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.

 

Today in “UK democracy”: government cuts funding for its opponents

From time to time the total inadequacy of our parliamentary democracy is brought starkly into view. Today is one of those occasions.

Can it possibly be anything other than deeply dangerous and anti-democratic for the ruling party to make decisions on the funding of opposition parties?

Yet that is exactly what George Osborne has just done. He is proposing to take away almost a fifth of taxpayer funding from Labour and other opposition parties.

Given Labour and the Lib Dems in particular rely heavily on so-called Short Money, this seems nakedly political, striking at the heart of the opposition’s ability to hold the executive to account.

From the Spending Review document, published earlier today by the Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer:

The government has taken a series of steps to reduce the cost of politics, including cutting and freezing ministerial pay, abolishing pensions for councillors in England and legislating to reduce the size of the House of Commons. However, since 2010, there has been no contribution by political parties to tackling the deficit. Indeed, taxpayer-funded Short Money has risen year-on-year from £6.9 million in 2010-11 to £9.3 million in 2015-16. 108

Therefore, subject to confirmation by Parliament, the government proposes to reduce Short Money allocations by 19%, in line with the average savings made from unprotected Whitehall departments over this Spending Review. Allocations will then be frozen in cash terms for the rest of the Parliament, removing the automatic RPI indexation. Policy Development Grant allocations will also be reduced by a similar proportion, ensuring that political parties in receipt of taxpayer-funding contribute to the savings being asked of local and central government.

 

Chancellor, with these council tax rises you are really spoiling us!

Today’s lazy political journalism story is brought to you by the BBC.

Over the weekend, Auntie reported that George Osborne was “to allow council tax [to] rise to plug care funding gap”.

The story suggested that the Chancellor, in his beneficent majesty, would graciously allow local authorities to raise council tax by a whopping 2% to help cover a funding shortfall in adult social care.

Councils and private providers of social care are already in a pretty big hole due to the cuts to council budgets over the past few years, and this is about to be exacerbated by the introduction of Osborne’s feted new minimum wage.

The thing is – councils already have the power to raise council tax by (as near as dammit) 2%. In order to raise it higher than that they have to put on a costly local referendum, thanks to Eric Pickles, but 1.99% is fine.

So the story here is just that the Chancellor is not going to impose any more central control on a major aspect of local government finance.

I’m sure that will solve everything.

Terrorism is not the greatest current threat to the British way of life

It’s now almost eight months since the face of British politics was decisively altered. Yet the full impact of the UK’s 2015 general election has still to be understood by politicians, let alone the voting public.

You might think this is hyperbole. A lot of people said the same thing after the 2010 election, for instance, due to the apparent breakthrough of the Lib Dems as the third party – and the prospect of perpetual coalition government.

But my view is no exaggeration. The reality of the election is this: we have been left with a Conservative Party vulnerable only to its own hubris. The opposition is either disinterested, splintered, or simply invisible.

We are now in a situation where world events threaten to further diminish our ability to discern the dangers of our domestic political environment. The emphasis on responding to recent attacks is understandable, but not at the cost of allowing a majority government to do whatever it wants.

In the immediate aftermath of the election I retained some hope that with such a small majority, a combination of internal squabbling and a united opposition might force the Conservatives to veer away from Austerity Mk II. And for a brief moment in October, this looked like it could yet ensue.

Embankment.jpg

View of Westminster from Embankment Bridge

The tax credits issue threatened to throw some light on the punishing and unnecessary way in which George Osborne is planning to slash and burn the welfare state. Had Labour peers sided with their Lib Dem counterparts in the House of Lords, the government could have suffered a decisive defeat. But instead, Labour trimmed their sails just as the wind turned in their favour, adopting a halfway house position that gave Osborne breathing space to come up with a “solution” by the time of his Autumn Statement.

I confidently predict that that solution will be spun as a major climb down on his part, but will give almost no real relief to the people against whom the cuts were targeted.

Of course, since the Lords sent Osborne back to the drawing board, events have moved on rapidly. UK politics, like those of every other Western democracy, are currently dominated by questions of foreign policy, terrorism and conflict.

The irony of this should not be lost on anyone who witnessed as recently as April the major parties of a still-influential nation conniving to pretend that we are serenely unaffected by world events.

