said about banks and bankers, they have done astonishing damage to the cause of free markets in this country. I do not think we have yet plumbed just how much damage, either.
Here is the column:
AS CRITICS of government policy go, Robert Emberson and Giles Knowles are not very ferocious. Mr Emberson, a retired solicitor from the Chilterns—a pretty slice of commuterland to the north of London—says he “can’t see the point” of a government proposal to privatise his local woodland, Wendover Woods. Mr Knowles, a retired teacher, volunteers alongside Mr Emberson at the woods, clearing scrub and brambles twice a month. Mr Knowles is “not very keen” on a sell-off.
Their mild dismay might seem insignificant, beside the nationwide rage provoked by the government’s proposals to sell or lease large tracts of English woodland managed by the Forestry Commission, a public body. A YouGov poll found 75% of respondents opposed the sale of English forests. Hundreds of thousands of people have signed an online petition organised by a leftish campaign group, 38 Degrees, opposing what it claims are plans that could see “our national forests” fenced off, logged or turned into holiday villages. Right-wing commentators have condemned the plans as un-conservative vandalism. Grandees including the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Astronomer Royal and the Poet Laureate signed an open letter denouncing forest sales as “unconscionable”. Still more ominously, seismic rumblings of discontent have been heard from the National Trust, a charitable titan with 3.7m members.
For all that—and though this might sound odd—David Cameron’s coalition government should be just as worried about the quiet anxiety of folk like Mr Emberson and Mr Knowles. They are precisely the sort of people he needs to fulfil his vision of a British society built around voluntarism and civic pride.
The noisiest protesters are a lost cause. At its roots, the forestry plan is a privatisation. In the words of the cabinet minister in charge, Caroline Spelman: “the Forestry Commission sells Christmas trees, for goodness sake. What is the state doing selling Christmas trees?” Privatisations are often unpopular in Britain at first; they prove their worth later, when (with luck) it can be shown they have left the country better off. Most British woodlands are already private and are covered by tough planning rules and strict regulations on tree-cutting. Whatever protesters say, owners cannot build golf courses on a whim. Public footpaths are protected by law (though the rules are weaker when it comes to horse and bicycle access, or maintaining car parks).
But the forestry sell-off also represents something more ambitious: it is supposed to be a flagship example of Mr Cameron’s “Big Society” at work. A government consultation paper on the forestry plans explicitly talks of “shifting the balance of power from ‘Big Government’ to ‘Big Society’”, as the state gives way to a locally responsive patchwork of “civil society, businesses and individuals.” It is here that the real problems start.
Mrs Spelman, who is secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs, admits that the government is feeling political pain over forests, but says the “principal reason” is “wild speculation” by the media, such as scare stories suggesting ancient forests are about to become golf courses. She is right, but she needs to stop whining: the government bears much of the blame. Some bright spark has dreamed up an absurdly complex talking point for ministers—that the Forestry Commission has a conflict of interest as a regulator that also sells 70% of timber entering the British market. The rest of the time, they talk about how “heritage” forests such as the New Forest and the Forest of Dean will be given to charities, with public money to cover operating costs. Surely bodies such as the National Trust can do a better job running forests than the Forestry Commission, Mr Cameron told the House of Commons on February 2nd? But this line is a cop-out: the National Trust cannot run every wood in the public estate.
Colin is not the Leviathan
To be blunt, the government is failing wretchedly to sell the Big Society. For help, the prime minister might like to visit Wendover Woods, a 325-hectare slice of greenery near Aylesbury. For a Big Society fan, the woods come all but gift-wrapped with a bow. This close to London, their relative tranquillity is prized by locals. Some 350,000 visitors are drawn each year by foot, cycle and horse trails, a rustic café and “Go Ape!”, a commercial aerial playground. Between car park fees and rents, the woods deliver a small surplus to the Forestry Commission’s coffers. It could be a case study for localism: under local management, all that revenue would stay in Wendover Woods. Since April 2009 volunteers from the Chiltern Society, a local charity, have worked to clear scrub and brambles there, saving a crumbling Iron Age fort.
