Daniel Hannan: Trade sanctions are a counterproductive foreign policy tool – which play into the hands of oppressive regimes

17 Feb

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative Life peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

What can one country practically do to halt crimes against humanity in another? The answer is far from obvious. At one end of the scale, it might decide that it has an absolute duty to intervene against genocide, and that the only choice is therefore to invade the offending state, with or without a coalition of allies, halt the killings or be defeated in the attempt. At the other, it might conclude that there is nothing much it can do beyond moving a condemnatory resolution at the United Nations, offering sanctuary to refugees and possibly withdrawing its ambassador.

Obviously, there is a huge spectrum between those two approaches. But there is surprisingly little discussion of what the optimum point on that spectrum is – the point at which exercising proportionate pressure is likeliest to result in a policy change in the other country. Perhaps inevitably in an age of performative anger, some commentators are more interested in signalling their horror at human rights abuses than in pondering the most effective way to tackle them.

The very first vote I cast in the House of Lords (electronically, under the current lockdown rules) was on this issue. An amendment moved by the crossbench peer, Lord Alton, would effectively have allowed British courts to determine whether any country trading with us was guilty of genocide and, if so, to trigger economic sanctions.

No one has ever accused Alton, a former Lib Dem MP, of performative anger. He is a decent and thoughtful man who manages – a rare thing in politics – to be moral without being moralistic. His amendment has attracted supporters from every party in both chambers – most of them, too, actuated by good and sincere motives. But, in the end, it seems to me that their proposed remedy is misplaced.

Ministers argue that issues of this kind ought not to be referred to courts. The question of whether another country is committing such atrocities within its borders as to constitute crimes against humanity should be one for our elected government. If, as would surely sometimes happen, our judges ruled that there was insufficient evidence to make a determination, the offending regime might seize on that judgment as vindication: “Britain has cleared us of genocide”.

All this is true, as far as it goes. We should be very careful about drawing judges into political questions – and drawing them into issues of foreign policy would be quite a step. But it seems to me that there is a more fundamental objection to the proposal. Put simply, trade sanctions are a terrible foreign policy tool. They are not so much useless as counterproductive, serving to hurt ordinary people in the other country as well as your own while propping up the regime of which you disapprove.

At the very least, trade sanctions – including the suspension of a free trade agreement, which we might consider the softest trade sanction – push people in the targeted state towards their leaders. One reason why Communism survived in Cuba when it fell in most of the world was that American sanctions had created a siege mentality. The embargo allowed Fidel Castro to tell his countrymen that their poverty was caused, not by Marxist economics, but by the yanqui blockade.

Vladimir Putin knows how to exploit the same phenomenon, triggering constant conflicts which are primarily intended, not to absorb bits of Georgia or Ukraine, but to foment confrontation with the West, so keeping Russians in a mood of defensive and angry patriotism – precisely the state of mind that makes them likeliest to rally to Putin.

More than this, though, economic sanctions create lucrative opportunities for elites within the countries at which they are aimed. In an open and competitive market, with low barriers to entry, prices fall – to general benefit. The more restricted or distorted a market becomes, the more opportunities are created for monopolists, especially those who are politically connected. States subject to sanctions – Iran, Russia, Venezuela – form a nexus, doing deals with each other which allow a few brokers to get very rich while doing nothing for the general population.

To see what I mean, think back to the oil-for-food regime that operated during the UN sanctions against Saddam Hussein. Notionally designed to allow food and humanitarian supplies into Iraq, it became a racket, allowing favoured Ba’athists and their allies in other countries to make a fortune.

If trade sanctions don’t work, what does? As I said at the start, that is not an easy question. But it surely makes sense to target sanctions at the guilty, something Western countries have become much more adept at doing over the past 20 years. Micro-sanctions vary in severity: travel bans, asset seizures, arrest warrants – possibly even, in extremis, Eichmann-style judicial kidnappings. As a general proposition, though, keyhole surgery must be more effective than hacking blindly with a cleaver.

I was struck, during that first House of Lords debate, by how many people still see trade in essentially mercantilist terms – as a favour to be bestowed rather than as a growth strategy. That fundamental misunderstanding distorted the coverage of the EU-UK trade talks. (“Why”, asked commentators “should the EU grant us access to their markets?” – as though doing so were an act of kindness.) But, more seriously, it distorts our approach to unfriendly regimes.

We often stumble into trade sanctions because of the most dangerous sequence in politics: “Something must be done; here’s something; let’s do it”. In fact, commercial restrictions take from the many to give to the few – and the tyrants know it.

Daniel Hannan: Ignore the Europhile sneers. Joining the Pacific bloc marks the rebirth of Global Britain.

3 Feb

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

She’s unstoppable, that Liz Truss. The epidemic has put most Whitehall ministries in damage limitation mode, but the Department of International Trade is on a roll, signing 62 free trade agreements to date – plus, obviously, the deal with the EU itself.

Those who can’t bear the thought of Brexit succeeding are, naturally, scoffing. These deals, they say, are largely replicas of what we already had as EU members. Their new line of criticism is, I suppose, an improvement on the position that they took until 12 months ago, namely that we would barely be able to strike any deals at all.

But it’s still not true. Many of the “rollover” treaties go further in small ways: more generous quotas, fewer restrictions. True, these liberalisations are chiefly tokens of intent. But that intent is real. With limited capacity, our priority has been to negotiate new FTAs – that is FTAs with countries where the EU currently has no trade deals, such as Australia and the United States.

