I Think We’re Alone Now: Why despising big business is a Bad Idea for Tories

The intervention of a few large firms in the Brexit debate in recent days has certainly stirred things up.  A few mild, and some might say overdue, requests for clarity about our likely relationship with the European Union after March next year have provoked an extraordinary reaction from the Brexiteer clan, culminating in an explosion from the Foreign Secretary and chief-Brexit-cheerleader (at least in his own eyes), Boris Johnson.  “Fuck business”, he is reported to have ranted at a diplomatic reception.

This ought to be incredible stuff.  This, after all, comes from a man who still harbours (rapidly fading) ambitions to be the leader of our nation; a man who wants the UK to be open to the world and attract foreign investment post-Brexit; and a man who is part of Britain’s nominally business-friendly party.  Yet in his contempt for the views of business leaders Boris is hardly alone amongst the political classes, and he can say truthfully that he is simply reflecting the views of the public and even of Conservative voters.  Poll after poll shows that suspicion of ‘big business’, and of capitalism itself, has never been higher.  Many of us, it seems, would echo his trenchant view.

This is daft.  A huge proportion of British people work for ‘big’ firms, most of them more or less happily.  Those companies are responsible for creating high value jobs, training and developing their staff, for investing and innovating, and for a host of other benefits that might be associated with clever tech start ups but not with mom and pop stores nor with the public sector.  Antipathy towards the backbone of our economy makes little or no sense – but still it is flourishing.  And it is one thing most politicians seem to agree on.

For that blame all sorts of factors.  The behaviour of some companies before and during the great crash of 2008 was despicable.  Even today there are plenty of examples of poor practice, from zero hours contracts to tax minimization to environmental damage.  Yet most businesses treat their staff reasonably well, if only because finding good quality people is so hard; they ‘give back’ through corporate responsibility programmes; and they pay their taxes.  There are legitimate questions about whether some firms are hindering UK productivity growth, but this is hardly a reason to despise big business en masse.  So why do we seemingly do so?

One reason is that we take our cue from our leaders.  And in recent years politicians have chosen to hide behind scapegoats and bogeymen such as fat cats and rapacious capitalists rather than take responsibility for their own actions.  Never mind that the crash resulted primarily from failures of policy and regulation; that zero hours contracts remain legal; or that our tax code has loophole after loophole which companies can exploit.  All of these are things legislators can and should change, but they choose not to: far easier instead to blame the whipping boys of big business.

The result is that politicians fetishise small businesseses and entrepreneurs, and they demonise major corporations.  Few will speak up for the organisations that create the bulk of the wealth, prosperity and progress in this country; many see nationalisation as a sensible and realistic response to the ‘failings’ of sectors such as water, energy, rail and even banking.  Rather than addressing specific instances of regulatory capture and bad behaviour, all too often our political classes just say ‘fuck business’ as a whole.

There are so many problems with this attitude it is hard to know where to begin.  It is, of course, totally illogical.  Start ups don’t dream of staying at 20 people and a £4 million turnover; thus successful small businesses become big businesses, presumably switching along the way from being much-loved to much-loathed.  We spend half the time castigating large firms and the other half looking for big national champions to compete on the global stage against the Americans, Germans and Chinese.  And anyone who sees nationalism as a panacea clearly can’t remember the bad old days of British Rail and British Leyland, nor see that, generally speaking, politicians and bureaucrats make decisions slowly and badly.

So being anti-big business makes little sense for anyone in the UK.  It is bizarre for a Conservative at any time.  And it is inexcusable now for a Party that wants the UK to be open to the world, a strong trading nation, open to foreign investment and foreign workers post-Brexit.  Time for the Tories to rethink, and learn to love – and stick up for – business once again.

Chasing Unicorns: Changing minds about Trump and Brexit

The Mexican migrant crisis currently engulfing the Trump administration has horrified many – including, it seems, the President’s own wife – and also made some feel hopeful.  According to quite a few liberal commentators this could / should be the moment that ‘good’ Republicans are shocked into seeing sense, realise they have to dump the Trump, and allow normal order to resume.

