Daniel Hannan: Is it worth decarbonising if the rest of the world won’t follow?

21 Jul

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

Is it worth it? The question kept nagging at me as I stood in a drizzly Derbyshire quarry, watching a miracle of British engineering. Is it worth pushing ahead with deep cuts in CO2 emissions if the rest of the world won’t follow?

The miracle in front of me was a digger powered by an internal combustion engine that ran on hydrogen – something that was, until a few months ago, thought to be impossible. Pundits and politicians like to hymn the praises of electric vehicles. But batteries have their limits. They are expensive, slow to charge and heavy. They can’t realistically power planes or trains or ships or heavy lorries – or, indeed, big diggers.

JCB (whose digger and whose quarry this was) had already produced a diesel engine that reduced air pollution by more than 99 per cent. It had come up with a small electric excavator, too. But a 20-ton machine, usually the first onto a building site, cannot run on batteries – even if it were somehow able to keep taking time off to recharge. Another solution was needed.

Full disclosure: over the years, I have occasionally worked as an adviser to JCB. For precisely that reason, I don’t normally write about the company. But, on this occasion, I reckon I’d be failing as a columnist if I didn’t tell you about the vastness of what it has just achieved.

Lord Bamford, who chairs the business, could simply have consolidated during the epidemic. He had already turned his family firm into a global leader. Another man, in his situation, might be easing his foot off the accelerator in his eighth decade.

But Bamford is, at heart, an engineer. He refines, he tinkers, he improves; he looks for what others have missed. Perhaps it is in the soil. JCB is headquartered pretty much at the epicentre of where the industrial revolution began – a revolution that was made by refiners and tinkerers and improvers, typically men who left school in their early teens, keen to get straight into the workshop.

JCB’s nearby engineering school occupies one of Arkwright’s first mills. The Bamfords themselves, if you go back far enough, were ironmongers and blacksmiths.

So when he told his engineers to find a way of creating a hydrogen engine, they swallowed their scepticism and set to work, grouping the supposedly insuperable objections under eleven headings. While the rest of the country grumbled its way through the second lockdown, they solved them one by one.

The implications are colossal. The country that invented the engine (Thomas Newcomen, who built the first practical fuel-burning engine in 1712, was another iron-monger and tinkerer) has found a way of saving the sector. Britain produces around 2.5 million internal combustion engines every year, nearly two thirds of them for export. Until a few weeks ago, the entire industry faced oblivion. Now, with a few adjustments, it can stay in business.

I tell you all this, not just to remind you that we remain a nation of innovators, but because my opening question is a serious one. If there is a global shift away from fossil fuels, then Britain is better placed than most countries to supply the new technology. It will still be more expensive than leaving things as they are, obviously. But there are ways to harness market forces, making the transition cheaper and smoother.

So let’s ask the question again. Britain, following drastic reductions, is now responsible for only one per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. If we acted in isolation, we could return to the Stone Age and it would barely make any difference.

Obviously, we won’t be acting wholly in isolation. The EU has committed itself to a measure of decarbonisation, as has Joe Biden’s America. Then again, as Donald Trump once put it, with characteristic bluntness: “Look at China, how filthy it is! Look at Russia, look at India: it’s filthy, the air is filthy!”

China is the world’s biggest polluter, responsible for 28 per cent of carbon emissions. India is third, at seven per cent. Both countries are reluctant to commit to binding targets. Is there much point in pushing ahead without them?

I suppose I ought to add, at this point, that I believe the world is heating, at least partly in response to human activity. If you disagree, fine. But there is then no point in arguing about targets and international deals. If you fundamentally don’t think there is any problem, we will just go round and round in circles.

If, on the other hand, you see a problem, the question becomes how to tackle it affordably and proportionately. Our aim should be to harness the genius of the private sector – to use inventions like that hydrogen motor – so as to minimise extra spending and extra bureaucracy.

It is fair enough to argue that someone needs to make the first move. It is fair enough, too, to point out that the whole world should not hang back simply because two or three states won’t join in. The question is one of proportionality.

It is here that my doubts arise. The commitments we have made go beyond most of our competitors’. The EU and the United States lag behind us, though not by much. Canada, Australia and Japan lag a bit further. China talks vaguely of peaking around 2030. A clutch of states – Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia – are barely bothering to go through the motions.

Leading by example is all well and good. Impoverishing yourself in order to make a point, not so much. The danger, as with all government initiatives, is that we reach a critical mass where, even if it becomes clear that the rest of the world isn’t following, a powerful lobby of rent-seekers and eco-corporatists continue to drive the policy for its own sake.

Don’t underestimate how painful the adjustment will be. “Energy is not just another sector of the economy,” the great Matt Ridley points out. “It is the thermodynamic lifeblood of prosperity.” Modern civilisation became possible when falling energy prices released human beings from back-breaking labour. In 1880 a minute’s work would buy four minutes of artificial light. In 1950 it was seven hours of light. By 2000 it was five days.

None of this is to say that we should give up. There will be more breakthroughs like the JCB engine. Batteries should, over time, become cheaper and lighter. New ways might be found to heat houses. We might even happen across a completely new, clean energy source – fission, say. The cost of climate mitigation, like the cost of adaptation, will fall as technology improves.

All I am asking for is perspective. We need constantly to weigh costs and benefits; to tackle the freeloader dilemma; to consider that innovation might lower prices, and so make calculated postponements rational; to ask whether there are other priorities (in 2020, for example, there was).

We should, in short, approach climate change in a transactional rather than a millenarian spirit, looking for maximum effectiveness rather than seeking to flaunt our piety. Conservatives, of all people, ought to understand that.

