Conservative orthodoxy on picking business ‘winners’ must change

James Willby

I’ve often listened incredulously to otherwise sensible Conservatives opposing the idea that Government should pick winners. The topic seems to cause consternation in many right-leaning circles. “Invest public money in companies? Pick winners? What is this: Cuba?!” they cry. What would you prefer, I ask them. That we pick losers? Cue more consternation and a reiteration of the fact its taxpayers’ money being invested. How is that in any way different to what a pension fund or banks does, I enquire. Why are you happy with commercial entities investing your money for a return, but not elected representatives using it to produce growth and jobs?

Needless to say its not a particularly well received notion – akin to being pro-EU – but as a rather brave Conservative confided to me recently, the words “industrial strategy” should not be a taboo for someone on the right.

If our aim is to get Britain back on its feet, it is utterly nonsensical to write-off a potential avenue of endeavor. Forget being economic Meatloafs – protesting how we’d do anything for growth, but we won’t do that – lets be fiscal Roy Orbisons and give business the Big O it deserves: anything it wants, anything it needs, it gets it, and sometimes that means doing what up until now has been utter heresy for many in the Conservative rank and file. It’s time to become proactive about identifying the industries of the future and giving them a leg-up, or more succinctly, pick some winners.

And yet unbeknownst to the party at large, that is exactly what the leadership has been doing.

In 2009 at the annual CBI conference, George Osborne was heard to lament the fact that the then Labour government had not conducted a single trade mission to sell British goods overseas. Since taking office in 2010, this has been completely reversed. Take the Prime Minister’s trade mission to China last week. In addition to ministers, ambassadors, and civil servants on the trip, there were a host of men and women from across British business. Yes, there were the Jaguar Land Rovers and the Rolls Royce’s, but there were also SMEs from across the UK. From food manufacturers to retailers, they encompassed an incredibly diverse range of fields. They were there because they showcase the best of British – being innovative, creative and dynamic. And they were there because they recognized the opportunity they were being afforded.

Do you think these SMEs could ever have secured access to China, the world’s largest economy, without the help of Her Majesty’s Government? No local business conference or trade show could possibly give them the opportunity that trip afforded. If that isn’t “picking winners”, I don’t what is. Further afield, we’ve seen the State investing in graphene, “quantum technology” (don’t laugh), giving tax breaks to video games and creating an office of unconventional gas to help monetise shale. These are all examples of the State seeing the growth potential in a technology and wisely choosing to invest.

So we do pick winners, we should pick winners and it’s about time we had the guts to say so. As GK Chesterton observed, “I did try to found a little heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.” Amen to that.

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Let’s be honest, quitting the EU would harm our foreign policy

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Aaron Ellis

Speaking at Chatham House the other day, Senator Marco Rubio declared that it ought to be up to Britain to decide its relationship with the European Union regardless of transatlantic considerations. “[Y]our American partners should respect whatever decision you make. Our alliance, our partnership, and our affection for your nation will continue regardless of the road you choose.” The reaction of many ‘Europhobes’ highlighted again why I would probably vote for us to stay in the EU if the referendum was held today – the better-off-out position exists in a foreign policy vacuum.

Typically, whenever Europhobes stray outside the national sovereignty vs. supranational governance debate into the wider world, it is to try to outflank the Europhiles. For example, the claim that the Commonwealth can be an alternative trading bloc is an attempt to undermine the economic case for staying in the EU. Yet the hysterical reaction to critical comments made by U.S. officials, amongst many others, shows just how isolated they are from foreign affairs.

Many seized on the words of Mr. Rubio, contrasting them with those of Obama officials. When Philip Gordon, the Assistant Secretary for European affairs, said that he wanted to see “a strong United Kingdom in a strong European Union”, it was part of a pattern of ‘bullying’ according to Tim Stanley. John Redwood wrote that the United States wanted us to be ‘subservient’ to Brussels, betraying the values that underpin their hard-won republic. Nile Gardiner, who advised the Romney campaign, claimed that this would never have happened had his candidate won the White House last year – even arguing that ‘Britain’s policy on Europe is none of President Obama’s business.’ If increasing tension between close U.S. allies is none of Mr. Obama’s business, then, by implication, he shouldn’t involve himself in the Falklands dispute – a regular bugbear of Mr. Gardiner’s…

Rather than simply a restatement of a position that the United States has held for decades, all this is a further manifestation of the visceral hatred that Mr. Obama supposedly feels for our country.

