Monday, 27 June 2016

Not The Heir To Blair Then.

One of the most striking things about David Cameron’s emergence as Conservative leader towards the end of 2005 was his willingness to mark himself against and to openly draw parallels between himself and the then Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair.  The apotheosis of this being his infamous desire to be the “heir to Blair”.  Looking at Cameron’s big political gambles, the one big conclusion you draw from Cameron’s time as both Tory leader and Prime Minister is that Blair would have been far to astute to have attempted those things.

Before the catastrophic European Referendum, there was Cameron - the first Conservative to enter Downing Street since John Major was swept away in the early hours of May 2nd 1997.  The Brown Labour government was deeply unpopular and rocked by division.  Yet Cameron’s inability to ‘seal the deal’, lead to his Conservative party falling 18 seats short of an overall majority. Conceivably, in the position that Cameron was in, Blair could have reached out to the Lib Dems and offered a coalition.  Conceivably as well though, Blair would not have given the Lib Dems as much leeway as Cameron did, most notably with the deal over the AV referendum.

The curious thing about Cameron’s time in Number 10 has been his relationship with his Chancellor, an even more overrated political operator than Cameron.  George Osborne’s preference for political point scoring, not seen since the days of Gordon Brown in Number 11,  has seen such great political choices as as the now notorious “Omnishambles” budget of 2012, the voluntary ban on increasing income tax, the notorious “Sermon on the pound”, the reckless spending of the money found last autumn before finding that the figures were not as good as they looked and the arrogant re-branding of the minimum wage.  It is an unwanted facial tick that sees the veneer of a smirk appear on Osborne’s face whenever he speaks.  It makes him look smug and untrustworthy.  The big surprise is that Osborne’s status as Cameron’s own heir apparent took so long to vaporise.

The second part of Cameron’s premiership does contain the reckless risk taking and poor decision making which will probably be his hallmark. Prior to the European referendum, his biggest risk was the Scottish Independence referendum.  Given that polling indicated a strong vote for Scotland to remain within the union at the start of the campaign, the campaign prosecuted by the Better Together campaigners contrived to concede 26% to the pro-Independence Yes Scotland.  I’ve already touched on Osborne’s big mistake – “The Sermon on the Pound” – however Cameron made four big strategic errors.  The first error being the refusal to debate with Alex Salmond. 

The sight of the Prime Minister refusing to debate with the leader of the Scottish National Party did not diminish Salmond but showed Cameron up as someone who ducked and eveaded one on one television debates.  It is noteworthy that apart from the three ‘Leaders Debates’ in 2010, Cameron has only faced an opponent(s) in the television studios once since then – the seven way debate last April.  His second mistake being his refusal to fully engage in that referendum campaign.  Nothing shows this more than the week of the first poll lead for independence.  Where Milliband and Clegg had campaign engagements, Cameron made just the one speech, in an office in Edinburgh.

His third mistake was in pressing to keep the further devolution option known as Devo-max off the ballot paper.  Substantially more powers for Holyrood was previously the settled will of the Scottish People. Had that being on the ballot, then it’s possible that the SNP surge… indeed the clamour for a second Independence referendum by Independence supporters over the weekend… would not be happening.  Yes, the pro-Unionists clung on – securing a comfortable but not completely decisive victory – but it was closer than it needed to be.  Just after 7am on the morning of the 19th September, Cameron made his fourth tactical blunder when he made his victory speech.  The tying of further powers to the Scottish Parliament to English Votes for English Laws may have been done to placate his own backbenchers, but its effect was to galvanise the defeated SNP supporters and inspire them on to…  well the bloodbath of the following May’s Westminster election for Labour.  Even now 13 months down the line, this now looks like the staring point for the complete collapse of the Labour movement as a whole.

