Conservatives have lost their way in the Europe debate

James Willby

The debate on Europe within the Conservative Party is going from bad to worse. Beginning with the Business Secretary comparing current Conservative rhetoric to the speeches of Enoch Powell, to the revelation that the Prime Ministers rhetoric is causing enormous disquiet amongst our colleagues in the European parliament, with the leader of the Polish delegation telling David Cameron that unless his rhetoric on EU migration changes, it will be very difficult for them to continue working with us. Rather than seeking allies for EU reform, we’re giving a wonderful performance in the art of losing friends and alienating everyone we come into contact with. But it goes further than that. Something seems to have gone wrong at the heart of this party of ours.

In defense of my argument I’d like to offer you two substantive pieces of evidence: the EU referendum bill and the atrocious rhetoric that was directed at Bulgarian and Romanian migrants.

At the time the referendum bill was announced, I remarked to a MP that I was against it. We’d already said we’d hold a referendum in 2017 if elected, so why legislate for it now? When pressed, he explained that in the light of the Lisbon Treaty, there needed to be some form of gesture to show people we were serious about giving them a vote on Europe.  While it is of course true that one cannot vote on a treaty that has been signed, the ghost of David Cameron’s “cast iron guarantee” continues to haunt party strategists. The idea behind supporting the Wharton referendum bill, I was told, was to show we meant business and win back disaffected support. It seemed a sensible way forward. However, the threats to use the Parliament Act to force the bill into law show, in my opinion, the unpalatable truth behind the campaign to “Let Britain Decide”.

This isn’t about letting anyone have his or her say. The Wharton referendum bill is nothing less than a grubby political trap, designed to ensnare a future Labour government whilst trampling on what was – hitherto – a key principle of our democratic system: that governments may not bind the hand of their successor and that none should attempt to do so. It is not in the British national interest, but in the perceived electoral interest of the Conservative party. By putting the bill into law now, the party is attempting to booby-trap the first two years of a Miliband premiership, either forcing him to hold a referendum he opposes or cry foul when he repeals the bill. It is grossly transparent, full of short-termism, and wrong.

It is this same toxic mix that has led to the some of most disheartening debates on EU migration that I can remember, culminating in the parliamentary debate on Bulgaria and Romania. It was not pleasant. We were, we were told, importing a crime wave from Bulgaria and Romania. Some MPs even went as far as pledging to man the desks at Stanstead airport on the 1st January, allowing them to interrogate new arrivals from these countries. It is hysteria of a type that would make Joseph McCarthy proud. If Dominic Grieve can be forced to apologize for suggesting corruption is endemic to the Pakistani community, how can it be right for MPs to make such comments about Bulgarians and Romanians?

The Bulgarians and Romanians I know personally are hard-working decent people, but understandably aggrieved at the way they are being castigated by our party. And so to them, on behalf of the quiet, sensible majority, I’d like to say I’m sorry. I’m sorry that you are being so odiously used by members of my party. I’m sorry that the fear of UKIP has made the supporters of European enlargement turn their back on the principles they once defended. The Bulgarian President is entirely right to say this debate risks damaging the UK’s image as a tolerant and open nation. As the Economist has already stated, you are very welcome here. I hope many of you will come and lend your talents to our country and that our party will finally see the opportunity you represent. You see, if the Conservative party really wanted to prevent a victory UKIP in 2014, it could simply ask for your vote. Rather than telling you what a problem you are, we should tell you we appreciate your service to this nation and invite you to join us on the path of EU reform.

This fact – that EU migrants have the same voting rights as UK nationals – has been completely absent from our internal debate. Were we to mobilize them effectively in our favour, UKIP’s hope of winning the European elections would be dashed. As to its likelihood I’m not hopeful, but who knows?

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Diplomacy has achieved more in Syria than bombing would have done

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Aaron Ellis

Pundits across the political spectrum have claimed recently that had MPs supported military action in Syria last summer, the world might just have been a better place today. Yet there is no reason why those who opposed intervention should regret their stance, as there’s no reason to believe that it would have made a difference to the conflict. The truth is that diplomacy has achieved far more than punitive airstrikes would probably have done – at least as far as chemical weapons are concerned.

Last week, Syria enjoyed its longest period of media coverage since the August crisis. On Tuesday, thousands of documents and photographs were published which strongly suggest that the al-Assad regime ‘systemically’ murdered around 11,000 detainees. At the Geneva II summit the next day, negotiations between the regime and the opposition started acrimoniously. And at PMQs, Ed Miliband pushed David Cameron on whether or not Britain would accept more Syrian refugees. Perhaps because of the lack of exciting political news, these were given relatively wide coverage, and some commentators questioned the wisdom of the Commons vote. If we had gone in, journalists might have been reporting much better stories from this devastated country.