Where there are serviceable existing arrangements, we have tended to say, in effect: “Let’s leave things roughly as they are for now, and agree to come back to it next year”. Even in these cases, though, we have often taken the opportunity to go further. The UK-Japan deal, for example, is more comprehensive when it comes to services and cross-border data flows than the EU-Japan deal, even though the latter had only just entered into effect.

This week, Britain took a momentous step when it applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a free trade zone comprising Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

Again, many Europhiles are sneering. Joining a Pacific trade pact, they say, defies geography. And it is of course true that Britain is not a Pacific country (other than in the technical sense of owning the Pitcairn islands). But we have exceptionally close links to a number of CPTPP members. Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Canada are common law, English-speaking nations. So, to a degree, are Brunei and Malaysia.

One of the arguments for Brexit was that, in the internet age, cultural proximity trumps physical proximity. That argument is stronger now than it was a year ago. The lockdown has habituated us to using Zoom or Teams for important discussions. When travel returns, it is hard to imagine that business people will be as ready to hop over to Düsseldorf for the day to make a presentation. If you’re online, Rotorua is no further than Rennes – indeed, nearer in the sense that it shares your language, legal system and accounting methods.

Another argument for Brexit was that, by global standards, the EU was a slow-growth region. That argument, too, is now looking stronger. Although we talk of the pandemic as a global event, the truth is that it hit Europe much harder than Asia, Africa or the Antipodes.

But the biggest difference between the EU and the CPTPP is that the latter is a trade agreement rather than a state-in-the-making. Its members simply seek to maximise their prosperity through greater specialisation and exchange. Joining the CPTPP does not involve making budget transfers to its poorer regions, or accepting the supremacy of its laws over our parliamentary statutes, or adopting a common flag, passport or anthem. Nor does it require a member to alter its standards on non-exported goods and services.

Viewed purely as a trade pact, the CPTPP is preferable to the EU because it elevates mutual recognition over harmonisation. The essence of the CPTPP is that its members agree to refrain from certain actions that would restrict free commerce. It is perfectly possible for CPTPP members simultaneously to have ambitious trade deals with each other and with the EU – as, for example, Japan and Canada do. On services and on professional qualifications, CPTPP uses a “negative list” approach. In other words, it assumes that whatever is legal in one state is legal in all the others unless it is expressly exempted in the treaty.

It is fair to say that the CPTPP is wide rather than deep. It does not go as far as, say, the Australia–New Zealand deal, which is arguably the most advanced on the planet. But, as Australia and New Zealand demonstrate, a deeper trade deal can nestle within a broader one.

Our aim should be to negotiate a deal similar to that which Australia and New Zealand enjoy with one another – assuming that is, that our protectionists in DEFRA and the NFU will let us. We should, in other words, seek both to participate fully in the CPTPP and, under its auspices, to secure even more ambitious agreements with the countries closest to us in terms of GDP per capita and regulatory interoperability – namely, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Singapore.

Indeed, New Zealand, Singapore and Chile – three of the world’s greatest free-traders – are currently setting the pace when it comes to digital trade. If Britain peels itself away from the wary and watchful EU, which has never been comfortable with the free-wheeling nature of the internet, and joins these Hayekian states, it is likely to end up crafting standards on digital trade that every competitive country will want to adopt.

Finally, there is a geopolitical case for membership. Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Pacific deal at the last minute opened the door to China which, three months ago, created a rival trade pact with Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and all ten members of ASEAN.

My guess is that the Biden administration will want to reverse Trump’s mistake. After all, many of its leading members had been involved with putting the Trans-Pacific Partnership together in the first place under Obama. British membership of the zone, as well as being in itself a useful counterweight to Beijing’s ambitions in the region, will set the context for UK-US trade talks.

To sum up, then, our CPTPP application will boost jobs and growth, strengthen the Anglosphere, improve the prospects for a bilateral American deal, accelerate our pivot to the fastest-growing markets on Earth, and elevate Global Britain. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Daniel Hannan: If a restaurant can refuse to serve you, Amazon can refuse to host Parler

20 Jan

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Trump’s Twitter ban is being treated as a free speech issue, but it isn’t. Properly understood, it’s a free association issue. The First Amendment to the US Constitution does not give Americans the right to say whatever they want in whatever forum they please. What it says is that “Congress shall make no law” abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.

In other words, provided you stop short of direct incitement to criminality, you can legally say whatever you like. But, though the government can’t shut you up, there is no obligation on anyone else to provide you with a microphone. You have the right to free speech, but everyone else has the right to free association. A restaurant can refuse to serve you because you’re not wearing a tie. A hotel can turn you away because it doesn’t cater for children. An online platform can reject your custom because it doesn’t like your opinions.

Whether a platform is wise to exercise that right is a different question. When I was an MEP, Facebook, Google and the rest used to fall over each other to assure us that they had no editorial control, and therefore could not be held liable for anything that appeared under their banners. That argument is now redundant, and I suspect the big tech companies will come to regret the shift. But, as a matter of broad principle, our starting assumption should be that a private company can set its own terms and conditions and pick its own customers.

Freedom of assembly and association is, or ought to be, as fundamental a right as freedom of speech and expression. We talked a great deal about the loss of our liberties in 2020, but it wasn’t our right to worship, speak out or cast a ballot that was suspended. The heaviest constraint, the one we all felt, was being unable to congregate as we pleased.

You might think that the lockdowns would have made us appreciate a liberty that, in normal times, we take for granted. That, though, is not how politics works. In practice, every age sacralises certain values, lifting them above the run of normal debate. In mediaeval Europe, the works of the ancient philosophers were judged, not by their accuracy or logic, but by their compatibility with Christian orthodoxy. In our own day, it is the tenets of identity politics that have been sacralised.

