kenny hodgart

Leave a comment

A mess of Cameron’s own making

This column can also be read at SCMP.COM

On the morning of June 23, the people of Britain will wake up, look outside, and ask themselves how well-disposed they feel towards the French.

If the answer comes back that for all their faults they are charming and dependable neighbours, then Britain’s place in the European Union is safe. If, on the other hand, it’s one of those days where France brews up in the mind as wholly smug and irritating, then the whole European project may be imperilled.

Yes, that’s probably a distortion of what will happen next week. The point stands, however, that the outcome of Britain’s referendum on whether or not to leave the EU will hinge on voters’ gut instincts. With the entire debate consisting of two sets of campaigners (Remain and Leave) lobbing forth outlandish predictions of the dire future that awaits if the result goes the other way, how could things be otherwise?

Depending on who you listen to, staying in the EU will either leave Britons richer, more empowered on the world stage and happier, both at work and in their personal lives, or shoeless, hatless and overrun by foreign criminals. The chasm between these competing views can only fuel distaste for politicians. More fundamentally, though, it should warn us, if warning were needed, that referendums are no way to arrive at practical policy decisions.

There are, after all, good reasons why they are used sparingly in most democracies and hardly at all in Britain. Not the least of these is that they normalise decision-making without personal accountability. The most extreme example of direct democracy is also the nuttiest. The state of California’s ballot initiative allows voters to take much of the business of policy into their own hands. The result is that limits on tax rates permanently depress revenues, which in turn enrages those who vote on bills to spend money on services only to find the legislature has none.

The European country with the greatest appetite for referendums, meanwhile, is France. Charles de Gaulle, who incidentally wanted Britain nowhere near any supranational European body, had them introduced into the Fifth Republic’s constitution in order to override Parliament when it suited him.

There are circumstances where referendums seem entirely justified, of course. Specifically, where existential or constitutional issues pertaining to sovereignty arise, people want straightforward questions to which they can give straightforward answers. Those in favour of “Brexit” frame Britain’s relationship with Europe in such terms, and are committed to re-establishing (as they see it) the sovereignty of Britain’s own parliament – albeit by circumventing it on this occasion. For their part, Remain campaigners, headed by sitting Prime Minister David Cameron, consider Britain to be perfectly sovereign inside the EU. Tellingly, that view seems to be shared by the rest of the world.

What, then, motivated Mr Cameron to call this referendum? In the most charitable analysis, he did so because he wanted to finally give the British people their say on a political union which they had never directly endorsed: the European Economic Community, continued membership of which Britons backed in a referendum in 1975, was merely a framework for trade. Judged in a harsher light, he did it because he thought it would get him off the hook for a while with the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party, which he leads. There was, certainly, no great popular clamour for this vote before he committed to it back in 2013.

In the latter scenario, things have backfired. The modest proposals for EU reform Mr Cameron extracted from other European leaders prior to announcing a referendum date are now viewed by his opponents as evidence of a lack of sincerity all along. To be sure, a week out from polling day, victory is within sight: Leave has made gains but most credible observers predict Remain will make it over the line. And yet, even so, there’s something – dare one say it – un-British about throwing a lot of graphs and projections at people and asking them to fight your internal party battles. If they decide to stick it to the French, it’s your mess.

Leave a comment

On the causes of socialism

This article appeared in The Herald

The term “right-wing” is hardly used in Scotland other than as an insult these days. It is, therefore, hard to quantify what support there is for rightish sentiment, as poor right-wingers are forced to keep quiet about their political leanings. Left-wingers are, generally, much easier to identify. Often they are devil-may-care types, have great taste in music and great sex lives. They are also deeply moved by images of polar bears, see discrimination in a handful of dust and think competitive school sports days are a bad thing.

In polite society, right-wingers have a way of keeping the conversation on an even keel, often to the extent that their lack of concern for polar bears is all that gives them away. They also tend to be less fashionably attired than their left-wing friends, would rather not be pestered into giving money to causes and are appalled by people crying on television.

I was quite sure these distinctions were fundamentally sound, but some academics have thrown a spanner in the works: a new study has revealed that significant numbers of middle-aged people may be left-wing “by mistake”. Having dabbled with radical left-wing views as students, they still define themselves by those views now, even though the business of holding down a job and raising children has actually led them to be rather more conservative.

The implication is that many people hold centre-rightish views but fail to notice that their outlook has shifted, often because they associate only with others of like mind. Marx, who is thought to have been fairly left-wing, was rather taken with the idea of false consciousness, but I do not think this is what he meant. Later, an Italian fellow, Antonio Gramsci, said that for Marxists to win the political war, they would first have to win the cultural war and, at his suggestion, the left set about infiltrating campuses, the arts and the media, ingraining the idea that to be even remotely right-wing was proof of moral deficiency.