This, of course, is wishful thinking.  It ignores the degree of partisanship that now pollutes all aspects of US politics.  It disregards the fact that whilst many Republicans and others might be affected by scenes of children being separated from their parents, they agree with a lot of the Trump agenda, including his approach to immigration.  And worse, it assumes that voting for Trump is an aberration that can be corrected if only his misguided supporters would just wake up.  In short, that they will be cured by being bludgeoned with The Facts.

This same presumptuousness (some might say arrogance) has also been visible during the debate in this country about Brexit.  Even today the basic Remoaner position is that at some point enough Brexiteers will realise that leaving is too hard, too damaging and too ugly and will switch sides, creating a majority to remain – or at least to leave in name only.  Pragmatism will prevail.  We’ll get back to ‘normal’ and we will look back on this whole episode as some sort of weird dream.

Of course, as a good Ken Clarke Tory myself, I hope that both these things are true.  I do crave the softest of soft Brexits, or even that some way is found for us not to leave at all.  And I would be delighted if Trump was to fall.  Both of these things, from my liberal perspective, would be Good Things.  But I know too that if they happen they will create an even bigger problem than we have today.

The issue that ‘sensible’ people can’t quite get their heads around is that lots and lots of people voted for Brexit and for Trump not because they took leave of their senses, but for what they considered to be good reasons.  Yes, they were lied to (but so were all sides).  Yes, they probably didn’t engage with the policy detail or the socio-economic impact (ditto).  And yes, they often voted on the basis of emotion and their gut rather than cool rationality and their heads.  But it is impossible to avoid the stark fact that they voted that way and would probably do the same tomorrow.  Denying this democratic reality is ridiculous.

The fact is that no matter how passionately those who oppose Trump and want to Exit Brexit feel, no matter how much their friends and people who share their outlook agree, they have not persuaded and changed the minds of the other side, their ‘enemies’.  They haven’t found an emotional argument that counters the appeal of Trumpism or Brexit, and which resonates with the majority of people.  And most importantly, and also most depressingly, they haven’t understood what made people feel this way in the first place.

Quite a long time has passed since Trump was elected and we voted for Brexit but could anyone honestly say that the losing side in each case is any closer to understanding the real reasons why?  Sure, politicians can utter token words about immigration, and fall back on pop psychology about the feelings of white working class men, but ultimately it feels like few have them really have any idea.  Even fewer have set out a progressive alternative to populism that might appeal to Trumpites or Brexiteers, let alone stir the emotions and galvanise support.  Instead we are being offered more of the same: small, incremental changes when what is needed is a positive and refreshing overhaul.

In the absence of dramatic change, of a recognition by politicians that everything needs to shift and that they must set out a new and vigorous vision for the world, our choices are poor.  We can go through Brexit or several more years of Trump with all the damage that will do.  Or somehow both can be derailed, leaving a very sizeable group of angry, disenfranchised and frustrated citizens whose democratic rights have been trampled.  For the avoidance of doubt, the second outcome is worse than the first.  Now is the time for something different, starting with bothering to understand how we got here in the first place.

Charles Clarke: ‘Craven’ Labour has given Tories free ride over Brexit (March 2017)

Former Home Secretary Charles Clarke, a good friend of Park Street Partners, wrote a blog prior to the 2017 General Election for the New European and The UK in a Changing Europe site on the failure of Labour to set out an alternative and positive vision for Brexit, and so shape the Government’s approach.  It remains extremely relevant today so, with Charles’s permission, it is republished below.

Labour’s confusion and incoherence in response to the EU referendum, eight months ago, has given the Conservatives a free ride. It must not go on.

Labour’s starting point should be to accept the referendum decision for what it was, and not for what it was not.

It was a narrow but clear vote to leave the European Union. It was not a vote about how we should leave, or about what the UK’s new relationship with the EU should be. This important distinction has been insufficiently emphasized and needs to be properly understood.

From the Prime Minister’s speech last October at the Conservative Party conference she and her media cheerleaders have tried to bully the rest of us into accepting that their approach to Brexit is what people voted for last June. She asserts that no alternative can be contemplated. At a difficult time she has behaved divisively rather than as a national leader, for example by seeking a common approach across Parliament.