Thus, instead, of having an abstract conversation about the value of free expression in a manner that John Milton or J S Mill would have recognised, we start by asking whether it is ok for people to say racist things – an odd way to settle a general principle.

Likewise, when it comes to free association, lots of people see the debate solely through the prism of whether an imaginary private club would be allowed to exclude someone on grounds of ethnicity – a scenario that could come about, I suppose, though it would surely be very rare in this day and age. Hard cases make bad law, goes the saying; and hard putative scenarios make bad general precepts. The correct way to determine our position on human rights is to start from first principles and then see how those principles apply to specific cases rather than the reverse.

What should our first principles be here? Most obviously, a presumption in favour of liberty and property. If people are to be prevented from getting together in whatever combinations they please, there needs to be a good reason. An epidemic might be such a reason. The expectation of equal treatment as a citizen might be another.

In balancing the competing claims of private property and non-discrimination, many countries draw a distinction between ordinary businesses and companies defined as utilities, diluting the rights of the owners in the second category. We might, for example, say that the owner of a small café has the right not to serve her ex-husband, but that she would not have an equivalent right to refuse his custom if she owned an electricity company. We might say (indeed, the law broadly does say) that a religious baker should not be compelled to decorate a cake with a message celebrating gay marriage, but that a railway could not withhold its custom from gay people.

Obviously, people can reasonably disagree about where to draw the line. But wherever we draw it, it should then apply to everyone equally. Equality before the law means precisely that. Either the café owner has the right to refuse someone service or she has not. “Laws” as Hayek said, “must be general, equal and certain”.

Where does that leave us with Twitter banning Trump, Amazon banning Parler and the rest? Well, either they are defined as utilities or they are not. If they are, then regulators can tell them whom to serve. If they are not, then they can ban anyone they like: Republicans, Protestants, left-handed people, cartwrights. It’s one or the other.

There may be an immediate test of the principle as the lockdowns end. The Government has, quite rightly, said that it will not make vaccination compulsory or issue immunity certificates. But what if a cruise ship wants proof of vaccination before you board? What if a gym requires a certificate as a condition of membership? I reckon that free association gives them the right to set their own terms. But, either way, the law must be general, equal and certain.

Daniel Hannan: Britain is utterly skint. We must use our post-EU freedom to grow ourselves out of this mess.

6 Jan

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Remainers were right after all. Almost every catastrophe they predicted has come about. Our economy has collapsed, unemployment is rising, several countries have closed their borders to us, civil liberties have been suspended and lorries have piled up in Kent. We have seen empty shelves and angry protesters and even (in East Africa) a plague of locusts.

True, none of these things happened as a result of our leaving the EU. Indeed, January 1 saw a smooth flow of traffic at the Channel ports – in marked contrast to the previous week when, still under EU law during the transition period, hundreds of mainly Eastern European drivers were trapped in Kent by France’s border closures. Still, however you cut it, we are in a worse place than anyone could have imagined a year ago.

These various catastrophes were, of course, supposed to be triggered by what Opposition politicians used to call (as if it were a single noun) “a-disastrous-no-deal-Brexit”. It is already becoming hard to remember how widely that outcome was expected. Several Conservative MPs, some of them good and sensible people, left their party because they did not believe that Boris Johnson would sign an agreement with the EU. In the event, he came back with the most comprehensive trade deal that the EU has with any sovereign country.

That gain, though, is insignificant next to the cost of Covid and its associated lockdowns – costs which, through a tranche of bad luck and a sprinkling of bad judgment, are higher for Britain than for almost any other country.

Eleven months of bad economic news have dulled our sensitivity to big numbers. Still, it cannot be repeated to often: we are utterly skint. The first lockdown caused a sharper contraction than any comparable period during the Great Depression or the two world wars. We have not yet had the chance to assess the cost of the second. Now we are in a third. The economist Julian Jessop reckons that every month of lockdown costs around £18 billion – 10 per cent of our GDP.

How are we going to recover? It may sound obvious, even trite, but the only way out of a mess like this is growth. The primary purpose of economic policy for the next five years should be to generate revenue. That doesn’t mean that we give up on improving public services, improving the environment, levelling up and all the rest. It simply means acknowledging the reality: without money in the kitty, these other things are impossible.

What can governments do to stimulate growth? They can stop putting barriers between businesses and their customers. Some of those obstacles are fiscal. Countries with lower, flatter and simpler taxes tend, other things being equal, to grow faster than countries with higher and more distortive taxes. We need to cut some taxes and suspend others – especially, in the short term, taxes on investment and employment.

Then there are the regulatory barriers – everything from planning restrictions that inflate the cost of housing to staff ratio rules that give us the most expensive childcare in Europe. I could fill a longer article than this one simply by listing them. Consider, as just one subsection, the EU laws we can now disapply: the Temporary Workers’ Directive, the REACH Directive, the End of Life Vehicles Directive, the droit de suite rules and other regulations that hurt London’s fine arts market, the Alternative Investment Fund Managers Directive, chunks of MiFID II, GDPR, the bans on GM.

Even as I ran through that list, you will have spotted the problem. A consequence of the pandemic has been to make voters around the world, including here, more authoritarian, more dirigiste, more demanding of state intervention.

It is hard enough in normal times to make the case for smaller government. Every privatisation is unpopular until it happens. Every regulation calls into existence a tribe of beneficiaries who arrange their affairs around it. But the perception of a common threat, as any psychologist will tell you, makes us even more collectivist and change-averse.

