Prime Minister’s Questions: Whither the Bear-Pit?

Jeremy Corbyn’s first outing in the bear pit of Prime Minister’s questions went better than either man could have hoped for. Corbyn, a lousy speaker and poor debater got off lightly, and the Prime Minister avoided the obvious banana-skin of publicly beating-up a careworn old geography teacher who accidentally found himself at the dispatch box while looking for some sandwiches.

There are few more tiresome tropes in politics that PMQs are a “national embarrassment”, with all the jeering and petty tribal point-scoring. But it is just about the only debate people can be bothered to watch. If you’re interested in an earnest debate about the issues, you can see everything live on the parliament channel, where the members who’ve taken the trouble to learn about a given issue turn up to craft and fine tune legislation. There are select committees where members scrutinise the business of Government, calling ministers and civil servants to account. Few bother.

PMQs however isn’t about the business of Government. It’s party-political. It’s designed to test the mettle of the Prime Minister under fire – tough forensic questions, not about the issue, but to play the man. Put the man under pressure, in public and see how he fares. It means the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition learns to handle pressure, and crucially the voters can see how he fares in the bear-pit, often weekly, for years before a general election. He’s out there in the manner of a Medieval king in front of his troops, meeting his opponent with the armies arrayed behind them. You find out which tribe is stronger, which is more unified and where the cracks might be. It tests the man as a leader, as a debater. Good at PMQs? Better able to stand up to Vladimir Putin in the great councils of the world.

The idea this is where you can forensically examine the Government’s record earnestly is like complaining Rugby’s too rough as England play Australia in a world cup final, declaring chess a better sport in world where physical prowess is no longer needed. You’ll have missed the point. And get de-bagged by the Exeter Agrics 3rd 15 and have a pint poured down your crevice into the bargain. And quite right too.

Every politician comes to the dispatch-box for the first time promising “a new politics”. I’ve little doubt that Demosthenes promised a new style of politics in the Ecclesia two and a half thousand years ago. But what Corbyn will find is instead of testing Cameron’s mettle, and demonstrating his own, this Consensual PMQs will allow Cameron to calmly state the Government position in front of the largest political audience in the country; and neither man is tested. Far from being more democratic, the public have less information about the vital character of the people they are auditioning to lead the country. Corbyn is not doing his job either as a party political warrior, or leader of the opposition testing the Prime minister.

If you think this new style of politics, a consensual, nice, quiet PMQs is an improvement on the old one, you’re a po-faced, sanctimonious bore, who’s simply ignorant of what PMQs is for. The reason Corbyn sought to change the rules, is because he’d be demolished under the “old politics”. He’s going to get demolished anyway, but he’s just spiked his own guns too. As for a “national embarrassment”: nonsense. The commons bear pit is held up as an example of proper scrutiny not of legislation, but the man too. Our top politicians are held to account by the legislature in a way few outside the westminster system are, and many envy us that.


(Not PMQs, Not “England” either, but the point remains. The Bear Pit has its uses).


Let’s get the identity thing out the way: I’m British. My Mother is Scottish, with Ginger hair and Gaelic-speaking parents, a fear of sunshine and everything. My Father is mostly English, with a Welsh grandparent and an Irish surname. So as far as I can work it out, I’m half Scots, 3/8 English 1/8 Welsh and there’s some Irish in there too somewhere, but I’m buggered if I can find it. As a result I have brown hair, but some ginger in the beard, and I too get sunburn at a fireworks display, and cannot stand direct sunlight. That’s the genetics. Then there’s the Identity. I was Born in Northampton, Schooled in Leicestershire, and went to University in Edinburgh for whom I played Shinty. I have ALWAYS regarded myself as British, Scottish (whom I support at football), English (whom I support at Rugby) and a citizen of the world.

My Late Grandfather was a fearsome Scottish Nationalist, despite having spent almost all his working life outside Scotland, serving Britain – in the Merchant marine, and the Diplomatic Wireless Service. I’ve enjoyed arguing ‘no’ all my life with him, and if Scots vote ‘yes’ I will take a crumb of comfort from the fact it’d make the old rogue happy. I learned to love the rough and tumble of political debate over my Grandparents’ table in Inverness. The Scots are a warm, friendly, resolute and resourceful nation of people, who have achieved, like my Grandfather, great things all over the world, but the political culture is utterly vile. It was in Edinburgh I discovered the swamp of bitterness and hatred that is Scottish politics. I’ve never seen anything quite as unpleasant, and I’ve some experience of Northern Ireland. The principle emotions expressed are resentment, and a particularly toxic brand of zero-sum socialism: what’s bad for the English must be good for me and Vice-versa. And this has been encouraged by the Scottish political establishment which is hard-left Labour, and often Harder left SNP, who have found the English, Tory boogeyman a handy catch-all on whom to blame all failures.

