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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

David Cameron, the referendum and the decay of democracy

David Cameron’s hasty departure from 10 Downing Street was marked by a merry last Prime Minister’s Questions and Cameron humming a cheery little tune. There was talk of his ‘legacy,’ besides the Brexit mess that was the reason for his departure.

At the same time there was commentary on the theme that referendums, which seem to many perfect democracy, are undemocratic. Just giving the voters what they want won’t do. Politicians must ‘deliberate and come to an informed decision’ and stand or fall on it.

The Brexit referendum was a logical step in Cameron’s political career, and it is that career that those interested in the workings of democracy should be reflecting on rather than the merits of referendums, which pundits have no objection to when the voters do as they are told.

Cameron was the almost perfect type of the modern politician for whom politics is all about winning elections and government is just stuff you have to do if you win them, always with an eye to winning the next.

He was chosen leader of the Conservative Party in 2005, aged just 39 and only four years an MP, as the man who could win elections, which his three predecessors evidently could not.

Everything he did could be fully explained as calculated to win and retain votes. He passed his first test in winning the 2010 election, though many might have thought he failed in not winning a majority against Labour, tired after thirteen years in office and led by the far from popular Gordon Brown. But for Cameron the need to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats may have been no disappointment. It protected him from Conservatives who wanted a conservative government. And, at the LibDems’ insistence, Parliament was rigged by fixed election date legislation to assure that the coalition would survive and he could enjoy being Prime Minister for five years with happy LibDem ministers.

For forty years the Conservative Party was torn by divisions between those who thought the European Union and its predecessors were good and the inevitable future and those who were sceptical and opposed to the ever increasing power of the European Commission in Brussels. Cameron and his predecessors managed to stifle the Eurosceptics, always a minority of Conservative MPs, though not of Conservative Party members and voters. But the effective silencing of Conservative Eurosceptics discouraged conservative voters and led to the rise of UKIP, which, under the lively leadership of Nigel Farage, saw its popular vote rise to 12.6% in the 2015 election.

For Cameron, Brexit was simply an issue of votes. Most, though by no means all, of UKIP’s voters would have been Conservative voters in earlier elections. Purely to staunch the loss of Conservative votes to UKIP, Cameron promised in 2013 that there would be a referendum on the EU if the Conservatives won the 2015 election. To the Eurosceptics in his base Cameron said ‘If the voters want Brexit, they can have it.’ assuming that in the face of the establishment consensus that the EU was a good thing the voters would vote to Remain. And also, it is speculated, assuming that he wouldn’t win a majority and the LibDems, perfervidly pro-EU, would prevent him from keeping his promise.

But UKIP took a serious number of votes from the Labour Party under its feeble leader Ed Miliband and the LibDems’ vote collapsed to less than UKIP’s and Cameron won an unexpected majority and felt bound to go ahead with the referendum.

Had Cameron been interested in government rather than votes, he could have seen that the EU is less than perfect and applied himself to reforming it, thus placating Conservative Eurosceptics and undermining UKIP. It was a project in which he would have found many allies amongst other EU members. But Cameron, like most politicians now, didn’t think about government. He took his thinking from the consensus of bien pensants whose horror at Brexit has been reflected in the media around the world. For them, those opposed to Brussels, were, as a Conservative Party chairman was reported to have said, “Swivel-eyed loons.”

Cameron wasn’t against Brexit because he thought the EU was good. He was against Brexit because he thought he couldn’t win an election on a Eurosceptic platform. On that assessment he assumed that Remain would win.

Because he had never thought about what may be good and what may be bad about the EU his campaign for Remain was a mindless fear campaign, saying practically that Britain couldn’t leave the EU, and possibly backfiring.

It might seem that the modern politician, shopping for votes, is the triumph of democracy. And that asking the voters what to do in a referendum shows them at their best. But the only way for democracy to work is for politicians to think about government and stand for what they think and win because they have thought well and persuaded people to agree with them. When politicians don’t think about government but only about votes, democracy decays.

That’s what’s happening now. The referendum was only a symptom.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Tony Blair as he appeared in 2004 - The Cool Son Thatcher Never Had

Philip Stephens' Tony Blair is expressly addressed to Americans. He wants to answer their question: "Who was this British Prime Minister who was ready to risk his own political career to go to war alongside President George W. Bush?".

