Why I'm voting with Tory MPs for a cut in the EU budget

To be pro-European is not to endorse each and every proposal of the Brussels apparat.

There are rare moments in the Commons when principle and politics come together. One of these will happen tomorrow evening (Wednesday) when eurosceptic Conservative MPs join with Labour in voting in favour of a real-terms cut in the EU budget. An alliance, at first sight against nature, is taking shape between pro-EU Labour MPs and anti-EU Conservative ones. Tory MP Douglas Carswell, who says that Britain’s membership of the EU is like "being shackled to a corpse", will vote in the same lobby as me, a passionate, unashamed believer that European integration has been good for my country.

The first task of any parliament, anywhere in the world, is to vote money. To vote against a budget proposed by a Conservative government is not as unpatriotic action by Labour, anymore than George Osborne was inspired by anti-British beliefs when he savaged Gordon Brown’s budgets.

All Labour MPs will do on Wednesday is fall in behind Labour MEPs, who also voted against the seven-year EU budget last week in the European Parliament. The reason is simple. The budget or or Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) as it is known in eurospeak is a product of the poorest, most unimaginative EU governance seen since the Treaty of Rome in 1957. It is a budget which continues in the more-of-the-same tramlines that have led Europe, under the controlling conservative majority in the Commission and Parliament, incarnated by the two centre-right politicians, José Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy, to its present stagnant state. There is nothing in the MFF for growth, for jobs, for the green economy or any measures to restore the confidence of European citizens that the EU is a project which has social justice and a reduction of greed and growing inequalities at its heart.

It is the re-entry of politics into the European debate that is long overdue. To be pro-European is not to endorse each and every proposal of the Brussels apparat. Some months ago, I coined the term "Brexit" – to describe the growing British politics of pushing open the exit door to the EU. Endorsing a bad Brussels budget will accelerate Brexit, as a governing party that is divided against itself between soft and hard Eurosceptics will not long stand.

There are two kinds of political discussion on the EU. The first is whether we should be in the EU at all. The second is what kind of EU we want. It is unclear how many Tories now think, like Ukip, that Britain would be better off out. Against such Brexitites are those, mainly Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs, who want the UK to stay in and be a player in seeking a better, more focused Europe.

Continuing the same old budget spend on protectionist agro-industry subsidies will suit the big landowners like the Queen and the Cooperative Movement, which are the principal beneficiaries of the Common Agricultural Policy in Britain. Subsidising EU cows when millions of human are out of work makes no sense. In the 1990s, income in south Yorkshire had fallen so low that the region, where I am an MP, became eligible for EU help and £700m arrived from EU taxpayers to help.

As prime minister, Margaret Thatcher increased the UK contribution to the-then European Community budget from £654m in 1984 to £2.4bn in 1990, thus providing Jacques Delors with the money to shape the single market. We should be spending more in Poland, Bulgaria and Romania, so that those nations can grow and keep more of their citizens working at home, rather than being economic migrants elsewhere in Europe.

But the MFF does none of these things. Conservative MPs who want out of Europe will vote against the MFF on Wednesday. Labour MPs who want to stay in a Europe which changes its priorities will do likewise. Meanwhile, David Cameron and William Hague, who have spent the last fifteen years telling voters Europe was a bad thing, are now approaching a moment of truth. Are they for Brexit or are they for Europe, but a Europe that rejects austerity and social dumping,  increases common rules on justice, and speaks with one voice globally? So far, the government has tried to be half-in, but not fully supportive of the EU. Time is running out. The vote on Wednesday will lift still further the curtain on the biggest choice facing Britain in generations.

Denis MacShane is Labour MP for Rotherham and a former Europe minister

European Council President Herman Van Rompuy (L) and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso. Photograph: Getty Images.
Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Getty
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The Tory-DUP deal has left Scotland and Wales seething

It is quite something to threaten the Northern Irish peace process and set the various nations of the UK at loggerheads with merely one act.

Politics in the UK is rarely quite this crude, or this blatant. The deal agreed between the Conservatives and Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party has – finally – been delivered. But both the deal and much of the opposition to it come with barely even the pretence of principled behaviour.