And some of Scotland is an abject failure. East Glasgow contains some of the poorest people in Europe, with some of the lowest life-expectancy in the developed world. This in a vibrant, powerful, wealthy city with arts and culture galore, represents a shocking failure of Glasgow’s labour Political establishment. These people, living in schemes where the men are unlikely to live much beyond their 50th birthday, have been told that it’s all “Thatcher” who closed the shipyards and steelworks, and the “Tories” who don’t care, shifting the blame from a Scottish Parliament and Labour Government in Westminster who’ve had over a decade to do something about it. But it’s easier to make people hate ‘the other’, than it is to rebuild such failed communities.

And the poor bits of Glasgow are the bits most strongly in favour of Scottish independence. Unsurprising, really, they do have the least to lose. Labour is reaping what it sowed.

So we come to the referendum. They’ve given votes to children, hoping they can be enthused by the Braveheart myth; not put what is BY FAR the most popular option – Devolution Max – on the ballot paper, allowed the Secessionists the ‘yes’ answer – the question could have been, “should Scotland stay in the United Kingdom?”; and there is no supermajority needed to destroy the UK, all at the behest of Alex Salmond. If he cannot, under these circumstances persuade people to leap into the Abyss, then the issue should be settled for at least a generation. The SNP got more or less everything it asked for in the negotiations over the referendum. To bleat about BBC bias, and “Westminster stooges” under these circumstances is rather pathetic.

Abyss? Scotland has the potential to be an extraordinarily vibrant place. The land of Smith an Hume, the Edinburgh enlightenment, whose ideas underpinned the USA, industrial engineers, soldiers and statesmen who built then dismantled the greatest Empire the world has ever seen. Many small countries do well. Scotland the second richest bit of the UK after London & the South east, and Aberdeen its second or third richest city after London and Bath, so it’s not clear to me the Status Quo is broken. The Scots population is sparse and so they get more state spending per head and also contribute more tax per head. English Nationalists (whom I despise too) focus on the former, Scottish Nationalists, the latter. The simple fact is any independent Scotland will be running a big primary deficit, but will lack the ability to finance it. Salmond’s plan to not take a share of the debt will make this deficit utterly unsustainable, as no-one will lend. Austerity? You ain’t seen nothing yet.

So I come back to the toxic political culture, and fear that it would rapidly become Venezuela, if the likes of Jim Sillars gets his way. The blood letting that would accompany a recession costing 4% of GDP, which is what happened to Czechoslovakia on its split, whose economies were much less integrated, would be terrible. Scotland’s independence teething troubles could be worse than Czech Republic and Slovakia’s velvet split – 70% of Scots GDP is “exports” to the rest of the UK. The deeply ingrained habit of Scottish politicians is to blame “Westminster” or “the Tories” mean Scotland would be ripe for the kind of “stab in the back, betrayal” narrative that encourages even more extreme nationalism, should it all go wrong. The yes campaign have encouraged their supporters to project all their hopes onto independence, and deserve credit that theirs is a civic, rather than ‘blood and soil’ nationalism, but there will be a lot of disappointment that it’s a lot, lot harder than they thought it was. The nationalist genie is out of the bottle, and it’s going to be hard to put it back, which ever way the vote goes.

Several companies, and plenty of people have said they’d leave Scotland if she votes ‘Yes’. Scotland will find it harder to attract companies without being part of the UK. No companies and few people have said they’d move to Scotland in the event of a yes vote. Not even Vivienne Westwood.

Of course a ‘Yes’ vote could see a resurgence of the Centre right in Scotland. Ooh Look.

But the forlorn hope that Scottish politics becomes sane on independence, is to deny the greatness of what Scotland and the rest of the UK have achieved TOGETHER: one of the richest, freest, most powerful and influential countries on earth. A leader in world trade, and leading member of many international clubs. And we’re forgetting what the rest of the UK provides Scotland. Scotland would have suffered horribly had it been independent in 2008, probably worse than Ireland as Scotland was even more over-banked than was Ireland in 2007. Bigger economies can sustain deficits and have internationally-traded currencies have virtually unlimited chequebooks in a crisis. Sterling is an internationally-traded currency. Small countries don’t have this advantage. And the UK is not a small country by any measure. We (together) have the 6th (or so…) largest economy on earth, the world’s third most powerful military with global reach, aircraft carriers (and planes too in three years’ time…) and nuclear weapons. That is a lot of insurance against unknown future threats. Small countries aren’t richer or poorer than large ones, but they are more volatile and less able to defend themselves against the likes of Putin or assert influence in the great councils of the world. Scots benefit from the UK’s heft.

