Friday, 19 September 2014

Scotland says 'No', but the nationalists are the real winners

It is a mighty relief that Scotland has decided not to take forward the threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom. I am pleased that we have teetered back from the brink of the break-up of our three centuries’ old alliance, though it appears to have come remarkably close.

I do not doubt that, as the campaign posters and canvass returns get filed away, there are many lessons to be learnt about how the two sides pitched their respective cases. The political dynamics in Scotland appeared to shift, but the response from Westminster was deeply deficient and the issues raised now cannot be ignored or put to one side any longer. No-one in Scotland had the opportunity to defend the status quo in yesterday’s poll: and responsibility for that lies squarely with the Prime Minister who rejected the option of ‘devo-max’ on the ballot paper, only to re-instate it by party leader press release within days of the vote.

Now that the campaign is over, there are a large number of major questions to be answered. In 2010, the Conservative party promised to address the issue of Scottish MPs voting on matters affecting only English constituencies. We cannot wait any longer for a proper debate about the constitutional settlement – not least given the smack of desperation about the changing prospectus from the ‘No’ campaign in the last few weeks. Did the country not throw out Gordon Brown’s discredited administration more than four years’ ago? How on earth was he given licence to pronounce on government policy, promising new powers like candy, apparently on behalf of the government. And there wasn’t even a whisper in the House of Commons from any of the party front benches about these far-reaching and major constitutional issues.

At the very least, I want to see Parliament recalled this week so that these issues can finally be given appropriate consideration. Gordon Brown’s promised timetable seems improbably optimistic, and can only erode further the trust between Scottish voters and Westminster. But this is no longer an issue about Scotland alone: emphatically, the relationship between the various parts of our country has changed forever: very considerable thought to this is an imperative. We need to address the imbalance that has created a resentment and sense of disadvantage in many English households and businesses.

For example, it is preposterous that we might conclude this Parliament with MPs representing Scottish constituencies still having more say on the delivery of public services in Northampton than they can in their own communities. We must also re-visit the Barnett formula, which is out-dated and pays no real regard to local needs across the different parts of the country. But on the other hand, time is running out – and constitutional issues must be framed to last, and cannot be fudged.

Devolution gave the nationalists a platform in the Scottish Parliament which they have exploited to the full. Where we find ourselves now is deeply unsatisfactory, and unacceptable to many who live in England. We don’t want yet another set of politicians in England; but it is clear that a more dedicated English focus needs to be given to our affairs in future. I am sympathetic to John Redwood’s idea of using the facilities of our existing Parliament for days to be designated as available for the transaction of our business alone.

What is clear is that this mess will require very careful handling. It might well be that this morning’s champagne is flowing from ‘Better Together’ wine cellars, but we should be in no doubt that this was a victory for nationalism in our country. We need to put together a new constitutional settlement, and we have no time to waste in bringing forward that debate.


Tuesday, 16 September 2014

But what about the English

                  

We could be a matter of just a couple of days from the disintegration of our country. And, for the overwhelming majority of the people on these island, we’ve not had any opportunity to express a view or ask questions.
 
Sadly, the ‘Better Together’ campaign has felt it necessary to change its prospectus at the last minute and there is no longer an opportunity for Scottish voters to support the status quo on Thursday. This weird twist has created a threatening dynamic which is, itself, undermining the very union that the campaign is nominally set-up to support. Voters in Scotland have almost no choice this week: the limited material difference between independence and ‘Devo-Max’ is clearly apparent.
 
Yes, I take exception that constitutional policy appears to be made without very much thought. I resent that Parliament has been ignored and subordinated in this debate: not that long ago, changes in government policy were explained first to Parliament. And to top it all we are now told that the three leaders have promised to maintain a charitable situation wherein each Scottish citizen is rewarded with £1300 per year more than their English counterpart for public expenditure, and that without a by your leave from Parliament. On this and many other issues parliamentarians haven’t been able to question those making ever more elaborate announcements as party leaders and not as Ministers. Many residents of Northampton thought that they had voted Gordon Brown out of office four years ago, only to find him swanning around making promises left, right and centre apparently with the authority of a government minister.
 
Six decades ago, I joined what was then the Conservative & Unionist party, and having dedicated much of the intervening time to support and enhance the cause and it pains me to see what is happening. Candidates in Scotland still use the ‘unionist’ tag, and I – along with many of my colleagues – place considerable weight on the value of our union of nations. I believe that the union of the United Kingdom is at its best when it pulls together in the interests of all of its peoples. That is a view shared by the overwhelming majority of our island’s inhabitants contrasted by the Scottish Nationalist leadership who seem to be motivated by bitterness but who have played their cards sufficiently effectively that one of history’s most successful political unions is currently imperilled. What a sadness!
 
 
From the perspective of Northampton, Scotland is a considerable car journey away; but my fear is that the distance between my constituents and the Scottish people is growing further and further apart with ominous overtones.
 
Scotland has done relatively well from the union: and it is no surprise to me that increasingly people in Northampton are beginning to question what the union does for them. Whatever the result of Thursday’s referendum, the issues to be addressed are of monumental significance.  And the constitutional consequences are the most fundamental that I can conceive – England must not be ignored any longer.
 