Our reaction may be irrational and atavistic, but it is no less real for that. If we were looking at the past year logically, we would see that the private sector often succeeded where state bureaucracies failed. PHE, Ofqual, NHS procurement and a hundred other agencies were unable to discharge their basic functions. But Tesco kept its shelves full, Amazon expanded to meet our demand and Pfizer found a vaccine.

The trouble is that we rarely think logically in a crisis. We instead fall back our Stone Age instincts, turning inwards, sticking to our tribe and demanding strong leadership. There might be a perfectly rational case to the effect that, for example, rising unemployment and falling wages make it impossible to keep increasing the minimum wage. But find me a politician who is prepared, in the current climate, to articulate that case. There might be an argument that a diminished private sector cannot continue to fund the public sector as though nothing had happened, and that the pain of lower wages should be spread. But, again, find me any MP who is prepared to explain that there is no money to Give Our NHS Heroes A Pay Rise.

We have won the right to make different decisions outside the EU. But the Coronavirus has diminished our appetite to exercise that right, just as it has made the need for reform more urgent.

Still, one way or another, change is coming. To succeed outside the EU, we need to be fitter, leaner and more globally engaged. The only question is whether we make the necessary decision now, or whether we wait to have our hand forced by economic reality.

How the EU must wish it had accepted May’s Chequers offer

9 Dec

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Liam Fox was right. The former trade secretary has been much mocked for his remark that a trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history”. Two and a half years later, that deal has still not been done and, as I write, there is a real prospect that the talks will break down. Yet Fox’s reasoning was sound. The most difficult aspects of trade negotiations, in general, are the opening of markets and the recognition of each other’s standards. In this instance, neither issue arises. Britain and the EU already have access to each other’s markets and reciprocal standards. Every barrier would be a costly move away from the status quo. For once, the inertia bias pulls towards free trade.

So what is the problem? Why wasn’t a deal struck long ago? Well – and this is where Foxie was correct – it wasn’t because of differences over trade. The purely commercial aspects of the deal seem to have been agreed easily enough. The hold-up, as everyone knows, is over other matters, notably fisheries and what Brussels negotiators (and most British media) misleadingly call the “level playing field”.

Neither of these disputes is primarily economic. We keep being told that the fishing industry accounts for a tiny proportion of Britain’s GDP, but the same is true for the EU. More to the point, the only way in which EU trawlers would be wholly excluded from British waters is if there were no deal. A deal would mean a phased reduction in access for Continental vessels, but not a reduction to zero. Whatever the EU’s reasons for holding out on fisheries, concern for French skippers is plainly not one of them.

Similarly, when it comes to the level playing field, Brussels doesn’t truly fear that Britain will abolish the minimum wage, scrap its environmental rules or subsidise its industries with a view to hostile dumping. British social and employment standards are higher than the EU’s requirements, its green targets more ambitious and its levels of state aid lower.

No, in both cases, the issue is emotional rather than economic. Eurocrats are still affronted by the 2016 referendum result. A few explicitly want Britain to suffer, even if that means that the 27 suffer, too. Even those who, rationally, accept that the best way to maximise their own prosperity is to have a free and open trading relationship with their biggest market sometimes struggle, psychologically, to follow that logic all the way through. Hence all their snide remarks and passive-aggressive tweets.

Britain’s other trade talks – first with Japan, Australia and New Zealand, then with the United States, then with India, Mercosur and the Gulf states – have been premised on the idea that both sides want to maximise their prosperity. We recently agreed a deal with Switzerland which covers pretty much the same ground as the EU talks. Foxite in its simplicity, it largely involved the two sides agreeing to leave things as they were. Indeed, the main complicating factor was EU pressure on Switzerland not to agree to too much.

Why, then, do Brussels negotiators talk of “granting” tariff-free access as if trade were an act of kindness? Because, in truth, they have not come to terms with Brexit. The EU thinks of itself as a modern empire (see speeches by José Manuel Barroso, Guy Verhofstadt et al) and its attitude to Britain is that of a metropolitan power toward a renegade province. They find it hard to let go. They want some remaining emblems of suzerainty.

We British should understand. We have, from time to time, found ourselves in the EU’s shoes. When the bulk of Ireland broke away, for example, London struggled to reconcile itself to the notion that it there was now a truly independent country next door. It imposed all sorts of conditions on the new state, including an oath of allegiance to the Crown, the continuing use of three Irish ports and a guarantee that the Anglo-Irish Treaty would have legal precedence over measures adopted by the Irish parliament.

In truth, these measures were more decorative than functional. Ireland after 1921 was, in its essentials, an independent country; but another generation passed before it formally assumed the final attributes of sovereignty without British opposition.

Fisheries and the level playing field are, so to speak, the EU’s treaty ports and oath of allegiance – symbols that Britain is a semi-protectorate rather than with an equal sovereign power. While Eurocrats would no doubt phrase that sentence differently, the truth is that they see Britain as a rule-taking dependent, like Macedonia or Ukraine, rather than as a wholly independent nation.

The funny thing is that, when Theresa May offered them such a relationship at the 2018 Salzburg summit, they threw it back in her face. Perhaps, as reports suggested at the time, they were simply put off by her manner. Perhaps they were not prepared, on principle, to agree to anything proposed by the renegade province. Either way, they must now wish they had grabbed that deal.

Daniel Hannan: It would be unfair to pupils in England to cancel exams next year

25 Nov

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

The cancellation of exams this year was bad news for all involved. It was unfair to those students who would have won high grades without an artificial boost. It was prejudicial to past and future cohorts. It was a nightmare for universities, which were presented with an administrative headache. It was a disaster for Ofqual, which failed to rise to its first serious challenge. And, of course, it was calamitous for Gavin Williamson, who got the blame.

