Category Archives: EU

The referendum’s silver lining

Still early days, but so far I’m finding this referendum campaign less of an ordeal than I expected.

This morning, a friend said to me “this whole farce must be very frustrating for you.” But it isn’t. Negativity, misinformation, and ignorance has long been the norm when it comes to the UK’s public debate about the EU, and I am used to it. Refreshingly, we are now also hearing the other side.

I blame the media far more than I blame politicians for the years of toxic negativity. There are many principled British politicians who make the case for the EU but who have not been heard because the media does not give them a platform. There are principled politicians on the ‘out’ side too, who truly believe that the UK would be better off outside the EU (I am quite sure they are wrong, but I respect their opinions and am happy to debate them). But these are not the politicians to whom the media gives a platform, either.

Seen from an outsider’s perspective, the UK’s mass media seems to have lost touch with the principles of sound journalism, confusing business imperatives with journalistic imperatives. What matter are circulation figures, viewer figures, listener numbers, page hits. EU-bashing sells papers, therefore it must be right. We are reaching the logical conclusion of our fetishisation of democracy, interpreted in a literal and simplistic fashion. People power is what counts. Have your say! Vote in our online poll! The results of which become the news.

Chris Morris beautifully skewered the vox pop as a news tool in The Day Today, but twenty years later it has become a core ingredient of modern ‘journalism’. In a world where focus groups and call-in shows set the political agenda, it’s small wonder that we now refer complex and weighty policy decisions on the future of our country to a referendum.


This is the world of the Daily Mail and UKIP; this is why Nigel Farage appears on Question Time more often than, say, Catherine Bearder, or Douglas Carswell for that matter. Euromyths sell newspapers; fearmongering generates page hits. Demonising the EU makes business sense for the red tops (and some of the broadsheets), and in our confrontational, bipolar, first-past-the-post beauty contest of a democracy, the market leader is also the opinion leader. There may well be more sinister reasons for press barons to denigrate the EU, but regardless of this, our system is skewed towards populism. This is why we are having a reckless and risky referendum on the UK’s future; and incidentally it’s why our cousins across the pond are now presented with the real risk of a populist President.


Donald Trump – popular

My critics will tell me that I am guilty of paternalism and elitism. This is a lazy defence of populism. We live in a representative democracy, not an Athenian-style direct democracy (thank God). General elections are there as a safety valve, so that the people can remove an executive which seriously underperforms. But we appoint an executive to govern on our behalf – we do not govern directly, because as ineffective as that was in an ancient agrarian society it would be simply ridiculous in a complex modern society.

So where is the silver lining? Here it comes: this referendum has finally given a platform to the moderates. The media’s obsession with ‘balance’ can be infuriating when we see a swivel-eyed climate sceptic given airtime alongside scientists; but in this referendum campaign we are finally hearing from the ‘pro’ side of the argument. After literally decades of overwhelming negativity, the UK media is at long last also giving coverage to the people who are making the case for the EU. Personally, I am finding it wonderfully refreshing.

There is another upside to what I guess we should call the popularisation of the news: the rise of social media. As our society has careered from one extreme (elitism) to the other (populism), the undue weight given to poorly-informed popular opinion is balanced to a degree by the decline in relevance of the mainstream media. The Daily Mail might sell the most papers, Question Time might have Nigel Farage on again, but we are using Twitter and Facebook and we see that we are not the only ones who have a problem with what we are hearing on the television and radio and reading in the press.

Boris “Outs” himself as a fan of electoral reform – or is he just a massive hypocrite?

So it seems that Boris will be the figurehead of the Out campaign. Today he writes in the Telegraph that:

That is what we mean by loss of sovereignty – the inability of people to kick out, at elections, the men and women who control their lives. We are seeing an alienation of the people from the power they should hold, and I am sure this is contributing to the sense of disengagement, the apathy, the view that politicians are “all the same” and can change nothing, and to the rise of extremist parties.


I love this new Boris with his passionate concern for citizens, his belief in democracy, his frustration on our behalf at our inability to kick out our rulers. I have every confidence in him that he will carry on from here to crusade for electoral reform and rid us of the wicked First Past The Post system which disenfranchises the vast majority of British voters. Good for you Boris!