On Wednesday, both Matthew D’Ancona on the right and Sunny Hundal on the left argued that non-intervention has caused more suffering than intervention would have done. D’Ancona wondered ‘how many detainees have been maimed and killed’ since the vote. Hundal implied that due to a lack of Western military presence, al-Qa’ida and other militant Islamists have taken over the rebellion. The next day, Dan Hodges (wherever he is on the political spectrum now) basically claimed that only those who supported intervention really care about the Syrians. Presumably, we can only show our sympathy for the millions caught up in the appalling humanitarian crisis by bombing stuff.

These arguments suffer from the same flaws as those put forward by Mr. Cameron last summer. All of them are vague about the military action that was being proposed, and none of them explain why that particular use of force would have generated the desired outcome.

Shortly after the Libya campaign began, the Prime Minister argued that Britain was “sending a message” that “the way to meet the aspirations of people…in the Arab world is with reform and dialogue, not with repression.” Over a hundred thousand deaths later, we can safely assume that Mr. al-Assad did not receive that message, so why would he have gotten the one about chemical weapons? Or murdering detainees? As Mr. Cameron once remarked, “[b]ombs and missiles are bad ambassadors.”

It is easier to think about the potentialities of bombing someone than it is about the potentialities of negotiating with them, yet the Kerry-Lavrov deal has achieved far more than a few airstrikes would have done. Whereas the regime would still have possessed chemical weapons after the attack, they are now actually being removed from Syria. Last September, the regime became a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention. The diplomatic outcome of the crisis is the only bright spot in the civil war, the Foreign Secretary said last week, which is why those who opposed intervention shouldn’t regret their stance. It helped make the world a marginally better place.

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UKIP double-bluff leaves government floundering on Syria refugees

Paul Hoskins

The moment UKIP’s Nigel Farage called for Syrian refugees to be allowed into the UK, it became an inevitability, not because he waved his magic fairy wand but because he drew attention to the inconvenient truth that, unlike many other countries, Britain is simply not doing its bit to provide a safe haven to people caught up in what the United Nations has called ‘one of the largest refugee exoduses in recent history’. Here we are just a few weeks later and, sure as eggs is eggs, David Cameron has announced that he is now “open minded” on Syrian refugees. Even the most desultory Westminster watcher will spot this for what it is: thinly-veiled code for “I’m trying to find a way to back down on this as gracefully as possible because I know this is a battle I am not going to win”.

It was always going to be a lost battle because the scale of the humanitarian crisis; the basic sense of humanity with which Britons are generally blessed; and our country’s proud history of providing a safe haven to the persecuted and the dispossessed, dictate that we must play our part. Dare we risk history concluding we didn’t?

I wasn’t the only one to see this coming. When Farage’s call to let in refugees caught the government napping during the post-Christmas lull, Conservative MP Mark Pritchard said he expected the government would be forced to change its mind. “Clearly we cannot take all the refugees but I think we should play our part as a country – still an open-hearted, compassionate country – to do the right thing,” he told the BBC. “There’s real suffering and we need to do our bit along with the rest of the international community.”

Lebanon is currently playing host to over 800,000 registered Syrian refugees, according to UN data, and the tally in Turkey is approaching 600,000. Jordan may have as many as 600,000 too. In total, 100,000 people are believed to have been killed and well over 2 million have escaped to neighbouring countries. Millions more have fled their homes within Syria itself.

It is not that Britain is doing nothing or that Cameron’s administration is being wantonly inhumane. The government points out it has pledged £500 million – not far off that contributed by all other EU states combined – to the Syria crisis. But is it just me, or is there something rather unseemly about just throwing money at a problem and hoping it will go away? Doesn’t it somehow give us an excuse not to confront the reality of the problem head on? Certainly it wouldn’t seem to tally with the government’s “Big Society” ideal of fixing problems through practical volunteering rather than cash hand-outs.

Besides, if we’re willing to throw half a billion pounds in cash at the problem, why wouldn’t we also take in the few hundred of the most vulnerable refugees the UN is asking us to help directly? Could it be that the decision not to accept refugees has been driven by political expediency, or more precisely fear of UKIP, rather than by common-sense, pragmatism and compassion?

How deliciously ironic that in trying not to give ammunition to UKIP by letting in Syrian immigrants, the government may have played directly into its hands. If it weren’t for the fact that people are dying, it would seem like a hilariously contrived episode of Yes, Minister. You can picture the scene. Seasoned Foreign Office mandarins point out to their political masters that letting in a few hundred refugees would cost us almost nothing, make us look good abroad and save lives but are overruled by their nervy, opinion-poll-fixated spads. Farage presumably followed his gut, which told him it was indefensible not to let in refugees from a humanitarian crisis that has turfed millions of people out of their homes. By contrast, our mainstream political parties seem to have been blinded by fear of UKIP and opinion polls telling them they need to crack down on immigration.

