The transatlantic trade pact is a death knell for euroscepticism

Alexander Pannett 1.15 pm

On Wednesday, the EU and US announced plans to forge a free trade area within two years, that would see tariffs removed and markets liberalised between the two largest economies in the world.

It is estimated that, if the agreement is successful, the free trade area would improve competitiveness, create jobs and generate billions in trade for the two economic areas. This is vital during a time of lagging global economic growth.

Combined together the economies of the US and EU account for over 54% of world GDP in terms of value and 40% in terms of purchasing power. Increased trade would also lead to a greater exchange of both human and intellectual capital. This would re-invigorate the trans-Atlantic ties that underpin that elusive idiom of the “West”.

Domestically, the proposed trade agreement has huge implications for the UK’s relationship with both the EU and US. If successful, the free trade area would mortally wound the eurosceptic movement.

British eurosceptics rue the perceived Byzantine tentacles of EU bureaucracy and instead advocate closer ties with the more economically liberal and culturally similar US.  Whilst ideologically supportive of a European single market, they question the worth of suffering a multitude of EU regulations for the dubious benefits of a free trade area with hemorrhaging European economies.

However, leaving the EU will mean being outside the proposed EU/US trade area. Considering the complexity and length of negotiations, there will be no opportunity for the UK to leave the EU and then enter the EU/US trade area as an equal third party. The EU/US free trade area would be a carrot that should not be given up.

Economics aside, abandoning the EU/US trade pact would be an absolute rejection of British foreign policy over the past 70 years. We have consistently seen ourselves at the main bridge between the US and Europe and our geo-political aims have focused on forging closer trans-Atlantic ties. A US presence in Europe assures both our security and our prosperity. It is the bedrock of the UK’s international relations.

Bizarrely, eurosceptics trumpet the foreign policy goal of closer US relations as the reason to leave the EU. They have ignored what America seeks from the “Special Relationship”. The Obama administration has been quite clear that an assertive UK in a strong Europe is what is most useful to the US. They desire an integrated Europe that can be a useful ally, and the UK’s role inside Europe is vital to achieving this.

The referendum proposed by David Cameron will allow the British public to fully engage with the pros and cons of EU membership. As John Major iterated in his backing of Cameron in a speech at Chatham House yesterday, "It will be healthy to let the electorate re-endorse our membership, or pull us out altogether. At present, we are drifting towards – and possibly through – the European exit.”

This is why the launch this week of European Mainstream, by pro-Euro Conservative MPs such as Robert Buckland and Laura Sandys, is a necessary reminder that there are many in the Conservative party who understand the importance of our relationship with the EU. This group supports the Prime Minister’s position on Europe; that both the UK and the EU are stronger with the UK inside Europe.

The proposed EU/US trade agreement is a timely reminder of the huge opportunities that the EU provides and will continue to provide. We have allowed the eurosceptics in politics and the media to dominate the debate for too long. The EU needs reform. I believe this as sincerely as many eurosceptics. But from the recent EU budget concessions to the enlarging of the EU and liberalising of the single market, the UK’s vision for the EU is bearing fruit.

The world is changing and Britain’s global interests must change with it. We are right to seek out new markets and partners and to review our existing relationships. But we must not be blind to the importance of our relationship with Europe. The British public deserves to know all the facts.  

It is time for pro-Europeans from across the political spectrum to announce themselves.

After Hilton, Conservative radicalism looks set to continue unbounded

Michael Burgess 10.32am

So David Cameron’s closest adviser has embarked on a year-long American sabbatical. Meanwhile, the coalition is experiencing its roughest ride since the tuition fees rise, as the Health & Social Care Bill struggles its way on to the statute book.

As a backdrop, the run of opinion polls in which the Tories have enjoyed virtual parity with the Labour party at around 40 per cent appear to be ending. Some people believe now is the perfect opportunity to rein in the Conservative radicals and show the party’s ‘modernisers’ that the programme of reform is not worth the political pain it is inflicting. Will the British public tolerate tough austerity measures and sweeping reforms of beloved public services? Can that radical approach deliver the all-important Conservative majority in 2015?

