Thursday, June 28, 2012

David Cameron - under attack from all sides


In an important and informed article in The Daily Telegraph today Peter Oborne describes the damage that the Tory Right is inflicting on David Cameron and who and what is behind it. A key player is Lord Ashcroft (pictured with the Prime Minister)

It has seemed to me for some time that the Tory right opposition to Cameron whilst extra constitutional is immensely damaging to him. This is for two reasons. Cameron’s hinterland beyond the Tory Party is negligible – all of his adult life has been spent professionally and privately in Conservative circles. In a sense this is his family. John Major at least had his cricket to fall back on when the going got tough and this interest brought with it friendships (e.g. with Colin Cowdrey) that provided some solace. Cameron seems not to have this. The North Oxfordshire set, as we have seen, is a pretty depressing bunch and the social support they provided was based as much on self-interest as anything! Now even that has gone – for reasons we all know well. So Cameron seems desperately lonely as a significant part of his Tory family has turned against him. Similarly the Rose Garden love-in with Clegg has turned sour – this is also in part attributable to the Tory right’s distaste for the whole Coalition project. The second reason for the damage is that a Cameron who is being daily bombarded with criticism from those, like Lord Ashcroft, from whom he might have expected loyalty and support is vulnerable to attack from the constitutional opposition – the Labour Party.

Ed Miliband, as Peter Oborne has pointed out in the past, took a while to settle in as Labour leader but he has been increasingly impressive in recent months. Cameron, weakened by the Tory right, has opened himself up to criticism from Labour – not least about the extraordinary series of U-Turns that his Government has performed. As he shifts to the right Cameron will become all the more vulnerable from Labour and whilst it is possible that Right Wing populism (driven by Ashcroft and Murdoch and their organs) might catch the public mood this seems unlikely. And in his own dysfunctional political family there is a key element, those tempted by UKIP, for whom nothing that Cameron will do will be enough.

David Cameron is caught between a rock and a hard place. The Real Politick of Europe is such that he cannot really adopt the Eurosceptic agenda that his critics from the Right insist upon. Remember that almost daily the Foreign Office Sir Humphreys will be insistent that it is not in the national interest further to rock the EU boat. Nick Clegg will be saying the same. And Clegg will also realise that the only possible way that his Party can recover any credibility is to paint themselves as the Government’s conscience - and that certainly doesn’t mean supporting an increasingly Right wing agenda. So it is difficult to see that Cameron can do anything but continue to flounder. Sniped at from Left and Right there is a real danger that like Lord Cardigan at Balaclava he will charge on regardless – and we all know what happened next on that occasion!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

We need to work together to find the best system for a fully elected House of Lords

It was the “Bill of Rights” of 1689 that finally put the Monarch in his or her place and institutionalised a Constitutional Monarchy in first England and later the United Kingdom. The line between what the Monarch could do and what was the role of Parliament was established and it hasn't changed much since. The Bill also required that “…election of members of Parliament ought to be free”.

Roll forward more than 300 years and in the main we can be proud that the founding fathers, who established the principles of our Democracy, did a good job. Along the way we have fine-tuned democratic processes broadly ensuring that the practice of the Bill now conforms to the spirit.With one glaring exception and that is the fact that there is nothing “Free” about one of the two Houses of our Parliament.

There is no significant grey area about what Democracy means in respect of a legislature – it means election. A democratic political system may have its imperfections but, as Churchill put it, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." And if we are committed to Democracy, as surely we all are, then we have to be committed also to the election of our leaders.

Which brings us to the House of Lords. The issue ought not to be “Should we have an elected House of Lords?” but “How should an elected House of Lords be constituted?”. Nevertheless there are many politicians and many serious commentators who question whether we should elect the Lords at all. As I have shown this position fails at the very first hurdle – it isn't democratic - and it can be dismissed for this reason. Which brings us to the second question – what sort of elected second chamber should we have?

The Coalition Government’s proposal has 240 elected members and 60 appointed. Let’s dismiss this nonsense out of hand. Once we at last cross the bridge to an elected second chamber let’s not have anybody sitting in it and voting who has not been elected! And the idea that there should still be 12 unelected Church of England Bishops there is too ludicrous to warrant further discussion. Away with them"!

How big should the reformed Upper House be? The United States Senate has 100 elected members – two for each State irrespective as to whether its population is 37million (California) or little more than half a million (Wyoming). This seems a bit odd but the US is a Federal system and in theory each State is equal under the Constitution so there is a constitutional logic to it. In Britain the Lords now, after various Parliament Acts, have primarily reviewing powers  and there is no need for any of its members to relate to any specific geographical constituency.  However there would be an opportunity to change this and if the Lords is to be made up of 300 members as currently proposed (an arbitrary number but it has a gut feel logic to it) for them to be elected from multi-member regional constituencies also feels right. Other second chambers (e.g. that in The Netherlands) do have a regional focus. There are 22 Regions in the UK and they could have elected members proportionate to their populations. But this is just one option and there are others equally valid both in respect of the size of the House and how it is elected. That’s a debate we do need to have.