Mr Farage has, deliberately or not, pulled off a masterful double bluff that has left the government floundering. “Now who looks like the nasty party?” he will no doubt ask repeatedly in the coming months. When the full government u-turn comes, as it inevitably will, it is going to be a particularly delicious victory for UKIP. It is also going to be pretty good news for those few hundred refugees.

Some, including Conservative MP Andrew Brigden, have accused those who support the UN request of “political tokenism”. Somewhat depressingly they question what the point is of saving a few hundred people when millions are at risk. Presumably these naysayers have no truck with the Talmud’s wise counsel, made famous by the film Schindler’s List, that ‘Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world’. Imagine if we all shirked our individual responsibility to save a single life? That would be a whole lot of lives lost.

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"Mission accomplished" in Afghanistan? For the Tory Party, yes.

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Aaron Ellis

On Monday, the Prime Minister declared that Britain had accomplished its mission in Afghanistan. A “basic level of security” had been achieved there meaning our troops could come home with their “heads held high”. Mr. Cameron has a weakness for hyperbolae (e.g. GCHQ searching for online paedophiles is comparable to the Enigma code-breakers…) and he was criticised for making such a sanguine statement. The conflict is far from “mission accomplished” – though as far as the Tories are concerned, it has served its purpose.

Afghanistan is more important to David Cameron than most people, he included, probably realise. It is the source of his contradictory foreign policy and it was crucial to the rehabilitation of our Party as a responsible alternative government to Labour.

In his handling of foreign policy, Mr. Cameron is torn between idealism and realism – and Afghanistan is the source of these conflicting impulses. He believes that al-Qa’ida used the country as a base because it was a failed state and it was a failed state because the West abandoned it after the Soviets withdrew in 1989. For him, it “is a great example of a country that if we walk away from and if we ignore and if we forget about, the problems will come visited back on our doorstep.” Had the West somehow ended the civil war and helped it with development assistance, then ‘just think what might have been avoided.’ This conviction lay behind the interventions in Libya and Mali. When justifying Mali, the Prime Minister argued that if Britain did not “make the world safe all over the place”, then the threat from militant Islamists would only grow and “we will face it” eventually. Yet this limitless interventionism jars with his efforts to portray himself as a prudent realist.

We are running a global race for power and influence, according to Mr. Cameron, necessitating a strategic foreign policy which focuses on our national interests. “If our influence is under challenge,” as William Hague believes it is, then we must “make the most, systematically and strategically, of our great national assets.” This is especially true when it comes to the military. Whereas Labour “made too many commitments without the resources to back them up”, the Conservatives would be more discriminating. Afghanistan is the perfect example. In 2006, Tony Blair authorised troops to go into Helmand in insufficient numbers for the goals he had set them. Just a few years later when Gordon Brown wanted to send in more, Tory support was conditional on a “tightly defined” strategy “backed up by extra equipment”. In Mr. Cameron’s view, we simply can’t afford anymore these wars to build perfect societies in inhospitable places. “Every battle we fight” must help Britain “rise” amidst the decline and fall of other Great Powers.

Underpinning this contradictory foreign policy is the way he thinks about globalisation; it justifies both his idealism and realism. For almost two decades now, many in the West have been in thrall to an idea which I call ‘the internationalisation of the national interest’. It is the belief that the world has become so interconnected that crises in developing countries threaten our own security and therefore we must resolve them pre-emptively. Mr. Blair once argued that if governments are ultimately concerned about protecting their own people, as realists argue, then “the new frontiers for our security are global”. The Tory leadership buys into this idealistic worldview, but it also believes that globalisation has created the global race, which demands a realist response. Mr. Hague once tried to square the circle: “We should never be ashamed of saying we will promote our own national interest,” for it “is no narrow agenda”.

Even though the Prime Minister thinks about international crises like Libya and Mali in Blairite terms, as Leader of the Opposition he often attacked Labour for its allegedly idealistic and astrategic foreign policy. These criticisms, especially those about Afghanistan, helped rehabilitate the Conservatives as a party of government.

By supporting the war in principle but attacking Labour’s handling of it, David Cameron could portray himself as a responsible and “hard-headed” statesman, dispelling fears that he was not up to the job of running the country. Since the mid-1990s, the Tories had been dogged by a widespread belief that they were too irresponsible to hold office. Britain is in an era of ‘valence’ politics, it is argued: voters value ‘competence and credibility over commitment to a cause or class’ according to Tim Bale. It was essential, therefore, for Mr. Cameron to portray the Party as ‘a proficient alternative administration’. When it came to Labour and Afghanistan, he used a tactic that has always worked well for us in the past: claiming our opponents were too weak or incompetent to be trusted with the serious business of war. This tactic was an important part of the long campaign to force out Gordon Brown.