Unfortunately Labour’s lack of any clear alternative has allowed her unfounded claim to become accepted. It is beyond time for Labour to submit the Government’s approach to detailed and rigorous scrutiny, to challenge them at every turn and, most important of all, to put forward the realistic alternative which Labour would be following were it in government today.

Labour should not be colluding with government proposals, or even simply opposing from time to time. Labour has to make its own compelling case for the future. It must lead the national debate not follow it.

The Government’s approach is easy to summarize. It believes that, in order to try and reduce immigration from the European Union, the UK should leave the single market and the customs union, accepting whatever economic and constitutional damage that causes.

This plan is based on the manifest illusion that the economic benefits of any UK trade agreements outside the EU will exceed whatever the UK will lose. Moreover it risks the security of Northern Ireland whilst encouraging the Scottish National Party’s drive to independence.

And, whatever their attitudes to immigration, the British people never voted for such an economically suicidal approach which threatens the constitutional integrity of our country.

Despite important differences of opinion, notably around immigration, Labour is in a much better position to put forward an agreed alternative Brexit strategy than many seem to think. And Labour’s victory in Stoke should reduce fears that UKIP is an existential threat to Labour.

We have more in common than divides us: the UK should remain part of both the European single market and the Customs Union; we should remain part of the European scientific and research networks; we should retain co-operation in security and European external policy; we would be happy to dump the Common Agricultural and Common Fisheries Policies.

And on the vexed and tricky matter of immigration, there is general agreement that EU citizens should be able to come to the UK if they have a place to study or a confirmed job, particularly in the farms and factories which need the workers. There is no desire to abandon our legal obligations to genuine asylum-seekers. There might even be agreement to look again at identity cards, which Labour introduced in 2006, to offer reassurance that we can properly control immigration.

And of course over the next year or so the policy landscape on immigration in other EU countries will change. In addition the Conservative position is badly damaged by Theresa May’s hopeless failure to control immigration during her 6 years as Home Secretary and by recent Tory Cabinet ministers’ admissions that the country will continue to need significant numbers of migrant workers. And any country making a new post Brexit trade agreement will require freedom of movement for their citizens to the UK.

This should be Labour’s independent Brexit strategy. Labour should not be frustrating the referendum decision but nor should it be assisting the government’s highly divisive and damaging version of Brexit.

Such a Labour approach would be in the national interest. It would be realistic and coherent. It would gain support from outside Labour ranks and it would honour the outcome of the referendum more faithfully than the Government’s current approach. It would better reflect the overall views of the population.

Such a strategy would also be far more likely to secure orderly agreement with the other 27 EU member states. The government’s proposals, which are based on a series of fantasies, are getting little support, or even understanding, from our negotiating partners.

And finally Labour would not need to resort to Theresa May and Philip Hammond’s incredible threat to impose ‘Singapore-style’ economic reforms which could never be implemented in this country.

So on any reasonable assessment, such a Labour Brexit strategy would be superior to the government proposals and would better implement the decision of the referendum.

The incoherence and riskiness of the Government’s approach has led them to try and avoid all parliamentary approval of their approach. The Supreme Court predictably forced them to legislate before sending the Article 50 letter.

That Supreme Court decision is likely also to mean that new legislation will be needed after the negotiations are complete in order to authorize any final agreement between the UK and the EU, or indeed to withdraw from the EU if there is no agreement.

The former Deputy President of the Supreme Court, Lord Hope of Craighead, made this clear in a little-noticed intervention in the House of Lords. He was endorsed by the former Conservative Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the drafter of Article 50, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard and Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet Secretary, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster.

So the despatch of the Article 50 letter will by no means end parliamentary engagement with the Brexit process.

Labour must vigorously press its approach at all stages, including throughout the negotiations – there will be a running commentary despite the Government’s desire for secrecy – and through the final legislation.

It must be absolutely clear that it will support an exit from the EU which honours the Labour approach but it will rigorously oppose an exit which does not.

