Jason Cowley Do you have a historical figure you admire or identify with?
George Osborne In terms of politicians, I’d say Abraham Lincoln is the person who is interesting, as he’s from the right of politics, in as much as you can translate those things to 19th-century America. But, of course, he’s a great social reformer. He also faces the most unbelievably difficult situation and handles it with great integrity. My political philosopher of choice is John Stuart Mill. I think On Liberty remains one of the great political essays of our age.
JC Anyone you particularly identify with?
GO Not personally. At the end of my Budget in July, when I announced the National Living Wage, I very deliberately put it in a tradition of a Conservative Party that had introduced the Factory Acts, that extended the franchise for women and gave them the vote, that introduced universal education – and I would add to that gay marriage. So I think I’m in the socially reforming conservative tradition.
JC A favourite Labour MP?
GO Tony Blair was pretty effective.
JC One of the things that some Labour MPs say to me is: “I’m the one the Tories most fear.” Do you fear anyone?
GO There’s no doubt that Liz Kendall’s ideas would have caused us the greatest problems . . . Some of the arguments Tristram Hunt makes, or Chuka Umunna – those ideas are clearly the ones that would most challenge the Conservative Party, because they attempt to occupy the centre of politics. [Jeremy] Corbyn wants to vacate the centre and ignore those voices.
JC Do you have someone you’d like to see leading the Labour Party?
GO The one thing I know [is that] the organisation that has the least influence over who will lead the Labour Party is the Conservative Party. And we should stay out of it. Among the MPs, the two people I have quite a lot of time for are Frank Field, because I think he’s just interesting and original and he’s open to new ideas, and David Blunkett. I came to have a huge respect for him. The more I heard about his backstory, the more interesting he was. He, too, was not afraid to sort of shape the political weather, tell people what he thought and then move things to where he wanted them to be. And that is what I tried to do. I tried to move the political centre.
JC What of your old friends the Liberal Democrats? You drew them into coalition and then systematically destroyed them.
GO In the end, the Liberal Democrats’ “all things to all people” approach caught up with them and then they were no things to no people. That potpourri of centre-right liberals, Iraq war rebels, Celtic fringe Methodists [and] local populists turned out not to be very coherent.
JC Do you miss working with Danny Alexander?
GO I have a lot of time and respect for Danny Alexander. He is a really excellent person . . . I’ve seen him since [he left the Treasury] and was speaking to him on the phone a couple of days ago.
It’s better being Chancellor in a majority Conservative government. One of the interesting things for both David [Cameron] and me is that we were not ministers in a previous majority government; so, for us, in the days after the election, once it really dawned that we were a majority government, that opened up lots of opportunities to be frankly more coherent in government.
JC Would you seek to go to the House and call for attacks on Syria?
GO You would do that if you thought it would make a really substantive impact on dealing with Isil and as part of a broader strategy. So I think when we’re ready we will go to the House. . . When it comes to foreign policy, I have learned a lot, as someone who supported the Iraq war as an MP [and] voted with Tony Blair and most Labour MPs in that vote. Obviously while the invasion was, in the narrow sense, a military success, the occupation was a disaster. I think there are real lessons about what is possible in these countries and you need to learn them. You need to go in there and understand it’s going to be messy and you can’t just create the equivalent of the House of Commons in a country with no democratic tradition. You have to work at it. But that doesn’t mean that you should therefore absent yourself.
JC Would you describe yourself as a neoconservative or a mere liberal interventionist on foreign policy?
GO I would call it more like liberal interventionism than neoconservatism [laughs], because I think there was a naivety in the neoconservative doctrine that everyone would be cheering the American and British soldiers and that suddenly you would have the equivalent of Prime Minister’s Questions in Baghdad [laughs]. It didn’t turn out like that.
I think we always know the price of military action. It’s an extremely difficult decision to take. People lose their lives and so there’s always a hostility to it and a scepticism to military action. What’s more difficult to judge sometimes is the price of the absence of war, to borrow a David Hare phrase. So the absence of war, the absence of intervention, also bears a price. Collectively, over the past 12 years, we paid a price for not staying on the case in Iraq in those years: 2007, 2008. The way in which Britain withdrew from Basra in the latter part of 2008 was, I think, something that needs proper examination and maybe will be examined in the Chilcot report.
For me, a low moment in the last parliament was the decision of the House of Commons not to intervene [in 2013] when [Bashar] al-Assad had used chemical weapons. Obviously you can debate the merits of the narrow issue but actually that’s not what the debate was about at the time. It was about whether Britain wanted to play a role in the world, trying to shape the world in a way that was consistent with our values [of] openness and freedom and tolerance and democracy. And I felt at that moment that the House of Commons was saying, “Britain doesn’t want to be part of it any more.”
I think that’s a mistake. My generation has got to win an argument, because of what happened in 2003, again, that Britain is a force for good in the world and we shouldn’t be embarrassed to say so. And we shouldn’t be embarrassed to assert our values . . . of openness, tolerance, freedom, democracy, which I think are universal values.
JC The Mail on Sunday has reported after serialising extracts from Anthony Seldon’s book [with Peter Snowdon] about David Cameron that you opposed the idea of holding an In/Out referendum on EU membership. Did you?
GO Well, I think, first of all, that was a little bit misreported [laughs]. I’ve never objected to holding the referendum, far from it. When we determined that policy, it was determined by me and David Cameron and William Hague. We thought it was absolutely the right thing for Britain and I was fully involved in and signed on to the concept of having a referendum.