Yet had Tim and others looked more closely, they would have seen that both Gordon and Rubio more or less said the same thing. Like the former, the senator emphasised that he wanted a strong EU, which he sees as both “a stabilizing force on the continent” and “an effective [American] partner on key international issues”. Like Mr. Rubio, Mr. Gordon emphasised that Britain’s relationship with Brussels was ultimately a matter for us to decide. He is a Democrat, of course, whereas the senator is a Republican, which for some on the right makes a world of difference.  

Europhobes’ hysterical reaction to the foreign policy implications of withdrawal makes me reluctant to buy into the Better Off Out campaign. They have no real alternative for the influence that Britain currently enjoys due to its dominance of the European External Action Service (EAS).

Our diplomats were instrumental in drafting the 2010 declaration that made the Service subservient to the foreign policies of the Member States – effectively, the foreign policies of Britain and France. As of last year, six of the most senior positions in the EAS are held by British diplomats on temporary secondment. Given our large foreign policy apparatus and expertise in a wide range of international issues, Britain is best placed to occupy the one-third of EAS positions that are reserved for the officials of Member States and use them to push the EU in directions we want it to go.

This will be important to Mr. Rubio should he become either President or Vice-President after 2016. EAS currently controls the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), which tries to bring those on the continent’s periphery into the EU’s orbit – like Ukraine. In his speech, the senator argued that both Brussels and Washington needed to “ensure that those on Europe’s periphery who still desire to join the Western community of democracies retain the option if they meet the entry requirements.” Yet if it was not for Britain, the union might not be as large as it is today, and a Christie-Rubio administration would want us to stay in it in order to continue pushing back Russian influence.

In his speech, Mr. Rubio also emphasised the importance of NATO and yet without Britain to keep the EU committed to the Alliance, then it might, as David Cameron once warned, just “fade away.” With Britain gone, there would be renewed effort on a specifically EU security arrangement, which would duplicate the work of NATO and dissipate the energies of both organisations. In my mind’s eye, I can see a very serious-looking Vice-President Rubio standing next to Deputy Prime Minister Ed Davey, telling the assembled journalists that Britain in the EU was vital to American interests.

Leaving the European Union would negatively affect our foreign policy, but rather than offering any alternatives or explaining why taking this hit to our influence is a necessary price for our freedom, the better-off-outers act like Scottish nationalists and attack anyone who criticises them. They attack not only namby-pamby Europhiles, but also the likes of Sir Geoffrey Howe and Radoslaw Sikorski – neither of whom are Britain-hating, probably Kenyan socialists.

The greatest historian of our Party, Lord Blake, once wrote that a characteristic feature of successful Tory governments is ‘a “patriotic” foreign policy…judiciously tempered by liberal internationalism.’ Perhaps trying to emulate our Republican cousins, some Conservatives have spurned international institutions like the EU and the UN; seeing them as threats to be countered, not tools to be used. Rather than emulating the Austrian statesman Metternich – reforming the EU from the inside, as Mr. Sikorski argues – they would rather we left it entirely. That is a reasonable position for them to take, but if Europhobes are going to push for our withdrawal then they need to man up and smarten up on foreign affairs.

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The Conservative Party ought to be proud of the Wharton Bill

Gareth Milner

In years to come people may ask where you were on Friday the 29th of November 2013. Regardless of where you were, I can tell you what one man was up to: James Wharton MP was at the end of the trying, troublesome and often tiring journey of a Private Members bill through the House of Commons.

Several people within the Westminster bubble had a genuine belief that the EU referendum bill would not make it this far. Yet things are still not as certain as they could be, the bill still needs to make it through the House of Lords.