I mean, he must mean FPTP, right? He surely can’t mean the EU…


Why British exporters love the EU


The Economist tweeted this graph this afternoon showing that the UK now sends the majority of its exports outside the EU. It offers an accompanying editorial comment that this chart will please eurosceptics. At first glance, you would think that it supports the ‘Leave’ campaign’s assertion that the UK can thrive as an exporting nation outside the EU, focusing on trade with the rest of the world. Actually, the graph shows quite the opposite.

Firstly, as @Shivoa points out, the UK benefits from many trade deals which the EU has negotiated with other countries in order to sell its products overseas. Outside the EU, the UK would no longer be party to those agreements and would have to renegotiate them on far from preferential terms, without the muscle which the EU has as the world’s largest trade bloc. Rather than accelerate the trend which this chart illustrates, Brexit would put it at risk.

Secondly, as this article on Conservative Home demonstrates, we are not talking about a zero sum game here. British exporters do not choose between the EU and the rest of the world. If exports to the EU fall, they do not automatically rise elsewhere. The Economist’s graph in fact illustrates (but also masks) a serious deterioration in the UK’s balance of trade over the same period. A fall in the UK’s exports to its primary, high value markets in the EU is a bad thing, even though it can be made to look like a shift towards non-EU markets if we ignore volume and look purely at percentages.


The ‘Singapore’ argument for Brexit is fallacious. Brexit would only harm British exporters, and that is why they overwhelmingly want the UK to remain in the EU.

Follow-up: I have to add this graph which was posted by @NauroCampos (Professor of Economics at Brunel University). It speaks, literally, volumes.


Where next for social democracy in Britain?

I recently did some reflecting on the policy challenges facing the British centre-left during the next five years. A result is this post, which I should warn you up front is a longish read, but of interest I hope.

Of all the tricky issues facing progressives over the next few years, two stand out for me: the European question, and public disenchantment with mainstream politics.

Most readers of my blog will hardly need persuading that Brexit would be a disaster for the UK in every respect. It would challenge the country’s political cohesion and social cohesion. The quality of life for millions of Britons stands to be materially damaged. Many, many people will lose their jobs, the country (what’s left of it) will be poorer, services will suffer (further), people will be pushed (further) into poverty. Environmental, consumer, food quality, health, and employment standards would be weakened or abandoned. This would be a progressive nightmare. But so far the case for staying in the EU is being made primarily by the centre-right and by business groups. Business certainly has something to say but it should not be the only voice, nor even the loudest voice. There is a very strong progressive case for staying in the EU and we should be making it much more clearly. It’s about quality of life.

Whatever happens in the referendum, progressive politics will have to tackle the aftermath. An exit is going to bring a host of problems, not least working out what kind of relationship we have going forward with our neighbours; but staying in will also be a headache. Staying in what exactly? Variable geometry seems a given for the future EU, will we be at the centre or at the fringes? And when should we expect the next neverendum? The campaign for another one will start the moment we vote to remain in the EU.

But debate over the UK’s EU membership is in some ways just a subset of a much bigger bundle of issues relating to the way we allow ourselves to be governed. There is a crisis in our democratic system and social democrats are taking much of the punishment. There’s a lot to unpick here. In the UK, under our first-past-the-post system for national elections, both major parties must appeal to a broad church. Their core voters see their chosen party as representing their values. But elections are not won by appealing to core voters, they are won by appealing to floating voters who swing between the two major parties, and these voters are probably influenced mostly by what they see as their interests. As both major parties have increasingly gone after these interests, so they have begun to bleed core voters who feel that their values are better represented by parties like the Greens and UKIP who don’t much care for consensus or compromise.

New Labour arose from the ashes of a Labour Party which, many felt, had lost touch with the interests of ‘middle England’ (ie floating voters). In correcting this, New Labour may have gone too far in the other direction and alienated many people who came to feel that the party no longer represented their values. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is the result. What Labour ‘moderates’ need to do now is to reconnect values and interests; they need to make the case to their party members and to the wider public that they do represent progressive values while also delivering results for ‘middle England’. The Blairite solution – rightly or wrongly seen as embracing austerity, overly business-friendly, and amenable to if not openly advocating deregulation and small(er) government – has been roundly rejected by the party membership. Labour’s moderates need to get over their rejection and reconnect with their base. A disunited party will never get out of opposition.

I believe there is a way forward for progressives which recouples values and interests. Like the EU, it’s about offering people a higher quality of life. But to get there we need to break out of the mould of established British politics, and overcome some of Westminster and Whitehall’s mental blocks.

