No Strings Attached

In a country where abuse of the system matters more than the system itself, giving without conditions is a revolutionary act

In India’s caste system, there is a class of people known as the Dalits. There are 165 million of them – around 1/6th of the total population. Dalits are not actually a caste; they’re a group so low in social standing that they don’t even merit official inclusion. The name means ‘broken people’, but they’ve historically been known to the outside world as ‘untouchables’. They are considered too filthy to be integrated into ordinary society. They don’t have jobs. They rummage through garbage heaps for scraps of metal or food. They sleep rough on the streets or in makeshift shelters.

a_school_of_untouchables_near_bangalore_by_lady_ottoline_morrell_2

A school of untouchables near Bangalore,  by Lady Ottoline Morrell

When I was a kid, I believed I lived in a country where that could never happen. Of course, I thought the UK had its problems. We certainly had no shortage of self-consciousness about class. I grew up the son of a church minister, a job seen as comfortably middle class for no apparent reason, but certainly not for reasons of income. But I went to a private prep school, and to church, with children whose lives and houses did match that description – well-off, you might say; or, to put it another way, rich. In my dormitory town surroundings in West Sussex, I watched men in suits get on the train to London, flowing, like well-dressed automatons to the ‘dead sound on the final stroke of nine’.

The closest I came to poverty back then were the whispers about “Bentswood” – the estate a few hundred yards from my family’s church. The impression I had as a small child of this small council estate, now mostly privately owned after Right To Buy, was hellish. I vividly imagined bawling toddlers, vicious fathers and mothers smoking and drinking away the child benefit, and teenagers high or getting into knife fights. I based this solely on having seen one woman come out of her house in her dressing gown and slippers to pick up a newspaper, and on the fact that at Christmas, the estate was lit up with what I considered incredibly tasteless, garish tableaux that had little to do with the Nativity as I understood it.

In my church, there were people who were genuinely different. These were what we then called the ‘handicapped’; people with often quite serious mental health issues, and some who had physical disabilities as well. I knew they came from a special home and that they had people dedicated to looking after them. I knew how uncomfortable they made other people when they said strange things during the service. And I knew how uncomfortable they made me when they came near me and asked me questions smelling, as they often did, faintly or strongly of urine, and rarely willing to accept or able to understand my answers. Most of all I knew how uncomfortable it was when one of them, a middle-aged woman, kept coming to our house and monopolising my mother’s time and energy, frequently crying and sometimes shouting.

But these people weren’t ‘untouchables’. To the contrary, I saw people welcome and love them despite their discomfort. They were part of community life, in many ways more associated with the way things worked and the life of the church than many of the comfortable families that surrounded them. In short, they were shown compassion, love and warmth, and they could carry themselves with dignity. In some cases, it was possible to see them grow into completely different people: people who had more humanity, intelligence and empathy than the average ‘ordinary’ person. And because they often spoke with less of the repressed, self-conscious, buttoned-up fear I’d come to associate with the English middle class, what they had to say often resonated far more deeply.

The lesson I learned from observing those people was simple. They were given love and, yes, charity, without strings attached, and it transformed their lives for the better. I don’t know if they knew nothing was expected in return, but I know they responded anyway. Their problems weren’t gone overnight, but their lives, and ours, were enriched many times over. I believed that anything could be overcome in the same way, and that the benefit of this approach would be obvious to anyone.

Then, at 12, I moved to Brazil with my family and my eyes were opened to what poverty and hardship could be. Suddenly, all around me was evidence of a problem that was too big for a church or a community to fix. And these people weren’t mentally ill or disabled; many of them were healthy working age adults, especially men, who stood on street corners or gazed menacingly at passers-by.

For the first time, I felt the threat of poverty. I felt the tension that comes when you live in a society where there really are haves and have-nots, and where the gap’s too evident, and too wide, to ignore. For the first time, I was a rich kid, and though I lived in a rich neighbourhood, and even a rich state, I lived in a poor country.

9101330819_199c8ca34f_b

The sign reads, “We want a cure for hunger”. Recife, June 2013. Photo by Sebastian Freire

I’ve never forgotten what it felt like to realise that this problem could only be fixed by people with far more power and money than the richest families at my church. And I’ve never forgotten what it felt like to realise that the problem had been created by those same people. That good government could change people’s lives, but so could bad government; and that every decision a government makes – even one that only oversees a small dormitory town in West Sussex – carries weight, because it carries the lives of others in its grip.


The Iraq war turned me on to politics in earnest. I marched against the war, and watched brave, clever Robin Cook resign from the government to applause, and to no purpose. I joined the Liberal Democrats for the first time, having heard Charles Kennedy speak out equally bravely, and demand a higher standard of proof before we sent people to kill, and to die.