While of course we should take every sensible step to respond to terrorist attacks effectively – if, indeed, there is an effective response – the significance of recent events domestically is already plain. A ComRes poll released last night shows a remarkable 70% of voters agreeing with the statement: “We have to accept infringements of privacy on the internet for the sake of fighting terrorism”.

Theresa May has so far declined to force through her new surveillance measures despite this overwhelming public support and the best efforts of arch-authoritarian Andy Burnham to speed her up. But it is a matter of time.

Meanwhile, the same poll showed that public perceptions of Jeremy Corbyn are rapidly worsening in the wake of his post-Paris prevarication. A mere two months after he became leader, he now looks in serious danger of being toppled before next spring’s elections, with MPs and even Shadow Cabinet ministers lining up to criticise and undermine him.

People won’t necessarily thank me for talking about domestic politics in the context of the current debate around our response to Daesh. But it is unavoidably relevant. This Wednesday, George Osborne will be in the House of Commons to deliver his Autumn Statement and the results of his spending review.

His statement will have far more profound effects on our way of life than terrorist attacks ever could, even ones of the same shocking scale as Paris. As I write that sentence, I blanch at a comparison that seems extremely insensitive, but that is the reality we face.

Will Hutton – hardly a raving Marxist, but rather a mainstream, Keynesian social democratic economist who was strongly associated with New Labour – has an extremely powerful article in today’s Observer which urges us to weep for the country we live in. It details the hard facts of Osborne’s plans, and what they could mean. This is the “security” the Conservatives promised the nation in April and May:

the de facto wind-up of the Department for Business as a pro-active department, further shrinkage of the criminal justice system (mitigated by prison sell-offs), local government reduced to a husk and the knell of further education. Meanwhile, the cuts in welfare will hit the wellbeing of millions, including their children. Expect on top a firesale of government assets – from housing associations to Channel 4.

Terrorism is a serious and awful threat to our lives and our way of life. But my point here is that it is emphatically not the greatest threat. We should not – must not – allow attacks like those in Paris and Mali to distract us from what is being done by our own government in the name of “security” – whether economic or military.

In five years’ time, our government may well have helped to wipe Daesh off the face of the earth. I will be the first to celebrate that outcome. But unless there is a serious change in the way our government is scrutinised and held to account by our opposition parties, our media and, most of all, voters themselves, we can expect our country to have been irrevocably damaged in the meantime.

This process can and should start on Wednesday. George Osborne’s statement will be carefully stage managed. As in the summer Budget and as both he and David Cameron did at their party’s conference, he will take great pains to appear ever so reasonable, moderate, even centrist. He has been given space to do so, of course, by articles like Hutton’s (and like this), with their dire warnings of imminent doom.

The presentation will be serious, but with just the right amount of apparent backtracking, alongside some trademark difficult decisions and some patriotic purchases.

The question is whether we have yet learnt not to take him at his word.

If David Cameron really wants an “assault on poverty”, he could always try giving the poor more money

One of the striking things about David Cameron’s much admired speech yesterday was the emphasis on the concept of “equality”. This was very much at the heart of the rhetoric: he promised to “finish the fight for real equality” and even went so far as to say that “you cannot have true opportunity without equality”.

Equality is undoubtedly a powerful concept. But it’s become a political cipher. And I mean that word in every sense: when a politician uses the word “equality”, it is simultaneously devoid of any meaning at all; a code that the politician’s supporters instinctively feel they can crack; and a method of concealment. The same can be said of words like “values”, “progressive” or – most problematically for my party – “liberal”.

Cameron himself acknowledged that he believes in equality of opportunity, but not equality of outcome. This is what enables the key elision in the most “centre left” section of his speech: that an “assault on poverty” is the same thing as tackling “the root causes of poverty”. If you read this part of the speech carefully, you can actually see the ghost of Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty hovering smugly in the background:

Central to [tackling big social problems] is an all-out assault on poverty.

Conservatives understand that if we’re serious about solving the problem, we need to tackle the root causes of poverty.

Homes where no-one works; children growing up in chaos; addiction, mental health problems, abuse, family breakdown.

This is a revealing passage. To put it in the language of sophisticated political commentary, Cameron has things completely arse about face. Look at what he is saying: that the reason people are poor is because they have dysfunctional lives, health problems, or are actually guilty of criminal behaviour.