Such a clear approach should have meant that Labour supported the Second Reading of the Withdrawal from the European Union (Article 50) Bill, thus formally accepting the outcome of the Referendum; but voted against at Third Reading unless the Bill then included clear amendments reflecting Labour’s position. The passionately held positions of individual MPs should have been respected by using a 2-line rather than 3-line whip.

And Labour should never, disgracefully, have whipped its peers to vote against amendments requiring the UK to stay in the Single Market.

In short Labour was absolutely wrong to submit cravenly to the government’s contention that its Brexit strategy was the only possible way to implement the referendum vote.

Labour should truthfully explain that its position is to support implementation of the referendum result but only if it is done in a way which minimizes the damage to the country.

Finally Labour needs to consider its attitude if public opinion were to change, as the consequences become increasingly apparent.

Doubts about the competence of the Conservatives’ Brexit approach are likely to grow. At the same time the new economic and political realities of Brexit will replace predictions. Theresa May’s pathetic wooing of “America First” Donald Trump, in the vain hope of a trade deal, may well become increasingly unpopular.

It is thus entirely possible that, once the implications of Brexit are revealed, public opinion about the desirability of leaving the European Union will shift.

The British people would certainly have the right to change their minds. They could express that view through either of the two legitimate sources of popular authority – a second referendum or a general election on the basis of clear manifesto commitments.

In such circumstances Labour would certainly have the right to consider including in its 2020 General Election manifesto a pledge to remain in the European Union.

I do not expect this to happen but everything will depend on the attitudes of the people of this country as the consequences touch their day-to-day lives.

At this momentous period in British history Labour cannot walk by on the other side. If it did it would fully deserve to play no part in the future of country.

It’s time to engage fully in this vital national debate.

By Rt Hon Charles Clarke, former Home Secretary under the Labour government. This piece originally featured in the New European. 

So Casually Cruel? Honesty, Government Spending and Taxation

On Pienaar’s Politics this morning Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood was the guest, there to make the case for additional spending by the MoD.  He was surprisingly open, for example by not trying to hide the areas where we are falling behind.  We need, he said, to improve our capability to deal with cyber attacks, enhance our satellite technology and make sure our nuclear weapons remain a deterrent.  And at the same time we need to pay, equip and accommodate our conventional forces.

His candour extended to admitting that this would cost more money, and his explanation of why it should be a priority.  The first job of government is to defend our borders and to facilitate trade with other nations by (at least metaphorically) keeping the sea lanes open.  Defence spending, Mr Ellwood argued, allows the economy to flourish, generating wealth and in turn tax, which makes possible spending on health and education and all the rest.  He was eloquent and straightforward, and as a result, convincing.

These comments are part of what seems to be a conscious effort by Tory Ministers to try something rather new: being honest with the public about tax and spending.  Only a few days ago Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that he believes people will pay more tax for an improved NHS.  And in a host of other areas, including education, the environment and farming, policing and more, there have been hints of Ministers trying to be frank with taxpayers rather than just talk down to them.

This is refreshing, if it continues.  Politicians and pundits spend huge amounts of time agonising about why the electorate has disengaged with the governing class and the process of policy-making – and speculating about why they voted for Brexit.  Amongst the many reasons must surely be the fact that for years politicians have refused to talk truthfully about money.  How many times have Chancellors announced the same expenditure twice, three times, four?  How often have we been promised that billions can be found in ‘efficiency savings’?  And for how long has the basic rate of tax been untouchable and unmentionable, leading to budget after budget trying to eke out pitiful amounts of cash from corporation tax thresholds, VAT and taxes on high earners?

Time, then, for a fresh approach – and one that will have to go a whole lot further even than Mr Hunt and Mr Ellwood in recent days.  Taxpayers are crying out for honesty, to be presented with the facts and the choices they face, even if they are hard.  We want to be treated like adults, in short.  But politicians must tell the whole truth.  For example, in the face of spiraling treatment costs and an ageing population we cannot possibly afford to maintain the NHS in its current form; taxing bankers’ bonuses will only deliver so much; immigrants pay significant amounts in tax; the optimal rate of income tax might be higher than it is now; and so forth.  Ministers have made a start; they have a whole lot further to go.  But if they learn to be truly open they might be surprised how much voters like it.