Do you really think anyone in Brussels will care what Scotland, a nation of 5 million people, thinks? Denmark and Ireland have little influence, and the Experience of Ireland shows just how far from decision making the needs of peripheral economies are to the EU project. Scotland’s economy will not be aligned to the core, as Denmark’s is. It will be aligned to the UK, as Ireland’s is. And Scotland’s concerns will not matter. The EU power-brokers DO, on the other hand care what the UK thinks, even if the UK is a “surly lodger”, to purloin Salmond’s phrase, who has eschewed the Euro, it is a major one at least equal to France.

Scots though they desire to have no influence in the EU, have been told they have no influence in the UK. That’s palpable, hairy bollocks, swinging under a kilt. Blair and Brown owe all but their 1997 majority to Scottish MPs. The last PM was a Scot. And the current one has Scottish Family. And Blair was educated in Scotland too. It’s about “running your own affairs” you say? But you want to participate fully (uncritically, with little influence) in the EU. Is that not hypocrisy? And in any case, you have significant, and soon to be total, devolution of health, education, some taxation and social policy. Scots are over-represented in Westminster. Scots ALREADY run their own affairs. And I hear a lot of Scottish burrs at the top of politics, business, media out of all proportion to the population. It was a Scottish king who took the English crown and Scots have been running Britain rather well ever since.

Who, elsewhere in the world favours Scottish independence? Kim Jong Un, and Vladimir Putin. That’s about it. For the Union, we have Barak Obama, the EU, NATO, the OECD…. (has anyone asked the Pope or the Dalai Lama?) The practical part of me thinks independence and a ‘yes’ vote would throw out all the benefits of being part of the UK, at enormous long-term cost, and for few additional benefits. The last thing the world needs is another Border, or indeed a smaller, weaker United Kingdom.

But that’s not what this referendum is about. It’s about the emotional appeal to the Scottish soul. Are you Scottish? Are you British? How much of each? There are an enormous number of us in the UK who are British and English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish (not to mention Australian, Indian, Pakistani, Jamaican, Nigerian…) too. “British” is an inclusive identity, and as a result Britain greater by far than the sum of its parts. And for many of us, a ‘Yes’ vote would feel like having a limb sliced off. Think about your family and friends down south. Think about your future in a deeply uncertain world. Think about the collective strength of the nations of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Think about how desperately sad many people who love Scotland both in Scotland and elsewhere, would feel if you vote for independence. Vote with your head, AND your heart, to stay Scottish within a great and powerful United Kingdom.

Vote No.

Britain in the EU after Juncker

Obviously David Cameron’s defeat over the Commission presidency is a disaster for him, right? Daniel Hannan wrote

The game is up. No one will now believe that the United Kingdom can deliver a substantively different deal in Europe. The FCO’s ploy of doing a Harold Wilson – that is, making some piffling changes and presenting them as a significant new deal – has been discredited almost before it began. If David Cameron couldn’t prevent the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission, no one will believe that he can deliver a more flexible EU, with more freedom of action for its member nations

And he may have a point. But the problem is, I’ve seen no-one who isn’t already a Eurosceptic make the same point. Hannan thinks we should leave the EU. Nothing’s changed, and he’s found it easy to hammer recent events into his narrative. Obviously UKIPpers are cock-a-hoop. They’ve always said Cameron was “weak” and re-negotiation is a pipe-dream (comments saying this will be deleted as utterly uninteresting…). Fine. Certainly the election of the Luxembourgeois arch-federalist doesn’t directly contradict this narrative.

But I suspect reality may be more complicated.

The EU was never going to give Cameron much when there is a realistic prospect of a Miliband administration in 2015, to whom nothing would need to be given and from whom much could be taken.

But assuming Cameron is still Prime Minister in June next year, having thrown him under the bus, Merkel would be forced to give way on other matters in any re-negotiation she’s already admitted as such. Juncker’s red-lines are likewise reasonable. He says free movement of people isn’t up for negotiation, and nor will Britain have any veto over further integration in the Eurozone, but otherwise he’ll listen and is open to negotiation.

The “Spitzenkandidaten” system by which the commission presidency goes to the pre-chosen head of the largest “party” in the European parliament is a power-grab by the parliament against the heads of Government. Supposedly a response to the charge that the EU is undemocratic, but actually allows the Bureaucracy power over the process, it’s a form of cargo-cult democracy, aping its forms, but without any of the substance of democracy. This is why Merkel initially sided with Cameron in opposing Juncker. She too, along with most of the executive heads of Government in the EU oppose the Spitzenkandidaten system. She was effectively forced to back down by her own domestic party. If anyone’s “weak” it’s Merkel. Cameron stuck to his guns, not, I suspect because there’s anything wrong with Mr Juncker; no other candidate is any less federalist, but because failure to do so would mean the implosion of the Tory party.