Canadian readers are probably more aware of British politics than Stephens' intended readers. We understand parliamentary government. It is disconcerting to find that New Democrats refers to Bill Clinton and his supporters. Nonetheless Stephens' book, more extended magazine profile than full biography, is a good brief account of Tony Blair's life and career to date.

Blair's rise to the leadership of the Labour Party seems both effortless and unaccountable. From a middle class family, his father a Tory, at Oxford he showed little interest in politics giving his spare time to lame efforts at playing the guitar and goofy ventures in managing bands. After Oxford Blair found a place in the law chambers of Derry Irvine, until recently Blair's Lord Chancellor. Irvine did a lot of work for unions and was well connected with Labour Party barons. Blair joined the Labour Party. It must have seemed the right thing to do. But Stephens reports no signs that Blair had any deep political convictions or even burning ambition.

Young Blair's most noted step was to be confirmed as an Anglican in 1975.  His "Christian faith" is made much of by Stephens but it remains vague and seems to come down to a conviction that he is called to "do what is right". Stephens says he is not writing hagiography but he is highly sympathetic to Blair. He admits that Blair can sound preachy and sanctimonious but he takes Blair's relentless assurances that he sincerely believes he is doing what is right at face value.

In 1983, like an 18th century lord handing out a rotten borough, Irvine arranged for Blair to run in a Labour safe seat. At Westminster Blair spoke for various left-wing positions that he would jettison in the 1990's but his chief interest was in making Labour electable. Much work in taming left-wing factions and reducing union domination of the party was done by Blair's predecessors as leader while Blair became an opposition star in a party of union hacks and loony leftists.

When Labour leader John Smith died suddenly in early 1994 Blair and Gordon Brown, a dour but bright Scot who serves as Blair's Chancellor of the Exchequer, were the contenders to succeed him. At a fabled dinner at the Granita restaurant in trendy Islington, Brown agreed not to run for the leadership. Whether, as has been widely reported, Blair agreed to step aside for Brown after two elections, Stephens does not say.

Blair persuaded his party to drop its pious commitment to "common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange". He was able to reassure middle Britain that he was in Paul Johnson's phrase, "the son Margaret Thatcher never had" while persuading the young that "Cool Britannia" was coming.

In power Blair left Thatcher's legacy untouched. Image and spin was the big change from the Major years. The domestic innovations of Blair's first four years were constitutional changes made either from political necessity in the case of Scottish devolution or to be " cool" in the removal of most hereditary peers from the House of Lords without thinking what should follow and the incorporation into British law of the European Convention on Human Rights, which threatens Britain with Charter like rule by judges.

Stephens' main concern for his American readers is Blair's role as a world leader. Blair's first important foray into international affairs was Kosovo. Kosovo was pretty much a fiasco but Blair's resolute conviction that NATO was doing what was right perhaps helped to keep it from being a complete fiasco.

Over Iraq Blair had been a hawk even in the Clinton years. Stephen's account of Blair's dealings with the factions in the Bush administration, Cheney and Rumsfeld seeing the British as a tiresome distraction, Powell and Rice working closely with them, Bush making the final calls, is the best meat in the book.

In domestic politics Blair's stand on Iraq was not as courageous as some think. The revolt in Labour ranks was never a threat with Tory support assured. When the fighting started and after victory came the war became a political asset.

The Kelly affair bizarrely threatened to deplete this asset. Six years of media management and spin caught up with Blair. Like the boy who cried "Wolf!" he was suspected of faking it when his conviction was probably at its strongest.

The Hutton Report's clearing of Blair removes any immediate political danger but public trust in him has been permanently damaged. Unlike Stephens' American audience, for whom Blair is a new friend, the British public may be tiring of Blair's relentless effort to persuade them that he is their friend.

In domestic politics Blair presents a curious parallel with Brian Mulroney. First interested only in winning elections and afraid to do much, he has now decided on a few right things to do and is prepared to take big risks to do them. Labour has poured money into public services but the public remains dissatisfied. Blair now plans to make changes in how public services are organised and funded. His plan to raise university tuition fees was the first big test of the new Blair. He barely passed it. It is as a national leader and not a world leader that history will judge Tony Blair and it will be what he can do in Britain in the next few years that will form the basis of that judgment.

This appeared in The National Post on February 28, 2004.