Members of the European Union parliament vote in Strasbourg, December 2013. Photo: Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty.
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The EU has provided us with the best Europe we’ve ever had

Far from giving a voice to the people, the point of an EU referendum is to give a voice to a section of the Conservative Party.

We hear about the tactics of a referendum on membership of the European Union but little about the points of principle and substance that it raises. We need to look at these, too, otherwise we could sleepwalk into something stupid.

Why does David Cameron want a referendum on Europe?

That is simple. It is for the same reason as Harold Wilson proposed one in 1975: to deal with his divided party by appealing to higher authority. There is no popular demand for a referendum, but if you ask people in opinion polls whether they want to have a vote on EU membership, you can get a positive answer; if you backed a poll with a media campaign, you could probably get the same answer on many questions.

We have not seen large demonstrations demanding a referendum. Indeed, most voters do not care much about the EU: it comes somewhere between tenth and 15th in the issues voters list as important. Even for Ukip voters, the EU is not the most important question.

The big demand for a referendum comes from those in the Conservative Party who want to leave the EU but can’t see a way to get a majority in parliament for it. Cameron himself probably doesn’t want to take Britain out of Europe; hence his policy of trying to put this off until after the next election, in the hope that something may turn up.

Cameron’s position, though not noble, is understandable – it reflects weakness. It is less easy to understand why some in the Labour Party want to imitate it. Is it because they are afraid of the proposition that “the British people should have the right to choose”? This leads to a second question.

Are referendums a good way to make decisions?

This is also easy to answer: no. It is shameful that few political leaders are ready to say so. Democracy is not just about voting. It is also about debate and about responsibility.

Debate is necessary to understand complex issues. We invented representative democracy because debate is time-consuming and it is not practical in a modern state to assemble the whole population in market squares to debate issues. (In Athens the people were able to do this because citizens were few and they had helots and women to do the work.) Under the system of government “by the people”, the people choose the government and then hold it accountable when they don’t like what it does. If referendums are “more democratic” than decisions by parliament, why not make decisions about taxation or electricity prices by referendum, as has been tried in California (and then the lights went out)? When bad decisions are made in this way, who takes responsibility?

For years, both parties resisted calls for  a referendum on capital punishment because they feared there would be a majority in favour of it. Over time and through long debates, parliament became convinced by the evidence that capital punishment had no deterrent value and that innocent people had been hanged. Yet they feared that, in a referendum, the debate would be shallow and voters would follow prejudice rather than the evidence.

The referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) showed how difficult it can be to generate a serious debate on matters that are important but complicated where mastery of the detail demands time.

Yes, but shouldn’t we decide constitutional questions by referendum?

We seem to be drifting towards this idea. Recently on the Today programme in a discussion about some question of British institutions (it may have been the size of the House of Lords), one of the presenters said: “But isn’t this the sort of thing we’d have to have a referendum on?” We don’t have to have a referendum on anything unless parliament decides to call one.

If we did decide that constitutional change required a referendum, we would have to start by defining what was and  what was not a constitutional question. Many laws – on race relations, capital punishment, the franchise and electoral systems, abortion – might or might not be part of a constitution.

Our present system of making no distinction between constitutional and other law gives us a flexible system. Usually constitutions are written as though they were going to last for ever; they never do. Some of the most important parts of the US constitution are in the amendments to it; yet now it seems impossible to secure further amendment. So the Supreme Court ends up doing a job that belongs in the political and not in the legal arena.

The sovereignty of parliament is a good principle because it allows maximum space for political decision-making and maximum opportunity for debate on issues  that are always complex. It is alarming  that no one, including those in the party  of Edmund Burke, seems ready to defend this principle.

In 1975 they did better. A powerful speech was made opposing the Wilson referendum by the new leader of the opposition, Margaret Thatcher. Since then parliament seems to have lost confidence in itself. So, we might ask:

What has gone wrong with parliament?

This is less easy to answer. There is a growing feeling of separation between the mass of the people and the so-called political class. The Conservative Party’s very obsession with the EU illustrates this. Far from giving a voice to the people, the point of a referendum is to give a voice to a section of the Conservative Party.

One reason why people feel less represented by the House of Commons is that the two big parties are less representative of the people than they used to be. In the 1950s the Conservative Party had three million members and the Labour Party one million, together with an organic link to a broadly based trade union movement. Both parties were social as well as political organisations. They reflected a society more sharply divided and less diverse than today’s; but between them they were representative of the population in a way that their successors today are not.

