Nick Clegg’s illiberalism should no longer be mistaken for pragmatism

Nick Clegg, former Lib Dem leader and Deputy Prime Minister, is at it again. Yesterday he published an opinion piece in the Financial Times on the secret burning desire of EU leaders to address the ‘untouchable principle’ of freedom of movement. He tweeted it out to the world in this way:

I do not have time to deal with the article itself. As usual it is technocratic, moderate-sounding ‘inside baseball’ about the manoeuvres of EU member states on migration, making out as if it’s oh so reasonable to chip away some more at the only fundamental principle of the European Union that makes it truly different from any other capitalist trade project.

What I really want to say is this: if Nick Clegg really thinks that now is the time to make this argument, he is either not a liberal in any sense, or entirely ignorant about what the impact of his words will be.

Does he really think that no one in Europe is making the argument to curtail freedom of movement? It seems impossible that he does; for one thing, his own article suggests that literally everyone is already challenging the principle he claims is untouchable, even if only privately.

Does he really think no one in the UK is making the argument to curtail freedom of movement? Given he has been one of the leading pro-EU voices in the Brexit farrago throughout its tortured history, it seems impossible that he does.

In short, the ‘untouchable principle’ he invokes in his tweet is not just touchable: it’s already covered in the dirty fingerprints and nail gouges of the people who are driving the UK and other European nations rapidly away from liberal democracy.

The only explanation for his tweet and his article is therefore that he genuinely believes adding his own voice to the argument against freedom of movement is the most important thing he could do at this point in British and European political history.

A real liberal leader would not be giving any space whatsoever to the nativist, authoritarian forces that have risen up in the UK and Europe. Instead, they would be emphasising the popularity of freedom of movement within the EU, which is overwhelming and, if anything, increasing. Compare for example these two charts, from 2015 and 2018, both taken from regular Eurobarometer surveys of public opinion on the EU and its institutions.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A real liberal leader would be using the current moment to defend freedom of movement as an absolute red line in the European Union, advocating our continued membership of the EU on that basis, and instead seeking to expand the principle of freedom of movement globally.

I long for such a leader to arrive. Sadly, I no longer expect one to come from the ranks of the Liberal Democrats. Even though Clegg is no longer the party’s leader, his legacy and ongoing influence is clear, and the failure of the party and its current leader to counter this craven illiberalism brings shame on all of its members.

Advertisements

Credit where credit’s due: an under-appreciated reason why Britain voted for Brexit – and a possible solution

This morning, Theresa May tweeted this. She must have got up pretty early on a Saturday morning to make that nice infographic. Who’d be prime minister, eh?

What an excellent policy! I don’t know about you, but I don’t think of this kind of basic, decent move as something I would naturally associate with the Conservatives.

They don’t usually show much interest in tinkering boringly with the finer points of consumer finance to give us all a better deal. (They’re usually more interested in keeping their donors onside, often by shaping the financial system in their favour.)

So, this is almost certainly good news. Most of us have probably experienced unexpected surcharges on card payments at one time or another, whether it’s at your local cornershop or when buying train tickets online. This ought to cut that out at a stroke.

There’s one small problem with how Theresa May’s presenting this. And here it is: the UK government didn’t come up with the idea. It’s a requirement of the EU Payment Services Directive 2, which came into force in January 2016. Today (13th January 2018) is actually the last possible day for EU member states to enforce this part of the directive.

This is also key to the policy’s success. Because it’s being introduced as an integrated requirement across the 28 member states of the EU, the likelihood of companies raising prices to compensate, or stopping card payments entirely, is probably pretty small.

Armed with this information, we can now revisit May’s tweet. It can be read two ways:

  1. She, a Conservative prime minister leading a government whose sole policy is leaving the EU, is taking sole credit for an EU initiative that had nothing to do with her;
  2. She, a Conservative prime minister leading a government whose sole policy is leaving the EU, is associating herself and her government with the EU to such an extent that she is willing to use the first person plural.

I don’t know about you, but I’m plumping for 1.

Why does this matter?

This kind of failure to allocate credit for policies that actually benefit voters and society is a big part of why the UK voted to leave the EU. Voters see the benefits without understanding the process. (It’s also, incidentally, why people continue to vote for the Conservatives rather than the Lib Dems despite the coalition government’s most popular policies – on income tax, environment, marriage and even plastic bags – all coming from the smaller party.)

This is a huge problem in democracies the world over. Democratic governments generally don’t advertise, and that’s a good thing. And if they do, it’s generally to market new policies that are reliant on widespread public knowledge, an approach that often fails, and often because the policies are terrible.

Two recent examples are the Green Deal (a catastrophic failure where the government over-promised, rushed the policy out, and failed to market it, sometimes all at once) and the Help to Buy scheme (quite good take-up, but for a policy that actively exacerbates the housing crisis).

But that general lack of marketing means it’s political parties who market successes as their own, even when they aren’t.

A possible solution

I have been giving some thought to this problem of late. It seems to me that we need some kind of independent platform – maybe just a website – that details the source, development and impact of policies, and gives credit where credit is due.

Sure, not many voters would read it very often, but if done with sufficient quality and transparency, it would be a hugely useful resource during election periods – potentially making VAAs more accurate, and enabling journalists and broadcasters to refer to it.

Although there is a ton of money going into new fact-checking initiatives at the moment, these tend to be reactive. This would be one way to build a bank of accurate information that could also serve organisations like Full Fact, strengthening their ability to scrutinise.

It would be a major undertaking, requiring a number of permanent researchers and fact-checkers to aggregate the information, and then some savvy marketing and social media activity to promote its existence.

If you’re interested in helping to create such a website or platform, I have many further thoughts. Feel free to get in touch with me via the comments, Twitter, or Facebook.

We don’t need an election – but a general defection

A week is a long time in politics. This has, I think, been the longest week I can remember. Rewind just seven days and we were waking up on that fateful polling day, with most Remain voters like me cautiously confident that we would pull through and that disaster would be averted.

Instead, political and economic chaos reigns. The Prime Minister has resigned and a Tory leadership election is well underway. All of the candidates would take the country to the right as well as out of the EU; the only question is whom you think would do it least horribly. Debating with Jeremy Cliffe of the Economist yesterday, he suggested that Theresa May would be better than Boris; Chris Terry, weighing in, advocated May’s ‘ruthless competence’ over Boris as an ‘unprincipled liar’.

I can’t personally look past May’s authoritarian record as Home Secretary (particularly on migration and surveillance), her obvious lack of interest in campaigning strongly for the Remain campaign, and her commitment to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights. Boris may have demonstrated that he is unprincipled, power-hungry and largely incompetent, but he should be made to lie in the bed of lies he helped create.

The benefit of a Boris leadership will be that two of the main Vote Leave figures – Johnson and Gove – are likely to be held responsible for whatever deal comes out of the Article 50 negotiations with the remaining 27 EU member states. As this deal now seems almost certain to be EEA membership with no concessions on freedom of movement, it is going to be disappointing in the extreme for large numbers of the 17 million Leave voters – probably the majority.

As I’ve written previously, the consequence of this will be a betrayal narrative whereby UKIP gains support, perhaps seizing a sizable chunk of those 17 million and adding to the nearly 4 million they won last year. The question will be whether they can turn this into electoral success. In this light, today’s news that Arron Banks – who has been Banksrolling both UKIP and Leave.EU – is considering setting up a new party is highly significant. UKIP’s problem so far has been spinning their growing, seething mass of resentment and protest into the pure green of Commons seats, and that’s largely because they’re incredibly ill-disciplined. It’s also because their one MP, Douglas Carswell, appears to disagree with Nigel Farage on everything other than EU membership itself.

Banks is wealthy enough and committed enough to see this transformation through, and when set against the referendum result, the rise in far-right activism (and racial abuse and violence), and the economic chaos that is going to envelop our country for years, the drumbeat of fascism is set to ring louder and louder in our ears.

So now we turn to look at the other casualty of the week just passed. The Labour Party is going through its death throes. Jeremy Corbyn and his small band of strong-willed acolytes appear to be hellbent on driving the party into the ground. It now seems clear that the leadership actively obstructed the Remain campaign, rather than simply soft-pedalling on its own activities. How complicit Corbyn himself was in this is unclear but he doesn’t seem to be able to control his own aides, particularly Seumas Milne. People talk about Corbyn having ‘delivered’ the Labour vote, but this has been contradicted by many senior Labour MPs including Sadiq Khan, who has said very clearly that in important areas Labour voters had no idea which way the party was facing.

Corbyn himself has since refused to resign even when 80% of his own MPs withdrew their support. When set against Cameron’s gracious and immediate resignation, this is an unprecedented, unjustified and deeply dishonourable decision. Meanwhile, he continues to put the support of Labour members – around 250,000 people – ahead of the voters who desperately need an effective opposition. And worst of all, his cabal appears to be threatening MPs with deselection in order to shore up his position.

But we can’t entirely let the Labour MPs off the hook. They acted quickly in the aftermath of the referendum campaign to try to jettison their leader. But they’ve somehow got into a situation where his position is untenable, but failed to identify a clear candidate to challenge him. It seems to me that this is because they know two things. Firstly, whoever challenges him may have an uphill battle to win over members. Secondly, even if they do win the leadership, they will have to try to reconcile the extreme disparity inherent in their party’s support.