The completion of this bill’s journey through the Commons brings two important questions to my mind. How did Conservative whips keep the rank and file in check? Does the leader of the opposition require an Elizabethan collar? It’s exactly what they give dogs to stop them from licking wounds. You can only imagine how many sore wounds someone has after sitting on the fence for so long. If you looked at the results of the various votes on the EU referendum bill, you will clearly see there hasn’t been much of an opposition at all.

There has of course been various questions which have permeated debate surrounding this issue, one of which was the timing of the referendum. This issue included the aborted amendment brought by Adam Afriyie, along with several calls from UKIP – who, whilst riding high in the polls, still don’t even have a foldable camp chair at the table.

Such discussions however, leave somewhat of a confused thought in my mind and I honestly can’t tell what annoys UKIP more. Are UKIP more annoyed that the referendum is planned to take place in 2017 instead of 2014, or is it that the House of Commons has passed a bill to give the people a referendum. Such a referendum that as things stand, UKIP can ask for, though they have not the power to bring into effect. Is it sour grapes, or are UKIP concerned that after a referendum it may appear somewhat meaningless having “independence” in their name?

The very fact that the EU Referendum Bill found its genesis in the Private Members Bill ballot, is what makes current events so very special. All too often politicians are perceived to cause pain and anguish by the very act of playing game theory with politics. In this case had it not been for James Wharton, Conservative whips and the Prime Minister bringing his game face to the table, this might never have happened.

My position on the EU is not for complete withdrawal, nor do I think that leaving things as they are is an ideal solution either. I would like to see some reform before anything happens in terms of a referendum, hence my personal preference for 2017. Yet putting my personal views to one side, there is agreement within different parts of the Conservative Party on a certain aspect. This agreement concerns the very fact that we are the single party driving forward, striving to give the people a referendum to choose the future of their country.

I am by no means a psychologist or any kind of expert who can safely assess what is going through the mind of the Labour Party and its MPs. I can however take a leaf out of their guide book on economics, namely the act of making SWAGs (serious wide a***d guesses). Taking the evidence I have and allowing my neurons to fire with the speed of a thousand gazelles laced on caffeine, what I saw of the opposition side of the debate leaves me with three simple words; FILIBUSTER, FILIBUSTER, FILIBUSTER. If Labour MPs were so against this bill, why were there not more votes against it?

The reason there wasn’t more Labour votes is because even they are sensible enough to not vote against a bill which is offering a referendum to the people. This smacks of nothing less than desperation. Despite the risks involved, no matter what you may think of the Conservative leadership, I believe they need to be applauded. The “Europe” question is something which in recent years, regularly and consistently reloads the party “blame thrower”. The blame thrower does nothing more than burn each and every one of us, allowing the media and the opposition to circle like vultures. Regardless of your views on the referendum, many people within the UK want it and the party leadership and the whips have worked hard to bring the bill this far.

Of course the journey of the EU Referendum Bill is not yet complete, it may very well suffer further acts of blustery filibustering at the hands of Lords within the upper chamber. However, the House of Commons is the democratically elected chamber of the people. If this bill is gutted in the Lords, I’d be worried if members of the public were not anxious or concerned. Especially when a system they once thought was democratic, had stolen away the chance of a referendum. Both the pro and anti EU lobby will have to prepare for what to do should the result of a referendum not go their way, though I only hope we can draw a line under it once and for all.

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France has an alternative to Hollande-ism, but are the French ready for it?

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Eddie Reeves

Anyone noticed how svelte Jean-François Copé is looking?

Sporting the silhouette élancée of a slippery French centre in a Six Nations nailbiter, the UMP Leader and Mayor of Meaux looks remarkably en forme for a 49 year-old father-of-four from the town better known for its Brie.

For those who don’t follow every shrug, drame and crise of Gallic politics, there was an important election across La Manche (that’s The English - definitely English - Channel) this time last year.  

The election (cue, Napoleonic drumroll…)? The ‘Who Wants To Be Interim Leader of The Opposition After Ten Years in Government?’ election. A cul-de-sac politique you might think for a baldy ambitious ex-Minister looking to run for the top job in 2017. 