One of these is taxation (closely linked to austerity). For decades now, right and left have vied with each other to be seen as ‘safe’ on tax. Whatever they have actually done in government, campaigning on a platform of raising or even maintaining taxation levels has been taboo. This has simply become an accepted fact of mainstream British politics in much the same way that the Queen is a national treasure above criticism, poppies must be worn from late September onwards, and house prices must always go up.

Ah yes, house prices. The British property market is seriously broken – in ways which are too numerous to go into here – and this empoverishes millions of people in the UK. But who in Westminster or Fleet Street is pushing for meaningful regulation of the housing and rental market?

And here’s another mental block: the pre-eminent status of Westminster in our national political life. I have blogged about this elsewhere. Aversion to, disinterest in, and disrespect for, other tiers of government (local, regional, European) is hard-baked into British politics and it’s closely related to the similar aversion to/disinclination for serious electoral reform.

Really this is about reflexive thinking in our political culture. Sometimes, you have to be an outsider to see past a group’s collective assumptions. For example, when I was at the Foreign Office, I observed that many colleagues took it for granted that the UK’s historic advocacy of EU enlargement was a principled position which won respect if not always support from other EU Member States. As an outsider, I saw otherwise. I told my colleagues that the UK’s position was often seen as self-interested and hypocritical, hiding behind the reluctance of countries like Germany and the Netherlands, knowing that its bluff would never be called thanks to them. Sir Humphrey’s explanation is taken as the literal truth by many of our partners, it seems to fit the facts. Whether it is the truth is besides the point, the fact is that Whitehall and Westminster insiders were guilty of drinking the kool-aid. And this is also true when it comes to issues like taxation, property prices, and constitutional reform.

Other countries do things differently, even quite similar countries, like Germany, Belgium, Sweden, France, and Canada. As someone who has spent over half my life in some of those other countries, I can’t respect these sacred cows of British politics. I see that people in highly taxed countries like Belgium and France have a quality of life which surpasses a typical British person’s. Just because you pay a lot of tax does not mean that you don’t get to have nice things – often, it’s the opposite. Childcare, healthcare, transport, and other publicly subsidised services mean that monthly costs for many Belgians are much lower than they are for the British. Belgium is a highly regulated country, but those regulations often address issues which are a problem in Britain – for example, housing. Property is affordable in Belgium because the regulatory environment works against treating housing as an investment; and tenants and landlords both enjoy a high degree of protection. And having a written constitution, with a federal system of government, and proportional representation, can deliver very high performing governance which better represents people, is more accountable, and engages citizens.

Like the campaign to stay in the European Union, this is about quality of life. Shouldn’t a decent standard of living count for more to most people than whether their home appreciates in value and whether they save a couple of pence in the next Budget? Shouldn’t this be the rock solid baseline from which the centre-left builds its case to govern? But this message isn’t getting across to the people it should reach. How does one persuade Ms Middle England that her interests are not inexorably rising property values and low taxation but subsidised, guaranteed childcare, decent public services, affordable housing, protected rents, and yes, continued EU membership?

I think the answer has to be a twin approach, top down and bottom up. Social democrats need to show courage and leadership, telling a story which resonates with voters about their quality of life and how it can be improved. This story needs to draw on ideas and experiences from around the world to demonstrate that a better life is possible. It also needs to challenge these ingrained assumptions which stifle innovation in British politics. It needs creative, adventurous thinkers who don’t mind breaking taboos. But it also needs civic engagement. People need to feel that they have a stake, and a say. Civic virtue is something we associate with Socrates and Aristotle, it’s missing from our modern vocabulary. We need to find ways to reconnect people with their politics in a way which comes much more naturally to, say, Canadians, who seem (in my limited experience) to have a stronger connection to their communities and a better understanding that you get out what you put in. Some clever people are doing interesting work on this – Demsoc for instance. I’d like to see progressive think tanks forming alliances and coalitions with organisations like Demsoc in order to bring these strands together. An essential aspect will have to be building links between people in different countries. This is where the EU has already done a great deal, and why continued EU membership is so crucial for the UK: the people to people connections forged through programmes like Erasmus do so much to spread enlightenment and dispel ignorance. We should do much, much more of this.