If the EU bureaucracy sought to wound Cameron by publicly humiliating him, it is they who miscalculated.

As it transpires, near Isolation in EU summits is a very comfortable place for a Tory PM to be. He returned, defeated 26-2 in a vote, to cheers of support from the entire Tory party, including the awkward squad like Peter Bone. Far from having his tail between his legs, Cameron, by raising the prospect of the UK leaving the EU, seems to have taken the wind out of UKIP’s sails. It’s certainly not obvious the “defeat” has hurt the PM in the polls and may have even given him a boost. A UK PM sticking two fingers up to the Eurocrats is rarely unpopular.

Whatever Cameron gets by way of re-negotiation will be painted by Daniel Hannan as “insufficient”, making Britain’s exit inevitable. I think he, and UKIPpers can be ignored on the subject. Again, don’t bother commenting about what you think will happen in negotiation, if you think there’s no chance of success, I’m not interested.

For my part, the EU needs to be reasonable. It needs to acknowledge the UK’s history of independence and act accordingly. Unless there is a significant return of powers including some movement on the primacy of EU law, and the EU negotiating with respect with our elected head of Government, I will vote “out”. Cameron has relied on the conditional – “if there is significant movement, then I will say ‘in'” and this was taken as a clear and outrageous threat by the Eurocrats.

The UK is going to leave, unless the EU gives way, a lot, which it still might.

The Euro Referendum – Myths and Monsters.

Dan Hannan blogging for The Telegraph, trotted out the comforting Tory euro-myth…

If the Tories refuse to give such a commitment [To hold a referendum], they will lose the general election… If they get this issue right, they will win…

It’s bollocks of course, as I argued a while ago. The electorate do not vote on the European issue in General elections. It is almost never (about 2%) given as a top 3 or 5 priority in polling. You may argue that “Europe” dominates the issues, ‘the economy’ and ‘immigration’ which always come on top, but the electorate simply don’t see it this way. When asked, they express a broad hostility to the EU project, a desire for a referendum (the electorate is anywhere and always in favour of referenda), but no real enthusiasm for pulling out.

The EuroNutters simply can’t grasp this. Yes, depending on how you ask the question, a plurality or even Majority of UK voters say they would like to leave the EU but THEY DON’T HOLD THIS POSITION VERY STRONGLY.

The other point I’ve been arguing for a while, so I am not matching my rhetoric to Tory policy as will be alleged. Indeed, Cameron has moved towards my position. NOW IS NOT THE TIME FOR A REFERENDUM. Simply put we don’t know what we’re leaving, and we might get what we want, a federal Eurozone core, and a looser periphery, led by the largest of the ‘outs’ The UK. Now in making this claim, I will be accused of being a closet Europhile and therefore a traitor, by people who think leaving the EU should be the Government’s main priority. These people are idiots who imagine leaving is without cost (especially opportunity costs) and risk. It’s all very well standing on the White cliffs of dover, imaginary Supermarine Spitfires roaring overhead, saying “Very Well, Alone!”

But we’re not fighting a monstrous tyranny like Hitler’s or Stalin’s. We’re disagreeing how to organise some of the wealthiest societies on the planet. I don’t like the EU bureaucracy, but much of what makes the UK a shithole is our own, domestic political idiocies, however comforting it may be to blame our lost competitiveness, or the idleness of the British chav, on the machinations of the Brussels regulatory industry.
Unpopular on the Euorphile Lib-Dem Benches as it will be on the more frothing end of the Eurosceptic right, a renegotiation of our relationship THEN a referendum on the result, some time after the next election (hopefully when the economy is on the mend) is better than an in/out referendum now. However because this isn’t a promise to hold a referendum to withdraw next Thursday, and dismantle the entire EU political machine in the UK by Thursday week, the Blazered golf-club bores of UKIP will not be satisfied. This policy will satisfy almost no-one who cares about the issue. 

It’s a good job almost no-one cares. Cameron is right. Renegotiate, and secure a commitment to hold a referendum on the result, when the time is right. It’s problematic for a blogger, agreeing with an unpopular government who’s moving along the right lines, despite the backbench headbangers and the press who are pressuring a Government into doing something stupid.

For those who think the Government’s ‘lost its way’, this is another ‘Big Issue’ they’ve got right, assuming they can get this past the Liberal Democrats. On the cuts, taxes, benefits, schools and hospitals the Government’s policies are an anathema to powerful vested interests, but not radical enough to appease the new intake of Tory MPs. The presentation, and attention to detail are lacking, but the big picture is looking good. It’s just a shame no-one agrees.