Having parties that are dominant (because of the electoral system) but weak (because they are disconnected from society) together with a chamber strong on party discipline and adversarial politics is not an attractive combination. It is only on the rare occasions when this breaks down – as recently over Syria – that we get a little of the thrill of democracy in action.

And so what is to be done?

We ought to understand democracy as an evolutionary process. We are lucky to have a constitution that makes change easy. Constitutions need to keep in step with an evolving society.

In the 65 years between 1880 and 1945 we went through several constitutional revolutions. In the 65-plus years since 1945, however, not much has changed, at least not compared to the vast and sweeping changes in British society.

An open debate is needed. My own answers would be to effect a change in the electoral system to make politics more competitive, and to make parties more open to influence from the voters. Add a House of Lords chosen by lottery, as juries are. This would require some thought and reorganisation. But it would give us two houses, each representing the people in a different sense of the term “represent”.

Churchill’s remark that the best argument against democracy is a three-minute conversation with the average voter is apposite as an argument against referendums: three minutes of conversation or consideration is no way to make sense of anything. But a representative sample of the electorate, free from party whips and debating issues that matter to ordinary people, would breathe new life into parliament.

While we are at it we should do something about the funding of political parties. The present non-system brings unhealthy relations with the few, and the distrust of the many. How about a system in which all taxpayers could allocate a tiny part of their taxes, either to the government budget of their choice – health, education, development, defence – or to a political party? Plus strict limits on donations.

The chances of such a radical programme are not great. Those in power often think that the arrangements which got them there must, ipso facto, be a good thing. Yet the renewal of states very often begins with renewal of institutions.

Such changes would be experiments. Put them in place for ten years, with a sunset clause; then debate them again. In the end, democracy is one long experiment.

But this is straying from the main subject.

Wouldn’t a referendum settle the question of the EU once and for all?

No. If that were the case, it would have been settled by the 1975 referendum – when two-thirds of the British voters elected to remain in the EU.

Those who want to leave now argue that we were tricked, or that Britain has changed since then, or that the EU has changed. These arguments will be available again whenever anyone wants to use them.

Is that all? No. We should also fear  the referendum because it might end in Britain leaving the European Union.

Probably some of those who tell opinion pollsters that they would vote to leave would think again if the question became real. But the conditions are different from those of 1975. The leading figures opposing membership then were from the fringes (Peter Shore, Enoch Powell, Tony Benn) and the media were almost unanimously in favour. Now we have had ten years of the drumbeat of media opposition.

Referendums are unpredictable – never a good way to govern a country – and we might end up out. That would be stupid.

Why?

In broad terms there are three ways of looking at the EU. On a practical level, the main product of the EU is regulation. There is good regulation and bad regulation; but there is no escape. No one is going to buy British products that do not meet inter­national standards. Those standards are set mostly by the EU or the US. If the UK wants to be at the table when the standards are  set it has to belong to the EU; otherwise it will have to follow regulations that someone else has made.

From the point of view of realpolitik, which is the usual British way of thinking about foreign policy, a permanent coalition of European states to which we did not belong is the nightmare of British policymakers through all the ages, as I think Douglas Hurd once said. Happily, today this would not be a coalition that would threaten British security, but it might be tempted from time to time to take economic advantage of the UK’s absence to organise things in ways that suited their interests and not ours. In fact, it would be a surprise if it didn’t. Ask Norway; or look at how the EU developed in Britain’s absence from 1956 to 1973.

Or, if you believe (as I do) that international politics does not always have to be about the balance of power, the EU (with its twin, Nato) is, for all its faults, a kind of political miracle: the most successful collaboration among sovereign states ever achieved. In spite of the mess of the euro, it is still admired and imitated on other continents. This is the best Europe we have ever had; and Britain, as an influential member, has been a force for good in it. Both altruism and self-interest tell us to remain.

These three perspectives – which are not contradictory – all point to one conclusion. Much in the EU needs to be fixed. With 28 sovereign states around the table, that will be a slow and clumsy process. But the euro crisis has brought a more sober mood and the advocates of unending integration in every area are a dying breed.

There could not be a better moment to work with others for a programme of reform. That would make sense. A referendum makes none. l

Robert Cooper worked for Javier Solana and Catherine Ashton at the EU until last year. He is a visiting professor at the London School of Economics and a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations

Picture: David Parkin
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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