The mistake which cost Cameron his job is certainly his biggest, and is the worst show of political judgement since Blair decided to invade Iraq with the USA.  When Cameron announced the vote will be in his election manifesto for the next election, UKIP were finishing second in by-elections and sort of pushing for victory in them.  They weren’t winning these by-elections but the media were fixated on them.  Funnily enough, Cameron’s European troubles came after the referendum was announced as party policy – UKIP pushed the Tories into third in the European Elections of 20014 while both Mark Reckless and Douglas Carswell defected from the Tories to become UKIP’s first MP’s.  There was no need for Cameron to pledge the referendum but as I pointed out at the time, maybe part of Cameron’s thinking was dominated by his poor relationship with the EU leaders at that time.  Maybe as well another calculation was that Cameron would likely fall short again in the election, so would be able to blame the Lib Dems if they blocked the referendum.

When Blair was forced out nearly 10 years ago, his long time adversary Gordon Brown took over.  No doubt helped by the relatively invisible public profile of his leadership opponent - one John McDonnell. Cameron’s own version of Brown is his old ‘friend’ from Oxford, Boris Johnson.  Unlike Labour, who seem to pick leaders on a buggins turn basis, the Tories have always snubbed the favourite.  While Boris is clearly the favourite, I suspect that there is someone else out there who can, and possibly will, stop Boris.  Who knows, maybe someone that can somehow manage to postpone activating the key Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

Friday, 24 June 2016

The End Of The Unions

European Union Referendum, 23rd June 2016 – Final Result
Leave the EU
Remain within the EU

About twenty to five this morning, the news networks in this country projected a win for the vote leave side in this referendum.  It is a vote, finally confirmed at 6am but was highly likely from the slight pro EU declaration of Newcastle at midnight followed quickly by the thumping Exit win in Sunderland that will have massive implications for the UK, for Scotland and for the EU with the Prime Minister already signalling his intention to resign. 

For the EU, this pulls the rug from under them.  They simply did not see this coming.  Both their standing and also their self importance will have taken a huge knock.  For the UK, the short to medium term shocks will be nothing compared to the less gently unravelling of the United Kingdom.  Sinn Fein have already called for a referendum on a united Ireland, while the SNP are looking out the rulebooks and slide charts to see if Indyref 2 will be more winnable than the first Indyref.  On a 62% pro EU vote in Scotland, convincing people that a second Independence referendum so soon after the first may not be the given deal that many pro independence supporters believe it to be.  Still, if the SNP think they can win from this current position, good luck.

The Pound Shop Mosley claims victory at 4am this morning
All of that is yet to come, all following the inevitable financial meltdown.  What has already begun is the post mortem.  Labour types in London have already started by laying the blame firmly at the door of the SNP.  True, I’ve not seen a piece of election literature – the official government booklet excepted – and I did not see the same level of street engagement as there was either during the General Election or the Holyrood Election.  However you cannot blame the SNP for this.  It was a more positive, if heavily spun & gradually more pious, case for the EU than the case that was being prosecuted by our southern cousins.  They were the only party to make the case for immigration/freedom of movement.  That in itself is a big big reason for the vote to exit.

I had always said that the key to elections is the economic debate.  In this case, the Anglocentric-Remainers completely and utterly lost the argument.  Cameron & Osborne pursued Project Fear redux in terms of the economic argument putting out figures which may or may not be accurate and publishing forecasts and not caveating them.  As I’d pointed out earlier, Project Fear conceded 26% over the course of the 2 and a half years of the Independence referendum, why would anyone think that it would work again for this referendum.  For people who voted for Brexit, immigration was always a symptom of a bigger malase, that the Thatcher and Blair years had left them behind and that immigration became the handiest stick to beat the Westminster establishment with.  Sure we can all be disgusted at the campaign that UKIP & Farage ran (and the official Leave campaign switched to about the time purdah began) but to blame those voters misses the point.  The failure lies with the main parties at Westminster, the same ones who shrugged off 1.6 million people voting to leave the United Kingdom 20 odd months ago and failed to build bridges with pro Independence voters.