In my view they are most likely to try to do this by moving on the migration issue – becoming even more anti-migration in an effort to keep their northern and Midlands heartlands from falling into UKIP’s lap. This fateful decision will make them unelectable in the more liberal constituencies; they may even find that their grip on London begins to loosen. Their unique selling point will have been lost both to UKIP, which will outflank them on rhetoric, and the Tories, who will continue to outflank them on competence.

It’s a gloomy story. Reading the commentary of pundits over the course of the past week, it’s also one for which very few people can see a happy ending. I will admit that I am more pessimistic about the state of British politics than I was even just last year, when my own party lost all but 8 of its 57 seats.

But there is a way back. And it isn’t through a hasty second referendum or a snap general election. People will need breathing space to think through the simplest way forward: the way that will allow a genuine opposition to develop, one that opposes both a national and international settlement characterised by insularity, fear and protectionism, but also promotes genuine cooperation, targeted redistribution of wealth, and a fair deal for local communities. Most of all, this opposition has to have a clear, coherent message to fight the resurgent racist nationalism that is currently enjoying open season.

This opposition can only be created within one party while the electoral system we have continues. And the only party currently capable of providing such an opposition is the Liberal Democrats. We are the only party that stands across the United Kingdom; the only party that has a clear policy on continuing EU membership; the only party with a leader who is not in the process of resigning.

So it is now incumbent on any MP (or indeed any member or activist) in any party who considers themselves generally humanitarian, internationalist, open to the world, pro-immigration, pro-trade, in favour of progressive taxation, moderate, anti-fascist – in short, liberal – to consider defecting to the Liberal Democrats. Ask yourself this question: what am I realistically going to achieve if I stay where I am?

If you’re in the Tories, your party is about to be captured – irrevocably – by either a crazy-haired clown who hides his racism and thuggery behind jaunty classicisms and changes his views more often than I change my socks, or a ruthless person who has used her years in the Home Office to make life hell for millions of workers and students and to threaten our way of life by insisting that we should all be monitored by a surveillance state so all-encompassing that it could teach the Stasi some new tricks. Neither of them appear to have any interest in Britain’s place in the world whatsoever.

If you’re in Labour it’s even worse. You’re led by the ultimate lame duck, someone whose authority is now so denuded that your party’s status as the official opposition was officially challenged today by the Scot Nats. He doesn’t appear to believe in politics at all and is forcing your MPs to hammer their heads and hearts repeatedly against a brick wall to no discernible purpose.

Now think about what it would say if you did make the switch. I know we are a very small party right now. But the benefits are very clear:

  1. It will give you a renewed, distinctive platform to articulate more clearly your views on the referendum and the negotiations that must now take place;
  2. It will give the Liberal Democrats another powerful and authoritative voice. At the moment we lack a large number of voices to make the case and our leader Tim Farron can only do so much;
  3. It will help to shift the conversation away from the current chaos engulfing your current parties, giving them time to regroup and ensuring that we do not miss the chance to nip racism and fascism in the bud;
  4. It will strike an important note of consensus and collaboration in a political system currently defined by division, suspicion and mistrust;
  5. Most of all, it will be a place of optimism and hope where you are welcomed, rather than a party dominated by suspicion, cruelty and often outright hostility between supposed colleagues.
We don’t need a general election straight away and in any case it now seems clear that one will not be called. Instead, we need a general defection, so that when the time comes – and it will, perhaps sooner than we think – we are prepared and able to stand up for the values that didn’t just define our political parties, but our country, for generations.

Why I’m voting to remain in the EU

I am going to explain in this post why I think a vote to remain in the European Union is the only responsible choice. I’m not going to link to sources as it would take far too long, and anyway I want it to be clear that this is my own view, based on everything I have read and absorbed during the debate to date.

The “too long, didn’t read” version: On every conceivable issue, remaining in the EU would be a more sensible and fair course of action for the vast majority of people – both in the UK and elsewhere – than leaving. It is right to fear something as absurd, unnecessary, alarming and damaging as a vote to leave would be.

If you don’t think my view is worth much, and you want a list of different sources on the campaign, try here. It aims to give a fair hearing to all sides.

Fair warning: this post is very long so here’s a list of internal links if you want to jump straight to different sections.

Take me to…


The “Common Good” Approach

UK politics has largely abandoned the concept of the common good. In fact, it’s questionable whether it was ever supported. For almost a century British politics has been dominated by two parties, Tories and Labour, which were deliberately set up to preserve the interests of particular social groups rather than society as a whole. More than any single thing they’ve done – and they’ve done a lot – this is why I am instinctively hostile to them.

Nonetheless, I still try to apply the principle of the common good to my own politics. The Rawlsian original position, incorporating the idea of the “veil of ignorance”, is vital to this process. It is not perfect but as a structure for thinking about the social contract it is unsurpassed. It also has roots in many other writers’ and philosophers’ wisdom, from John Stuart Mill to Jesus Christ. Jesus famously told the parable of the Good Samaritan, answering the question “Who is my neighbour?”; this approach essentially expands that to ask, “What if I were my neighbour?”

The benefit of this approach is that it does not ignore the individual even as we consider a question so sweeping as the UK’s membership of the European Union. We can begin to identify, for instance, the people who may be affected by a decision to remain or leave, ordered by the probable impact of the decision on their lives:

In the UK

  • UK citizens (in all their shapes and sizes – urbane Londoners, impoverished working class folk, Scottish nationalists, etc)
  • Irish citizens living in the UK
  • EU citizens living in the UK
  • Non-EU migrants living in the UK

In the EU

  • UK citizens living in EU member states (particularly France, Spain and Italy)
  • EU citizens living and working in their own countries or other member states
  • Non-EU migrants living and working in the EU
  • Refugees fleeing into the EU

On the fringe of the EU

  • Citizens of countries hoping to join the EU
  • Citizens of countries threatened by or already attacked by Russian aggression

Global

  • All world citizens

There are of course other things to consider, such as gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and the rest. But for now let’s keep it simple. When I consider whether to leave or remain, I am actively trying to consider the impact on all of these groups. I want my decision to avoid harm to any of them, if possible, and ideally to create benefit for all.

So now let’s explore, issue by issue, what the impacts of the referendum vote could be, and whether a Remain vote aligns with this idea of the “common good”.

Economics

Like it or not, the world runs on money. A referendum on EU membership is certainly a chance to consider big, existential questions, and I do that below. But any assessment of the common good has to consider the impact on ordinary people’s circumstances.

The UK Economy

There is absolutely overwhelming consensus among economists and financial experts that a vote to leave the EU would create major short-term problems for the UK economy. Even the Leave campaign has not seen fit to contradict this assessment: their working hypothesis is that there will be a recession for a couple of years and then growth will return.

That simply isn’t good enough. One of the reasons we are in a parlous state politically is because the recovery from the last recession (2008/09) was so anaemic. We are arguably in a state of hidden depression as a country, as a continent and as a world. Yet people seem to have forgotten that the impact of that recession was hugely disproportionate: as with every major financial crash, it was people on low and middle incomes who suffered, and continue to suffer most.

The Leave campaign has taken an incredibly narrow approach to economic matters. They have focused on the idea that if we leave the EU, we will have more money to spend, as we won’t be paying our fees any more. They have lied about how much this will save the country time and time again. And they have totally failed to engage with the wider benefits that being part of the EU club brings the UK economy.

Worse still, they have entirely failed to set out clearly what their preference is for a new deal after we exit the EU. At various times, they have implied that they like the idea of having a deal with the EU along the same lines as Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, Canada, and even Albania. But they have never specified which they would pursue – and there are immense problems with all of these. For example Norway still makes significant financial contributions to the EU, has to accept the vast majority of EU regulations, and (worst of all for Leave) has to embrace free movement of people – without having any say on the rules.

Britain’s clout in the EU is considerable when it comes to economics, and we have successfully used our influence many times, not least to defend London’s competitive advantage on financial services. The UK government also succeeded in appointing its current EU commissioner, Lord Hill, to a vital and powerful role, overseeing the entirety of the EU’s work on financial stability, financial services and capital markets union.

Here’s the economic reality of Leave: we don’t know what we’re getting into. We don’t know what kind of deal our political overlords will attempt to make. It is highly likely that the EU and large economies like Germany and France will want to make an example of the UK in order to dissuade other countries from following in our footsteps – and that is its right.

We will enter a period of economic recession, perhaps depression. The impact of this will not just be on the UK but on the EU and on economies around the world – including the US and China. Lives will be ruined. Jobs will be lost. There will be less money available to pay for public services and social security safety nets. And we will be led by a political party, and likely by a prime minister, whose response to recession is austerity. How do we know this? Because that is what they did last time.

This is a theme I’ll keep returning to, because it’s very important to recognise it. If we vote to leave the EU, we will still be led by the same government that is in charge today. That means a majority Conservative government, probably with a new prime minister – and that prime minister seems highly likely to be either Boris Johnson or Michael Gove. (The other options – George Osborne, Theresa May, Philip Hammond – aren’t exactly cuddly One Nation types either.) The Conservative party is not there to represent the majority of people: it is there to represent the minority of wealthy, older people who keep it in power.