It would be uncharitable not to have a degree of sympathy for the faux left-wing middle classes: in renouncing themselves, they would probably have to forego their good taste in music and their great sex lives. Theirs, though, is the generation that spent all the money, thus requiring their children to be altogether more enterprising and self-reliant, if not actually, openly, right-wing.

Leave a comment

An interview with Annabel Goldie

TO listen to the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Annabel Goldie, is to understand that while Tories, either in Edinburgh or in London, are unlikely to confess as much publicly, painful lessons have been absorbed since Thatcherism left the party a spent force in Scottish politics.

David Cameron, the man who looks ever more likely to be the next Prime Minister of Great Britain, may seem to Scots – the way Thatcher did – as English as clotted cream and country houses; but where the Iron Lady effectively forced her will on Scotland Cameron, Goldie is assured, will respect the mandate of whoever sits at Holyrood and allow the Scottish Tories to dictate their own policy agenda. Devolution, the horse the Tories previously wanted shot at birth, has bolted. Cameron, though, wants devolution to work, and to work better.

In an exclusive interview ahead of the party’s Scottish conference, Goldie praised Cameron’s honesty and courage in “reconfiguring” the Tory Party, and said he had made it clear that if elected he will work with Scottish politicians in a spirit of co-operation.

Having gained leadership of the party in Scotland around about the same time as Cameron was chosen to head up Her Majesty’s Official Opposition, Goldie, who now attends Shadow Cabinet meetings at Westminster, described their relationship as one of mutual respect. “From the word go we got on with each other and that has grown to a very constructive political relationship because David Cameron is a highly intelligent man who is eminently easy to talk to,” she said. “In amongst taking the Conservative Party and making it fit for purpose in the 21st Century he has still found time for Scotland, in which he takes a very keen interest. I literally can phone him any time I want to.

“He and I have discussed at length how to get devolution to dovetail better with Westminster, whether it’s at party level, parliamentary level or government level. It’s interesting that the Labour Party, essentially the architect of devolution, has offered the most lamentable illustration of how to conduct relationships between the two parliaments.

“Holyrood and Westminster should not be in competition – they both have vital and different roles to discharge. David Cameron says ‘if I am elected Prime Minister, I will respect the role of Alex Salmond as First Minister. I may not agree with his policies, I may not agree with his politics, but he’s a democratically constituted First Minister and I must respect that and engage with him.'”

Any incoming government will have to get to grips as best it can with the parlous state of the UK’s public finances and the possibility of a very slow economic recovery, realities which are likely to mitigate against the traditional Tory policy of tax cuts and put an enormous fly in the ointment of welfare reform, a keystone in Cameron’s mission to heal “the broken society.” Save to observe that Cameron is under no illusions about the severity of these challenges, Goldie was light on the specifics of how he will set out about resuscitating either society or the economy, but she did pay tribute to the way in which he has energised and modernised his party.

“David Cameron has taken decisive and courageous decisions as leader of his party, both on party issues and policy, and that is the character of the man that will be demonstrated as Prime Minster of this country,” she said. “The Conservative party of all parties is not an easy entity to reconfigure, and yet he effectively said to it, ‘go and think about yourselves and the issues that are going to confront your children and your grandchildren, and understand that time moves on and that there are new issues emerging that are just as significant as the ones we considered were of paramount political importance 25 and 30 years ago.’ When he talked about green issues and the environment and society being broken in the context of broken families and social breakdown, I think people thought the Conservative Party saw itself as slightly remote from all that. But David Cameron has made the party face up to these things.”

According to Goldie, those who portray Cameron as being out of touch with the average Joe deliberately misconstrue him. “It’s easy for sections of the media to parody him as a toff and an Old Etonian and so that’s what they do, but at the end of the day he’s a husband and a father and I believe he is, genuinely, in touch with the lives of ordinary people,” she said. “He and George Osborne are saying there are tough decisions and they are being fair and square with the electorate on that. We are stepping into a situation in which the British economy is in hock up to its oxters and to that extent is burdening not just the current tax-paying population but the next generation and arguably a generation beyond that.

“David Cameron is very clear that there is no silver bullet to all of this – he is not going to go into the election claiming it will all be wonderful under a Conservative government. What he will say is that we face a very challenging situation that will require leadership and courage and that he is prepared to provide both.”

Part of this interview appeared in the Sunday Herald

Leave a comment

Blair. More battles lost than battles won

IN Oliver Stone’s film Nixon the eponymous, and incumbent, president, played by Sir Anthony Hopkins, looks up at a portrait of JFK in the White House and exclaims: “When they look at you, they see what they want to be. When they look at me, they see what they are.”