The big irony here of course is that the Prime Minister was a much more visible presence during this campaign than he was during the Independence Referendum.  His appearances on debates though were generally considered to be poor and he mostly came second best to his ‘Leave’ opponents.  Is it any wonder then that Cameron has decided to resign.  Next up for public scrutiny will be the chancellor George Osborne.  The currency of Osborne was already crashing in current Sterling fashion, it will be more through the floor as the perceived wisdom that Osborne was the heir apparent to Cameron now looks dead in the water.  In truth, Cameron had led a charmed life.  Unable to secure a commons majority against the party that caused the UK leg of the recession/credit crunch in 2010, secured the immediate future of the UK in 2014 in spite of his… minimum campaigning style and secured a small working majority last year in no small thanks to the heavy legged style of Labour.  Cameron’s luck has simply run out and he knew it.

While I had my own reasons for voting for Brexit, reasons to do with democratic accountability and transparency, the UK as a whole voted for exit for reasons that could and should have been easily rebutted and comprehensively dismantled.  Immigration/Freedom of movement should have been taken out as an argument straight away.  The economy should have been a much more concise argument and the pro-EU argument should have been clearer on what we should have been voting for.  And, yes, the EU should have seen the warning signs from the 2014 European Elections and looked at ways of making the EU more democratic and transparent. But then again, the EU’s way has always been to fudge & fix their way out of trouble.  When Maastricht was in trouble, both Denmark and France were told to replay their referendums, similarly with Ireland when they voted against the Amsterdam and Lisbon treaties.  And that’s before we get to the extremely secretive TTIP negotiations.  The official Leave campaign, in short, did not conduct a smart, astute campaign and relied on negative campaigning.

If Cameron’s luck has run out, what do we make of the state of Labour.  Their previous heartlands in England & Wales voted en masse for Brexit.  I’m not sure you can blame Corbyn for this, as a lot of this looks like dissatisfaction with and a hangover from Labour party policy from…  oh… when they were in power. Where you can maybe blame Corbyn is his lack of communication skills, but you can certainly blame the Labour right for their inability to connect to the former blue collar constituency.

The worst campaign in political history has given us a result that is resolutely not the best of both worlds.  The plummeting value of Sterling appears to be the start of a political earthquake that has already claimed the Prime Minister.  The shockwaves from this decision will travel far and wide. Once the dust settles, I do not expect Cameron to be the only political casualty of this vote and I expect the political landscape to be dramatically altered for all parties.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

The Worst Political Campaign In Living Memory

For all that there were an awful lot of references and call-backs to the Independence Referendum a couple of years ago, this European Referendum campaign was no Indyref.  Sure we had encores for the old favourites – “Project Fear”, “Pooling & Sharing”, “Best of Both Worlds”, “Talking Down Britain/Scotland”, “Scaremongering as well as a reprise of the Winton Paradox.  However, all of the EU campaign has been a fourth rate attempt at a copy of the Independence Referendum.  As the title of this blog suggests, this campaign has been the worst campaign in living memory.
Cameron with EU President Jean Claude Junker, 18 February 2016

The obvious reason for this is the descent of the official Leave campaign into race politics.  Their campaign has been centred around the apparent concern about immigration, buying into and amplifying UKIP’s consistent conflation of immigration and freedom of movement.  The nadir of this part of the campaign came last Thursday when UKIP unveiled a poster which more than referenced Nazi 1930’s style propaganda, on the same day as the assassination of the Labour MP Jo Cox.  While the official Leave campaign made an effort to distance themselves from Farage & UKIP, Farage’s comments about the Cox assassination at the weekend should have prompted the Leave campaign to, metaphorically speaking, throw Farage under the bus.

As I’ve pointed out previously, there are better reasons than Immigration to vote to leave the EU.  It does seem that the official leave campaign have picked up on this on the latter stages of the campaign – hence the consistent repeating of the phrase “take back control”  from the ITV debate two weeks ago onwards.  However Immigration still dominates the Leave campaign and has contributed to the divisive climate.  That immigration is seen by the leave side as their trump card possibly says something about the official Remain side.