In trying to tie up these various threads, I run up against a typical policy conundrum. There’s a virtuous circle there – creative progressive policy-making feeds public engagement feeds creative progressive policy-making, etc – but how does one get it started? I see two possible ways in.

The first is the discussion which has already begun in British progressive circles about “predistribution”. While I find that I dislike the neologism, I think it captures notions of social justice and economic fairness which are taken for granted in some of our partner countries where a higher tax burden is not about redistribution in the form of benefits so much as levelling the playing field up front and delivering high quality public services to all. This is an anti-austerity vision which can appeal right across the board, the challenge is how to communicate this to people.

Which brings me to the second potential entry point: devolution. The Scottish referendum in September 2014 shook things up. Levels of engagement soared. People saw that government doesn’t have to mean Westminster (or indeed Brussels). You might not hear about it from London-based news services, but devolution is happening. The localism being pushed by a radical government intent upon downsizing its place in our national life creates a vacuum which other tiers of government are willing to fill. And it’s exciting for politics right across the UK, including England. We have talented people working in local government who are pushing ahead with new engagement strategies to involve local residents in decision-making. We can only hope that, as local government takes up the slack and engages local residents, the British public will finally begin to take more of an interest in local politics as something of significance in its own right and not merely a proxy for the national two-way battle.

This post has already gone on for too long, but there’s one issue which I’ve only touched on tangentially: populism. Populism is what happens when this goes wrong. It’s the easy option when politicians lack the energy, intelligence, or creativity to treat voters like adults and persuade them to think differently. It’s why Cameron is going after migrants on benefits rather than pursuing meaningful EU reform. It’s why Labour went after migrants in the last election rather than challenge austerity. Politicians can’t blame the people if populists like Farage steal away voters when those same politicians haven’t offered a persuasive, positive alternative. No-one is saying it’s easy, but real politicians did not go into politics because it’s easy.

In Britain, it’s no exaggeration to say that the centre-left is in crisis. The road back to government will be a long one. It needs to begin with the campaign to stay in the EU and build from there. It needs to focus relentlessly on the interests of the many people in Britain who feel disillusioned with politics because their quality of life is suffering. It needs to show these people that there are alternatives to the Thatcherite vision of individualism and competition. It needs to reconnect with its values of collectivism and social justice without abandoning its valid claim to represent true aspiration and social mobility. And it needs to rehabilitate the old fashioned concept of civic virtue by persuading citizens to engage actively in civic life.

What is EU reform?

Early in my career, with a group of other like-minded young officials, I launched a pressure group which we called “EUreforme” because we were frustrated with our staff unions’ obstructive attitude towards perfectly sensible reforms such as meaningful parental leave for fathers. We felt that, if the Commission did not reform itself, the Member States would impose reforms on us, and these were unlikely to be so constructive.

Our group attracted a great deal of hostility. “Reform” is a dirty word for some people. Neil Kinnock, as European Commissioner responsible for administrative issues and human resources during the late 90s/early 00s, did eventually push through a series of reforms which substantially eroded eurocrats’ employment conditions – it is no longer the highly attractive prospect it used to be for a talented graduate (though I’m not complaining). But la réforme Kinnock (a phrase to give a certain kind of fonctionnaire nightmares) did not do much to improve working conditions for staff and promote efficiency, focusing instead on cutting perks and reining in salaries, responding to political pressure from Member States in the EU Council. An opportunity for real reform was lost, caught between obstructive denialists in the staff unions, whose mantra was “ne touche pas à mon statut!“, and populist politicians in Member States, who saw an opportunity to ingratiate themselves with voters by going after everyone’s favourite whipping boy, the Brussels fat cat.

We are seeing something similar happen today. David Cameron, trapped by his unwillingness to confront the relentless anti-EU narrative of his backbenchers, pushes his agenda of EU “reform” – against him stand other EU leaders who prefer to preserve the status quo, reluctant to reopen the Treaty because of the referendums it would trigger in their own territories. Stuck in the middle are the rational voices saying yes, the EU could do with reform, because there are many things which could be done better than they are at the moment.

Cameron calls his agenda “reform” but this is a euphemism for “retreat”. He wants to repatriate powers, scale back ambition, play to the gallery on migration, and defend narrow national sectoral interests such as the financial sector. He does not offer a vision for how the EU tier of government should operate efficiently in sync with the national and regional tiers of government with a view to delivering good governance. For further background on this, see my post here dissecting the Prime Minister’s Bloomberg speech of January 2013, and take a look at this excellent article in the Dutch newspaper Handelsblad.