The combination of huge economic uncertainty, an economy only gingerly recovered from one of the biggest recessions in history, and a Tory party even more hellbent on destroying the state’s power to intervene positively in people’s lives is not one I can vote for in good conscience.

So the economic argument for Remain is overwhelming from a UK standpoint.

The Eurozone and other European countries

It isn’t just about the UK, though. A decision to leave would also have a major impact on the credibility of the EU as an institution capable of stimulating economic prosperity. It is probable, although harder to predict with confidence, that a nation of the UK’s size moving towards the exit would create sufficient upheaval and uncertainty that the entire bloc might fall into recession.

That is no small thing given the travails facing some of the EU’s weaker economies. Greece is in a parlous state but several other nations are also in danger – Italy being the most pressing.

Destabilising the European economy would be one thing if it could be set against obvious economic gains for the UK. As it is, though, even the Leave campaign recognises that the short term consequences of exiting the EU will be negative. Again, then, the economic argument is for Remain.

A wider issue for some Leavers seems to be that the UK puts more money into the EU than it gets back. This betrays their inability to see beyond national borders and empathise with other nations; at heart, it betrays their belief that economic redistribution is simply wrong. As someone concerned with the common good, I cannot go along with that view; the UK is one of the richest nations in the world (for good reasons and bad) and should be proud to give some of its wealth away to poorer countries.

Without the EU in place, that becomes less likely: European countries do not tend to be considered impoverished enough to warrant overseas development aid (ODA), and with Gove or Johnson in Downing Street the likelihood of major increases to ODA spending is slim to say the least.

Then we can also consider those countries that have yet to join the EU, but wish to. I currently live in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a beautiful country that suffers from the legacy of a peace agreement, the Dayton Accords, that froze into place the ethnic divisions that had erupted into war. Like many of the other countries in the Balkans and on the eastern fringe of the EU, it is in the grip of corruption and organised crime. It desperately wants to join the EU and access the single market. The EU is using that desire to encourage change in the country – improved regulation, better environmental standards, and the introduction of border controls, for a start.

The same process is going on in several other countries and has been for some time, as part of the EU’s enlargement process. Progress on reform means access to valuable EU funding. This is excellent evidence of the benefit of an expansionist supranational institution where core members are committed to the prosperity not only of its existing members but of prospective joiners. To me, it is one of the EU’s most laudable goals.

A British exit puts all of this at risk. The EU is at a low ebb in any case, lacking confidence and being chipped away at by petty nationalism. If we undermine it further by withdrawing our consent for the overall project, the European continent loses one of its best ways of securing future prosperity for developed and developing economies alike.

The global economy

The impact of Britain’s exit from the EU on the global economy is less certain. Leading American economist Janet Yellen, the chair of the Federal Reserve, is on record as of yesterday saying that Brexit could delay an interest rate rise and hit overall demand in the US. She warned of ‘significant economic repercussions’, something that other major economies around the world will also be concerned about. It’s certainly possible that the uncertainty created by an economy of the UK’s size and importance being shaken to this extent could plunge the entire global economy back into recession.

However, I think the main point to make is on the long term effects. By 2030, the three major economies of the world will be the US, China and the EU. Other national economies show no real sign of growing quickly enough to bridge the gap to these titans. Moreover, China is slowing down from its period of miraculous (unbelievable?) growth, while other emerging economies like Brazil and Russia are currently captured by corruption and organised crime, showing no real sign of improvement. Brazil in particular is in a dreadful state politically and economically.

The idea that the UK standing alone will somehow be in a position to forge ahead outside the EU, building bilateral trade agreements with whomsoever it chooses, does not resemble reality in any form. There have already been warnings from the President of the United States and from the head of the World Trade Organization that any new trade deals will be extremely costly and time-consuming.

The one saving grace in this may be that London is no longer viewed as the preeminent home for dirty money. But at the same time, there will be far less incentive for the UK to take a leading role in tackling corruption if we are seen as a small-minded pariah state rather than as a prominent global power. And the thing is, there are already ways to deal with that unwanted reputation now: we already have the ability to clamp down on tax evasion and avoidance, put people in jail and fund investigative work that exposes the structures enabling offshore tax haven usage.

So, again, based on the wider economic ramifications, I can’t see a good argument for voting to leave the EU.

Immigration

Will leaving the EU actually give us more control of our borders?

Let’s turn to the reason many Leave supporters want out of the EU, then. You will find time and again that this trumps (pun intended) the economic argument for lots of people. The argument runs that it may be even worth giving up some temporary economic security if it means regaining control of our borders. Nigel Farage is on record as saying that he wouldn’t personally object to being poorer if it meant we could keep people out who we don’t want.

The reason people want to come to the UK is that we are a successful country. What these people are saying, in essence, is that they are prepared to run down the UK in order to make it less attractive for new citizens, forgetting that this also harms its own citizens. It’s a remarkable argument to make, as it also totally ignores what many people are trying to escape: they can be fleeing conflict of course, but they can also be fleeing the result of historic conflict and political instability.

There’s no attempt at all on Leave’s part to understand this or to empathise, only the narrow-minded belief that the UK deserves to be suspended in some sort of sepia-tinted stasis (or ideally wound back to a time when there were fewer immigrants already fouling our golden shores).

Of course, the myth behind the myth is that immigrants are robbing us blind twice over: stealing our jobs and also taking vital resources through the UK’s generous benefits system. Obviously, both cannot be true, but lies like this have taken hold to such an extent that they are no longer questioned. The fact remains that you are more likely to be treated at A&E by an immigrant than standing in the queue behind one. Time after time, evidence shows that EU migrants contribute more to the economy than they remove, and that the people who are the biggest burden on the British economy are, well, British people.

I wouldn’t exist were it not for the generosity of previous generations towards immigrants. My mum is Indian and I am half-Indian. While India isn’t in the EU, there are millions of people in the UK in the same position as me from all sorts of European backgrounds. To see the country I was born and raised in turn away from that position of open-minded generosity sickens me.

So it’s clear I don’t agree with the Leave campaign’s attitude on immigration. In fact, no major party is adequately pro-immigration for my liking – not even my own, the Liberal Democrats. Labour, and the Lib Dems to a lesser extent, have allowed themselves to be dragged into a race to the bottom on immigration rhetoric that is poisoning our country from the inside out.

But all that aside, would leaving the EU even have the effect the Leave campaign claims? I’m not so sure. It is undoubtedly true that, having left the EU, we would initially regain total control of our own borders. The implications of that are more complex than you might think, though.

First of all, the UK-France border could no longer be in Calais, but in Dover. The Le Touquet agreement was negotiated on the basis of the UK’s membership of the EU, among many other things, and there is no guarantee that it would continue; French ministers have already made noises to the contrary. That means the dreaded “Jungle”, so despised by right-wing tabloid newspapers, could come to Britain.

Secondly, and more importantly, the Leave campaign has sporadically suggested that a new deal would be done with the EU to enable trade to continue. As discussed in the Economics section, they have never set out what this would look like. However, we can probably assume it would look something like the agreement that set up the European Economic Area. Other countries involved in this – Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein, all members of the European Free Trade Association – have not only had to accept the principle of free movement, but have gone further by joining the Schengen Area.

If you don’t know what Schengen is and you’re anti-immigration, listen up: Schengen enables passport-free travel without any kind of border control. It basically acts as a single country for travel purposes.

I personally love the idea of Schengen, and wish the UK had not opted out of it. But if you are anti-immigration and like the idea of border controls, I hate to break it to you, but EU migration is actually likely to get “worse” and more difficult to control if we leave the EU than if we stay in it.

You might argue that Britain will somehow negotiate a better deal than any country before it has. But the EFTA countries were able to negotiate their deal from a position outside the EU, rather than after leaving it – a far stronger position – and look where they ended up. To think the UK is somehow immune to the negotiating power of the world’s largest trading bloc is wishful thinking in the extreme.

So, whether you’re pro- or anti-immigration, staying in the EU appears to be more beneficial for the UK than leaving it. It shows both that we are committed to being an outward-looking country and it means we won’t have to cede further control of our borders.

What about UK citizens living in EU countries?

This is another important question. There are around 1.2 million UK citizens living elsewhere in the EU, while 3 million EU citizens live in the UK. It is a real shame that the vast majority of these people have been denied a vote, given their lives could conceivably be changed significantly by a decision to leave.

While deportations of existing residents are unlikely, there’s every chance that countries with sizeable populations of UK immigrants like Spain and France could introduce new charges to access public services, levy additional taxes on UK-owned property, or introduce new requirements to allow children into the school system.

Without some concessions to freedom of movement, too, it makes these people’s lives far harder – their families may find it more difficult to visit on short notice, or they may have trouble getting access to healthcare in an emergency. That could, in turn, increase the number of people returning from overseas. They won’t be young, eager, energetic people looking for jobs and a chance in life; they’ll be old people looking for housing having sold property on the Algarve or in the Dordogne, driving up property prices further and unlikely to contribute to the economy in any useful way.

Some of the concerns around this question have been overdone by the Remain campaign, but we shouldn’t simply discount it as a consideration. If the purpose of political decisions is for the common good – and if you were in these people’s position – what would you do?