A couple of years later, I went to university in London. The 7/7 attack happened just before I enrolled for my first year. Overnight, the city I most associated with unrivalled enjoyment of all that’s best about humanity became a place where I sometimes looked over my shoulder. This was somewhere an innocent Brazilian man, Jean Charles de Menezes, could be mistakenly shot multiple times by armed police who believed he was the Asian terrorist they were after. In my half-Indian skin, dark after a summer spent largely outside, I was wary about getting on the tube.

These two events, and their political consequences, may have been when I first noticed it. We no longer had a government that was generous, or patient. It was instead willing to ignore what had gone before for the sake of expediency or some intangible sense of security. The language used about citizens became almost imperceptibly harsher. And meanwhile, the Conservative Party was in the doldrums, increasingly far from power, or so it seemed; embracing unthinking nationalism over the euro, and preaching hate against immigrants and criminals. No, Michael Howard: I’m not thinking what you’re thinking.

The Tories were in such a mess for so long. I could barely remember what it had been like before Blair’s enormous majority in 1997. And although so much had changed in the world after 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq, Britain still seemed like a country at ease with itself, that generally looked after its poor, and that was trying to make things better for its people. Maybe things couldn’t only get better, but in the UK at least, they didn’t seem likely to be getting worse any time soon.

But then luckless, clumping Gordon Brown finally rose to the position he’d dreamt of. And barely a year later we had a financial crisis that threw the country into disarray. It’s easy to forget that only ten years ago, we had a proper bank run in the UK. And after a decade of easy living, tightening belts was suddenly very much de rigeur. ‘Austerity’ was the new watchword, and having spent years trying to outdo each other in generosity (we should never forget George Osborne promised to match Labour’s spending plans), they now began to compete on meanness.

birmingham_northern_rock_bank_run_2007

Bank run at Northern Rock, 2007 (Photo: Lee Jordan)

Brown’s ascent was always marked with tragedy. He displayed a craven willingness to appease the worst kinds of political pressure. His first speech to a Labour conference as leader, much like Theresa May’s almost a decade later, betrayed him as a figure who would be more politically opportunistic and amoral than anyone had expected. It’s almost entirely forgotten that it was during that speech that he first promised to create ‘British jobs for British workers‘. He continued to stand by the use of the slogan, more typically associated with the National Front and the British National Party, despite criticism from his own MPs and even from David Cameron, who was then positioning the Conservatives as a modern, internationalist party.

Then, during the election campaign of 2010, Brown had his infamous run-in with Gillian Duffy. This was a cataclysmic error not because of what he said, but because of the circumstances in which he said it. Politically, he had no option but to renege on his comments, even though they were accurate. Duffy was a bigoted woman. But her views had been given oxygen by Brown himself.

Brown as Chancellor and then as Prime Minister had also contributed to a change in the way we thought about benefits. The thrust of Blair and Brown’s many changes to benefits policy, and especially the introduction of their flagship tax credits was to switch spending from traditional forms of social security payment to conditional (and very complex) programming that provided incentives to take work and then increase the number of hours in employment.

While this had some positive effects, particularly while the economy was growing, it had the effect of removing redistribution from the political arena, or at least obscuring the true intentions of Brown and the Labour government (which, in this area, to my mind at least, were honourable).


Since the turn of the tide in 2010, and the rise of the Conservatives to power, things have got far worse. Despite the restraining hand of the Liberal Democrats for the first five years, the damage was already done when meanness (or ‘austerity’) became the key metric for political competence. And the impact of this is clearly visible.

Walking around London now is a very different experience to what it was ten, five, or even two years ago. In the centre of town, around Victoria or Covent Garden, you can count dozens of people sleeping rough. London looks increasingly similar to cities in the US, rather than to its counterparts in Europe. And from what I hear, other major UK cities like Manchester and Birmingham have seen far greater rises in homelessness. The official statistics from local authorities bear this out (although they also look incredibly conservative).

That environment is what originally sparked my desire to write this. An article by Matt Broomfield in the New Statesman, arguing for giving money ‘directly and unconditionally‘ to homeless people, has been doing the rounds on Facebook and Twitter.

Just before Broomfield’s article appeared, I attended a Tech Solidarity event in San Francisco where a rapt audience of tech employees heard from Jennifer Friedenbach, the director of the Coalition on Homelessness. The non-profit org runs on $270,000 a year, employing 9 staff on a flat wage of $16 an hour (including Jennifer herself); roughly about the same as a single software engineer’s annual salary.