The pro-Brexit campaign has also contributed to the poor quality of the debate.  Their trump card of the economic case has not been played properly – with the government swamping the public with figures and statistics rather than picking out killer facts and using them on repeat.  The remainers have not responded very well either to the immigration card being played, with rather than a rebuttal of the Leave case with the case for freedom of movement, acknowledgement from the Westminster parties that ‘something must be done’ about rising immigration. 

The only voices on the remain side in favour of both immigration and freedom of movement have been the SNP, and even then they have been demonising the voices of anti immigration rather than understanding why anti immigration rhetoric has been playing well in the North of England and in former strong Labour supporting parts of the country.  Given my own history with the blog, it is surprising that the 'Labour Hame' blog has by far the best Scottish piece on the immigration debate – Cat Headley’s piece called for a smart campaign for immigration.  Certainly it is a contribution better than the complacent and increasingly pious campaign interventions from the SNP.

It’s not just on immigration that the pro-EU campaign has failed.  The positive case for the EU has been smothered in a blizzard of figures and statistics, some of which are highly subjective.  There is also Cameron’s reliance on negative campaigning, which some political observers claim has won him a referendum and an election already.  It remains to be seen whether with this campaign will be won with Cameron’s brand of ‘encouraging’ voters to hold onto nurse in fear of what’s worse.  However Cameron’s previous record is actually quite chequered once you get past the results.

True, part of the reason Cameron won last year was the constantly mentioned prospect of a possible coalition between Labour & the SNP.  But the reason it worked so spectacularly was Labour’s own botched rebuttal.  With the independence referendum however, negative campaigning most certainly did not win that referendum.  At the launches of Better Together and Yes Scotland in Summer 2012, support of remaining within the UK was at 68% in the polls.  The consensus was that this would be a cakewalk, particularly with the stumbling scratchy start by Yes Scotland.  The game changer that saw the polls dramatically narrow was not the much vaunted SNP White Paper, but Osborne’s notorious ‘Sermon on The Pound’ (© Iain McWhirter) speech, which attempted to torpedo the SNP’s terrible plan to adopt the English Pound as the currency for an Independent Scotland (as opposed to adopting the Scottish Pound, Sterlingization if you will – which is technically what we already have). 

From that moment, the polls narrowed until the moment which really saved the UK.  Not an act of negative campaigning, but the now notorious Daily Record front page – The Vow.  That kept enough soft ‘no’s’ from wavering and defecting to ‘Yes’ to win the day for the pro-Union Better Together.  But a winning vote of 55.3% revealed the ground that Project Fear had allowed to be conceded.  If conceding 26% to your opponents is a sign of success, then success itself has been redefined in the new politics.  In comparison to Cameron & Osborne’s bombastic style and scaremongering, Corbyn has been a quiet but dignified figure.

If the experience of 2014 is anything to go by, the fallout of this referendum will last long and be fractious.  That years referendum, which most people think of as a joyous celebration of politics saw a fractious and bitter conclusion followed by a more fractions and bitter fallout.  This doesn’t bode well for a campaign which has poisoned the wells of British (English?) politics from the start.  The only good news is that the campaign is now over.  The bad news is that the results are still to come, followed very swiftly by the fallout.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The Curious Position of The SNP

The end of the mourning period for the assassinated Labour MP Jo Cox ended on Sunday with both campaigns hitting the ground – and the television studios – running.  One of the more curious interventions was from the First Minister, reiterating that people should vote ‘remain’ as that will be the best route to the much desired ‘Indyref 2’.  There were other reasons for voting to remain within the EU, but the claim that one of the reasons to vote to stay in the EU would be a second referendum did revive thoughts of the SNP’s inconsistencies from the Independence referendum a couple of years ago.
Nicola Sturgeon with Angela Eagle & Amber Rudd at
ITV's Referendum dedbate, 9 June 2016

It is a long term inconsistency in the SNP’s DNA that they are keen (with some justification) to leave a union where we have some (limited) influence on the direction of travel but they are equally keen (with considerably less justification) to remain within a substantially larger union where we have considerably less influence on the direction of travel.  I had dubbed this The Winton Paradox after the blogger who had written several posts about the SNP’s inconsistencies.  Like Sterlingzone, it’s the Independence referendum issue that comes back time and time again to remind us how badly the SNP can still get things wrong.