That’s what I thought, a year ago. So too the 50.03% (yes, .03) of partisans who preferred him to outgoing Prime Minister François Fillon: elect a pro-Sarko figure to prepare for the grand retour in 2016 and, failing that, a proper party-wide Presidential contest.

Well, apparently no-one told M. Copé. Far from cutting the traditional consensus figure of the popular French Right, the UMP chef du parti has busily set about making his already dismally low approval ratings a virtue on media outlets across the land. 

A suicidal tack against a Socialist incumbent less popular than a Brie and grape baguette in a Cheddar Gorge tearoom? Perhaps. But if the greatest of virtues in religion is love, the greatest in politics is consistency. And so on M. Copé goes. 

His message? A clarion call to private enterprise and public thrift. After the hard rhetoric of Sarkozy candidat in 2007, it remains to be seen whether France will be ready for it again in 2017. Francophile Tories hope she will be.

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Europe is the ‘elephant in the room’ in our energy debate

Luke Major

Energy has dominated politics for the last few months and the Prime Minister hopes to counter Ed Miliband’s price freeze pledge by rolling back the green levies that contribute to rising bills. Both offers have very little credibility, in my opinion, for a reason that few of our politicians want to talk about. The bottom line is that when it comes to energy prices, both Party leaders’ hands are tried – somewhat willingly – by our links to the European Union.

Although energy policy remains under Member States’ control, the EU’s commitment to becoming the world’s leader in economic decarbonisation exerts pressure on Britain. For example, Mr. Miliband’s 2008 Climate Change Act commits our government to reducing the country’s carbon emissions to at least 80% lower than 1990s-levels by 2050 and can be seen as the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the EU’s decarbonisation mission. These legally binding targets are being pursued at an astronomical cost to British taxpayer, cutting off our access to cheap energy by closing down coal-fired power stations and focusing on using heavily subsidised renewable energy instead. Such radical changes were never going to come cheap.

These legally binding targets, which all the major parties agreed with at the time, have caused energy prices to soar for homeowners and businesses alike – pushing more and more people into ‘fuel poverty’. Depressingly, it has been estimated that electricity prices have increased by 17% in the last four years and could rise another 41% by 2040 as further measures within the Climate Change Act come into effect. This reflects well neither on Labour nor the Tories – both of which, despite the posturing, do not seem to be able to do much about it. A cynical person might think that Mr. Miliband has sought to lay the blame at energy companies (whose profits per year average at a quite normal 5-6%) to deflect attention away from his own role in inflating prices. He may also think Mr. Cameron is seeking to distinguish himself from the green-friendly Liberal Democrats to make himself a more viable option to UKIP voters who share Nigel Farage’s scepticism about man-made climate change.

However pressing you might think it is that we continue with decarbonisation, the needs of those who are already struggling with fuel bills will not be met with cheap gimmicks, especially if energy bills do indeed continue to rise. There is a reasonable political and moral case on top of the economic one, for the Prime Minister to include a more ‘laissez-faire’ attitude towards energy policy in any future re-structuring of our relationship with Europe. As already stated, although energy is under Member States’ control, our international reputation depends on us being on song with the EU’s carbon reduction plan – otherwise we could simply ignore all these targets as the enforcement mechanisms barely hold up to scrutiny.

With regards to specifics, the European Commission has stated that it wants to see the shale gas market regulated to the point where it doesn’t pose any significant environmental risk. This is another way of saying that fracking should be made less economically viable and, thus, more expensive when it reaches the consumer. The ‘better off out’ contingent of the Tories would no doubt be wondering why any potential damage to UK landscape should be the concern of the EU (evidence suggests potential damage has been grossly exaggerated), especially when shale gas development could potentially benefit an EU gas market that is being undermined by the shale gas boom in the USA that is flooding our own continent with unwanted cheap coal.

There is also the more complex issue of nuclear power. The EU has state aid rules in place that constrict the degree to which the British government can guarantee financial security to the private companies taking on the risk of building nuclear plants. Once again, the already lengthy and costly process of diversifying and spreading the burden of our energy needs hits those paying the bills in the end.