Democracy

This is probably the issue I’ve had to debate most during this referendum. The issue of democracy has been placed at the very heart of the Leave campaign. The claim runs that the EU is unaccountable, and that there is a democratic deficit. The theory is epitomised by Michael Gove’s vivid statement that “one of the most powerful symbols in our democracy is the removal van”: this is another way of saying that if you can’t kick out the people who make decisions and laws on your behalf, then the system you’re in can’t be called a democracy.

First off, let’s recognise something: the EU could stand to be more democratic. The Commission, in particular, has too much power. It should be recast as a proper civil service, depoliticised entirely, and its monopoly on proposing legislation should be ended. The simplest way to do this would be to give more powers to the European Council, asking them to propose concrete legislation rather than set a direction of travel, and to the European Parliament, which already has powers to initiate legislation.

It should be noted that the Parliament has had its powers significantly extended by recent treaties and has intervened decisively twice in recent times to remove or challenge the Commission; removing Jacques Santer’s corrupt and fraudulent regime in 1999 and forcing Jose Manuel Barroso to reshuffle his team before taking office.

The EU as a whole also needs to do a far better job at educating its citizens – in every Member State – as to what its institutions do, who we are electing when we vote, and why it matters. And serious thought should be given to the problem of subsidiarity. While David Cameron has secured a deal on this – the so-called “red card”, where national parliaments can object to a law so that it is amended or withdrawn – the importance of transnational issues should be sufficient to warrant a strong program of activity without resorting to tinkering with tiny issues.

To suggest as many do that the EU is undemocratic in the round, though, is simply wrong. EU law is actually held to a much higher standard than UK law, as logic would dictate; it has to be approved by 28 very different nations, rather than one (or sometimes three or four). The process for making law in the EU is exacting, sometimes painfully slow, and introduces democratic checks and scrutiny in excess of what exists in Westminster:

Image by Jude Kirton Darling, Labour MEP (src)

And while we’re on the subject of Westminster, let’s just think through how democratic the UK’s own system is:

  • We have an unelected, hereditary head of state.
  • We have a head of government – the prime minister – elected by a self-selecting group of political obsessives (party members) rather than directly by the people.
    • This means that the position can be vacated and filled mid-term without recourse to the electorate, as has happened twice in my lifetime.
  • We have a government appointed from the elected legislature. Ministers are not required to be confirmed in their positions by the Parliament (unlike in the EU).
  • We have a Cabinet personally selected by the prime minister and that can be changed on a whim.
  • We have a whole House of Parliament that is unelected. People are appointed to it – political patronage, obviously open to abuse and corruption – unless they happen to be a high-ranking Bishop or someone whose male ancestors were Earls.
  • The prime minister can appoint people to his Cabinet who aren’t in either House of Parliament: he does this simply by making them a member of the House of Lords.
  • The other House of Parliament – the Commons – is elected using a system that has very little relation to the numbers of votes each party receives. At present:
    • The Conservatives have 50.8% of the seats on 36.8% of the vote;
    • Labour has 35.7% of the seats on 30.5% of the vote;
    • The Lib Dems have 1.2% of the seats on 7.9% of the vote;
    • The SNP has 8.6% of the seats on 4.7% of the vote;
    • UKIP has 0.2% of the seats on 12.7% of the vote.

In short, the UK has nothing to say to the EU on democracy. Our system is as broken as it gets. The total lack of any kind of positive proposal from the Leave campaign on reform of the UK’s democracy shows just how little they value the concept itself.

Layer on top of that the current UK political situation and things start to get really ugly. Who are the people we are going to give more power to if we leave? The current majority Conservative government is appalling in all sorts of ways.

  • It is kicking out legitimate immigrants vital to our education and healthcare systems in the name of hitting a target it will never reach.
  • It is attacking our civil liberties by introducing mass state surveillance (with Labour’s blessing).
  • It is trashing our decent record on the environment by reducing investment in renewable energy and encouraging fracking.
  • It is threatening to destroy the BBC’s place in our society as a neutral source of political coverage and as a producer of high quality TV and radio.
  • Worst of all, it is standing firmly against any attempt to reform our democracy, and actually attempting to make things worse by cutting opposition funding, forcing through boundary changes, etc.

Meanwhile, there is no prospect of any party seriously challenging the Conservatives while Labour is led by someone of such limited calibre as Jeremy Corbyn – and you’ll note I’m not even getting into his actual politics.

We face at least nine more years of the Conservatives, and even if we stay in the EU, that gives them plenty of time to destroy what is left of our country’s best qualities. At least the EU holds them back to an extent, and other European institutions guarantee our human rights. Leaving the EU will only encourage attempts by senior Conservatives to remove the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights – something the Home Secretary is already advocating.

In summary: UK democracy is in a parlous state, and removing EU oversight from the government is likely to result in significant further harm. The EU has shown more promising signs of reform in recent times than the UK has, and is starting from a better place. So, once again, it is clearly right to vote to stay in.

Voter Registration

One way of testing a supposed commitment to democracy is whether the Leave campaign is encouraging voters to register in time for the referendum. As I write this section, the deadline for registrations is approaching. I have seen any number of neutral institutions and Remain campaigners – including the official campaign, the Electoral Commission and the government itself – encouraging people to register. By contrast, this was the 0fficial Leave campaign’s effort:

Page on Vote Leave website

While they eventually changed the page that this button led users to, it originally led to a splash page thanking people for supporting the campaign. Even after they changed it, it still only led to another page asking whether people had registered. This is shameful behaviour and demonstrates just how little the official Leave campaign cares about democracy. (It is also a pretty low way of collecting voter data.)

Of the two sides, only Remain has shown any kind of active and tangible commitment to democracy. This only bolsters my view that staying in will be the better course for those of us who consider ourselves democrats.

Sovereignty

The sovereignty argument is very important to the Leave campaign. Along with the idea that we can rid ourselves of the “undemocratic” EU, the idea that we can “take back control” by quitting the institution is literally their campaign slogan. The argument is that we have given away control of the key decisions that affect our lives to a load of unaccountable bureaucrats. As I said above, they feel so strongly about this that they are willing to risk economic pain (if not for themselves, then for the country at large) to regain parliamentary sovereignty.

The problem for me here is that it’s very clear that sovereignty is not a binary concept. If we want to be black and white about things, the UK Parliament is clearly sovereign over our EU membership; if they so chose, they could simply repeal the 1972 European Communities Act and we would be out. Such a move would be mercifully quick in comparison to the interminable campaign we are currently experiencing.

But in day-to-day matters, yes, EU membership does impinge on national sovereignty. EU law can overrule UK law. The European Court of Justice can effectively veto acts of the UK Parliament. It’s worth constantly reappraising whether this is a price worth paying for our membership.

The truth is, though, that we make trade-offs about sovereignty all the time. That is what international treaties are for. Throughout Britain’s history we have been involved in treaties that required us to act if another nation was threatened or invaded; that is why the First World War happened. That is how NATO also works. Standing alone – what Nigel Farage would call “independence” – can make you weaker if it reduces your influence or makes you more reliant on fewer allies.

One of the reasons we think so little of the EU is that our own Parliament is terrible at scrutinising the laws that come from Brussels. The House of Lords takes a more active role than the Commons in doing so and MPs, who are in any case hugely overworked, take little interest in the intricacies of obscure European regulations. They have enough to do rubber-stamping the government’s statutory instruments.

In discussions on this aspect of the referendum I frequently find myself banging my head against a brick wall, though. There is a sizeable number of voters who genuinely believe that the UK has somehow given itself away to Europe, and that only by leaving can we ensure we do not lose our sense of self. I just cannot identify with that. To me, part of the richness of the EU is in travelling from country to country (easily, thanks to being an EU citizen) and seeing just how well preserved the sense of national identity is. It strikes me that the chippiness of the Leave campaign proves pretty well that we have lost none of our Englishness.

Our world is increasingly borderless in every important way – financially, culturally, and technologically. There is no way to turn back time and no way to pull up the drawbridge. I want the UK to be a modern, successful nation that plays its part in all major international institutions. That means voting to Remain.

A final thought on this issue: our sovereignty will almost certainly be immediately diminished if we leave the EU. We will lose Scotland, and possibly Gibraltar. A movement for independence in Wales could well begin. Who knows what might come next. It really could be Little England, a tiny nation with limited resources, reliant on its shrinking financial services sector, forced to become an out-and-out tax haven to survive.

Foreign and defence policy

The debate on foreign policy, and defence, has become extremely poor in the UK. The general election last year lacked any real sense of what is happening outside the UK. The only small reference to defence policy was about the renewal of Trident, on which both major parties agree, but they managed to find a way to argue about it anyway. The only other area of debate where foreign and defence policy crop up is through the prism of the immigration debate.

This shows just how parochial and selfish we have become. Rather than talk seriously about solutions in Syria, we are more concerned with dealing with the aftermath by keeping out the refugees. That neither helps the refugees in question, who are frequently so desperate that they are willing to risk death to escape death, nor does anything to address the real problems in the region.

