My apology to the Tories

I was just joking about only liking Ken Clarke.

On Friday night, I appeared on Radio 4's Any Questions, with former the mayor of London Ken Livingstone, Kenneth Clarke MP and Julia Goldsworthy MP. You can listen to it here.

In the middle of a rather lively exchange with Ken Clarke over the Tories' debt delusion, I remarked:

Ken is one of the best chancellors of the Exchequer we've had in many, many years. He's the only Tory I like [boo! hiss!], let's be honest. But, but, he's wrong on this [the deficit].

I'm not sure if the audience hissed and booed because they were angry that I'd said I liked Clarke or because I'd said that, among Tories, I liked only Clarke.

But on reflection, I have an apology to make to the Conservative Party. There are, in fact, lots of Tories whom I admire, appreciate and/or like -- while disagreeing with most of their policies, principles and positions. On the current front bench, as well as Ken Clarke, I have to admit a soft spot for Oliver Letwin, David Willetts, Dominic Grieve and Sayeeda Warsi.

Going back through recent history, the names Michael Heseltine, Chris Patten, Ian Gilmour, Iain MacLeod, Rab Butler and Winston Churchill spring to mind. (Disclaimer: I include Churchill because he led this nation to victory over Nazism; I nonetheless continue to abhor and despise his racist views and his use of chemical weapons against the Iraqis -- 70 years before Saddam Hussein.)

So, which Tories do you like? From a left/liberal perspective? Answers below the line, please . . .

On a side note, Ken Clarke also made a couple of factually inaccurate remarks that I wanted to challenge in this post.

1) On the subject of Lord Cashcroft, Clarke predictably tried to deflect the questions by repeatedly referring to the non-dom Labour donor Lord Paul, even though Paul is not deputy chairman of the Labour Party, is not funding Laboury's marginal seats campaign, and did not give repeated undertakings to his party leadership or the House of Lords that he would become a "permanent resident" of the UK, for tax purposes, upon becoming a peer. On Friday night, I pointed out to Clarke that Lord Paul had not given millions to Labour, as Ashcroft has to the Conservatives. Clarke responded:

No, Lord Paul has given several million [pounds].

Wrong. As the Ministry of Truth blog points out:

For one thing, it's a bit of a reach to call Lord Paul a major Labour donor when the Electoral Commission's records show that he's made only one personal donation to the party (a mere £10,000 in 2001) while his company, Caparo, has donated the princely sum of £14,250 in three donations, one in 2002 and two more in 2008.

Caparo were a little more generous with Gordon Brown during the period when he was raising funds for his campaign for the Labour leadership, but only to the tune of £45,000 in two donations, which is loose change compared to the amount that Ashcroft has funnelled into the Conservative Party since 2003.

2) On the subject of the rules about non-domiciles, I pointed out that the rules were an anachronism and should be abolished. I also highlighted how Britain ploughs a lonely furrow on this issue -- few other countries offer such a tax loophole to their squillionaire class, not even free-market, low-tax America. Clarke, a former chancellor of the Exchequer in this country, responded:

That's not true. That's not true.

Really? I asked the leading tax accountant Richard Murphy whether or not the Americans make a distinction between domicile and residency for tax purposes. His response? "Absolute bollocks." Oh, and here's the BBC website's take:

Few other countries have such a loophole. Most, like the United States, insist that if you live in the country you have to pay taxes on your worldwide earnings.

In general, over the course of the one-hour radio debate, I couldn't help but feel sorry for Clarke. His heart clearly wasn't in it. Had he been leader of the Conservative Party over the past decade -- the great "What if . . .?" question of modern British politics -- we would probably not have had Michael Ashcroft ennobled and made deputy chair of the Conservative Party. Nor for that matter would we have had the Tories' proposed inheritance-tax cut for the country's 3,000 richest estates or the Tories' strange alliance in Europe with the "ultra-nationalist right". Oh, and we might have avoided the Iraq war, too . . .

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's going on in Northern Ireland?

Power-sharing and devolved rule are under threat. What's going on? Ciara Dunne explains. 