In the space of ten years, Tony Blair, on his ascension Britain’s youngest prime minister in almost 200 years, has been both Kennedy and Nixon. The man who, on the morning of May 2, 1997, beamed from ear to ear on our television sets and spoke of rejuvenation and radical reform, has latterly borne the mantle of one who knows and accepts there are many who love to hate him. No end in sight in Iraq, the cash-for-honours inquiry threatening to leave an indelible stain on his record, the perception is that, Nixon-like, he has given up listening to advice. What certainly seems to have changed in the last year or so, is that he no longer seems to care what they – left-wing commentators, anti-Blairites in general, much of the country – say about him.

When they look at Blair, they see Britain for what it is – centrist, pro-market, in various ways “neoliberal” – and many of them don’t like it. And some of them, naively, believe that once Blair, and Bush, are gone, and the troops have come home from Iraq, that neo-liberal interventionism will no longer have currency and that we can all forget about the threat fundamentalist Islam poses to the West because that threat will wither and die.

Well, it may seem like ancient history, but Blair was not always as hawkish as the doves assert him to be. Ten years ago no-one could have anticipated that his premiership would be defined by a war, on several fronts, against terrorism. Shortly after becoming prime minister, indeed, he declared: “Mine is the first generation able to contemplate the possibility that we may live our entire lives without going to war or sending our children to war.”

From the beginning, Blair himself wanted his great achievement to be public service reform in England – since devolution, Scotland has clung largely to the old Labour panacea of public services entirely funded, provided and controlled by the state. Mindful of having left it late and perhaps fearful that Gordon Brown might quietly sideline the reform agenda when he takes office, the past 12 months have seen the PM go hell for leather at “securing his legacy.” Having relied on Conservative support to stave off a backbench rebellion over last year’s education bill, which gave secondary schools in England greater control over admissions and budgets, he has pushed forward the building of more city academies and introduced greater competition between health providers in the NHS, with the aim of effecting a service “driven by consumers, not providers.”

The motivating force behind these reforms has been to make the welfare state more effective. Yet while the Labour party has always been concerned with social justice and using “the system” as a means of supporting those least equipped to cope with life, the Blair credo insists it must also promote and reward those able to climb the ladder of opportunity.

That essentially meritocratic stance was outlined as recently as last month, when he went on record to claim that his reputation would recover with time and perspective, adding: “I also believe that the essential Labour position, which is to get over the old divisions of left and right politics and to say you don’t have to choose between a more just society and a more economically efficient one … will hold.”

Meritocracy, of course, means the de facto abandonment of equality as a political ideal. It means a smaller role for the state and a greater role for market forces – but given time, Blair’s thinking goes, meritocratic policies may well be a better means of increasing social mobility, which is, scandalously, at an all-time low.

No-one dare speak of the “undeserving poor” but with David Cameron sniping at Gordon Brown over his management of Britain’s accounts and questions being asked about the effectiveness of Labour’s public spending, Blair’s middle-ground “modernisation” agenda – hailed by both presidential candidates in the recent French elections – is likely to have a bright future.

So, modernisation was the big idea, but Iraq will still dominate the political obituaries. Britain’s part in the invasion, hugely unpopular from the beginning, was driven almost entirely by Blair. What moved him? No shortage of commentators have imputed any number of cynical, sanguinary and imperialist reasons for his actions, but it is more likely that he simply believed, to the exclusion of all sense, in his own inherent rightness.

To fathom the origins of that moral bombast, think back to the early days of Labour in power. The party has won a landslide victory; the prime minister can do no wrong. Perhaps he begins to believe in his own legend; perhaps he starts listening too much to people like Peter Mandelsohn. Then Princess Diana dies and he utters a few lachrymose words which tap expertly into the prevailing mood of emotional incontinence. In April 1998 his diplomacy is paramount in securing the Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland and his amour propre cranks up a few points. There follows the successful military intervention in Kosovo, the rescue of Sierra Leone and even the ousting of the Taliban in Afghanistan post 9/11 and Blair must believe that the crusade to enforce democracy wherever there is intractableness to be not only right and good but his own personal moral duty.

In the case he put before the British people as justification for entering Iraq, as in his role in the peerages mess, there are question marks over his personal probity, but in the matter of deciding that the war was just, or even sensible, it is his personal judgment which should be condemned.

And yet, while the left and swathes of the liberal press take it more or less for granted that the disasters of Iraq are to blame for the continued existence of the global terrorist threat, we now know, for example, that young British Muslims who plotted to kill thousands in the UK were being indoctrinated at mujahideen training camps as early as 1994.

We also know that after 9/11 Blair toured the globe in an attempt not only to drum up support for the US, but also for a Middle East peace plan and the fight against world poverty. In those efforts he can hardly be said to have succeeded, but his greatest failure has lain in not publicly challenging the abuses at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, or using his influence with President Bush to ensure thought was given to how Iraq would be handled after the coup.

Weighed against such debunked grandiosity, the genuine achievements of the Blair government – a decade of economic growth and high employment, the minimum wage – do seem slight. Perhaps he is right to predict that his reputation will recover, but the days of people taking his word for it are long gone.