It is strange to think now just how tough an adversary Mr. Brown was, especially when you examine the popular image of him as ‘substantial’ in the context of the Tories’ perception problem. Labour capitalised on this with the ‘Not flash, just Gordon’ advertisement campaign. His popularity proved short-lived, as we all know, but the financial crash could have been for him ‘what 9/11 was to Blair.’ These crises engaged their respective skills, ‘fitted into [their] worldview, and saw [them] acting in a bold and confident fashion’, writes the politics scholar Stephen Dyson. And just as the War on Terror strengthened the image of Mr. Blair as a responsible guardian of Britain’s safety, Mr. Brown’s handling of the crash had the same potential. If he was to be forced out of office, the Tory leadership would have to play on an alternative perception of him – an incompetent leader whose actions were motivated by concerns that had nothing to do with the national interest.

The Conservative critique of Afghanistan reinforced this perception. Labour had insufficiently ‘realist’ aims (“creat[ing] Switzerland in the Hindu Kush”) and they lacked the commitment needed to fight, denying the military the resources it needed to win. In July 2009, Mr. Brown was thrown off guard when the then Chief of the Defence Staff claimed that more helicopters in the country would save lives. Mr. Cameron took advantage of the subsequent uproar, arguing Labour “have got to realise we are fighting a war”. It was not simply about money, but “about commitment. About rolling up your sleeves and realising we need more of what we’ve got actually on the frontline.” By focusing on these arguments the Tory leadership maintained their overall support for the campaign, while also playing on both popular mistrust of Blairite interventionism and a belief that the worsening military situation was entirely Mr. Brown’s fault. “We always support our troops, but we have not shied from criticising the Government’s conduct of the war,” William Hague once explained, “when we have felt we must speak out.”

Of course, the critique was only partially true; some of it downright misleading. Mr. Brown framed the campaign in the same ‘realist’ terms used by Mr. Cameron: “We are in Afghanistan as a result of a hard-headed assessment of the terrorist threat facing Britain”, he once stated. Success would be achieved by “enabling the Afghans to take over from international forces; and to continue the essential work of denying [their] territory as a base for terrorists.” Yet he had lost perhaps the most important asset of any politician, the right to be heard, as the Conservatives had already managed to portray themselves as the party of the national interest.

The historian Hew Strachan has argued that the Tory leadership were ‘reluctant to join the dots’ between the public’s support for the military and ‘the lack of [it] for the missions’, but withdrawing from Afghanistan may not have led to a landslide. They had to not only win votes, but also appear to be responsible. Michael Howard revoked the Party’s support for Iraq, one of the most unpopular wars in Britain’s history, but it was seen as opportunistic and irresponsible. However, the problem that David Cameron and William Hague created for themselves when they inherited Afghanistan was maintaining their “hard-headed” rhetoric at the same time as pulling out the troops.

Mr. Cameron’s announcement, just a month after becoming Prime Minister, that we would be out by 2015 caused a disparity between his words and his actions. Those fighting were “defending our freedom and our way of life as surely and as bravely as any soldiers” in our history. Britain could not abandon the Afghans as we had to save them “from a return to the brutality of the Taliban, who handed the entire country to Al Qaeda [sic] as a base for logistics and training”. If they came back, then “the terrorist training camps [would] come back”, which would mean “more terrorists, more bombs and more slaughter on our streets.” The rhetoric suggests Afghanistan is a war of necessity, but the deadline implies it is a war of choice. As Tory backbencher John Baron once pointed out to the Foreign Secretary: If we want to “deny al-Qaeda a base from which to operate and pose a threat to [our] streets”, then “surely we should stay there until we have achieved that objective”?

When he was pressed on whether or not British combat troops would be out by 2015 regardless of the conditions on the ground, Mr. Hague emphasised: “I do not want anyone to be in any doubt about this: we will be fulfilling the Prime Minister’s commitment.” Given that ‘the war will be lost’, according to one study, if the development of the Afghan National Security Forces is rushed ‘beyond what is possible’, the deadline contradicts Mr. Cameron’s claim that we would only leave once the job was done. The situation today is far from “mission accomplished”.

As far as the Tory leadership is concerned, Afghanistan has served its purpose: the Conservatives can now demonstrate their fitness for office by actually governing. Yet its continuing influence on David Cameron’s foreign policy has the potential to undermine his hard-won image as a prudent, responsible, strategically-minded statesman.

If the clamour for intervention in Syria continues, as well as for action in any other country that descends into civil war, the Prime Minister will be increasingly torn between his limitless doctrine of preventative action and his ‘realist’ ambitions for British foreign policy. One of these will have to be sacrificed eventually or the Party will make the choice for him – as happened when MPs rejected his call for airstrikes against Syria. Like his old Labour adversaries, he may come to be seen as a weak leader frittering away Britain’s scare military resources in idealistic wars-of-choice. 

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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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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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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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