The Tories and the BBC

Ludicrous accusations of "liberal" bias continue

Does Jeremy Hunt watch BBC1? The shadow culture secretary believes the corporation should recruit more Tories to its news division in order to counter an "innate liberal bias". He says:

I wish they would go and actively look for some Conservatives to be part of their news-gathering team, because they have acknowledged that one of their problems is that people who want to work at the BBC tend to be from the centre left. That's why they have this issue with what Andrew Marr called an innate liberal bias.

Should a man who expects to be the minister in charge of the BBC in mere months be meddling in its recruitment policies? And should the BBC, especially the news (!) division, be hiring producers, reporters and presenters on the basis of their political views or membership of particular political parties? Will the application form for a job at the Beeb's political unit in Millbank now carry the question: "Are you, or have you ever been, a member of what John Stuart Mill once called 'the stupid party'?"

My views on the BBC, and its right-wing (not left-wing or liberal) bias are clear and can be read here and here. I don't mind if you disagree with me -- as, for example, Peter Hitchens has -- but at least those who don't agree with me should acknowledge that I have provided some evidence for my argument. For example, if BBC News hates the Tories so much, why is that former chair of the Young Conservatives, Nick Robinson, its political editor? As the Mirror's Kevin Maguire observes in his New Statesman column this week:

Brown's never forgotten -- or forgiven -- Robbo for chairing the Young Conservatives in the Thatcherite 1980s. Yet it's the appointment of affable James Landale as Robbo's deputy that's turned up the volume. Landale was a contemporary at Eton of David Cameron and Boris Johnson. The charge in No 10 is that a Biased Broadcasting Corporation is preparing for the Conservatives eight months before an election.

So, does Hunt actually watch any BBC output? The Tories have a habit of using contemporary cultural examples without doing their homework -- the shadow home secretary, Chris Grayling, recently suggested that parts of Britain resemble scenes from The Wire -- but then admitted that he had hardly watched the HBO series himself. Did his shadow cabinet colleague Hunt, for example, watch BBC1's Question Time last night, I wonder?

I am a big fan of QT and I agree with its editor, Ed Havard, that it is a unique and vibrant institution. But if Hunt had tuned in last night, as I did, he would have noted that its five-member panel consisted of the former CBI boss (admittedly a one-time "Labour" trade minister), Digby Jones; the new editor of the Spectator, Fraser Nelson; the Tory grandee Michael Heseltine; the Lib Dem education spokesman and outrider for the party's Orange Book free-marketeers, David Laws MP; and the Leader of the Commons, Harriet Harman MP. That makes four right-wingers versus one lefty (Harman). Now, before we get into an interminable row about how one defines left and right, blah, blah, blah, let's do it by issue. On the QT panel last night, we had four people (Jones, Nelson, Heseltine and Laws) ideologically committed to the neoliberal, free-market consensus that failed so spectacularly last September and one person (Harman) who isn't. We had three people (Harman, Jones, Nelson) who supported the invasion of Iraq and only two (Heseltine and Laws) who didn't. We had all five panellists in support of Britain's military presence in Afghanistan -- even though a majority of the British public is opposed to the war.

So where were the lefties? Where were the critics of neoliberal, deregulated, free-market capitalism? Where were the opponents of the invasion of Iraq or the war in Afghanistan? Where were the defenders of the government, Harman aside? Why were three of the five panellists potential Tory voters (Nelson, Jones, Heseltine)?

As I noted in my piece on BBC bias in the magazine back in August, "the accusation that the BBC is left-wing and liberal is a calculated and cynical move by the right to cow the corporation into submission". Hunt's comments are simply the latest, fact-free manifestation of this calculated strategy.

 

 

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.