David Cameron will most definitely be aware of the EU’s impact on our ability to control energy prices, but I fear he has chosen to ignore this up until now because of his previous backing of the Climate Change Act, his husky hugging, and his pledge to lead “the greenest government ever”. He will now face accusations of fraudulent behaviour and political opportunism from his opponents, but if businesses and ordinary people have more money in their pockets as a result of a slowing down of economic de-carbonisation, then it will be worth it.

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Egremont Writing Competition: David Cameron is like Neville Chamberlain

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Several weeks ago, Egremont launched its first writing competition challenging readers to write an article comparing David Cameron to a past Tory leader other than either Edward Heath or Margaret Thatcher. The competition was prompted by the seeming ignorance of many Conservatives about their Party’s history before 1975. In our first entry, Andrew controversially argues that Mr. Cameron is most like Sir Neville Chamberlain – though not because of the Iran deal, as neocon pundits like Douglas Murray claim. For details about the competition, see here.

Andrew Morrison

Congratulations to the TRG for organising this competition; it is an important exercise for enlightening many members, including myself, on where exactly we have come from.  If we know our past, we can better plot a trajectory for our future. The trouble is that many of our detractors, and indeed supporters both within the Party are broadly ignorant of our history pre-1975.

I take this opportunity not only to state that David Cameron is a latter-day Neville Chamberlain, but also a little revisionism to the record of a leader whose achievements many moderate Conservatives ought to be proud of.

Sir Neville was a great social reformer – one very much in the mould of the One Nation Conservatism that we still champion today.  Beginning his career in Birmingham Town Council, he directly alleviated that city’s dreadful housing shortage and abject poverty – a sign of the widespread welfare reform programme he was to go on and introduce at the Health Ministry in 1929.

The rhetoric surrounding the Unemployed Assistance Board that Chamberlain introduced could easily be mistaken from Mr. Cameron’s rationale for our welfare reforms, i.e. not just to alleviate true poverty, but also lift people from poverty of thought and of ambition. Indeed, of his reforms, Sir Neville said:

[We] saw the importance of providing some interest in life for the large numbers of men never likely to get work, and out of [this] realisation was to come the responsibility of the UAB for the welfare, not merely the maintenance, of the unemployed.

This unified Board replaced the locally administrated Poor Boards, which were usually Labour-dominated and had a tendency to overspend and subsidise those who otherwise could have worked rather than exclusively those who really could not stand on their own two feet.  Set this against a backdrop of Sir Neville’s achievement of halving the Government’s debt servicing costs from 1932 to 1938, and as such lending security and confidence to the Britain’s credit rating.

His welfare reform programme was so successful that it attracted cross-party support. Opposition MPs are on a tighter rein than Sir Neville’s time, thus it is difficult to know the extent to which Labour agrees with Mr. Cameron’s welfare reform in the present day – but we can look to Frank Field’s proposals in 1997 as an indication that he is not a million miles off.

One of the hallmarks of Mr. Cameron’s premiership is his willingness to work with political opponents in the national interest.  As Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Neville Chamberlain served under Labour Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald from 1931 to 1935.

Thankfully the only battles that the current Prime Minister fights on the continent concern only the extent to which the institutions of Europe should be competent over British sovereignty.  Some hardline Eurosceptics in the Conservative Party may consider this a form of appeasement; others recognise an indirect, conciliatory approach can work when one is dealing with other rational human beings as compared to war-warmongering demagogues.

Ultimately, both David Cameron and Sir Neville Chamberlain were keen to put European issues to bed in order to press on with domestic policy issues.  The scale of poverty and deprivation in 1930s Britain was of course far deeper and more severe than that which we face today.  Indeed it is more a poverty of ambition and thought than poverty for the materials of subsistence which the current Prime Minister faces today. Nevertheless it is a battle fought against the backdrop of austerity and budget cuts following a Labour government which nearly bankrupted the country. 