This bad situation is made worse by the fact that Europe, the continent, is at its most vulnerable for some time. The threat posed by Russia to European and global stability is significant. Putin is a vicious dictator who does not ask “why”, but “why not”, and responds to weakness with further aggression. People in the UK seem to be ignorant that Russia continues to invade other country’s territory and, through insidious media networks and online trolls spreading mendacity and misinformation, is continuously attempting to undermine governments in the entirety of Eastern Europe.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, our main non-EU ally is readying itself for a two-horse race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. While I am confident that Clinton will win, nothing can be discounted in a two-horse race, as we’ve seen with this referendum. Trump is the wild card to end all wild cards, and senior Republicans who were earlier dismissing him are now falling into line behind him.

The total lack of discussion about what any of this means for the UK is shocking. Only the Remain campaign has really tried to raise the issue, although it has been tentative and weak in doing so. But surely this is a very real consideration. Without EU membership and cooperation, the UK will be heavily reliant on NATO. Yet Trump himself has called NATO obsolete and thinks that it needs to pivot towards combating terrorism, something that is probably linked to his well-attested admiration for Vladimir Putin. That admiration is reciprocated in the Kremlin, which has already endorsed Trump’s candidacy.

Putin himself could not be more clearly attempting to destabilise the EU. He likes to deal with nations one-on-one, where brinkmanship is part of the game. A united, multilateral, supranational institution like the EU is probably his idea of hell, partly because it reminds him that the Cold War was lost. While he has been careful to avoid being seen to intervene directly in the referendum campaign, it’s very clear that Russian state propaganda channels like Sputnik and Russia Today (RT) are pumping out the Brexit message – Farage is frequently to be found on RT – while Putin has also been travelling to other EU countries such as Greece to try to warm up relations and ensure that a future outside the EU becomes more attractive.

Trump may not win. But I am hardly confident, and I certainly don’t want to be outside of the EU if he does. We are going to need all the help we can get in that horrifying scenario.

Human rights

The European Convention on Human Rights is not part of our relationship with the EU. It is a separate document to which we are a signatory, drafted by the Council of Europe at the recommendation of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and with the oversight of British MP and lawyer Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe. The European Court of Human Rights was established by the Convention.

As such, leaving the EU will not directly affect the UK’s position on human rights in itself. We will continue to be a signatory to the Convention and cases will continue to be heard in Strasbourg.

However, it would be ridiculous to suggest that there would be no impact on the wider human rights debate. The current Conservative government came to power on a pledge to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights. They have found this near-impossible for many reasons. Withdrawing from the Convention might solve many of them, but by no means all; the problem of the Good Friday Agreement would remain, for example.

Nonetheless, this is why Theresa May, the Home Secretary, has proposed staying in the EU but withdrawing from the Convention. (Obviously another reason is to differentiate herself from the current leadership by striking out as a different kind of Eurosceptic.)

The impact of exiting the EU would be to renew the focus on the ECHR as just another example of meddling supranational institutions standing in the way of British justice. The number of myths peddled about the ECHR is already staggering; if the Leave campaign’s lies succeed, then that will only encourage the nationalists in the media to begin the next round.

I like the ECHR much more than I like the EU, and believe that anything that puts such an authoritative, powerful defence of human rights and civil liberties in jeopardy must be resisted strongly. Therefore, this is another reason to vote Remain.

Intergenerational equity

The final piece to this puzzle is the principle of intergenerational equity. What’s that, you ask? It’s the idea that each generation should bequeath to the next the same privileges it has enjoyed. To put it another way, successful generations should not pull up the ladder behind them to prevent young people from leading good and happy lives.

The baby boomer generation, born in the 15 years after the end of the Second World War, has had an unprecedented degree of good treatment and good fortune. Being of a certain age, they grew up used to the idea of Britain as a proud nation: proud of having stood alone against the Nazis, proud of being the country of Churchill and Monty and the Dambusters.

But as they entered their  teens and their twenties, they also reaped the benefits of an economic recovery and a political class that understood the importance of social infrastructure. They also benefited from free or very cheap university education, if they went. They benefited from low house prices and have seen their property appreciate in value many times over. They own houses that are too large for their present needs, and very often they own more than one. They even got to see England win the World Cup, for goodness’ sake.

In older age, they have been protected from the worst effects of the 2008 recession thanks to a coalition government that introduced one of the most generous systems for uprating pensions that can ever have been devised. I still wince to think that it was a Lib Dem minister that was responsible for the ‘triple lock’, a policy utterly in favour of the Conservatives’ natural constituency.

To put it bluntly: baby boomers have had it better than any other generation of people in the UK, and the generations coming after them are experiencing a lower standard of living. This is well-attested. It may sound strange to that cohort of people, because after all, there’s always someone better off than you, isn’t there, but it is true.

By contrast, my generation in the UK – the so-called ‘millennials’ – is generally outward looking. People aged 18-40 are overwhelmingly pro-EU. We grew up in the open world of the internet and of regular travel by air. We do not really experience national borders in the same way as they used to be thought of; we certainly haven’t experienced what it is like to have to defend them from attack. We like the EU because we can study and work where we want, and because it is reducing the cost of using our mobile phones while we’re escaping from the British weather. We tend to be equally suspicious of all authority, and perhaps more suspicious of authority closer to home. We know we get shafted regularly by a government that doesn’t really care about young people, because they don’t vote.

I graduated in 2008 as the recession tore apart the global economy. I applied for around eighty jobs before I decided to take an unpaid internship, and I could only afford to do that because I had generous support from loved ones. Most people my age other than the trustafarians are painfully used to paying most of their wages in rent, gaping CV gaps, taking bar work or manual labour, endless short-term or zero-hours contracts. Most of us have accepted that our most cherished skills and creativity may not be applied to work we actually enjoy for some time – if ever.

Hugo Young once said that Britain’s relationship with the EU is “a perpetual struggle between the future it could not avoid and the past it could not leave behind”. A more brilliant encapsulation of this referendum is hard to imagine.

Older people should think very carefully about the country they want to leave to their children and grandchildren. To take the UK out now will be a final insult to the generation that will be paying – despite flatlining or shrinking salaries, no property assets and poor pension provision – for the baby boomers’ social care.

Could I ever have voted Leave?

As a Liberal Democrat, I recognise that the European Union project is very problematic. There are many things I would change about the structure of the EU and the way it functions. One of the biggest problems with the Remain campaign – and David Cameron’s petty, small-minded renegotiation before it – is that it has failed to articulate any kind of reform programme for the future.

Many of the criticisms levelled at the EU have considerable weight behind them: it is opaque, difficult to understand, and often lacks democratic accountability. I have worked with EU officials and navigated its innards for long enough to understand why it takes so long to get things done. Moreover, insufficient work has been done to prepare the ground for lofty ideals like ever closer union; political integration simply must precede economic reform if it is to be sustainable.

Why do I say all this? Because, contrary to what you might think if you’ve read much of my recent output on Twitter or Facebook, there was a case to be made for leaving the EU that could have persuaded me. That case might have gone something like this:

We believe that the EU is a noble idea, but one that can’t match up to the reality of vast differences in culture, economic performance and political beliefs.

Power is best put in the hands of the people – and should only move upwards when it is essential for decisions to be taken together.

The EU has taken too much power from national governments. There’s a case to be made for a single market and for cooperation on specific issues like crime and terrorism. But no country in the EU is incapable of managing its own affairs.

We’re advocating a vote for Leave. But we know we can’t ask you to throw off the EU comfort blanket if our own house isn’t in order. So to make sure the British people know we mean what we say, we are also proposing a wide range of reforms to make sure power really does rest with the people. In the event of a Leave vote:

  • We will hold a crowd-sourced constitutional convention that aims to enshrine our patchwork of rights in an authoritative document, that will consider:
    • Immediate introduction of an elected House of Lords
    • Consideration of a new voting system for the House of Commons
    • Introduction of proportional representation in local elections
    • The break up of the Treasury which has become far too powerful
    • The abolition and replacement of the monarchy upon the death or abdication of the current Sovereign in favour of an elected head of state
    • The introduction of a genuine federal system for the United Kingdom giving maximum power to its nations and regions – incorporating reform or replacement of the Barnett formula
  • The UK will remain committed to participation in the single market, and will be humble enough to accept that this will mean complying with EU principles on the free movement of people
  • No citizen will go unsupported through transition to the new trade settlements we will need. This may mean extra taxation, extra borrowing or cuts in public spending
  • Workers’ rights will not be watered down but will remain aligned with EU regulations, except in cases where we have improved upon those such as maternity leave
  • Environmental regulation will continue to match or exceed the EU’s in rigour and that we will not rely on cheap, low-quality imports of energy, food or other products
  • We will make additional efforts to preserve the UK’s status as an outward-looking nation through other supranational institutions including the United Nations, NATO, OECD and the G20, as well as through renewing relationships with Commonwealth countries
  • We will create new ways to provide direct support to EU member states such as Greece who are suffering from mistreatment due to their membership of the eurozone
  • The BBC will be supported and strengthened as an important part of our public life as an independent, politically neutral broadcaster in a media landscape characterised by strong political biases
  • Any new attempt to manage immigration will reflect the many positive reasons why people might want to come to our country (e.g. international students, who leave soon after arriving), starting from the proposition that all migrants have talents and skills to offer

The benefit of this approach would have been that it is honest about potential downsides to leaving the EU. It offers some serious ways to empower British citizens and preserve or improve the UK’s place in the world. Sadly, we are not being offered anything like this. If we had, I would be seriously considering voting to leave.