These un-enlightened souls may also ask themselves: why are the Tories using up political capital on this scale of change when, after all, they are meant to be ‘conservatives’? Surely recent events have shown that it is better to adopt a ‘steady-as-she-goes’ approach for the next three years, placating the Liberal Democrats at every turn and doing their best not to upset the vested interest groups?

Wrong.

Now more than ever, the Government has to have the focus and determination to push through this essential programme of reform.

Tony Blair was not afraid to cast himself as a reformer, but even he only scratched away at the surface, often being held back by the trade unions, the Labour party or the media. Spin truly is not substitute for substance.

The coalition, on the other hand, has driven onwards with reforms to education, policing, healthcare, public sector pensions, university finances, welfare and local government. A valiant effort as it approaches only its second anniversary.

It is a mistake, therefore, to believe that Steve Hilton’s departure signals the beginning of the end for Conservative radicalism. He leaves behind a Tory party dominated by those of a similar reforming zeal. In Cabinet, Michael Gove, Francis Maude and Iain Duncan Smith are the current poster boys, but there are plenty of others hanging on their coat tails or blazing their own paths.

As we approach the Budget on Wednesday, all eyes are on George Osborne. He is not wanting of advice, with calls for reducing the top rate of income tax, cuts to corporation tax and raising of the personal allowance.

Post-Budget, the focus will surely switch to the Queen’s Speech. Nick Clegg and his Liberal Democrat colleagues will want to set out a programme of constitutional reform, presenting perhaps the biggest test to the wider Conservative party’s reforming credentials. Reform of the House of Lords is a polarising topic but the Tories should embrace it, for no true moderniser should advocate a wholly unelected second chamber.

Ultimately, the biggest challenge is for the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to keep to their radical course. Strong leadership and communication of policies and ideas will be vital. Now is not the time to shy away from making and defending tough decisions for the sake of short-term politics and tomorrow’s headlines. We saw where that got the last Labour government, whose chronic infighting and a constant battle for favourable press coverage consumed their energies, leaving little space for reforms to see the light of day.

As for Steve Hilton, perhaps it was the Civil Service that did for him in the end. Or maybe he just wanted what most people would want - to spend more time with his family.

Whatever his reasons, Conservative radicalism looks set to continue unbounded. Long may that be the case.

Follow Michael on Twitter @SuperMacmillan

Lansley must slow pace of NHS change to bring more people onside

Nik Darlington 6.00am

This weekend, I came across two interesting quotations about reform. The first comes from British writer Elizabeth Charles (1828-1896):

To know how to say what others only know how to think is what makes men poets or sages; and to dare to say what others only dare to think makes men martyrs or reformers - or both.

It made me think about Andrew Lansley and the coalition’s NHS reforms. There is nothing poetic or sagacious to healthcare reform, but Lansley and certain colleagues do dare to say what others only dare to think. Despite warranted trepidations about the pace and scale of reform, everyone knows that the NHS cannot carry on like it is. Even the Labour party knows that, or else it would not have instigated a lot of what Lansley wants to progress. Whether the Health Secretary will end up as a martyr or a reformer will depend on the lesson of my second quotation by Scottish historian and essayist, Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881):

To reform a world, to reform a nation no wise man will undertake; and all but foolish men know, that the only, solid, though a far slower reformation, is what each begins and perfects on himself.

I think that we all expect now for the NHS reforms to be slowed down to a ‘slower reformation’. The pace of change is my greatest concern. Andrew Lansley is not a foolish man - quite the contrary, he is exceptionally knowledgable of the NHS and an able administrator. What he might lack - and Danny Finkelstein alluded to this in a Times (£) column last week - is the capacity for genuine political leadership. A mark of a great leader, after all, is to get people to carry out tasks as though they had thought of them all along. Leaders bring out the best in people when they induce them to walk in a certain direction, as opposed to whipping them into line.

The success of the NHS reforms rests on the extent to which Andrew Lansley can get the vested interests in healthcare to ‘own’ the changes themselves and to perfect them organically within the NHS, as opposed to the current feeling, which is that these changes are unnecessary and being imposed on people from above.