The UUP will formalise their decision to withdraw from the Northern Ireland executive on Saturday. The DUP then announced that it may consider voting to remove Sinn Fein from the executive effectively ending or at least suspending devolution. This is due to a statement by PSNI chief constable George Hamilton stating that former IRA member Kevin McGuigan may have been murdered by people connected to the Provisional IRA (PIRA). However Hamilton also stressed that there was no evidence to prove that the murder occurred due to PIRA orders and there are claims that it was a personal vendett.

The UUP declaring that they will withdraw from Westminster is not particularly destructive. They only have one minister and their vote share has been steadily declining since they signed the Good Friday Agreement to the benefit of the DUP. By acting so dramatically, they run the risk of this seeming like the death rattle of a party trying to remain relevant in a world so different from its heyday rather than a principled stand to protect the fundamentals of the Good Friday Agreement.

Nesbitt voiced disgust that the IRA was still in existence. However the IRA is not one group and many of its splinter groups such as the Continuity IRA (CIRA) and Real IRA (RIRA) didn’t sign up to the Good Friday Agreement and have been active since it. They were not the only paramilitary groups that did not sign up, fragments of extremism have existed since the PIRA decommissioned and it seems likely that they incorporated those who had been PIRA members who were disillusioned by the agreement. Bertie Ahern, former Taoiseach and Good Friday Agreement negotiator, explained while the PIRA had to decommission as part of the agreement, for various reasons it was allowed to exist in a non-armed state. News of its existence shouldn’t come as a shock to the only major unionist party that engaged in Good Friday Agreement negotiations. If the PIRA were proved to be armed and active then this response would be understandable but that is not the case.

What this stand does however give the UUP is a unique selling point compared to their rivals the DUP and it can somewhat tackle the perception some have that the UUP betrayed the unionist community when it agreed to work with Sinn Féin in government.

The DUP has been less drastic. Although they have stated that they would consider pulling out of government, they have described it as temporary suspension of government rather than a total breakdown of trust. Jeffrey Donaldson, a DUP MP, said that if they are to continue to power share with Sinn Féin, they must ensure the PIRA issue dealt with ‘in terms that gives everyone the reassurance that this isn’t going to happen again’. This is a reasonable request and something Sinn Féin must do. They should be unwavering in their condemnation of any paramilitary organisations. However so far they haven’t done otherwise, several senior figures have denied that the PIRA have rearmed. Pearse Doherty, a prominent Sinn Féin TD, insisted that when it came to the IRA “the war is over, they’re not coming back”.

The best way to tackle paramilitaries is to tackle the reasons people joined them. This can be done not by threatening to withdraw from the government but standing together against sectarianism. Parties must ensure that there is a functioning government that works for the good of everyone and gives people a genuine stake in society. It is important that representatives of both communities condemn paramilitaries, in actions as well as words. All parties will soon have the opportunity to move away from old associations, as the old guard age and move aside and the younger members who are untainted by such associations, take charge of the party.

However, it is vital that parties take a considered stance in anything controversial for this to work. In this case, it is not yet certain whether the connections are historical or current. Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan has stated she has no reason to believe that the PIRA are active in the military sense. Bertie Ahern pointed out that it is possible that ‘these atrocities are being done [by those] who might have been on the inside but are now long since on the outside?’ Political posturing could have terrible consequences for the Good Friday Agreement, especially if results in a party with a large electoral mandate being removed from government when there is no proof it has broken the agreement.

If the UUP and the DUP are truly concerned, a more constructive reaction is to push for the reintroduction of the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC). The IMC monitored paramilitary activity from 2004 to 2011 and its final report stated that ‘transition from conflict is a long slow process’. This latest incident shows this is true and it is likely that the IMC was disbanded too soon. Reconvening the IMC would offer a way to monitor paramilitary activity and to find patterns and evidence rather than allowing a single incident to destroy progress. If reconvened however it should address the issues that resulted in Sinn Féin’s criticism of the body. A more balanced panel, one agreed by all parties, would address this, the previous one was described as three spooks and a lord, but would still add value to the peace process.

If political parties pull out of the power sharing agreement over an incident that the police have not yet connecting to a sophisticated paramilitary organisation with political connections, they are handing extremism a victory while taking democratic choice away from the people of Northern Ireland. The majority of people in Northern Ireland have been clear, both in referendum and in their actions, they want peace and stability. If the parties of Northern Ireland don’t fight to protect this then they are betraying everyone who believed in the Good Friday Agreement and reconciliation.