EU Referendum: a list of useful sources

I have been writing a lot about the EU referendum. During the course of doing so, I’ve realised that there is no obvious place that brings together many of the main statements and positions on either side of the referendum debate. This is therefore a “live” list, to which I will add interesting and useful sources as they appear. It will be useful for me to consult from time to time, and hopefully others might find it helpful too.

Feel free to suggest additions in the comments.

Take me to…


Continue reading

Fisking anti-EU myths: a task Canute would wisely avoid

The “debate” on the EU referendum has reached the point where ordinary people are now fully aware of it. We have reached that surreal stage in a campaign when a Facebook timeline normally full of vexatious memes, baby pictures and recycled memories now contains discussion of Treasury forecasts, fishing stocks and TTIP.

flag_yellow_highFor people who follow politics more regularly, it’s a strange old time. There are many myths and outright lies being spread, but for once, the perpetrators aren’t necessarily aware of what they are doing. It’s an opportunity to engage, challenge, and persuade, but you also have to pick your battles. Attempting to hold back the tide of misconceptions is a task King Canute would have mocked, just as he mocked the advisers hoping to flatter him – or so the story goes.

However, there are some interventions that cannot be ignored. One such, doing the rounds on my Facebook timeline today, was a lengthy piece posted yesterday by David Robertson, the Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland. Robertson is a prominent commentator and apologist for the evangelical Christian community in the UK, of which I used to be a member, and his views carry significant weight with church leaders and churchgoers alike.

It is regrettable, therefore, that his blog post – entitled “European Referendum: The TIPPing Point”, an apparent reference to TTIP – should be so obviously slanted towards one side of the debate.

I don’t usually enjoy writing “fisks” of such posts, because I think the format is overlong and comes across as confrontational. That is not my intention here. But I cannot leave his post unanswered and so what follows is an attempt to redress the balance. It won’t be exhaustive, as there are bits that are relatively uninteresting, but I will try to honour the context of each statement.


Robertson begins his post with a claim to be “inclined towards a pro-EU position” emotionally, politically and socially. He then lists “David Cameron, Hilary [sic] Clinton, Jeremy Corbyn, all the Scottish political leaders, most of big business, the BBC, and President Obama” as opposed to Britain leaving the EU.

This is immediately questionable. His inclusion of the BBC – an avowedly politically neutral organization, especially on such big questions as this – reveals that he is taking things as read from the beginning. He offers no evidence as to why he believes the BBC has abandoned neutrality. But here’s the point he’s making:

The case for staying in the EU is strong, but in a world of soundbites and political celebrity endorsements it appears as though facts and reasonable arguments are hard to come by.

Yes. Apparently party leaders and world leaders’ specific and carefully articulated positions on the major political issue of the day can be dismissed as “political celebrity endorsements”.  Of course, such “endorsements” are merely throwaway. They don’t include any facts or reasonable arguments, do they?

Well, judge for yourself. Here’s David Cameron on why we should stay in. Here’s Jeremy Corbyn. Here’s President Obama. And, because I’m a Lib Dem, here’s Tim Farron. I’m not sure any of those speeches can be accused of being mere “soundbites”.

So for a number of weeks I have been trying to find out as much as I could before finally making up my mind.  What I have discovered has astounded me – and also disturbed me how little of this information is actually being discussed in the public square.

I’m forced to question how hard you are looking if you think there is “little information” to be found. But then if you feel that the BBC is not a reliable source of information, it may indeed  be challenging to find the kind of stuff you want.


Robertson then outlines (and I mean outlines) the case for remaining in the EU. He does this in a remarkably succinct 281 words across six short paragraphs. For example:

Borders – Freedom to travel without passports. The removal of borders. The right to live, work and study in any other EU countries. These are surely great benefits.  I love being European. I consider myself European and I loathe what is sometimes called the ‘Little Englander’ mentality.

We don’t have the freedom to travel without passports, as the UK is not part of the Schengen Agreement. Moreover, there has not been a “removal of borders” even within Schengen, as the recent refugee crisis has shown; it is entirely possible for countries to reintroduce border controls when they wish, and they have done very recently.

Human rights. Hasn’t the EU been a bastion of human rights and workers rights? Despite its weaknesses the European Charter on Human Rights has been a positive thing.

The European Convention on Human Rights predates the EU and is separate to it. Staying in doesn’t guarantee that we keep it – and the Tory manifesto said they would scrap it. Irrelevant.

President Obama – ok perhaps he shouldn’t have come here and interfered in our affairs, but perhaps his warning is apposite. If Britain withdraws from the EU we cannot be guaranteed favourable trading arrangements with anyone.

The second sentence here is not what President Obama said at all. But then in order to know what he actually did say, you’d have to read his full remarks rather than dismissing them as just another soundbite from one of the most powerful and articulate men in the global public square.

I’ve undermined half of Robertson’s “case for Remain” there. Why would I do that, as someone who clearly favours staying in the EU? Because I want to show the lack of thought and effort – and the slanted approach – that has gone into his purportedly tentative, “instinctively pro-EU” post. If the Remain case can be so easily misrepresented, what about the Leave case? Let’s find out.


Robertson’s approach is to take each point he has raised for Remain and score them against the opposing view. So here we go.

Peace– The ‘outers’ would argue that whilst there has been peace within Europe (if you leave aside the small matter of the Balkans) this has been guaranteed more by NATO and the need to stand against the communist Eastern Bloc than anything else. Besides which European nations have been involved in more than 100 wars throughout the globe in the past 70 years. As for Islamic terrorism they would point out that this ‘security’ does not appear to be working too well at the moment, and with the arrival of millions of Muslim immigrants it is more, not less, likely that Islamic terrorism will increase within Europe. The almost inevitable defeat of Islamic State, will not kill of Islamist terrorism, it will only make it more resentful and more deadly.

 Score: Overall I think this is a win for those who want to stay in. European nations acting together are more likely to maintain peaceful relations and deal with Islamist terrorism.

This is a good start. He comes to a surprisingly balanced conclusion, although there is little serious discussion here of the scaremongering rhetoric of the Leave campaign in advancing their view. Given he will later go on to criticise what he calls “Project Fear”, it would have been interesting to know what he thinks about Iain Duncan Smith’s claim that we will suffer a “Paris-style attack” if we stay in the EU.

Prosperity – As regards prosperity they ridicule the Treasury figure of £4,300. The Treasury’s ‘report’ was as The Spectator observed ‘perhaps the most dishonest document ever produced by HM Treasury’. It dressed up GDP as household income in order to deceive people and avoided the real figure of £1,480. However even that is a meaningless figure. Chancellor George Osbourne keeps bringing forth Treasury projections for which he now has a 100% record. Of failure. As he admitted in 2010 the Treasury is not much good at economic forecasting.

Mr Robertson earlier complained about the lack of “facts and reasonable argument” in the debate. He derides the Treasury forecasts on the costs of leaving the EU. Of course, he is right that Treasury forecasts are often wrong – although George Osborne set up an independent Office for Budget Responsibility precisely to avoid the sense that Chancellors can influence economic forecasts.

However, there is a wider point to be made here. The Treasury’s argument may be flawed, but it is based on rigorous research and complex economic modelling. I’m not sure that appealing to the Spectator (a famously neutral right-wing rag formerly edited by one Boris Johnson) really gets to the heart of why the Treasury is definitely, absolutely wrong.

By contrast, what has the Leave campaign produced? Mr Robertson is about to tell us.

The Outers argue that Britain would be freed from EU bureaucracy and regulations and would be able to trade both with the EU and with the wider world and that we would be better off. Food and fuel would almost certainly be cheaper and the British government might actually be able to do something about saving the steel industry, if they wanted to.

We can already trade both with the EU and the wider world. A good example is David Cameron’s slavish attempts to build a closer trading relationship with China. Part of the reason we are able to do the business we are doing is because we are members of a powerful trading bloc.

“Food and fuel would almost certainly be cheaper.” This may be true. However, it would probably be because of the total removal of regulations on food safety and the use of pesticides. As Paddy Ashdown recently said, too, leaving the EU would probably signal the end of British agriculture.

As for steel, the British government actually argued against recent EU attempts to raise tariffs on Chinese steel dumping. In other words, they stopped the EU doing something that would have protected the British steel industry. Here’s a Daily Telegraph article on the subject (in case the BBC is too biased for your liking).

Furthermore there is the not insignificant fact that we pay £13 billion into the EU treasury each year and get £4.5 billion back (that is with our rebate – without it we would be paying £18 billion). Whilst there are risks in leaving, what seldom seems to be mentioned is that there are as many if not greater risks in staying. The Italian banks have a 360 million Euro black hole, the Greek economy is still devastated and Spain and Portugal are not much better.

For someone who claims to have sympathy with a progressive political agenda – certainly in economic terms – this is a particularly bizarre paragraph. The suggestion is that we should get back more than we pay in to a club where we are one of the wealthiest members. That would be redistribution away from the poorest nations to the richest. Is that really what Mr Robertson wants?