So what should reform look like? Let’s begin by stating some first principles: we take it for granted that we see the need for a European tier of government, and our objective is to achieve clarity on what that European tier should do; and then to make sure that it can do those things efficiently and effectively; and to ensure that the appropriate checks and balances exist in line with the principles of a modern, representative democracy. We need intellectual honesty and clarity here. If you don’t want a European tier of government, then say so and leave, don’t say you want in but then sabotage it from the inside so that it doesn’t work effectively. Intergovernmentalism is not an effective way of governing a complex political entity. If you want effective government, you need strong, functioning institutions. If you want accountability, then you need to achieve it at that level. If you think this sounds like federalism, well that’s because it is. It’s not a dirty word. Intergovernmentalism is a form of denial and a dead end.

So I’m arguing for reform which would make the EU a functioning, effective, federation. That means dismantling the apparatus of intergovernmentalism which has slowly swallowed the EU ever since Maastricht. We do away with vetoes and extend QMV (qualified majority voting) into all areas where the EU is competent; and we extend EU competence into all areas where it makes sense to govern at the EU level, including monetary policy and taxation. There are other areas where it makes little sense for the EU to be involved, and so we need clarity also on where the national or regional tiers of government are competent. We need reinforced subsidiarity. Where the EU is competent, it should have the tools it needs to be effective. This means, for example, pulling foreign policy into the Commission. There should be no exceptions to the communautaire approach for all EU policies; anything else is ineffective and compromised. And for that communautaire approach to be implemented effectively we need institutions which work. This means a best-in-class civil service with strong leadership, where managers manage people not to-do lists. As for accountability, I think the EU already does pretty well on this front. But we do have a problem with public engagement and that needs more work.

So this is my rather non-specific and non-exhaustive list of areas where reform is needed. None of this is on the table right now, and the Cameron-driven “reform” negotiation actually propels us in the other direction. Realistically, I know that true reform is a big ask at the moment, and I am not optimistic that we will achieve it; but I do believe that it is necessary if we are collectively to achieve our full potential in Europe.

Should a pro-European vote ‘leave’?


Last week, I collected my medal for twenty years of European public service. I have dedicated my entire professional life to the EU, it is the issue about which I feel the most passionate. As a student I was an activist for the Young European Movement, I joined the EU public service with a strong sense of purpose, and I am a believer in a European tier of government as a necessary evolution of our political system which benefits us all.

So you would have me down as a cast-iron certainty to vote ‘remain’ in the upcoming Brexit referendum, wouldn’t you? Right now, I’m not so sure.

Like Anand Menon, I’m surprised that we haven’t seen more opinion pieces like this excellent article in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. The deal which David Cameron is trying to negotiate with the European Council will no doubt be presented by him as a good one for the UK, and there will be lots of debate over whether it is or it isn’t. But it will be very hard to argue that any deal he strikes will be good for the EU and its other 27 Member States. How could it be? He will seek to protect UK interests, narrowly defined by the current right-wing and ideologically-driven government, with a view to appeasing his party’s nationalist fringe. There will be a number of superficially insignificant but symbolically meaningful features which further water down the vision of the EU as a post-national political community; and there may well be more ideologically-driven elements which water down the EU as a force for social justice. I do recommend that you read Adriaan Schout’s aforementioned article for a sense of where this is likely to be heading.

You might think that the other 27 Member States are unlikely to allow themselves to be bullied into a bad deal. But experience tells us otherwise. In the world of horse-trading and compromise that is the European Council, short-term political considerations tend to count for more than long-term sustainable visions, which is why the Treaties of Nice, Amsterdam, and Lisbon left us with such a mess in the eurozone. The EU and its Member States, acting together, can be a formidable force; but when decisions are made in the European Council it’s all about the weakest link in the chain and this results in cautious incrementalism and defensiveness.

If Cameron were negotiating for a deal which introduces meaningful reform to the mechanics of the European Union, making it more effective and efficient, I would enthusiastically back him. He isn’t, though. And his fellow heads of government are likely to bend over backwards to accommodate his political needs in order to avoid a scenario where the UK leaves the EU. So there is a fairly strong possibility that next week’s European Council will sign off on a deal which would be a step backward for the EU in order to keep the British in. But even with such a deal there is still the real possibility that the British could vote to leave in 2017; and even if they vote to stay, the European question will not go away, and the next neverendum becomes only a matter of time. The Council may buy a temporary respite, but at what price?