And boy they do.  Not content with not understanding that Scotland is *not* a member of the European Union – it is the United Kingdom’s name on The Single European Act & the Maastricht, Amsterdam & Lisbon Treaties, not Scotland’s – the SNP are intent on bringing up the untruth that we would be ‘thrown out’ of the EU if we voted to become Independent.  That we were voting to leave a member country of the EU seems to have bypassed the SNP.  Unless they really want their cake and to eat it.

Fast forward to the current referendum and the SNP have dusted down their ‘European Union For Dummies’ book once again.  Sturgeon’s new attack lines now include the fabled “material change” line when a second Independence referendum crops up.  I had thought that line was a device to kick a second referendum into the grass for long enough a) to keep the more one-eyed yessers happy and onside and b) in the hope that the polls come around just enough to make a second referendum winnable.  With it looking less and less likely that there will be a convincing remain victory though, Sturgeon has been out threatening a second referendum.  I suspect that there will be two problems with this line.

First of all, Sturgeon is assuming, as she always does, that the SNP argument is closely aligned to the Scottish sensibility.  This is not always true and I suspect that attitudes to the EU is an issue where we are more closely aligned with our neighbours than the SNP would like to think.  Of course, there is a narrative that the SNP like to play, one which puts a Scottish sensibility as being different to the English.  And it is true that we are more tolerant of people who come to our country to work.  But to dismiss Eurosceptisism as “Little Englander” thinking as she did during the Independence referendum, to call this referendum a Tory party sideshow as she did several weeks ago suggests an intolerance of different opinions.  My Euroscepticism is a left wing euroscepticism, but would still not be welcome in the cuddly world of Sturgeon’s Scotland.  I suspect that come Friday Morning, Sturgeon will be in for a nasty surprise.

The second point is that we should be asking what constitutes “Scotland being dragged out of the EU against it’s will”?  Given that the SNP look favourably on large minorities, then what would be the chances on them looking favourably on the Brexiteers case if, approximately 44.7% of the Scottish population voted in that fashion, come Thursday.  With that in mind, I would suggest that for Sturgeon to convincingly argue that this was the case, the Scottish Remain vote would need to be about 65% minimum.  At the moment I think that it’ll be nip and tuck that the Scottish vote will reach that.

It is surprising to see the SNP struggle with this apparent inconsistency within their own DNA, given how smart they have been in other policy areas. Yet, here we are yet again.  Even Sturgeon’s claim of ‘Independent countries happy to be members’ sounds ludicrous when you think of Ireland having to submit their budgets to the EU & the ECB before their own parliament gets to see it.  Even after the punishment fiscal beatings Greece has taken, with the terms of the EU’s bailouts being the privatisation of Greece’s public services, the SNP still talk of ‘normal Independent countries’ being EU members. 

I’ve long thought that the SNP would be happier with Thatcherite policies being foisted upon Scotland from the EU than they would be with Thatcherite policies being foisted upon Scotland by Westminster.  While they have made life difficult for Westminster MP’s, there is no sign of them standing up for Scotland in Brussels or standing up to Scotland.  Their welcoming of the appointment two years ago of Jean Claude Junker and the acceptance of the EU law forcing the outsourcing of Ferry routes is proof of this. 

With every referendum, whatever the issue, it feels like we are going through the SNP’s own clangers tape from the Independence referendum, with their views on the EU becoming more and more front and centre of Scottish coverage at least.  Their ramrod refusal to learn from their mistakes does not bode well for the scheduled summer push to convince people that independence will be good.