Some more facts. 79% of business activity in the UK is internal. 11% of our GDP is with the rest of the world (and increasing) only 10% with the EU (decreasing). No one believes that this trade would cease.

Actually, quite a big part of the Remain campaign’s case is that much of this trade would be under threat. We buy much more from the EU than we sell. We are not in a good negotiating position. And business is already suffering significantly due merely to the uncertainty of just having a referendum, let alone the result. 10% of our GDP is an enormous amount to create uncertainty over – it cannot be so easily dismissed.

The EU is a declining market – from 36% of the worlds GDP in 1973 (when we joined) to 17% now.   The EU determines who we trade with elsewhere in the world and on what terms, because individual countries are not allowed to do so. Note this simple point – for the sake of 10% of our business we have to apply 100% of EU rules to 100% of our business.

The bit in bold is correct, but that doesn’t make the bit in italics (my addition) right. Just because our businesses must abide by EU regulations does not mean we cannot trade with other countries on our own terms, and in fact we do so all the time. Look at China again – our government has brokered recent bilateral deals with the Chinese government on nuclear power plants, an Asian investment bank, long-stay visas for tourists, and much else. It is the purest nonsense to say that the EU “determines who we trade with elsewhere in the world”.

What about the three million jobs that are dependent on being in the EU? Daniel Hannan points out how deceitful that claim is: Over 3 million UK jobs are linked to our trade with the EU.’ The dishonesty of this claim is staggering. It is based on the same false idea that Britain would stop trading with the EU if it were not a member. Why? No one argues that we have to form a political union with, say, Brazil or Russia in order to do business with those countries. The economist from whose work the figure was taken, Dr Martin Weale, has said: ‘In many years of academic research, I cannot recall such a wilful distortion of the facts.’”

I agree that the 3 million figure is deceitful and should not be used, which puts me at odds with some members of my own party. However, the point of the claim is to demonstrate what is being put at risk by the possibility of leaving the EU. The onus is not on the Remain campaign to prove that every job would be lost; it is on the Leave campaign to prove that they have a plan to maintain our beneficial trade relationship with the EU when we leave. So far, they have completely failed to do that – suggesting at different times that we could be like Norway, or Iceland, or Canada, or even Albania, but never actually proposing a concrete plan.

Mr Robertson then praises this video, saying he “loved” it:

The statement that this man makes has no relevance to anything. It sounds very vaguely plausible but lacks any kind of detail. It’s a great example of how “soundbites” can trump “facts and reasonable argument”, wouldn’t you say?

Right, that’s enough about economics. Let’s do immigration!

Borders – This is probably a clear win for the Outers.   There is no way that Britain can control its own borders if it is within the EU.   The freedom to travel, live, work and study does not just apply to the Western European nations but now to the Central and Eastern European nations which make up a significant number of the 28 member countries. This has already had a significant impact on Britain and will continue to do so. The millions of immigrants/refugees are one factor but by far the biggest factor is the proposed entry of Turkey.   This has been hastened by the refugee crisis and the difficulties of Merkel and the German government, who’s commendable but ill thought out policy as resulted in some quick back tracking and some hasty promises to Turkey.

There are so many problems with this. The most obvious is that Britain can and does control its own borders. We chose to remain members of the EEC in 1975, knowing that that included free movement of labour, which has been part of the European settlement since the 1957 Treaty of Rome. Opening up our country to EU workers was therefore an entirely British decision.

Moreover, there is abundant evidence to suggest that EU immigration is a net benefit to the UK’s economy (Economist, Financial Times). It is the UK-born population that is a net cost! Also, forecasts that suggest a post-Brexit UK can succeed tend to rely heavily on high levels of immigration, so those who advocate Leave on the basis of “border control” must choose between prosperity and the “little Englander mentality” Mr Robertson earlier claimed to deprecate.

Moreover, new members of the EU are subject to transitional controls, and in any case, the scaremongering about swarms of Bulgarians and Romanians arriving on Britain’s shores has proved to be precisely that.

Finally, Turkey has been a candidate for EU membership since 1999, and in accession negotiations since 2005. In those 11 years, it has closed precisely one of the 35 chapters required to complete the accession process. The probability of Turkish accession in the next decade was very low even before the current crisis, and it is rapidly diminishing given the increasingly authoritarian actions of President Erdogan.

Influence: This seems a no brainer. You can’t influence something if you are not in it… But in reality our influence is very limited. We have been outvoted 40 times in the past five years and we only have 3.6% of EU Commissioners.   In fact we have voted 70 times against proposed EU legislation and we have lost 70 times. Some influence! David Cameron’s EU renegoiations got almost nothing. As regards influence we now have no vote and no voice in the vital World Trade Organisation – where instead we are represented as one 28th of the EU by a Swedish sociology lecturer!

Influence cannot be measured by the number of votes you win or lose; if it were, we should probably just give up on democracy entirely. Moreover, it depends very much on the nature of the vote as to whether the result means anything. Perhaps one of the reasons the UK might lose votes in the EU is because we’ve been trying to make 27 other countries do what we want from a position of arrogant weakness, rather than working with them for the good of the entire community.

Similarly, judging influence in the European Commission by percentages is very silly. It’s very simple and straightforward – each member state gets one commissioner.The UK’s current commissioner, Lord Hill, happens to be in charge of financial services and the capital markets union, one of the biggest and most important innovations in EU policy in decades – and one that will greatly favour the UK as the financial powerhouse of Europe (if we stay in).

If you are looking for proportionality of representation you could look, for instance, at the European Parliament, where the UK, a country with around 12% of the EU’s population, has just under 10% of the seats. It’s not perfect, but it allows small nations to have a slightly higher share of influence – again, something a progressive could, in theory, welcome.

If you seriously want to consider the UK’s influence in the EU, you should look at the success we have in securing the policies we want. And as it turns out – rather unsurprisingly, given we are one of the largest member states by both population and economy – we do pretty well at that. Mr Robertson could consider reading British Influence’s annual report on, erm, British influence, as a corrective.

Finally, the UK is a member of the WTO in its own right – as are all EU member states. The EU is also a member, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make our own representations, and neither does it mean that we are in any sense “represented” solely by an EU delegate. Neither is there anything wrong with being a Swedish sociology lecturer.

The EU is not just a market – it seeks to be a superstate and has increasing regulations that affect everything. Just think of this one (of thousands of examples) – the British parliament wanted to stop charging VAT on sanitary towels (as it was quite reasonably pointed out they are not a luxury item), but were told that they could not do so because it was against EU regulations.   This in the very week that David Cameron was negotiating for a new deal!

A single market involves the creation of new regulations. The way business operates continually changes – just think of the way digital technology is constantly shaking up the way we purchase and use goods and services. The test is whether the regulations are useful and worthwhile, and prevent harm to citizens and workers. I note that Mr Robertson makes no attempt whatsoever to interrogate this question.

As to the sanitary towels issue, he clearly hasn’t been paying too much attention. It was announced over a month ago that the UK government had secured a deal in the EU to allow VAT to be removed from tampons. It turns out that if the UK wants to achieve something constructive it can use its EU membership to convince other governments to act.

Human Rights – There are of course quirks in the European Convention on Human Rights but overall I think it is a good thing. But here is the surprising thing for many people. It is not a product of the EU but rather of the Council of Europe, which if Britain left the EU, we would still belong to, and therefore we would still be a signatory to the ECHR. That simple fact destroys the In argument.

We are through the looking glass. I can’t honestly think of a single time I have heard a Remain campaigner claim that this is a relevant point to the referendum. Mr Robertson is either confused or is deliberately spinning what is actually the Leave campaign’s poor understanding of European institutions.

A more interesting question, though, is whether the UK would remain a signatory to the ECHR if it left the EU. Given that the current UK government has already signalled its intention to scrap the ECHR, and Home Secretary Theresa May reiterated her approval for that policy only this week, perhaps encouraging the public to abandon EU membership is unwise if you wish to protect the UK’s proud historic commitment to human rights and justice. Just a thought.

Overall my score is 4:1 in favour of leaving. Before we come on to point six, which for me was the tipping point, let me mention a couple of other reasons that it is very difficult to support staying in the EU.

Yes, that seems fair. After all, the Remain side got a detailed hearing where their careful arguments were considered closely and attentively.

Democracy – Anyone who believes in democracy cannot vote to remain in the EU, at least not without shutting their eyes and crossing their fingers. The EU is fundamentally NOT a democratic institution. Indeed it is anti-democratic. The power in the EU lies not with the parliament but in the unelected EU Commissioners.   Twice in the past five years the EU has removed a democratically elected government (in Italy and Greece) and appointed Brussels-approved technocrats. Tony Benn got the situation spot on. Once you have rulers who you cannot get rid of then you no longer live in a democracy. The lack of democracy means that there is a lack of accountability and therefore greater opportunity for corruption.

The EU has no power to remove national governments. In no way is Mr Robertson’s representation of the politics of Italy and Greece aligned with reality. The people of those countries voted in elections and governments were formed as a result. There may have been turbulence and the formation of technocratic administrations – but those were due to internal upheaval both political and economic. If anything, in Greece’s case, the changes of government (particularly the election that gave Syriza a majority) were exactly the opposite of what the EU might have wanted.