One way or the other, we will soon find out what the deal is which David Cameron has negotiated. Most of the debate will be about whether it is good enough “for Britain” to justify a vote to remain. I will be looking at it from the other perspective: will the deal he negotiates be good enough “for Europe”?

As a Briton, I see nothing to be gained for my country by its leaving the EU, and much to be lost. As a European, I see nothing to be gained for our collective wellbeing by further handicapping the European Union simply in order to appease one Member State. Indeed, we stand to lose a great deal. Unfortunately, although the outcome of the UK referendum will have an impact on all Europeans, only the British will get to vote. That potentially presents pro-European voters with an awful dilemma. If the final choice is between a bad deal for Europe, and a Europe without Britain, I will feel dreadfully torn. While my heart would revolt against a vote for Brexit, I can see a real possibility that the best thing for Europe would be for the UK to leave rather than stay on the basis of a bad deal for the rest of us.

Treat 7 May as EU referendum day

The general election on 7 May 2015 will quite possibly be the most important election during my lifetime (so far – nearly half a century, folks). If you thought 1997 was a biggie (and for my generation it certainly was), this one has even more at stake. For the first time in quite a long time, we have a genuine choice between two diametrically opposed ideological visions: on the one hand, the incumbent Prime Minister offers us an even smaller state with radically reduced public services putting us on a par with Europe’s outliers; on the other hand, a return towards the European mainstream (I’d like to be more emphatic than that but that would be overstating it).

This is already quite enough to make this an election worth fighting for. But there is an even bigger issue at stake, one which would determine the UK’s entire future. And one on which there has been an alarming degree of silence during this election campaign. David Cameron is offering an in-out referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. The referendum would be held in 2017 after an attempt by the government to persuade the EU to “reform”. If satisfactory reforms are not forthcoming, the implication is that the government would not campaign to stay in. Even if it were to campaign for an in vote, who can say that the public will not treat the referendum as a chance to protest against an austerity government heading for its mid-term trough?

Abandoning its EU membership (‘Brexit’) would be catastrophic for Britain. I hold this to be self-evident, and if you disagree then you might as well stop reading now because anything I say from this point forward is not addressed to you. For a mercantile nation with a history of internationalism and pretensions to global influence, Brexit would be crazy. But it could happen. Cameron will not get the “reforms” he wants. (I use quotation marks because “reform” in this context is a transparent euphemism for the repatriation of powers. God knows the EU could do with genuine reform, but that is not on the agenda, certainly not in the context of a UK-driven treaty renegotiation.) He has painted himself, and the country, into a corner. If he wins, there WILL be a referendum in 2017; and there is every chance that the country will vote to leave an unreformed EU. Decades of toxic disinformation and woeful public education have queered the EU’s pitch, and the organisation has not helped itself.

All this is to say that it is essential for the future of the country that Cameron does not remain Prime Minister after 7 May. The duty of any patriotic voter is to do whatever he or she can to avert that possibility. Treat 7 May as EU referendum day. Cast your vote in whichever way is most likely to oust Cameron from office. Do it for yourselves, for your children, your neighbours, your pet, your Queen and country.

British Federalism and English Exceptionalism – Fear and Loathing in West Lothian

Following Scotland’s ‘No’, and the promise of constitutional reform, it seems that everyone is (again) agonising over the “West Lothian Question“, or (in short) how to give England fair treatment in a devolved UK.

More specifically, the question asks: should non-English MPs vote on purely English affairs in the Westminster Parliament?

Look, either I’m missing something obvious here, or the entire British commentariat are idiots. I’m not saying the former is impossible, but, well…

The United Kingdom’s national parliament – the House of Commons and the House of Lords – should vote on matters which are national competence. ALL parliamentarians, from ALL parts of the UK, should have equal treatment in a national parliament. Surely this is obvious?

If a matter is England-only, then why is it being dealt with by the UK’s national parliament? Scotland-only issues are not dealt with by the UK’s national parliament, they are dealt with by the Scottish Parliament. Wales-only issues by the Welsh Assembly. And so on.