Whether that blame was merited is beside the point (I argued on ConHome at the time that the exams débâcle was an example of ministers having “responsibility without power”, because voters blame them rather than the state agencies that they simultaneously demand be “free from political interference”). The fact is that we stumbled into a terrible situation, closing our schools despite children not normally contracting or passing on serious Covid symptoms, and then scrapping exams because it seemed the line of least resistance.

Now we know better. Yet – and I find my fingers trembling with incredulity as I type these words – we look like walking into the same mistake again, only this time without the excuse of having acted blindly. The Labour administration in Cardiff has cancelled GCSEs and A-levels for 2021. The SNP administration in Edinburgh has cancelled National 5 exams (which are very roughly equivalent to GCSEs) and says it will decide in February whether to go ahead with Highers.

In England, the stated position is still that all exams will go ahead, albeit a few weeks later to allow schools to make up for lost time. That line might yet hold. But it seems just as likely that, as has happened again and again during the epidemic, the devolved assemblies will push the Tories into a more extreme position than they want.

Various ideas are being floated that would allow Williamson to climb down while pretending to have kept his promise – some combination of exams and teacher assessment, for example, or full GCSEs going ahead only in core subjects such as English, maths and science. All these ideas should be resisted – for the sake of employers, the Conservative Party’s reputation and, above all, the students themselves.

It is notable that the strongest pressure for cancelling (or decaffeinating) public exams comes from people who were already against them before Covid. Progressive educationalists – what Michael Gove called the Blob – have always seen national exams as intolerably stressful.

It is true that exams can be stressful. It is true, too, that they can be blunt instruments. But no one has come up with a better way to gauge the abilities of students across the nation in a consistent way. Continuous assessment is not a uniform measure. Teachers would be, so to speak, marking their own homework (for once the metaphor seems apt).

We accept this logic for most other acquired skills. Music grades, a driving licence, a foreign language diploma – all require an externally invigilated exam. How could we not apply it to something as fundamental as the qualifications which will determine where students complete their education or what they say in their first job interview?

Of course, not everyone who is against holding exams next year wants them abolished forever. Some argue that it is simply unfair to go ahead given how many kids have had their educations disrupted – not just by the effective loss of much of last term, but by repeated interruptions in this one, as bubbles or even entire year-groups are sent home when a pupil tests positive.

That criticism begs the question. It surely cannot be right to send healthy children home because of a virus which poses next to no risk to young people. It would make more sense to withdraw potentially vulnerable members of staff and let children carry on as normal. We have not taken that route; but we can at least now offer priority vaccination to teachers and other staff who might be at risk, and let school life resume in full – plays, sports, no masks.

More seriously, though, who can doubt, in retrospect, that going ahead with this year’s exams would have given schools a much-needed sense of focus? We had plenty of space, and other countries managed.

Of all the things that 2020 has revealed, the most shocking is the vast distance between ambitious and unambitious schools. Good state schools (and most private schools) tried to run something close to a normal schedule, with online assemblies, music lessons, sports days, the works. Bad ones sent out desultory work sheets and, in some cases, refused to mark them. This was not a question of resources – a Zoom lesson costs nothing – but of motivation. By and large, the schools which were least willing to teach online last term have been the quickest to send kids home this term. And in many cases, the pupils being sent home are those who can least afford the disruption.

Cancelling exams, in other words, serves to widen the attainment gap. Some schools treat Covid as a challenge, others as an excuse. And, though there are good and honourable exceptions, the schools serving poorer communities are often in the second category. If exams are cancelled or curtailed, which schools are likeliest to take their foot off the accelerator? It won’t be Winchester or Westminster, will it?

I argued that this term should start in August, but that proved impossible because the interests of the producers were elevated above those of the consumers. We could, if lost time really is the objection to 2021’s exams going ahead, shorten the Easter holidays and pay teachers a bonus for the extra work. But, either way, we owe it to our teenagers to let them compete fairly for the qualifications that other year-groups acquired.

We keep saying that we will “put children first” but, so far during this lockdown, we have done nothing of the kind. They have suffered enough.

Daniel Hannan: It’s time to explode the myth of Trump and his unique appeal

11 Nov

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Has Donald Trump permanently transformed his party? Has the old GOP – the party of limited government, low spending, free trade and constitutional rectitude – metamorphosed into something altogether more nativist, protectionist and autocratic? Will the next Republican presidential nominee inescapably be a Trumpster – or, indeed, an actual Trump?

Hmm. As T.S. Eliot nearly wrote: “Gentile or Jew / O you who turn the wheel and look to windward, / Consider Corbyn, who was once handsome and tall as you.”

Consider Corbyn. He, too, was said definitively to have refashioned his party. His eventual successor, we kept being told, would be chosen by the same Momentum-heavy electorate that had picked him. Communism was back, baby.

Yet here we are, less than a year on from his defeat, and Labour has swung so convincingly back to the mainstream that the Absolute Boy could be suspended with barely a ripple.

Trump and Corbyn have more in common than partisans of either man admit: outsiders who seized their parties by appealing to the base, but who never overcame the suspicion of their elected representatives; agitators who were more comfortable addressing rallies than working within democratic institutions; radicals who promised to bring down the old system; economic nostalgics who wanted to bring back manufacturing; political loners who were followed on their own account.

Might the GOP dump Trump as unsentimentally as Labour dumped Corbyn? Possibly. But there is a difference between what the two men stood for. Corbynism, although it had individually popular elements, was a fringe creed. Trumpery, by contrast – and I’m defining it loosely here as a combination of patriotism and economic activism with a dash of Führerprizip – has a certain appeal. Leaning Left on economics but Right on social and cultural issues is usually a vote-winner.