The Conservatives are looking to shore up their parliamentary and broader political position after a nightmare month. The DUP deal gives the Tories some parliamentary security, and some political breathing space. It is not yet clear what they as a party will do with this – whether, for instance, there will be an attempt to seek new leadership for the party now that the immediate parliamentary position has been secured.

But while some stability has been achieved, the deal does not provide the Tories with much additional strength. Indeed, the DUP deal emphasises their weakness. To finalise the agreement the government has had to throw money at Northern Ireland and align with a deeply socially conservative political force. At a stroke, the last of what remained of the entire Cameron project – the Conservative’s rebuilt reputation as the better party for the economy and fiscal stability, and their development as a much more socially inclusive and liberal party – has been thrown overboard.

Read more: Theresa May's magic money tree is growing in Northern Ireland

For the DUP, the reasoning behind the deal is as obvious as it is for the Conservatives. The DUP has maximised the leverage that the parliamentary arithmetic gives it. As a socially conservative and unionist party, it has absolutely no wish to see Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street. But it has kept the Conservatives waiting, and used the current position to get as good a deal as possible. Why should we expect it to do anything else? Still, it is hardly seemly for votes to be bought quite so blatantly.

The politics behind much of the criticism of the deal has been equally obvious. Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones – representing not only the Labour party, but also a nation whose relative needs are at least as great as those of the six counties – abandoned his normally restrained tone to describe the deal as a "bung" for Northern Ireland. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was also sharply critical of the deal’s lack of concern for financial fairness across the UK. In doing so, she rather blithely ignored the fact that the Barnett Formula, out of which Scotland has long done rather well, never had much to do with fairness anyway. But we could hardly expect the Scottish National Party First Minister to do anything but criticise both the Conservatives and the current functioning of the UK.

Beyond the depressingly predictable short-term politics, the long-term consequences of the Tory-DUP deal are much less foreseeable. It is quite something to threaten the integrity of the Northern Irish peace process and set the various nations of the UK at loggerheads with merely one act. Perhaps everything will work out OK. But it is concerning that, for the current government, short-term political survival appears all-important, even at potential cost to the long-term stability and integrity of the state.

But one thing is clear. The political unity of the UK is breaking down. British party politics is in retreat, possibly even existential decay. This not to say that political parties as a whole are in decline. But the political ties that bind across the UK are.

The DUP deal comes after the second general election in a row where four different parties have come first in the four nations of the UK, something which had never happened before 2015. But perhaps even more significantly, the 2017 election was one where the campaigns across the four nations were perhaps less connected than ever before.

Of course, Northern Ireland’s party and electoral politics have long been largely separate from those on the mainland. But Ulster Unionist MPs long took the Tory whip at Westminster. Even after that practice ceased in the 1970s, some vestigial links between the parties remained, while there were also loose ties between the Social Democratic and Labour Party and Labour. But in 2017, both these Northern Irish parties had their last Commons representation eliminated.

In Scotland, 2017 saw the SNP lose some ground; the main unionist parties are, it seems, back in the game. But even to stage their partial comeback, the unionist parties had to fight – albeit with some success – on the SNP’s turf, focusing the general election campaign in Scotland heavily around the issue of a potential second independence referendum.

Even in Wales, Labour’s 26th successive general election victory was achieved in a very different way to the previous 25. The party campaigned almost exclusively as Welsh Labour. The main face and voice of the campaign was Carwyn Jones, with Jeremy Corbyn almost invisible in official campaign materials. Immediately post-election, Conservatives responded to their failure by calling for the creation of a clear Welsh Conservative leader.

Read more: Did Carwyn Jones win Wales for Labour  - or Jeremy Corbyn?

Yet these four increasingly separate political arenas still exist within one state. The UK was always an odd entity: what James Mitchell astutely termed a "state of unions", with the minority nations grafted on in distinct and even contradictory ways to the English core. The politics of the four nations are drifting apart, yet circumstances will still sometimes mean that they have to intersect. In the current instance, the parliamentary arithmetic means the Tories having to work with a party that celebrates a form of "Britishness" viewed increasingly with baffled incomprehension, if not outright revulsion, by the majority of Conservatives, even, on the British mainland. In turn, the Tories and other parties, as well as the news-media, are having to deal with sudden relevance of a party whose concerns and traditions they understand very little of.

Expect more of this incomprehension, not less, in the post-2017 general election world. 

Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science in the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University.

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