Yet, on a drizzly morning this week, those same volunteers are wary of a local charity taking over, and actively reject the idea of a commercial buyer. “The Forestry Commission manages this very well,” says Mr Emberson, hacking at a larch sapling. Isn’t the Forestry Commission an impersonal state bureaucracy, Bagehot ventures? “The Forestry Commission is not impersonal, it’s Colin,” says a volunteer, pointing out a young ranger down the slope. Above all, they dislike any idea of a commercial owner. It would be “all about money”, says one. If the woods were run for a profit, “I don’t think we’d be so keen to volunteer,” adds another. Bank bail-outs are mentioned, with a grimace. Mr Knowles likes the Big Society philosophy, but worries it will be exploited by “the people with money”.
Such views should alarm the government. Their vision for a flourishing society blends localism with the charity sector and business. Alas, just now Britons seem reluctant to accept that the profit motive can co-exist with altruism. That is the real lesson of the row over forests: if the coalition is serious about building a less statist Britain, it cannot dodge that crisis of trust forever.
To buy off the Labour rebels, the government has offered a speeded-up form of public appeal process for boundary changes and an agreement to review whether 600 MPs is the right number. The Conservative leader in the House of Lords, Lord Strathclyde, says the government is determined to avoid any drawn-out enquiries that would delay the boundary changes after October 2013, so that the new seats can be used in the election planned for 2015. Some Tories will wonder if that timetable is entirely safe.
The House of Lords likes things to end with compromise deals, so this is on the face of it a traditional conclusion to this convoluted tale. But peers and MPs with an interest in constitutional matters take a rather different view. They say that the conduct of the House of Lords in recent days has looked nakedly partisan and aggressive in a way that feels unsustainable. The self-regulating ways of the upper house have been "abused", said Lord Strathclyde this evening, adding that a "genie" was now out of the bottle.
Tories say that the Labour party has behaved disgracefully: to simplify, they think that a group of thuggish Scottish ex-MPs have brought the rough and tumble ways of the Commons to the courtly red leather benches of the upper house. Moderate Labour peers say that, yes the Scottish newboys behaved badly at first, but that more recently this has been a perfectly legitimate display of close, line-by-line scrutiny, and that the Tories are the vandals trying to ram a big constitutional change through at high speed. And what is more, they claim, a surprising number of Tories have been egging the Labour rebels on, seeing them as defenders of the powers of the House of Lords.
First, there is a lot of self-serving cant flying around. The conventional wisdom is that the constituency-equalisation being planned by the coalition will disproportionately hurt Labour because a significant number of Labour seats have fewer voters than the average, either because they are inner-city seats or because they are found in bits of the country like Wales with more MPs than their fair share. In very crude terms, lots of people in Westminster assume that the boundary change being planned would deprive Labour of about 20 seats at the next election.
This being so, both sides deserve to have what British comedy fans would recognise as a Mrs Merton question put to them. Labour needs to be asked: just what is it about your current 20 seat inbuilt advantage that prompts you to a principled defence of the status quo? While the Tories need to be asked: just what is it about the prospect of snaffling 20 seats from Labour that moves you to seek the redrawing of parliamentary boundaries in time for the next general election?
Second, on the subject of cant, there is also something pretty emetic about each side's claim that the other is bent on tearing asunder the gossamer fabric of Britain's ancient constitutional order. Yes, Labour's upper house filibuster was the most blatant use of such delaying tactics in many decades. And yes, several of the new Labour peers are rude and thuggish: one recently heckled a speaker from another party by shouting "boring".
But the government was also briefing that it was willing to table a guillotine motion, or a measure artificially calling the debate to an end. That would have been if anything a bigger act of procedural violence: the whole ethos of the upper house is built on self-regulation, down to the level of peers running their own debates without being called to order or being told to give way to speakers from other parties.