Why on Earth would the UK’s national parliament in Westminster feel it is the right body to rule on issues which relate only to one region of the UK? Especially since we already HAVE a devolved system of regional government in the UK!

I think there are a couple of things going on here. They are linked, and in some respects overlapping.

One is our first-past-the-post system of constituency MPs who represent a specific geographical area, as well as a party. This is a strange system, full of contradictions and conflicts of interest, but I won’t go into them here, except to suggest that our MPs seem to believe that their links to constituencies give them legitimacy (in some cases SOLE legitimacy) as the democratic representatives of those constituencies for local as well as national (and European!) issues. This is toxic for local and regional (but also European) democracy.

I think the other issue here is English exceptionalism, and specifically Westminster’s blindspot when it comes to the value of other tiers of government. I’ve discussed this elsewhere. In Britain, especially in England, we are brainwashed from an early age to think that the national tier of government, from Westminster, is the only truly legitimate kind. One hears this all the time in the dismissive way our national politicians speak of the European Parliament; but it’s just as obvious when you look at the struggle our regions have faced to establish devolved local democracy. (Local democracy in modern Britain is in a sorry state.)

Every argument I have with anti-EU types always runs into the same brick wall: ‘but there’s no such things as a European demos!’ This is exactly the kind of thinking that sees the West Lothian Question as a conundrum up there with Fermat’s Last Theorem or peace in the Middle East. It’s muddle-headed, messy thinking, because it’s based on emotion and false assumptions, namely the notion that there is something exceptional about UK (and more especially English, specifically Westminster) democracy which makes other tiers of government – local, regional, European – less legitimate. (And ‘less legitimate’ easily elides into ‘illegitimate’ when you have a black and white UKIP view of the world.)

Clearly, such thinking can never deliver a just and functional federal form of government; though, as we so hate the ‘f’ word in Britain, let’s call it ‘devo-max’ – what the Germans might call ‘subsidiarity‘.

Yes, the Germans. Look at their federation. It works. Happily for the Germans their country has never been dominated by one region in the way that the UK has, and is. So it would never have occurred to modern Germany’s post-war founders to establish a federated democracy where a given region, say Bavaria, has a regional parliament (Landtag) but Nordrhein-Westfalen, where Bonn is situated, is governed directly by the national parliament (Bundestag). And where Bavarian members of the Bundestag are not allowed to vote on certain issues because they affect only Nordrhein-Westfalen.  No, the federal parliament governs the federal state, and it would be unthinkable to exclude the democratically-elected representatives of any part of that state from its decision-making process.

If we’re going to have devolved power in the UK, then it stands to reason that England must have its own devolved legislature just as the other regions do. Any other solution would be incredibly unjust, but also deeply irrational. It’s time for the UK to look again at the principle of subsidiarity – decisions should be taken at the appropriate level of government, as close as possible to the citizen; and each level (tier) of government should have strictly-defined, non-overlapping areas of competence. So there should be no question of the national parliament treating local, or regional issues; and the West Lothian Question simply does not arise.

2014: the Text Adventure

Here it is – 2014, the Text Adventure!

You are in the EU. Your quality of life is decent
but you are irritated with the number of foreigners
and the level of taxation. Exits are W, N, E, SE, S, SW.
What do you do?

> Go W

You find yourself confronted by a heavily armed policeman
shouting at you to lie on the floor. What do you do?

> Put hands up

You have been shot. You are dead.

Would you like to go back to your last saved game?

> Y

You are in the EU. Your quality of life is decent 
but you are irritated with the number of foreigners 
and the level of taxation. Exits are W, N, E, SE, S, SW. 
What do you do?

> Go N

You have fallen into a giant supervolcano. You are dead. 

Would you like to go back to your last saved game?

> Y

You are in the EU. Your quality of life is decent 
but you are irritated with the number of foreigners 
and the level of taxation. Exits are W, N, E, SE, S, SW. 
What do you do?

> Go E

You find yourself in a war zone. All around you are shattered 
buildings and piles of rubble. You see a convoy of white lorries. 
What do you do?

> ask for help

The lorries had Spetsnaz special forces inside them! You have been 
shot. You are dead.

Would you like to go back to your last saved game?

> Y

You are in the EU. Your quality of life is decent 
but you are irritated with the number of foreigners 
and the level of taxation. Exits are W, N, E, SE, S, SW. 
What do you do?