I’ve always been keen to make sure that, as we make the argument, we put it in economic terms as well as in terms of national sovereignty, migration, and so on. And that’s the way these books are put together – I think Anthony Seldon, he’s getting at that. That was my concern at the time: let’s make sure we have a big economic argument as well as an argument about the role of the House of Commons and, indeed, issues of migration. Because, for me, perhaps the single most important issue is the relationship between the non-Euros and the Euros.
If you are someone who believes in the European Union and wants Britain to stay in, you cannot ignore this issue, because the European Union was not designed to accommodate two classes of members, where one group, the majority, is rapidly integrating to try to make the single currency work, and the other group, particularly Britain, doesn’t want to be part of that ever-closer union. And our treaties don’t provide for that. If we don’t resolve this issue, it’s going to cause more and more problems for Britain’s economic national interest. So we need to resolve it. These are the sorts of things that are going to require changes to the treaty.
JC But you won’t get treaty change before 2017.
GO What we’ve said is: let’s work out what we can agree in terms of what Britain needs and how Europe can be reformed and then work out the best vehicle for delivery. But it is going to require, in my view, things that are legally binding and irreversible and, therefore, almost certainly treaty change, certainly on this issue around the relationship between the Euros and the non-Euros. Even the most ardent pro-European – and I would, by the way, describe myself as a Eurosceptic – would say, should say, that this is a problem that needs resolving, because otherwise British membership is going to become increasingly difficult.
JC You say that you’re a Eurosceptic, but you’re not an Outist, are you? You very much want the United Kingdom to remain in the EU?
GO I want Britain to stay in the European Union but it does need to reform, partly for the reasons I’ve described. And the case for membership would become weaker and weaker if you couldn’t make those changes. So, you know, I’m also an optimist. I think we can achieve these changes and we’re going to fight very hard to do so.
JC Jeremy Corbyn seems to consider the EU to be, in essence, some kind of neoliberal conspiracy. He is deeply Eurosceptic and many on the far left want out of the EU. Would a Corbyn leadership make it more difficult for Britain to stay in the EU?
GO Well, I’m tempted to say that Jeremy Corbyn sees everything as a neoliberal conspiracy [laughs]. We’ve got to have a successful negotiation and then make the argument for what we fought for. And you’re always going to have arrayed against you people who don’t agree with what you’ve achieved, but let’s focus on the achievement now, because that’s the building block.
JC Can the United Kingdom hold together?
GO A huge generational challenge is keeping the United Kingdom together. I don’t think anyone in the Conservative or the Labour Party who went through that referendum particularly wants to repeat that experience.
I think the [Scottish] referendum did, as Alex Salmond himself said, settle the issue for a generation and we don’t need to be revisiting it. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a huge amount of work to be done to make people in Scotland feel more part of what goes on in the whole of the United Kingdom, to address their concerns and their sense of grievance [that] they don’t get as much control of their own affairs as they would like. The very significant piece of devolution that is about to come, over income tax and public expenditures, I think would go a long way to addressing that.
Tony Blair said something that I very much agree with – that the UK government, since the creation of the Scottish Parliament, retreated a bit from Scotland . . . In a sense, we’ve vacated the stage and allowed the only show in town to be the Scottish Nationalist government. And I think we need to get back on the stage and say, “Look, there are many things being delivered in Scotland by the UK government. The UK government is working for the people in Scotland.”
There was a lot of tension on my trip to [the nuclear base on the River Clyde] Faslane [but there’s] the investment we’re making there, the jobs that are being created at that base. By the way, that base is the single largest employer in Scotland. I also then went to Aberdeen, where a big international oil company, Maersk, was announcing a huge, multibillion-pound investment that would never have happened but for the UK tax breaks for oil and gas that an independent Scotland couldn’t have afforded.
We should probably have moved more quickly to the position I think we’re going to be in the next couple of years, where over half of the public expenditure in Scotland is controlled by the Scottish Parliament and roughly half of the money to pay for those things is going to be raised by taxes that are set in Scotland. So, we all know in our domestic vertical debate, there’s a constant argument between the right and the left: how much should we spend and how much should we tax? If your only debate in your politics is [about] “how much should we spend”, of course all the pressure is just to spend more and to complain – in this case, to London – they’re not being given enough money to spend. I think it will create an ultimately more sustainable and more mature political debate in Scotland if you have to take into account that you’ve got to raise money and taxes. Raising the money is the most difficult bit.
JC You spoke about a £9 per hour wage [by 2020], which is an admirable aspiration, and it’s an interesting intervention by the government into the market, telling firms what they ought to pay. Do you think it’s sustainable? If economic conditions change, would you lower that wage, maybe to £8.50, to £8?
GO Nine pounds is something we can sustain. I think it’s important. Some people say, “well the Labour Party was campaigning for a higher minimum wage in the last election, all you’ve done is stolen their clothes”. I think that what we’ve proposed is something that is very authentically Conservative, which is, 1) Conservatives aren’t massive fans of subsidies, and there was a wage subsidy going on with employers being able to have lower wages because they knew the tax credits would make up the gap, and it’s a perfectly Conservative response to that, to say that we want to reduce the subsidy. Second, alongside that, we want to help employers, and . . . then you have a changed Conservative Party that a generation ago was opposed to the minimum wage. Now we are proposing a higher statutory national living wage. That’s triangle of things: lower welfare payments, lower business taxes, and a higher statutory living wage, that make it a authentically, modern Conservative answer, not something that would have been proposed by a previous generation of Conservatives, nor something that would have been proposed by the Labour Party.