Third, the conventional wisdom at Westminster—that the boundary changes are a clear win for the Tories—is starting to crumble. I have been told by several sources that Conservative MPs are starting to realise the full implications of what they are up to. With a few exceptions for very small and very big islands, the redrawn constituencies will have to contain the same number of voters with only a small variance from the mean permitted. That means that most seats will need to redrawn, and this has several consequences. It will oblige most MPs to seek re-selection by constituency party associations: that will hand a great deal of power to such associations. What is more, such changes can easily turn a safe seat into a marginal, or leave two neighbouring MPs scrapping for new neighbouring seats without knowing for sure which is the better. You can think you know your seat perfectly, says a veteran MP, to the point where you can predict the exact effect of moving a given housing estate or council ward in or out of it. But until seats have been through an election cycle, hidden surprises can lurk.
Though some in the Conservative camp do not like to hear it, it is also the case that constituency size is only one reason for the inbuilt pro-Labour bias in the current voting system (which means that Labour would have ended up at least 50 seats ahead at all recent elections, had Labour and the Conservatives polled an exactly equal share of the national vote). Other factors, mostly to do with turnout patterns, are in fact more important and can be expected to persist.
A year out from a 2015 election, a lot of MPs may suspect or know that they have either been handed a less safe seat, a frankly duff seat, or that they have failed to land a new seat at all. And somehow these furious and disgruntled footsoldiers with nothing to lose will have to be persuaded to behave for another year. In other words, for all the claims and counter-claims flying about in Westminster, and for all the real dismay felt by many peers in recent days about the reputation of their upper house, the real winners and losers in this most partisan of constitutional fights may not be known for years.
THE CRISIS in Egypt is keeping British newspapers busy this morning, with several tabloids sending reporters to Cairo to report the drama from the ground.
This is how the main stories from Britain's best-selling dailies begin. Keen-eyed media studies graduates may detect a pattern:
The Daily Mail (average daily circulation last month 2,030,968):"British tourists..."
The Sun (average circulation 2,717,013): "Thirty thousand Brits..."
The Daily Mirror (average circulation 1,133,440): "Britons were urged to flee..."
The Daily Express (average circulation 623,689): "Up to 30,000 Britons..."
It is not just the opening lines. The Daily Mail's 28 paragraph story devotes 18 paragraphs to the "terrifying ordeal" endured by British tourists (not one of whom has been harmed to date), including the "mayhem" some had witnessed at Cairo airport, and an interview with a man whose flight was delayed for seven hours.
Encouragingly, most of the front page of the Daily Star (average circulation 713,602) is devoted to a huge story headlined "Jordan 999 Dash Mystery". Alas, on closer inspection, it does not concern the Hashemite kingdom that is perhaps Britain's closest ally in the Arab world.
Instead, it reports that an ambulance (summoned in Britain with a call to the 999 emergency telephone number) was seen visiting a house in Surrey owned by a model called Katie Price who uses Jordan as a stage name, though at the time Ms Price was believed to be undergoing beauty treatments elsewhere. Hence, its visit was a bit of a mystery.
ALMOST exactly a year ago, I found myself reporting the fuss in Brussels about the failure of the Lisbon Strategy, the European Union's 10-year plan to make Europe "the most dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy in the world capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion, and respect for the environment by 2010". All around me, Euro-pundits, Eurocrats and European parliamentarians chorused, as one, that the roots of the problem lay in process: national governments had ducked reform because the EU lacked the legal tools to make them reform.
To use a technical term from political science, this seemed to me to be cobblers. The single biggest reason that Europe was not the most dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy in the world, I argued, was that lots of Europeans (perhaps most) did not want to live in such a competitive place. For sure, they want to stay rich and comfortable, and they know that globalisation is a threat. But lots of Europeans are not prepared to do anything about it, if it means taking shorter holidays, working longer hours, graduating more quickly or retiring much later.