Follow Nik Darlington on Twitter @NikDarlington

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The Church of England and the break with London

Jack Blackburn 10.15am

Every good schoolboy knows the origin of the Church of England but few people understand the complexity of its situation and how the modern Church remains crucially bound, and curiously limited, by its established status.

The Church of England finds itself in a dilemma, which was highlighted in a recent argument on Twitter between Dr Evan Harris, former Lib Dem MP for Oxford West & Abingdon, and the blogger Archbishop Cranmer.

Henry VIII’s break with Rome had several motivations (not least matrimonial) but it also had theological groundings.  The establishment of the Church of England under a supreme monarch was based on the Anglican understanding of God’s authority on earth: that the monarch, the Houses of Parliament and the Church should be linked as a unified expression of authority.

However, times change. The gradual secularisation of Parliament, especially in the first half of the nineteenth century, has changed the Church’s relationship with the establishment. The Oxford Movement of the 1830s onwards was determined to maintain the Church’s integrity in the face of this loss of homogeneity. This has continued to the point that in modern Britain the Church finds itself threatened by the establishment it is tied to.

The Church of England seems today caught between a rock and a hard place: a Church whose existence is due to its role in established political hierarchy but undermined by this very establishment.  It must find a way of giving relevance to its traditional interpretation of Christian beliefs in politically correct 21st century Britain.  Certainly, a bold theologian with radical thinking could attempt to drag it from this quandary, but whether this would be acceptable for the Church is another matter.

There is a dilemma for disestablishmentarians outside the Church as well. For if they, like Dr Harris and others, respect people’s religious beliefs, they will find that if the Church is disestablished they will be unable to advocate reform of practices and beliefs to the degree that they have been able to do up to now.  A disestablished Church may in fact have much more of an influence on society than a politically constricted, established Church.

With the position of bishops in the Lords very much up for discussion, and the established Church hanging in the balance, it is not necessarily clear, for either side, what the right course of action should be.

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The return to quality in education

Alexander Clark 7.16am

A friend of mine recently described the police as ‘the last great unreformed public service’.  Arguably much the same could be said of the British education system. After years of policy failure, there is at long last some cause for optimism in the efforts of Michael Gove. If the coalition Government leaves only only a few lasting legacies then surely the efforts of Mr Gove will be amongst them.

Mr Gove, loathed by the teaching unions, is determined to restore some semblance of the world-class eduction system that Britain was once purported to have by the rest of the world. If it is an education system modelled on the curriculum and values of many of the private schools of England, the more so the better. It is the pupils at private schools who are disproportionately represented at the top universities and then go on to take up the most prestigious jobs in our society.

The political left often argue that the success of private school pupils is either a) unfair or b) evidence of a sinister old boys network reserving the best roles for themselves. It is of course, neither of these. The simple fact is that private schools are on average better than their state school counter-parts. Admittedly this is partly because private schools are able to avoid the problems associated with comprehensives based in socially deprived areas. Nonetheless, the teaching and emphasis on core subjects such as English, Maths and Science (rather than Media and ‘General’ Studies) seem to far better prepare children for university and the adult world.

If one were to rely solely on official statistics of school results over the past twenty years they would indicate that British schools were continuously improving.  Successive governments have annually praised the ‘record’ results being achieved in British schools, championing the alleged successes of the target culture imposed on the school system. Closer scrutiny of the actual achievements of the current education system tell a different story. Academics and commentators have noted that whilst the number of A-C grade GCSEs and A-levels increase each year, the difficulty level of the exams themselves appear to have fallen.

The entirely politically driven phenomenon of grade inflation has led to institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge being forced to rely more heavily on the interview process and to look beyond the A grade at A-level for indicators of academic ability. Whilst grade inflation is an issue that can be resolved by making exams harder, the real crisis of the education system is the softening of academic subjects to accommodate rather than educate the great bulk of school children. Mr Gove ‘s proposed emphasis on measuring performance by assessing school results in core subject areas is a positive start to what look to be the most wide spread education reforms since the 1960s.

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