Most GOP Congressmen are uneasily aware that classical liberalism and strict constitutionalism have only limited appeal among their supporters. Almost every elected Republican I have spoken since the poll believes that Donald Trump lost, that his refusal to concede is petulant, and that his behaviour threatens their hopes of winning next month’s Senate elections in Georgia and thus keeping control of the chamber. But they won’t say so.

Why not? For fear of their base. Voice even the mildest criticism of Trump and his supporters will piranha-shoal around you in a frenzy (something else he has in common with Corbyn). I decided to test the premise while writing this article. Choosing my words carefully, so as not to be unduly provocative, I experimentally tweeted the following: “my hunch is that quite a few elected Republicans believe that Trump is behaving disgracefully, but won’t say so for fear of their audience.”

As expected, I immediately attracted 500 furious comments and lost a similar number of followers. But I have no real skin in the game: I am not an American politician. Perhaps we should feel some sympathy for those with actual votes to lose.

Still, Republican Congressmen and Senators cannot keep shtum forever. In the end, it is up to them to determine whether Trump will be an aberration, Corbyn-like, or whether the party of Reagan has gone forever.

Yes, Trump did some things that mainstream conservatives liked: cutting taxes, lifting regulations, appointing judges who ruled on the basis of what the law said rather than what they felt it ought to say.

But these are precisely the areas where he took little personal interest, and was content to leave the details to those swampy establishment Republicans he was so rude about. In exchange, traditional conservatives were astonishingly forgiving about every other aspect of his presidency. Foreign policy hawks overlooked his submissiveness before Vladimir Putin. Evangelical Christians ignored his lies and adulteries. Tea partiers did not protest when, pre-Covid, the deficit went above a trillion dollars.

With each passing month, the GOP attracted Trumpier representatives – for example, Josh Hawley elected to the Senate from Missouri two years ago, who blames what he calls “market worship,” for “the collapse of community.” At the same time, established figures, such as Florida’s Marco Rubio, began to shift their positions, dropping their former optimism and raging against the offshoring of jobs. The Coronavirus will almost certainly accelerate these authoritarian and anti-market tendencies: crises of this kind always do.

Yet the fundamental premise of Trumpism, namely that globalisation is bad for ordinary people, is false. Nothing has done more to boost the living standards of people on low incomes than the reduction in the cost of living brought about by the removal of trade barriers. Reagan knew how to win that argument. Who will make it today?

Let’s not fall for the idea, often asserted but never substantiated, that Trump has a unique capacity to reach blue-collar voters. This legend was born in 2016, as shell-shocked pundits scrabbled to explain why they had been wrong.

But it is impossible to reconcile with the way Trump was outpolled by down-ballot Republican candidates. This was clearest in the Senate races, where the electorates were exactly congruent. Trump did worse than Republican Senate candidates in almost all the swing states: Georgia, Colorado, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin. He was five points behind John McCain in Arizona, three points behind Marco Rubio in Florida and nine points behind Chuck Grassley in Iowa. Although we must wait for the final tally to be sure, early indications are that something similar happened last week.

The myth of Trump and his unique appeal to callused Pennsylvania steel-workers or stump-toothed Appalachian mountain-men or whatever is so widespread that it is hard to prise away. But there is a more plausible narrative. In 2016, it was the Democrats’ turn to lose, and they picked an unpopular candidate. Despite her disqualifications, she still won a plurality of the vote against a Republican who was less popular than his party. Four years on, with a mildly more appealing candidate, the Democrats scraped over the line.

If that analysis is right, it is good news for traditional small-government Republicans. But only if they man up and do something about it.

Daniel Hannan: We need the Government’s estimate of the cost of the lockdown to lives and livelihoods

28 Oct

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

It often happens in politics that you have to choose between disagreeable alternatives. If you do X, bad things will happen, and if you do Y, bad things will happen. Whichever option you pick, the media will then point to those bad things as evidence that you should have taken the other path. Commentators make little allowance for the concept of the lesser evil.

When an epidemic hits a country, all its options are unappealing. The only real choice its leaders have is where the blow should fall hardest. How much poverty and suffering should the general population suffer to prolong each threatened life?

For a long time, it was not acceptable in polite company to acknowledge that such a trade-off existed. Anyone who tried to point out that we made precisely this calculation every time we assessed a new treatment – that there was even a generic measure for the value of medical intervention, the Quality-Adjusted Life Year (QALY) – was treated as some sort of granny-murderer.

And so, perhaps inevitably, governments around the world declared that they would protect their populations from the coronavirus “at any cost”, not stopping to consider what was implied by those three words. Even back in March, a handful of dissidents argued that, setting aside the cost to liberty and livelihood, a severe lockdown would also cost lives as other medical conditions went untreated.

But few wanted to listen. A bullying, moralising tone dominated the public debate. However gently critics tried to point out that the issue was not “lives versus the economy” but “lives versus lives”, they were portrayed as eugenicists.

The only real surprise was that a handful of places – Sweden, Brazil, Tanzania, some US states – defied the pressure. Almost everywhere else, governments did precisely what the early nineteenth-century economist Frédéric Bastiat would have predicted, prioritising “the seen” (the Covid fatality count) over “the unseen” (the other deaths, as well as the joblessness, the lost educational opportunities and so on).

But the unseen doesn’t remain unseen forever. The impact of the closures, initially muffled by a generous furlough scheme and a general sense of solidarity, is now being felt. Public opinion, hitherto solidly pro-lockdown is (you can feel it) about to shift. In such circumstances, refusing to quantify the costs is bad politics as well as bad policy.