A year on, memories of this argument resurfaced as I wrote this week's print column about the recent UK-Nordic-Baltic summit and the British government's fascination with all things Nordic. David Cameron and the coalition talk about how much Sweden and other countries have to teach us about family-friendly policies, increasing the number of women in the workforce and rising up the global rankings when it comes to well-being and childhood development.
I have no doubt that Mr Cameron is a sincere admirer of the Swedish centre-right, led by his friend Fredrik Reinfeldt. After all, Mr Reinfeldt has twice won election in a country with a strong social democratic tradition by dragging his party to the centre-ground, vowing to overhaul the state rather than dismantle it, and convincing voters that his party is best-placed to preserve all those gleaming public services with a mix of fiscal discipline and market-based competition. That must fascinate a man like Mr Cameron, leading a party like the Conservatives in a Britain emerging from a decade-long boom in public spending.
But do the British really want to compete with the Swedes? Researching this week's Bagehot column, I was talking to a senior Swedish official when the subject of the country's heavily subsidised day care came up. The official told me—from personal experience—about an email sent to all parents at a Stockholm pre-school not long ago. We believe that some of the children have been watching superhero cartoons at home, the email began reproachfully. Some children have been running about in the playground pretending to be superheroes, and this is rather disruptive and could cause accidents. This email caused no offence, apparently. Had it been sent in Britain, I suspect, it would have caused (mild) parental outrage.
Something similar is at work when it comes to all those family-friendly policies. I have written already about the Icelandic prime minister, noting that a good father takes three months of parental leave. Indeed, other delegates at the London summit last week explicitly argued that one of the reasons to push fathers to take more leave after their children are born is to make men as troublesome to employ as women. As long as only mothers take long periods of parental leave, they said, it is clearly true that employers will be wary of taking on a women of childbearing age.
There is also a pretty direct clash between the Nordic vision of the family and more traditional family values. I interviewed Mr Reinfeldt in Stockholm on Tuesday for my column, and he had some interesting things to say about how women should enter the workforce for the sake of the national economy, but also to gain independence from men:
"My mother was one of those in the 70s to raise her hand and say, we want to have individual freedoms, we want to have the same rights to enter the labour market," the prime minister said. "Both men and women need to be active in the labour market because at the end of the day, you don't know how long your marriage will last, and whether you may need to be active in the labour market. So our day-care system, and our affordable system for employing home help, builds on that tradition of helping women and men enter the labour force."
A lot of women had been held down in the past, he said, by men expecting them to raise children and look after elderly parents. The Swedish state, by providing high quality care for children and the old had created families built around "individuals who are free". This had spared Sweden the usual trade-offs between helping women to have careers or to have children: the country had high employment rates and high fertility rates.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, the five Nordic governments are to present a really interesting paper on "The Nordic Way", which sets out to challenge what it calls the "half-truth" that Nordic voters are simply rather left-wing and wedded to a big, intrusive and conformist state. Nordic voters like the state but are also exceptionally individualistic, the paper asserts. The circle is squared because Nordic voters believe that the state (which usually works pretty well in countries like Sweden) is the best referee and guarantor of their individual freedoms.
The most interesting part of the paper, written by Henrik Berggren and Lars Trägårdh, posits that when it comes to things like state versus private ownership or merit versus equality based pay, the Swedes are not especially leftist:
Though the path hasn’t always been straight, one can discern over the course of the twentieth century an overarching ambition in the Nordic countries not to socialize the economy but to liberate the individual citizen from all forms of subordination and dependency within the family and in civil society: the poor from charity, the workers from their employers, wives from their husbands, children from parents – and vice versa when the parents become elderly...legislation has made the Nordic countries into the least family-dependent and most individualized societies on the face of the earth. To be sure, the family remains a central social institution in the Nordic countries, but it too is infused with the same moral logic stressing autonomy and equality. The ideal family is made up of adults who work and are not financially dependent on the other, and children who are encouraged to be as independent as early as possible.