Friedenbach outlined a situation in which one of the wealthiest cities in the world has somehow contrived to produce one of the worst housing environments. The homeless people in San Francisco, she said, had had no difference in terms of ability, health, or other social metrics from the housed; the only difference was whether people received housing subsidies or not. But after a few months on the streets, homeless people displayed a decline in health equivalent to ageing as much as 25 years. Most damningly, she said, the cost of providing healthcare to the homeless in SF now outweighed the likely cost of housing them.

This is where we are, in rich Western democracies: so obsessed with conditionality, with testing whether people ‘deserve’ good treatment, that we impoverish them and ourselves in the service of… what? Accuracy? Efficiency?

The impact of this can be felt in all sorts of ways in the philanthropic world, too, which is obsessed with metrics and benchmarks to demonstrate ‘impact’, and loses out on huge opportunities as a consequence of the bureaucracy that this requires. (I’ll write more on this another time. This fear of failure is definitely not holding back the right wing foundations, which will gleefully throw money at and take risks on projects that share their values, regardless of whether they have their paperwork, monitoring and evaluation and theory of change exactly right.)

All of which brings me, finally, back to Bloomfield’s article, and to the point. How do we begin to solve this? The problem of homelessness is just one indicator for a wider set of political principles that, I propose, most people do not share, but have somehow become an essential measure of successful public policy. Whether a system is abused seems more important to today’s politicians and media than whether the system is achieving the outcomes we want as a society.

As individual citizens, we can of course vote for parties we think will change that. But in the meantime, in the vast majority of years, when we’re not voting at major elections, we should aim to model the values we want to see. I don’t want to live in a country that values meanness over kindness. I want to live in a society that is liberal and generous, and so giving money without conditions (not just to homeless people but also to worthwhile charities, or even extra tax) seems a great way to do that.

Every individual act of kindness is a statement of rebellion against the meanness of the state. Giving without conditions is a revolutionary act.

Advertisements

Theresa May’s Britain: disgraceful, unpatriotic and openly racist

I can’t remember a worse day in British politics than October 4th, 2016. Today ranked far below even last year’s general election, when 49 of my party’s MPs were defeated, and June 23rd, a date I thought had established itself as comfortably the worst domestic political event of my lifetime.

I have spent the day in a state of bewilderment, anger, disgust and despair at the way the Conservative government is dragging the country into a disgraceful mire. They claim to base this on a single vote, a vote to leave the European Union, that was decided on a knife-edge – a mere 1.3 million votes out of 33 million. On the basis of this vote, they claim to understand what “the public” wants, and even what it thinks. Just look at tomorrow’s Daily Mail front page, if you can:

That is the prime minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, calling other people elites. Making up non-existent elites that you can then blame for the country’s ills is textbook fascism.

Of course, this also illustrates another fundamental problem the UK faces: a media that is not just supine but more than happy to promote this kind of language in the face of the truth.

And the truth is utterly stark. The government that Theresa May is running can now only be described as overtly racist. The policy announcements made today by successive ministers were worthy of 1930s Germany and, as UKIP MEP Patrick O’Flynn rightly crowed, redolent of his party’s 2015 manifesto:

The fact that his party’s leader Diane James resigned tonight after 18 days in the job is no more than a depressing footnote to today’s events. The spectre of Nigel Farage’s inevitable return no longer feels threatening given what the Conservatives have become.

Theresa May was the one who popularised the concept of the Tories as ‘the Nasty Party’. Now she presides over some of the nastiest policies ever devised in British politics. It started early this morning with the announcement on doctors. When I read this I didn’t expect it to be the least worrying policy pledge of the day:

That’s the Defence Secretary promising that in future military conflicts, British soldiers will no longer be subject to the European Convention on Human Rights. In theory this would mean they were less susceptible to investigations into battlefield behaviour and abuses. In other words, because they’re beautiful British troops, we should just trust that they’ll do the right thing and remove the external mechanism designed to hold them accountable (you know, the one that British lawyers helped to draft after the second world war). Thankfully, it seems that this policy is actually unworkable in practice, but it certainly kicked October 4th off nicely.

It warmed us up for Jeremy Hunt and Theresa May’s main announcement of the day:

Ok, let’s think about this. There are innumerable problems with this policy. To list a few:

  1. Setting a deadline by which foreign doctors must presumably leave (or be deported?) makes working in the NHS far less attractive for current and potential new foreign doctors. Given the NHS has a massive staffing shortage at present, the government wants to expand its services, and there is a rapidly ageing population, this is shortsighted.
  2. Setting a deadline by which foreign doctors must leave makes it far more likely that they will leave sooner. Why would you want to stay in a country that doesn’t want your highly prized skills? There are any number of other countries you could work in.
  3. Further numbers of home-grown doctors being trained is a great idea, but recruiting people is currently proving difficult. That seems to be mainly a response from students to chronic mismanagement and confrontational behaviour by, oh, the government. Things have got so bad that this year medical degrees went into clearing for the first time.
  4. Even if you can manage to train enough new British doctors, they will be just that: new. These foreign doctors have probably been here for a while, and if by some miracle they stay for another nine years, they’ll be very experienced. So the NHS will lose a lot of experience and institutional knowledge regardless, decreasing the quality of care for its patients.
  5. Finally, even if you replace all the foreign doctors with British ones, you’ll have the same number you started with, when the problem is that there’s a shortage. I need not explain this further, but for Jeremy Hunt’s benefit, if you have no more doctors at the end of the process than at the beginning, you have spent a lot of time and money on solving nothing.