In any case, “you all supported this at the time” never works as an excuse. Opinion polls showed support for ERM membership right up until our departure. They showed initial support for the invasion of Iraq. A fat lot of good that did John Major or Tony Blair after the event.

After an early over-reaction, the Government is now trying to be proportionate. Although Delingpole-level lockdown sceptics will never acknowledge it, most prohibitions were lifted on 4 July. Even in the most restricted parts of England, shops, schools and (with restrictions) pubs remain open. Contrast this to Wales – a snapshot of what the rest of the UK would look like if Labour were in office.

In the circumstances, ministers would be well-advised to take up the idea – pushed by ConservativeHome – of publishing estimates of the cost of the lockdown. Not just the direct costs. We need some sense of the impact on education, mental health and so on. “When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers,” said the brilliant Ulster mathematician Lord Kelvin, “you know something about it”.

Necessarily, some of the calculations will be difficult, some speculative. We can put a figure easily enough on the furlough scheme. We can measure the decline in GDP. We can quantify the direct cost to the Exchequer (over £200 billion – a figure that makes the famous £350 million a week on the side of that bus look trivial).

But what about the impact of, say, lost education? What about the chance that other diseases might become more widespread because of fewer childhood vaccinations? What is the difference in impact between Tier 2 and Tier 3 restrictions?

These questions are hard to answer, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a go. One reads that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, wants the Government to assess them and to publish its findings. Let’s hope he gets his way.

Back in March, there was little time for such assessments: decisions were necessarily rushed, and schemes were put in place for what many imagined was a crisis that would be over by the summer. Nor, frankly, did anyone want to discuss the trade-offs. Simply to run the numbers would have been to invite the accusation that heartless Tories somehow cared more about an abstract thing called “the economy” than about people’s well-being.

That is no longer true. Now, it is Labour’s enthusiasm for lockdown – a position abandoned even by the WHO – that looks ideological. Publishing the figures will underline that the government is striving to be balanced. Never mind how it looks, though: better statistics will lead to better decisions. The only thing more callous than putting a value on human life is refusing to do so.

Daniel Hannan: Overstretched – that’s how our police see themselves. So how have they found time to hound a young Geordie journalist?

14 Oct

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Which of the following do you reckon constitutes a public order offence? Holding a demonstration in defiance of lockdown rules; vandalising a statue; recording an interview with a well-known Cambridge historian in which he makes a racist remark.

If you picked the third option, you could have a glittering career in the Metropolitan Police. London’s coppers, who switched from heavy-handed enforcement of the lockdown to indulgence of Leftist demonstrators, who literally dropped to their knees during violent protests, and one of whose commanders went so far as to issue a video asking BLM agitators to break the law considerately, has decided to investigate Darren Grimes over his interview with David Starkey.

Grimes, a Eurosceptic commentator, has been interviewed under caution in connection with Section 22 of the 1986 Public Order Act which makes the producer of a broadcast containing abusive or threatening language liable if “(a) he intends thereby to stir up racial hatred, or (b) having regard to all the circumstances racial hatred is likely to be stirred up thereby.

No one, as far as I can tell, has defended Starkey’s assertion that, had the transatlantic slave trade constituted a genocide, “there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks”. Indeed, the dyspeptic doctor himself has issued a (for him) exceptional apology.

We can all agree that his remarks were intemperate, inaccurate and impolite. More than that, they were racist – a word that has been cheapened throughoveruse, but which applies in this case. A racist remark, though, does not in itself constitute a crime. The test is whether anyone hearing it would be stirred to racial hatred. In this instance, it seems vanishingly improbable. The common reaction, as we have seen, was a shudder of distaste at the speaker.

There used to be a clearly understood distinction between opinion (“Why are there so many damn Archenlanders in Narnia?”) and incitement (“Are you just going to stand there and let these Archenlanders violate our Marshwiggles?”) But that distinction has been systematically demolished, partly through legislation, partly through judicial activism and partly through over-eager policing.

It seems highly unlikely that the action against Grimes will result in a prosecution, let alone a conviction. But that doesn’t make it OK. For one thing, every investigation of this kind diminishes civil liberties and undermines the police. For another, there is a human cost even in cases that don’t reach court. As Mark Steyn (himself a victim of frivolous and malicious hate crimes accusations) puts it, “the process is the punishment”.

Grimes spent the better part of four years fighting off vexatious charges brought by people who resented the outcome of the 2016 EU referendum. Although he was completely exonerated in the end, nothing could undo the stress, the financial cost and the damaging media reports. Now, he faces going through another such ordeal. And the poor chap is still only 27.

Hate crimes are one of the places where we hear screeching gears as our politico-legal class pulls one way and public opinion the other. It is incomprehensible to most people that a police force that claims to be overstretched and underfunded can find time to chase a young Geordie journalist (“investigate crimes, not Grimes”, as one wag put it).

There is also a strong suspicion of partiality. Had David Starkey made his remarks in, say, a Guardian interview, does anyone seriously imagine that that paper’s editor would find herself under investigation? Yet, as the public looks on in bewildered alarm, the Law Commission is plugging ahead with its attempts to extend hate crimes legislation even further – this time to include misogyny.

Labour MPs have piled in against Grimes. Karl Turner, a shadow law minister, came out with a singular definition of free speech when he declared: “Of course everyone has the right to freedom of expression. But that doesn’t mean freedom from the consequences from what they have said. As I understand it, the police are investigating complaints. And it is right that they should investigate racist behaviour.”