Sir Neville was a great social reformer and pioneered many items of legislation that would confound detractors of the modern Conservative Party: reform of factory working hours; restrictions placed on employers for the employment of women and children; introducing paid holiday entitlement for all workers; providing subsidies to accelerate slum clearance; and, of course, nationalisation of national coal stocks.  Chamberlain was the first Prime Minister to legislate “[W]e are all in this together”, if not the first to say it.

Although the predicament touching the poor of Britain today is far less acute than those faced during the 1930s, the levels of poverty which the public are prepared to tolerate decreases.

No matter the level of revisionism Sir Neville’s legacy is subjected to, history will judge him much too unkindly due to foreign policy errors. There has been no comparable crisis against which Mr. Cameron could be compared against thus far, but certainly the present day has been kinder to Chamberlain than the period immediately following his premature death on 9th November 1940. I believe, for better or worse, if Mr. Cameron does not return as Prime Minister in 2015, he may well be subjected to the same treatment – history will judge him far more kindly in future than immediately following defeat. 

If on the other hand he does return to No. 10, hopefully with a majority government, he shall be celebrated as the man who reformed his party, reformed Parliament, and reformed his country – all in the One Nation Conservative tradition exemplified by Sir Neville Chamberlain at a time before it was necessary to differentiate between One Nation versus any other form of Conservatism.

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'One Nation Labour' is an oxymoron

Jonathan Waddell

Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different time zones or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by different breeding, are fed by different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws … The Rich and the Poor.

Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil (The Two Nations)

Ed Miliband’s 2012 speech was an interesting one to say the least, and it goes without saying that for many members of the Conservative party such as myself, every time he said the words “One Nation”, a little piece of me died inside. Not just because he so obviously and admittedly stole the term from the Conservatives, not least because he greatly misunderstood the concept but largely because the concept of One Nation, is actually entirely incompatible with his and his parties politics. However, he has managed to continue the front of One Nation Labour on past the 2013 conference and will continue into 2014.

Please now draw your attention to the quote above from Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil, a book written with the intention of outlining the great problems of working class Britain and the divide between the rich and the poor at the time. This quote is one of the best to outline exactly what he aimed to achieve in his political career and his writing, he explains that not only are the rich and the poor two different types of people, but they have no understanding of each other, no sympathy to each others ideals or lives but perhaps most importantly, no connection to each other. It’s with this that I must stress, there is no vitriol in this statement or message, nor is there malice to the rich or the poor, and for very good reason.

The ideals and purpose of One Nation, is to bring these two nations together, to find that missing connection and make two nations become One Nation. Just look at recent statements by Sir John Major let alone his entire career and compare them to statements Ed Miliband has been making his entire career. The fact of the matter is that while the focus for One Nation Tories is Social Mobility and making the poor richer, the focus of Ed Miliband is to make the rich poorer, to punish ambition and tax success. Social Mobility, in the eyes of One Nation Tories, is the link between the rich and the poor. Opportunity is what it takes to make the Two Nations become One.

Miliband and the Labour party want to attack the well off. Not just those who have inherited wealth but those who have worked for everything they have. That’s not One Nation, that’s class warfare. How does that encourage Social Mobility? How does that encourage someone to work hard, do better, achieve more if once you have achieved more than you ever thought you could, the government take half of your earnings? The simple answer is that it doesn’t, which is why a leftist like Miliband can simply not be a man of One Nation, nor can any leftist party like the Labour party be a party of One Nation. One Nation Labour is an oxymoron. Anyone who wants to persecute any part of society is not someone who subscribes to One Nation, how can they? They don’t see One Nation, they see multiple nations and instead of joining them together, they wish to simply eliminate one of them. Each to their own, but I know I do not want to live in a society that is that way inclined.

Today’s two nations are in fact not as clear as they were back when Disraeli made his observations in Sybil, where it was the middle class factory owners against the working class factory workers. Today we see a society that has wages that spread from the lowest possible to the highest imaginable and everything in between. If we use traditional terms like Working and Middle class, then the difference between them is as little as a Penny on your average wage.