You’ll notice I’ve left out the biggest problem with it. That is, naturally, that it is racist. There is no justification given for the policy other than their foreignness. That is simple racism. Explicitly discriminating against foreign doctors purely because they are foreign is unequivocally wrong.

Next up was Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary. She had a smart idea about cutting immigration too. Here it is:

In case you don’t know, providing education to international students is one of Britain’s most successful exports. Our universities make a ton of money from it. That money massively subsidises British students, keeping tuition fees lower and helping universities plan their financial future.

This policy achieves an impressive triple whammy:

  1. Telling international students they aren’t wanted – thereby reducing demand
  2. Telling universities they can’t be sure whether they’ll be able to recruit international students in future – throwing their plans into disarray
  3. Ensuring that tuition fees will almost certainly rise for British students

Another irony of this particular policy is that evidence suggests a vast majority of the public understand the difference between student immigration and employee immigration, and think people coming here to study for a short period is a great thing. But it’s probably simpler for Amber Rudd to pander to racists.

That certainly seems to be the case for her other policy, a requirement for… well, here’s the Times headline:

Firms must list foreign workers. And if they don’t employ enough British people, they will be ‘shamed’.

Can the Tories even hear themselves saying these things? Surely this runs counter to all their instincts. Even if we’re only talking about being pro-business – the most mercenary of all possible considerations – this is going to be a nightmare for everyone; enormous bureaucracy for no discernible purpose. Meanwhile a lot of the people who invest the most in our economy or have the best skills are foreigners – think of London’s tech industry, which is one of the world leaders.

But again, the real question for Amber Rudd and Theresa May is how they sleep at night. How do they live with themselves? This is bordering on fascism.

Speculation has raged since this announcement on how these pledges might be implemented. My money’s on yellow stars for the foreigners so they’re easy to spot. And for those unpatriotic firms with too many of the blighters, maybe the UK Border Force could smash their windows. I’m sure that would get the message across.

Last but not least in this parade of political putrescence comes our old friend, disgraced former minister Dr Liam Fox, who was forced to resign in disgrace until Theresa May graciously gave him a Cabinet role heading up all the non-existent trade deals we will try to strike after leaving the EU.

It was pretty difficult to identify the most egregious moment of this spectacular shitshow, but I think this statement by Fox takes the prize. We already knew that May’s government had not ruled out using EU citizens in the UK as a negotiating tool, but this particular description betrays how infantile these people are.

Fox really appears to feel hopeful about the tricky – to put it lightly – negotiation the government has to perform with 27 other EU member states. And one of the ‘main’ reasons for this hope is the number of EU foreigners living in the UK. And the reason Liam Fox is hopeful is that the British government will be able to threaten other countries about the future welfare of their citizens.

Consider that there are 3.2 million EU migrants in the UK at present, around 5% of the population. Let’s assume you know 100 people. 5% means you almost certainly know some of these people personally. They almost certainly go to the same school as your children. Depending on where in the country you’re from, there’s a not-insignificant chance you might be friends with them or your relatives might be married to them.

If what Liam Fox said does not disgust you, appal you, and make you sick to your stomach, then I don’t really want to know you.

Some final thoughts. I am angry. I want to do something to stop this awfulness from continuing and succeeding. I intend to use the minimal tools at my disposal to do so. That means campaigning for the Liberal Democrats, even from afar, and supporting all other ways I know of to fight this danger, including trade associations, independent (and sane) media, and online debate.

You might be wondering what Labour were doing all day. A lot of other people were too. Surely, on a day of such infamy and disgrace, they would stand up as the opposition the country needs? Especially after Jeremy Corbyn chose to defend immigration at their recent conference?

Eventually they tweeted this:

As a fellow Lib Dem on Twitter put it:

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

If you are anywhere near as angered by this litany of disgrace as I am, then please join the Liberal Democrats, today, and help us campaign. David Cameron’s resignation has caused a by-election in Witney on October 20th. A victory for the Liberal Democrats would send the loudest possible message to Theresa May and her pernicious ministers that this approach to Brexit and to government is completely unacceptable.

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.