I’ll repeat that: to David Cameron, the root causes of poverty are the terrible decisions that people choose to make about their own lives.

Poor children in olden times. They probably should have worked harder tbh.

Or to boil it down still further: if you’re poor, it’s probably because you live a life that led inexorably to that outcome.

If you really believe this – as David Cameron claims to – then equality of opportunity is a meaningless concept; there’s no use trying to magically turn such bad, stupid, dangerous people into good, intelligent, virtuous ones.

Of course, he’s wrong. The root cause of poverty is – surprise! – people not having enough money.

This might be a shocking revelation to some people. But it seems pretty obvious to me. People who have enough money aren’t poor. People who don’t have enough money do tend to be. QED.

Now, you might say that’s far too simple, and I’m making the same mistake that Cameron has, but from the other side. But if I’m right, then there would be lots of evidence suggesting that if you give poor people more money, their lives get better, yes?

And it just so happens that there is. In lots of countries across the world, governments have found – ASTONISHINGLY – that if you directly transfer cash into the hands of poor people, they… spend it on things that will make their lives better. And no, I don’t mean cheap booze and cigarettes – or even beer and bingo.

There are articles and studies which explore this phenomenon further.

But obviously, David Cameron isn’t just intending not to give the poor people in the UK more money. He’s already announced, via his sidekick George Osborne, that poor people will actually have money taken away from them. I’ve used this graph before, but it is kind of essential to understand the impact of the Budget on the UK population:

The Institute of Fiscal Studies, which produced the above graph, has also undertaken further analysis since then. This reaffirmed the fact that people on low incomes will be far worse off, even when you include all the random policies Cameron claims will alleviate the impact.

If David Cameron really wants an assault on poverty, and to ensure that there is equality – even just equality of opportunity – he could start by reversing or at least drastically reducing his tax credit cuts. But more importantly, his entire government needs to start seeing poverty the right way round, rather than from a position some way through and to the right of the looking glass.

Today we left reality behind and entered David Cameron’s fantasy world

To read the breathless commentary of moderate pundits as David Cameron delivered his speech to Conservative Party Conference today, you would be forgiven for thinking that Cameron had announced a reversal of tax credit cuts, a real living wage, the abandonment of his ridiculous net migration target, and the implementation of a land value tax, all while wrapped in a red flag and doing that thing Tony Blair used to do with his hands.

(You know the one: when he used to make a fist and then stick his thumb out, creating an effect both dominant and approachable at once. Clinton used to do it, too.)

What we actually saw, of course, was nothing more than a good PR man playing to type. Cameron and Osborne have both quickly realised the opportunity offered to the Conservative Party by the election of Jeremy Corbyn: namely, power almost in perpetuity, provided the Tories don’t tip too far to the right in the eyes of typical voters.

Anchoring the party to the perceived “centre ground” has been both men’s transparent aim at this party conference, even if Theresa May seems to think now is the time to veer off into the xenophobic weeds in an attempt to bolster her leadership credentials. It is a simple continuation of the strategy already employed by the Chancellor at the Budget. As I wrote then, a bit angrily:

Aided and abetted by a supine media and an opposition that isn’t there, he is using the Conservatives’ new political capital to carry forward at a far greater speed his vision for Britain.

If anything, since then the nation’s media has become even more supine; in fact, today they were simply prostrate. Damningly, this is particularly true of centre-left commentators who, far from praising Cameron for his rhetoric, should be pointing out at every opportunity the lies he is spinning. Instead, they were busy saying things like:

The worst example of this was Ian Dunt’s unusually ill-judged article on Politics.co.uk, in which he argued that Cameron’s speech was proof of the positive impact of Jeremy Corbyn on British politics. He went so far as to compare Corbyn’s success in dragging Cameron to the left to Margaret Thatcher’s greatest achievement, New Labour.

Every time this happens, it simply gives the Conservatives more breathing space to implement even more right wing policies. The natural consequence of this fawning media reaction will manifest itself in policies that are not just distant from the greater Britain Cameron claimed to dream of today, but that actively undermine the possibility of a more moderate, compassionate society ever coming into being.