Of course, we also have people who live desperately on the welfare state to get by, and these are now the desperate people in our society who need help. Labour and Miliband think that throwing money at it is the best thing for them, and of course, money will do them well in the short run; it will pay their rent and put food on their table - but what does it do for them in the long run? The reality is that nothing will help them better than opportunity, education, work and social mobility. Ed Miliband’s ‘socialism’ is nothing more than social welfarism, and as much as welfare helps people in the short term, it does little to help anyone in the long run. Today’s two nations is that of people on welfare with little or no way to get into work and young professionals in private sector jobs and working their way up their career ladders. If we wish to see One Nation, we must wish to help those who on welfare make their way onto a path of financial security and social mobility.

If Labour wish to be “the party of the working class” they can have it, because we all know they can’t be the party of One Nation, the party of One Nation has to be a party that encourages hard work, ambition, self-determination and your own path to prosperity, certainly not a party that preaches class-warfare and wants to punish success and ambition. A One Nation party is a party of all classes and backgrounds, not just singling out one and attacking another.

This post was originally posed on the site of Conservative Future Scotland North.

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A politico with some popular music tastes, but too busy for anything classical? Ed showed us the true Miliband on Sunday

Jack Blackburn

Desert Island Discs can do many things. It can be a fascinating insight into music you have never heard, or the story of life you otherwise might not have known but one thing it always achieves is a revelation about the individual being interviewed.

Ed Miliband gave us many revelations. One is that, despite having seen a microphone for most days of his professional life, he doesn’t know that he shouldn’t exhale through his fixed nose straight into the recording apparatus. Everything else we learned about him was far more nuanced.

The crucial moment in Ed’s broadcast came very early when Kirsty Young, not flippantly, remarked that people often viewed politicians’ choices on this programme cynically, before asking “This list … how many people have cast their eye over it and how much of it is your list?” To which, Ed responded “It’s absolutely my list. It’s a list that’s personal to me.” Given that this was the foundation of the rest of the broadcast, let us consider how it progressed.

Ed’s first choice was ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ i’Afrika’, the South African national anthem. A piece that is so beautiful, so tender, so peaceful in the face of horrific oppression, it has regrettably been appropriated and become the universal song of right-on liberals – a sort of PC Internationale. It is a worthy choice in many ways, but it was then followed by ‘Jerusalem’. When explaining his choice of ‘Jerusalem’, Ed mentioned the recent attack on his father and mentioned something about his wife liking walks on England’s green and pleasant land.

I could see no ulterior motive in these selections at all, and if that’s what Ed wishes to boogie to in the sleepy lagoon of the desert island, who am I to say that he shouldn’t? Honestly, if David Dimbleby’s tattoo was a staggeringly personal moment of self-expression, these two choices were the exact opposite of that, a fact that was underlined by his next choice, Paul Robeson singing ‘The Ballad of Joe Hill’. Yes, it may be exactly the sort of tribute song you’d expect from Red Ed, but it was so obscure that I could only think that it did actually remind him of his dad.

Then we got a crawl along the middle of the road. ‘Take On Me’, by Aha. ‘Sweet Caroline’, by Neil Diamond. ‘Angels’, by Robbie Williams. Now, I have nothing against any of those songs. They’re all fine. At drunken university socials on a Friday night, they’re exactly the sort of thing you want. But, all three of them on the desert island? Surely not? What a waste. You only need one such song, if that. Picking three is suspicious. It’s frankly robotic. It’s like they’ve been picked by someone who’s approximating what people like in music based on songs they happened to catch when Top of the Pops was on, or when their wife was in control of the car stereo.

As we concluded with Josh Ritter’s ‘Change of Time’ (which is very dull indeed) and Non, je ne regrette rien (which was presumably intended for brother David’s ears) I pondered what we had learnt. Initially, I thought this was staggeringly dishonest: a selection designed to crudely fabricate an image of a liberal man who knew how to let his hair (such as it is) down to Robbie Williams.

Then I thought, what if I took him on his word? What if he was being honest? Well, then we have someone who genuinely loves Jerusalem and the South African national anthem, and who apparently has no musical taste having occasionally been forced to dip into popular music, but who was too busy poring over books to even dip his toes in classical music.

Maybe Ed’s been more honest than I thought.

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