Mr Robertson’s representation of the democratic stature of the EU is also a caricature. The EU is more democratic than the UK. I recommend that he read this post, and in particular the section entitled “How democratic is Europe?” for a thorough, if fluffy, upbraiding education.

His post also completely fails to examine the nature of “democracy” in the UK, and to question whether removing ourselves from the EU would actually give citizens any more power. I would have to carefully consider a Leave vote if the alternative on offer was a more democratic UK political settlement. However, that is just not on the table, and instead to vote Leave would, in my view, hand even more power to an even smaller group of power brokers and politicians who already benefit from an absurd, broken and sometimes non-existent constitution.

Corruption – Corruption is rife within the EU.

This is the only section of Mr Robertson’s post that holds water. He is entirely right to condemn some of the EU’s wasteful behaviour. The right thing to do in response is not to simply turn our backs on a flawed institution though; that would be to allow this kind of behaviour to go unchecked and unreformed.

What kind of nation wanting influence and the good of all does that? We should seek to be a positive influence in the EU to weed out corruption and ensure that money is spent well and wisely on good endeavours. That’s real influence, sorely needed and likely to be welcomed by other member states as well as the wider world. But perhaps we are too parochial – too “little Englander” – to see it.


So what’s left? Well, it turns out that there is one thing that really has got Mr Robertson’s back up:

Doesn’t President Obama’s intervention make a difference? Yes it does.   I was swaying towards ‘leave’; Obama’s intervention has tipped me over the edge. Here’s why.

Ok. This should be interesting.

His intervention is enormously significant – not because his points have any substance (as we shall see), but because of the fact that he made them at all. Such a direct intervention in another countries internal politics is almost unprecedented. Why did he do it? I was amazed at how many people were naïve enough to say that ‘he’s just expressing his opinion and everyone is entitled to do that’. No. He is the President of the USA and his concern is with the USA. He was not doing David Cameron a favour; he was looking after his own and his countries [sic] interests.

This is not our country’s “internal politics”. This is our country’s decision to make on our membership of an external, supranational institution that carries influence and power far beyond its borders. It is an institution that is at the very heart of the political and economic world. Mr Robertson has some nerve to talk about naivety when in the very same paragraph he’s claiming that the UK’s membership of the EU is merely an “internal” matter.

As for looking after his own and his country’s interests: that is his job. David Cameron has made many statements about other countries in the past. Is Mr Robertson seriously suggesting that it is not the job of Prime Ministers and Presidents to use their office to influence the course of international political affairs? Are we to think that Cameron and Obama should keep their mouths shut when their counterparts gas their own people, imprison journalists and political dissidents, start wars or abolish elections?

And anyway, can’t two countries’ interests align? It’s entirely possible that two mature democracies on either side of the Atlantic have a mutual interest in Britain maintaining its position.

There are two reasons why it is important to America that Britain remains in the EU. Firstly we are America’s voice in the EU. America says ‘jump’, and we ask ‘how high?’. The ‘special’ relationship has become a subservient one. Obama came as the Master to threaten us and tell us what to do.

This is just conjecture based on no “facts and reasonable argument” at all. Where is the proof that we are doing the US’ bidding in the EU? Mr Robertson has just claimed that Obama only cares about his own affairs. Well, if so, why is he supporting our membership of a club that helps to maintain London’s financial supremacy? If London were to lose its competitive advantage, a US city like New York might well be a beneficiary.

Secondly Obama was representing the interests of corporate America. Perhaps because he believes that is best for his country and the world. Perhaps because corporate America funds corporate politics in the US, and Obama owes them.  So the question is why would corporate America want Britain to stay in the EU? It all has to do with TTIP. Obama wants it passed, ASAP, so that it can become his legacy. He made this quite clear.

More conjecture. Lots of “perhaps”. This is the opposite of illuminating.

I am astonished that so few of our media picked up on the main issue here.  They have presented it as though we already have a trade agreement with the US (at least through the EU) and they regard President Obama’s threat as somehow substantial. Anyone reading the papers or watching the BBC would think, ‘oh no, the Americans will withdraw from trading with us and we will all be worse off’.   The only problem is that we currently don’t have a trade agreement with the US, and we NEVER have! And yet trade goes on. We have lasted 60 years without one – and we will continue to trade without one. If we are at the back of the queue for a TTIP style agreement, so what?

This isn’t how it’s been presented at all. The point of President Obama’s comments is precisely to address the Leave campaign’s claim. The Leave campaign claims that should we leave the EU, the UK will be able to do lots of juicy trade deals with the rest of the world in ten minutes flat, no trouble at all, Bob’s your uncle and so on.

This is yet another reason why Obama is qualified to comment, by the way. He is the leader of the world’s largest economy, and the one that the Leave campaign would most like us to do business with. The point Obama is making is that it is not within the UK’s power to leave the EU and then force everyone else to make a deal with them.

For the hard of thinking: it is the Leave campaign that claims trade agreements are vital and that the UK could forge one with major economies like the US quickly after leaving the EU. Obama’s intervention is powerful because it cuts the Leave campaign’s legs from under it.

[TTIP] is clearly very important to [Obama] – and to the American political and economic establishment? Why?

What is TTIP? It is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which cuts tariffs and regulatory barriers between the US and Europe. Sounds good? Think again… This is big business in league with big government (whom they pay for – especially in the US) trying to circumvent democracy and the rule of law…

<long excerpt from Independent article>

TTIP is a difficult issue. That’s why it’s already been in negotiations for more than five years, and why it is far from concluded. But Mr Robertson’s objections to it, on the basis of the Independent article he quotes at length, do not chime with the rest of his argument.

Earlier on, you’ll remember (possibly), he claimed that one of the main problems with the EU was how its regulations restricted the UK economy and foisted all sorts of nasty rules on British businesses.

However, the vast majority of the points made in the Independent article he quotes are warning precisely the opposite: that EU regulations on things like public services, food safety, environmental safety and workers’ rights could be undermined, putting citizens at risk and reducing the quality of goods and services. He can’t have it both ways: either EU regulations are too onerous or they’re so great that we should defend them from the villainous Americans at all costs.

But it’s all a load of rubbish anyway. TTIP is one of the most misunderstood negotiations in history, partly because people tend to retweet and repost hysterical memes about dry economic/political talks rather than bothering to look at the detail. This leaflet from the EU Commission is a good place to start if you actually want to understand what TTIP does and why it is a good idea.

Mr Robertson finishes this section with a final blast:

This is the issue. We don’t get to vote on TTIP. We can’t vote on it. And in the EU our elected politicians can’t vote on it. Obama came here, at the behest of his corporate paymasters, to try and save an agreement which will bypass democratic governments and hand even more power and wealth to the big corporations.

Not a single word of this is correct. As above, if anything, President Obama came here to correct a false claim being made by the Leave campaign.

We in the UK have voted on the principle of TTIP by electing successive governments which were both committed to the EU, to a strong relationship with the US, and to free trade in general. What’s more:

  • EU member states are consulted at every stage of TTIP negotiations.
  • Once the final TTIP text is ready, it will be subject to all 28 member states’ governments and a public consultation.
  • It will then be voted on by both member states’ governments and the EU Parliament before it can be adopted.

When you are negotiating something as big as a trade agreement between two enormous economies, you don’t have votes every five minutes. But nonetheless, the TTIP process is pretty transparent. If Mr Robertson wanted to, he could read all sorts of interesting information, including negotiating texts and factsheets, here.


So why did I write nearly 6,000 words on Mr Robertson’s blog post? 

Because when someone claims at the top of such an article that they are committed to trying to find out the “facts and reasonable arguments” on an issue, and then proceeds to advocate leaving the EU on the basis of a mixture of myths and inaccuracies, I cannot and should not stay silent.

There is, in fact, a case to be made for leaving the EU, as I suggested above. Mr Robertson’s warning over the gradual decrease in British democracy and the rise of EU technocrats has some merit. There would have been a real chance for change had the Leave campaign focused on the former of those points, and attempted to attract those of us who are committed to democracy.

But we are very far from that. The Leave campaign is not even committed to the truth.


POSTSCRIPT: I didn’t intend to address fully the political discussion at the end of Mr Robertson’s article. But there is one bit I must object to:

The Lib-Dems – are of course pro-EU. It is an article of faith for them – even when the EU is going in such an anti-liberal, undemocratic direction.   But wait. There is a real shock here. One of my political heroes, Lord David Owen, founder member of the SDP, Europhile has announced that he is an Outer! David Owen Wants Out of the EU

That is like Nicola Sturgeon announcing that she wants Scotland to remain in the UK! IF David Owen wants out of the EU, we need to ask why!

I’ve discussed why the “anti-liberal, undemocratic” descriptor is so much nonsense. But here, yet again, Mr Robertson fails to do some basic fact-checking. David Owen was never a Liberal Democrat. He objected to the creation of the party and chose instead to carry on as leader of the SDP, before winding up as a crossbench peer in the House of Lords. He’s since disgraced himself many times over, not least by campaigning against AV in the 2011 referendum.

Yep – it’s another sad failure to seek out and understand the facts.