The Coalition proposes that elected members should sit for 15 years – once again this is a proposal which is arrant undemocratic nonsense and should be dismissed out of hand as such. If Lords elections should take place on the same day as House of Commons elections let’s just leave it at that. Five year terms for both Chambers (if we do hold on to fixed Parliaments). There is no rational argument to the contrary.

So that’s it really. There is much work to do and in a way there is no real urgency – its been more than 300 years since the Bill of Rights and a few more won’t hurt anyone! Nevertheless let’s get moving. Let’s all accept the principle of an elected Upper Chamber and then let’s work at a sensible pace to find the structure and  system of electing it which most buttresses our democracy and improves our Governance.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

There is no need for a referendum on Britain's EU membership


If you listened only to the Right wing British press (that’s most of it) and many commentators you would think that Europe is in terminal decline. The economies are shot, there is political discord, the common currency is on its way out and we in Britain are well out of the latter and should walk away from the Union. I asked commentator  Iain Martin on Twitter what was wrong with Britain being if not at the centre at least an active and supportive partner in the Union. Here was his reply:

“Let’s start with the notion of sovereignty and work from there….”

And in those few words we get to the heart of the Eurosceptic’s case. It is, in reality, nothing to do with Europe's current woes. It goes back to the fundamental question as to whether the UK should have given up some of its sovereignty to be an EU member. This question was answered as long ago as 1975 when faced with the referendum question, "Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?" 67% of voters answered "Yes. Remember this was about sovereignty the giving up of which was an integral part of staying in the European Community as it then was.

Now the Eurosceptics would argue that what we joined in the 1970s was an entirely different structure that what the EU is now – and they would be right. But though there has undoubtedly been a shift from National Governments to the Supra-National entity that is the EU lets remember that the UK Government has been at the table throughout. From time to time, as at Maastricht, the UK negotiated an opt-out of one or more of the EU’s changes. Other countries did the same. The biggest opt-out of all was from the single currency and ten member States of the EU do not use the Euro – including Britain of course. The point here is that nothing has been imposed on Britain by the EU – we have been party to all of the decision-making for the last 40 years. If we have surrendered some sovereignty we have done so deliberately and not been left outside the room whilst others decided what we should do!

The current UK Government is no different from all of the Governments of the past 40 years in wanting Britain to stay a member of the EU. The only justifiable case for a referendum is to try and silence the Eurosceptic critics. This, as it happens, was exactly the same reason Harold Wilson’s government held a referendum in 1975 – although in that case most of the critics came from the Left whilst today they come mostly from the Right. But the intellectual case for a referendum is weak. Although the Eurosceptics want a referendum it is not because they really believe that plebiscites are the right way to take decisions. They want one because they believe, backed by a rabidly nationalistic press, they could win. As in 1975 it is likely that all three main parties would campaign to stay in the EU and that their tactics would be to emphasise that they either will (in the future) or have (in the recent past) renegotited the terms of Britain's membership of the Union. This is all pretty spurious. It is open to any Britain’s Government at any time to institute negotiations with our EU partners about Britain’s EU role and duties. There is absolutely no need to launch a referendum to empower a Government to do this (or to confirm decisions already taken).

In short the Government should be an active and helpful partner with our EU member State colleagues at this time not a petulant reluctant member throwing our toys out of the pram – as David Cameron so irresponsibly did last December.Walking away when 26 of the 27 EU members agreed to the changes then proposed had a brief benefit to Cameron's image with the Eurosceptics in his Party but inevitably those few weeks of fame and adulation soon went away and normal service was resumed. That there will always be British Nationalists who regret that we are in the EU is inevitable - there is still a Flat Earth Society after all. But our future has to be as active partners in Europe and a courageous and sensible British Government would say this and eschew all the referendum nonsense. Don't hold your breath though – courage and reason are in short supply in the Corridors of Power at the moment.  

Monday, June 04, 2012

BBC’s standards slipping


The BBC’s coverage of the Diamond Jubilee river pageant was dire. Only the excellent Clare Balding managed to maintain the standards once set in the coverage of national events by our state broadcaster.

The studio-based linking from Matt Baker and Sophie Raworth was as vacuous as it was obsequious and the various vox pops presented by John Sergeant, Anneke Rice, Ferne Cotton and Sian Williams were not only largely irrelevant to the event but stupefyingly gormless.

Every cliché in the book was not just used but overused to destruction with “iconic” the clear winner. Meanwhile the very interesting history of many of the craft in the pageant went unmentioned as one fawning reference to a royal’s costume followed another.

That the BBC has to match commercial broadcasters in its popular programming is accepted – nor is it new. The public apparently wants talent contests and sofa- based chat shows and football and soaps and the Beeb has to provide them - a fact of life given the nature of the broadcaster’s funding. You can hardly justify the licence fee, modest though it is at just 40p per day per household, if nobody watches your programmes. But a national celebration like the Jubilee requires the BBC not to dumb down, as it did, but to present a coherent, knowledgeable, articulate and literate commentary. This they singularly failed to do.