 For example, it is no longer acceptable to deny the need for a proper re-alignment of our democracy. The 4.2 per cent electoral bias which favours the Labour party through smaller constituencies cannot be tolerated for a further electoral contest. We need the re-drawing of the boundaries that was promised by the Prime Minister and included in the coalition agreement.  England needs the opportunity to determine its own affairs in at least a similar way as that afforded to those others on the island of Great Britain. It might be that the Labour party and their Liberal Democrat underlings will combine to thwart the correction of an electoral wrong – but people in this country deserve to know what these parties will do to maintain a much-acknowledged deficiency in our democracy.
 
Significant reform and a new constitutional settlement, cannot be delayed further. It must be done during this Parliament. My support is for an arrangement similar to that explained by John Redwood, whereby English MPs spend some time at Westminster each week considering business that affects only those of us in England (much in the same way that the Scottish Grand Committee used to debate Scottish affairs.). Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs would not be able to participate in these proceedings, but would concentrate on their own affairs. The United Kingdom Parliament, meeting at Westminster, would consider matters of import to all parts of our country, at other times. Furthermore we need a First Minister for England and any future Prime Minister should be aware that such a position will reduce their own powers considerably.
 
I hope that we can keep our country together. But whether we face Scottish independence or ‘Devo-Max’ by the end of the week, the constitutional settlement must be re-visited as a matter of urgency. I look to the Prime Minister to deliver the leadership which otherwise might have averted us ending up where we are. England cannot be ignored any longer.
 
 

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The perils of trying to make an international currency union work

One of the biggest threats to our continued emergence from what has been termed the ‘Great Recession’ is the ongoing economic malaise afflicting the Eurozone. In the last few weeks, the bad news from across the Channel appears to point to a drift back into recession. And this time, it is the single currency’s strongest economy where growth is slipping into reverse. The situation is very difficult indeed.

From a United Kingdom perspective, this could be very serious. Undoubtedly, our economic interests lie with a strong and prosperous Eurozone. And the dilemma for those who are tasked with trying to steer the single currency out of danger has major implications for our own future relationship with the European Union. The only credible options remaining are to abort the single currency project – which seems improbable – or the process of fiscal integration must accompany that made by the creation of a single monetary authority there. The most recent interest rate cuts, combined with a further stimulus package, has achieved very limited traction in seeking to inspire the confidence that keeps an economy on track.

That is the context which will underpin the negotiations on which the Government is bound to undertake following the next general election. But we mustn’t allow our attention to miss some of the broader trends in the world economy, which should also inform our own considerations.

The importance of European markets to the global economy is diminishing: in 1980, the twenty-eight members of the European Union accounted for thirty-one per cent of world trade; last year that had reduced to just nineteen per cent. The demographics of EU member states will struggle increasingly to compete with the developing and growing consumer markets beyond our continent. Membership of the European Union not only inhibits our ability to develop our own bilateral trade links with many of these countries, but necessitates involvement in a burdensome single market whose regulatory prescriptions serve as a strait-jacket on many parts of our economy not involved with EU business at all. Indeed, just fifteen per cent of our GDP is dependent upon trade with the EU, but the single market’s tentacles reach into every enterprise in the United Kingdom.

A major priority for the Prime Minister’s negotiations must be to secure room for greater regulatory flexibility within the European Union infrastructure, as well as greater scope for individual member states to develop their own trade relationships. If this is impossible for the twenty-eight members, then the differentiation between the Eurozone’s growing intensity integration and the looser relationship for the remainder of us should hold. We want to reverse the inexorable slide to ever-closer union, and this is an area of critical importance.

Many of the most enthusiastic advocates of European integration have suggested that our leaving would cost 3 million British jobs. They are just plain wrong. That we have a substantial trade deficit with other EU member states implies that any attempt to initiate such a spiteful political reaction would be more damaging to those undertaking it – after all they gain more from our trading relationship than we do – And have ever met a businessman that would forego trade with an important customer base – it is inconceivable.

We have little to fear from reaching out beyond our immediate neighbourhood in the quest for prosperity. Our interests will remain inextricably linked to those of our fellow Europeans, but that need not mean trying to ignore the changing dynamics of international economics. That is why I was pleased to attend, yesterday, the launch of ‘Economists for Britain’, whose work will inform the debate as we inch closer to those important negotiations. For me, this is not a matter of dire calamity in either respect: but the judgment about where our best interests lie will be very fine – and subject to the long-awaited referendum.

There are some very big issues to be addressed in the hands of the most senior figures in the European Central Bank and the European Commission. At stake is not just the future of the European Union infrastructure, but, more importantly, the economic outlook for all of the people in its member states. I believe that we will be best served by a very different relationship – and that must be our priority in the preparations for those critical negotiations.​ I want our Government to renegotiate a better settlement for Britain in the European Union and the only way we can judge whether they have succeeded is for the Prime Minister to outline the renegotiating objectives before the next General Election. However I equally believe we have nothing to fear from leaving the EU if they fail.