Got that? You have absolute freedom of expression, but you may end up getting your collar felt if you exercise it in the wrong way.

Keir Starmer agrees. “I think it does sometimes have to involve the police,” he said on Monday. “There has got to be a level of tolerance of course, but there is a line which can be crossed, and it’s very important that it is investigated, and that in some cases there are prosecutions.”

Starmer has what coppers call “previous” here. When he was Director of Public Prosecutions, he reportedly overruled his staff to insist on pushing ahead with a case against someone who had made a joke on Twitter about blowing up Robin Hood airport.

If Boris Johnson moves to reverse the spread in these illiberal laws, he will be in the happy position of having the electorate with him but Labour against him. That, though, is not why he should act. He should act because, until he does, there will be many more travesties: more wasted resources, more ruined lives, more tarnished liberty. “It’s a free country”, we used to tell one another. Let’s make it one.

Daniel Hannan: Clever, inquisitive and, crucially, independent, Charles Moore would be the perfect BBC chairman

30 Sep

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Charles Moore is everything a BBC chairman should be: clever, inquisitive, independent, humane, well-read, polite, patriotic, broad-minded and generous to his critics. During the golden age of newspapers – roughly the years between the new technology brought in following the Wapping dispute in the late 1980s and the rise of online journalism in the early 2000s – he led the editorial field. His only rival, though their styles were very different, was The Daily Mail’s Paul Dacre, now being mooted as the next head of Ofcom.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have worked for both men. I don’t know Dacre well, but even slight acquaintance is enough to reveal the secret of his success, namely an unparalleled ability to speak to and for ordinary people. At a time when other newspapers were going online or throwing themselves on the generosity of patrons, Dacre’s Mail remained both popular and profitable. A newsman to his fingertips, he filled the editor’s chair with his restless energy and curiosity. With almost all media struggling to make money, he is exactly the regulator we need: fair-minded, diligent and committed in his bones to freedom of speech.

I know Moore rather better, having spent seven years working for him at The Daily Telegraph. He was, as any Telegraph writer of that era will attest, a wonderful boss. Patiently and intelligently, he improved every section of the paper, from the sports pages to the weekly children’s pull-out section. He always stood by his people – he once went to war against the Prince of Wales’s office because it had treated a Telegraph photographer badly – yet he was impervious to flattery. The newspaper he edited reflected his voracious interests. He cared a great deal about accuracy, and hired several Labour-leaning lobby correspondents – perhaps on the principle that a Leftist reporter on a Rightist paper would always strive to be objective.

The BBC stands to gain enormously from his involvement. As he did at each of his newspapers, he will take a benign interest in every aspect of programming, from comedy to cookery. He will ensure that the Corporation gets a sympathetic hearing in Downing Street. He will steer it through a landscape changed utterly by the rise of YouTube and Netflix. He will revive that sense of integrity and high-mindedness that we might loosely call Reithian.

This, naturally, is not the view of most Beeb staff. Have I Got News For You, the quiz show which arguably set Boris on the path to Number 10, Tweeted that if Moore became chairman, the BBC wouldn’t last another five years. One staffer described his mooted appointment as “the Corporation’s Stalingrad.”

In part, this is simply a howl of anguish from a Leftist establishment used to getting its way. It is striking how many BBC figures cite Moore’s Euroscepticism and Toryism as ipso facto disqualifications – even though the country voted for Brexit and then elected a Conservative Government. Implicit in the criticism is the notion that someone on the Right can’t be disinterested – or, more precisely, that the soft Left positions we associate with the Beeb are statements of objective fact. The ordinary viewer might think the BBC has certain prejudices – feminism good, austerity bad; immigration good, Israel bad; EU good, Trump bad – but to its editors, these are not prejudices but truths.

Moore’s critics display the close-mindedness that they falsely suspect in him. In fact, you won’t find a less partisan man. Moore started out as a Liberal back in the pre-SDP days when that party was still broadly liberal. His liberalism rested, and rests still, on a readiness to question assumptions, to think things through from first principles, to spot what others have missed. Successive Conservative leaders came to fear his pen more than that of any Labour-supporting editor.

His BBC critics, naturally, won’t be convinced by anything I write. A readiness to dismiss views from outside their tribe is part of their problem. But, if he gets the job, they will come to appreciate him.

For the BBC, as it is currently run, is obsolete. The problem is not that it is biased or expensive or out-of-touch. The problem rather, is that it is not feasible to fund a state broadcaster through taxes in an age of streaming. Yes, the BBC’s partiality has weakened it by alienating conservatives. But even if everyone agreed that it was run by the best, wisest and most neutral public servants, it would still not survive in its current form.

Some senior figures within the BBC recognise that change is coming, and want to take ownership of that change. The corporation, after all, has huge advantages. No broadcaster has a stronger global brand. BBC programmes are watched on every continent. Much of what it does would be commercially viable under any dispensation.

People are creatures of habit. Thirty years after privatisation, BT was still by far the largest supplier of landlines, with nearly 40 per cent of the market. Without the licence fee, plenty of viewers will still want to watch Strictly and Planet Earth and Eastenders. The BBC could more than hold its own as a subscription channel. Yes, some parts might be less viable than others – I never understood, for example, why the BBC felt the need to get into local radio, an area amply served by private suppliers. But there is every reason to believe that a more commercial BBC could become more popular as well as more efficient.

The way to ensure that that doesn’t happen, of course, is to resist all reform, to be dragged kicking and screaming into each new change.

A wise BBC will turn technological change to its advantage, aiming to emerge as a more successful and original content-generator while recovering its former place in our national esteem. No one would help it achieve that goal better than Charles Moore.