Remember that this paper is not some airy-fairy exercise: it was written for Davos and endorsed by the Nordic governments. It goes on to suggest that there is such a thing as a "Swedish theory of love", which believes:
authentic relationships of love and friendship are only possible between individuals who do not depend on each other or stand in unequal power relations. Thus autonomy, equality and (statist) individualism are inextricably linked to each other.
Finally, "The Nordic Way" cites a paper that compares Sweden to Germany and the United States, when considering the triangle formed by reverence for the Family, the State and the Individual. Americans favour a Family-Individual axis, this suggests, suspecting the state as a threat to liberty. Germans revere an axis connecting the family and the state, with a smaller role for individual autonomy. In the Nordic countries, they argue, the state and the individual form the dominant alliance. The paper cited, by the way, is entitled: "Pippi Longstocking: The Autonomous Child and the Moral Logic of the Swedish Welfare State". It hails Pippi (the strongest girl in the world and an anarchic individualist who lives without parents in her own house, with only a monkey, horse, a bag of gold and a strong moral compass for company) as a Nordic archetype.
(Before you scoff, you should perhaps know that the French—a conservative and statist lot—have a very complicated relationship with Pippi Longstocking as a children's book. For many years, the only French translation available was a bowdlerised version, that played down Pippi's wilder, anti-authoritarian side. There is a moral in there somewhere.)
Still reeling from the Swedish idea of love, and wondering how that would play with the Tunbridge Wells Conservative Association, I asked Mr Reinfeldt whether he recognised its coolly rational depiction of intra-family relations.
I think it describes a big-city idea of love, maybe, the prime minister replied. But he did not disown it, and conceded that Swedes have a very distinctive relationship with the state, saying that winning election had required his party to convince voters that it was not revolutionary, and was not going to tear down the state.
There are plenty of examples around the world where the state has choked growth and wrecked economies, he went on. But in Sweden the state is trusted to be good, there is a conviction that it can be controlled, that it is not corrupt and is not being run to some hidden agenda, and that it can be a partner for growth. Mr Reinfeldt talked of Sweden's centuries of good governance, and the importance of a Lutheran tradition that respects work and fair-dealing.
It is pretty obvious that Sweden is never going to rule the world, but it can serve as an interesting example, he said. He freely admitted that a focus on feminism is not a vote-winner in all countries. He recently attended the party conference of the Christian Democrats in Germany, he noted, and heard similar debates about bringing more women into the workforce. But, he said, every country faces the same questions about growth:
Is growth based on raising productivity and capital flowing into the country? Or, I would say it is best to have job creating growth, and that inevitably means looking to those who are currently outside the labour market, the young, the elderly, immigrants but also women.
You do not hear much about the Big Society in Sweden, it is true. But it is a mistake to see only the state. The phrase "statist-individualism" is an ugly one, but it seems a pretty apt description of these societies that Mr Cameron seems to admire sincerely. The British are too grumpy and too mistrustful of their state to buy into anything as intrusive. But is there still a link between the Big Society and the Nordic Big State? Maybe it is this: in the Nordics, the state is the final guarantor of equal access to good things for autonomous individuals. In the Big Society, perhaps the hope is for the state to act as a catalyst for access to good things. There is one final difference, of course; we have already seen that the Nordic model works.
SMALL rays of light can illuminate surprisingly large areas of darkness. The fuss continues to rumble on about the decision by Michael Gove, the education secretary, to publish revised school league tables showing how many pupils achieved a reasonable pass in five core subjects: English, maths, a foreign language, a science subject and either history or geography (a cluster of subjects that he is calling the English baccalaureate). This marked a sudden switch away from a system in which schools reported how many pupils gained a reasonable pass (an A, B or C grade) in any five subjects including English and maths.
As my colleagues in the Britain section reported earlier this month, this transparency ambush has already achieved one desired and desirable effect: to expose how many schools were boosting their scores by pushing pupils into soft, often vocational subjects which counted for as much as a pass in chemistry, French or history.