Come November 25th, the Spending Review and the Autumn Statement will reveal just how far from reality Cameron’s fantastical rhetoric took everyone today. It won’t be breathless or exciting; it won’t be surprising or brilliant. Instead, it will be presented as an inevitability: “tough decisions none of us came into politics to make”. But that will be a lie.

Cameron’s Greater Britain won’t be moderate. It won’t be compassionate. It won’t increase equality or reduce poverty. As I wrote after the Budget:

It is a country gripped by greed, selfishness and suspicion. It is a country where the poorest are expected to fend for themselves and where the wealthiest are enabled and encouraged to hoard their riches.

If people as smart and influential as those I’ve mentioned in this article are genuinely being taken in, there is little hope for the rest of us.

To win, we have to beat the Tories at their own game

Attempting to understand the mindset of the typical voter is a fool’s game. The last election bequeathed upon us a huge amount of commentary attempting to explain why it was that the Tories had such success – not least from the Tory high command itself, hastily moving to pretend that a majority government had always been on the cards.

The Labour leadership campaign, meanwhile, has seen much of the same discussion, with the Blairite remnant arguing for soft Toryism on the basis of nothing much at all, and the Corbynite insurgency cherishing the fond myth that if only some more non-voters would vote, a reheated and insubstantial version of soggy socialism will take the country by storm.

I don’t pretend to know the “average voter”. I do know my fair share of people who, when it comes to elections, um and ah over which party merits an X by its name. For such people, elections are not about neatly packaged sets of policies, or coherent ideologies. They are instead typically about the feeling that each party gives them, along with perhaps one or two ideas that have burst through the media ether and captured their hearts.

Usually the former trumps the latter, though, and I think a cold hard look at the facts of the 2015 general election bears that out. The Tories aren’t in power because of their frankly creepy “plan for every stage of your life“. They’re in power because voters in the right places looked at them and thought “well, they’ve been in government for five years and we haven’t been forced into indentured servitude yet, and by the way have you SEEN the other guy?”

The central question of British politics right now is not who leads Labour (or even the Liberal Democrats). The question is how far the Conservatives can push their ideological agenda along before voters start to object to it. At the moment they are making excellent progress on this; George Osborne’s summer budget was the supreme example of a viciously regressive set of policies made palatable by sugary, centrist presentation.

The spending review that looms in November will be another step down this road. But as others have written, there will have to come a point during this Parliament where the impact of spending restraint on public services begins to bite in places where it has yet to do so. As the Financial Times’ recent superlative in-depth exploration of austerity Britain pointed out, the cuts to date have fallen on services catering to marginalised social groups which are almost invisible in political terms, having no natural media presence or support behind them.

But this can’t continue. If the Conservatives continue to cut public spending “until the pips squeak”, sooner or later the “typical voter” will start to see, or rather feel, it.

It’s my hunch that adult social care might well be the tipping point. This is an area that doesn’t just affect a small group of marginalised people but an increasing number of relatively well-off and middle class voters. Crucially, it’s not just the service users that are affected by the strain on the system, but their children and sometimes their grandchildren too may well be of voting age.

The story in the Observer this weekend, in which the Chief Inspector of Adult Social Care warned over the bad care being created through systemic pressure, could be the starting point. But in order for this to change voters’ minds in the longer term, the effects of such bad care will need to be seen far and wide. It’s not until such stories start appearing in the Daily Mail or the Daily Express that they are really taking root.

The Conservatives have nurtured a reputation for competence which is actually a mask for an ideology that simply doesn’t want well-funded public services. Unfortunately, they are so good at wearing that mask that the underlying ideology can’t be challenged on its own terms. So instead the task must be to challenge and destroy that reputation for competence. When that has been done, then, and only then, will voters seek a true alternative.

The lesson for Labour and the Lib Dems? Make arguments personal. Go and find people whose lives are being ruined by this government. Make sure they are people with whom the “typical voter” can easily identify, and tell their stories. Don’t talk in abstract technocratic terms about “integration” and “personalisation”.

It’s the sort of thing the Tories do. It’s part of how they win. They are past masters at manipulation and fabricated fear. The only way to beat them is to play them at their own game. If you can make people feel the true impact of a regressive government, you can earn the right to offer them something else. But you have to earn it.