> Go SE

You find yourself in a city without electricity or water. 
There seem to be a lot of ruins. There are explosions
all around you. Next to you is a school run by the UN. 
What do you do?

> Enter school

You find yourself with a group of women and children. 
A tank shell blasts through the classroom wall. 
You are all roasted in a fireball. You are dead. 

Would you like to go back to your last saved game?

> Y

You are in the EU. Your quality of life is decent 
but you are irritated with the number of foreigners 
and the level of taxation. Exits are W, N, E, SE, S, SW. 
What do you do?

> Go S

You have been kidnapped by a group of men dressed 
entirely in black, but they are not ninjas. 
One of them has a videocamera. He speaks to you in an 
East End accent. What do you do?

> Ask for help

The man with the East End accent makes a speech to the 
camera and cuts off your head. You are dead. 

Would you like to go back to your last saved game?

> Y

You are in the EU. Your quality of life is decent 
but you are irritated with the number of foreigners 
and the level of taxation. Exits are W, N, E, SE, S, SW. 
What do you do?

> Go SW

You catch Ebola. You are dead.

Would you like to go back to your last saved game?

> Y

You are in the EU. Your quality of life is decent 
but you are irritated with the number of foreigners 
and the level of taxation. Exits are W, N, E, SE, S, SW. 
What do you do?

> wait

You are still in the EU. Your Prime Minister calls a 
referendum. You can vote YES to leave or NO to stay. 
What do you vote?

> NO

You are in a minority. Your country leaves the EU. 

(Inspired by Rob Fahey)

Cameron is pulling a Suarez over Juncker


Much has been said and written about the British government’s campaign against the Spitzenkandidat process and against Juncker personally, and I’m not going to rehash that. But something else needs saying.

The British political establishment and press are colluding in misrepresenting the rest of the EU as unprincipled and anti-democratic. This is what has everyone outside Westminster stumped. It’s a bit like Luis Suarez saying that Chiellini bumped into his teeth with his shoulder. It’s such an obvious subversion of the truth that no-one can quite believe that it’s meant in earnest.

Example: sources close to the Prime Minister say that he is fighting for a principle. Standing alone again, Britain defends democracy against those on the continent who would threaten it! The affrontery of this argument is breath-taking – it is Cameron who is being unprincipled here, reneging on an arrangement to which he had previously agreed, dishonestly representing this good-faith attempt to reinforce European democracy as… wait for it… anti-democratic!  Cameron cannot win this argument outside the echo chamber of Westminster where they have convinced themselves – contrary to all the evidence – that their “demos” is the only one that counts.

Another example: a Tory MP defends Cameron by claiming that he is challenging vested interests in the system. Again, they try to frame a narrative where Britain stands alone against an out-of-touch elite in Brussels. But the ‘Spitzenkandidat’ procedure challenges those vested interests – the old status quo where EU top jobs are settled behind closed doors during late-night horse-trading. By linking EU top jobs to the outcome of the European elections, this new arrangement seeks to address the obvious disenchantment which we so clearly saw reflected in last month’s election results. Cameron wants to keep the old system while claiming to represent those people who so clearly rejected the old system! It’s the kind of double-think which can only work in an environment where years of negative misreporting have so distorted perceptions as to disconnect a closed group of people from reality.

The rest of us watch with slack-jawed amazement. Why is he doing this? What can he hope to gain?

Perhaps this image gives us a clue:


Yes – Cameron’s strategy is working for him at home. He is boosting his own popularity, and shoring up support within his own party.  With elections next year, and with May, Johnson, and Gove circling in the middle distance, Cameron is doing what politicians do.

The problem is, by winning his own local game, Cameron effectively guarantees that he will lose the bigger game being played by the rest of the EU.  Let’s be honest, he isn’t even really playing. To those of us outside the Westminster bubble, this is bizarre behaviour from a major leader. But this is what Cameron has done all along, from his decision to take the Conservatives out of the EPP, to his ill-judged veto of the Fiscal Compact, to his bizarre stance on Juncker.  Cameron’s playing snap while everyone else is playing chess.

The line taken by the UK government on Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych during his final months in power was that he had sacrificed his country’s long-term interests for the sake of short term personal interests.  It’s hard to see how the UK’s current EU policy is any different.

(edited on 30 June to add the cartoon sourced from