But it is now clear that the switch has achieved another win for transparency: exposing just how many British state school teachers and politicians of the left are guilty of the “soft bigotry of low expectations”, to borrow a phrase from American educational politics.
I recently heard a BBC panel discussion in which a Labour MP from a north London constituency (I fear I was driving, so missed her name) who complained bitterly that this rigidly “academic” choice of core subjects was wholly inappropriate to her voters and would stigmatise as failures pupils who might be dyslexic, or whose strengths might lie in creative subjects like dance.
A week later, a BBC Radio 4 phone-in programme, Any Answers, featured a pair of state school teachers, both with 30 years of experience, again pouring scorn on the dangerously “academic” bent of the English baccalaureate, and Mr Gove’s related desire to see a more rigorous syllabus in history, involving such things as learning a framework of important dates and events to give children a sense of the essential chronology of British and world history.
Such history is never going to be relevant to many pupils, one of the teachers said. What do you mean by relevant, asked the radio presenter. Well, they are from the Gameboy and computer game generations, they have short attention spans, she replied. You cannot just tell them things, you have to change the format every seven minutes or so—a discussion, then a bit of role play, and so on.
It was then that I heard something that really made my hair stand on end. Arguing that it is just not reasonable to teach all pupils "academic" subjects like the maths and English GSCE examinations, a veteran teacher said: It’s like running a four minute mile. You could give me all the coaching in the world from [the former champion athlete] Linford Christie, and I would not be able to do it." For good measure, she said that all league tables are useless, as the only thing they capture is the socio-economic status of parents.
But here is the thing. Mr Gove is not proposing that all children read mathematics at Cambridge. He is not even asking teachers to cram the beginnings of Euclidian geometry down their throats. What we are really talking about is a decent level of numeracy.
A C-grade pass or above in GSCE mathematics is, as it happens, a formal target used by officials working on adult numeracy in Britain. Applied to the real world, it implies an ability to work out a household budget or compare two products to see which one is the better buy.
And in 2010, despite more than two decades of ever-improving GSCE grades, some two fifths of the nation’s 16 year olds failed to make that maths target.
It is the same with a C-grade pass or above in English. It signals a decent if basic level of literacy, not a four minute mile.
The idea that these are impossible goals has real-world consequences. In a recent survey by the Confederation of British Industry, an employers’ group, 18% of firms reported having to provide remedial numeracy training to school leavers.
Some caveats. League tables have their flaws, and teachers will no doubt start teaching to these new measures of success, just as they gamed the old system. There will be some pupils who will struggle with some of these subjects, and there is every point to making sure that they are not branded failures if they have (for example) a mental block when it comes to learning languages or have decided that they “cannot get” maths. But remember that this is not about branding children failures if they fail to pass these GSCEs, it is about helping parents compare the performance of schools in a slightly more rigorous way. And these new league tables are only reproducing the same bias towards "harder" subjects shown by employers and universities. Children encouraged to take "easy" GCSEs are being tricked: most of the benefit accrued to their schools in the old league table system, and very little to them.
Britain has a particular problem with maths teaching, as it happens. Lots of primary school teachers “lack confidence” when it comes to teaching maths, according to a chilling 2010 report by the Royal Society, which promotes science in Britain. Just 2% of teachers at English primary schools have a maths degree or specialist maths background.
Teachers are placed under intense pressure by national maths tests for 11 year olds that are used to rank primary schools on league tables. The result, too often, is maths lessons in which required “facts” are drummed into pupils’ heads. When children move on to secondary school, their inadequate understanding of some vital mathematical concepts is cruelly exposed, and they are “switched off” the subject for life. As a long term solution, the Royal Society dreams of tripling the number of specialist science and maths teachers in primary schools.
But let us be clear about what is being proposed here: telling parents whether their local school equips children with basic levels of literacy and numeracy. If British teachers think that unrealistic, because basic numeracy or literacy is beyond children from less affluent households, then I would humbly suggest they switch profession before they wreck any more young lives.