Daniel Hannan: London was always going to be fine post-Brexit. But now we must cut EU rules and allow it to prosper.

7 Jul

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

Brexit was never going to kill the City. It is a measure of how demented our culture war became after 2016 that that notion was ever seriously entertained. London gained the top spot through strong property rights, incorruptible courts, secure contracts, light-touch regulation and low taxes. Everyone understood that the system was impartial, that the rules would not be rigged against foreign companies, that all were equal under the law.

Those features allowed London to retain its pre-eminence despite the decline of sterling as a global currency, despite the Second World War, and despite the economic collapse of the 1970s. Companies from around the world recognised that the best and cheapest money markets were disproportionately concentrated in the Square Mile. EEC membership had little to do with it.

Eurocrats never saw things that way, of course. In their eyes, London was a parasite, moving money around while honest Europeans did the more “real” work of making cars, producing chemicals and ploughing fields. Brexit, they believed, was an opportunity to shift jobs to Paris, Frankfurt and Milan, and to divert the accompanying tax revenues to their own coffers.

Emmanuel Macron came to London and pitched directly for companies to relocate. His ministers set up offices to advise on the transition. Frankfurt expanded its English-language schools.

Meanwhile, Brussels set out to be as bellicose as possible. UK-based firms found that the letter of the law was suddenly being forced on them with a perversity that their Japanese or American rivals were spared. At the same time, the EU refused to grant equivalence to British financial services providers.

Equivalence – essentially an agreement to trust each other’s regulators – is a normal courtesy among advanced economies. The EU offers it to Brazilian, Chinese and Mexican companies. Britain, naturally, offers it to the EU. But the EU evidently believed that refusing to reciprocate might somehow asphyxiate London.

It didn’t work. This would have been obvious had it not been for the hysterical tone of Britain’s Europhile broadcasters, determined as they were to show that Brexit had been a catastrophe.

Every relocation of a UK job to the Continent was drooled over with a kind of excited despair, while almost no attention was paid to jobs moving the other way – or, indeed, new jobs being created. When, as a result of EU restrictions, Amsterdam briefly overtook London in the volume of shares being traded, there was terrific excitement; when London reclaimed its place last week, coverage was muted.

The EU’s strategy is self-harming. Protectionism always makes the state applying it poorer. Making it harder for continental firms to access London finance does more damage to the continental firms than to London. It also signals to the world that Brussels discriminates on the basis of nationality, subordinating prosperity to prejudice.

Had the EU been more adroit, it might have sought to make itself more attractive. Instead of denying Britain equivalence, it would have looked for ways to lower its own taxes and to reassure the world that it would not tilt the scales against foreign companies. But, for whatever reason, it cannot bring itself to think that way.

Don’t imagine for a moment, though, that London’s dominance is guaranteed. The City has no automatic right to the top slot. It must earn that place anew every day. Brexit doesn’t just allow the City to make its regulatory regime more competitive; it obliges it to do so.

As Andrew Bailey, the Governor of the Bank of England, put it earlier this year: “I’m afraid a world in which the EU dictates and determines what rules and standards we have in the UK is not going to work”.

There was an argument – a weak argument, in my view, but an argument – for matching some EU standards for the sake of equivalence. But when Brussels won’t recognise even our current rules, which are identical to its own, there is no argument whatever for holding back.

We should begin by repealing those EU rules which were opposed by the industry when they were brought in, even if, having now assimilated the compliance costs, some established actors have lost interest in repeal. We need to think of future businesses as well as existing ones. We should undo the parts of the EU’s MiFID 2 and Solvency 2 regimes that we opposed at the time, and scrap the Alternative Investment Fund Managers Directive and the short-selling ban.

More broadly, we need lighter-touch regulation. Many of our rules are still aimed at preventing the 2008 crash, rather than at facilitating future growth in fintech, green investment and digital trade. At the very least, we should make competitiveness an explicit part of the regulators’ mandate – certainly no less than stability, confidence or consumer protection. Other regulators, such as Singapore’s, take it for granted that boosting competitiveness is part of their role.

And let’s not be shy about cutting taxes in ways that will attract investment and so, over time, increase revenue. It is hard, on Laffer curve grounds, to justify the bank corporation tax surcharge or stamp duty on share trading. We also need to end the absurd rule which limits bonuses – thus whacking up bankers’ basic salaries and reducing the link between performance and pay.

Some of these reforms might be unpopular. But, with our public finances in the state they are in, we can’t afford to subordinate our recovery to the prejudices of focus groups. Financial services are, to Britain, what tourism is to the Maldives. As our mediaeval wealth rested on wool, so our modern wealth rests on banking, insurance and investment. I’m not asking you to like bankers and hedgies; I’m just asking you to recognise that they pay 10 per cent of Britain’s taxes.

The PM wants to show that Brexit has tangible benefits, and commissioned Iain Duncan Smith, George Freeman and Theresa Villiers to look at ways to raise our competitiveness. Their report in May set out a measured and realistic plan to do precisely this.

But, as anyone who has worked in politics will tell you, the real challenge is turning your vision into hard policies over the head of an often change-averse civil service. “Between the idea and the reality,” wrote T S Eliot, “Between the motion and the act falls the Shadow”. Between the speech and the implementation, between the report and the legislation, between the ambition and the deregulation – falls the Shadow.

Daniel Hannan: Do we need safe spaces for conservatives on campus?

23 Jun

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

Do we need safe spaces for conservatives on campus? It’s a serious question. Consider, to pluck an example more or less at random, the decision this month by the Middle Common Room at Magdalen College, Oxford to remove a portrait of the Queen for the sake of “making people feel welcome”.

The monarchy is meant to be a unifying symbol, not only for British people of all ethnic backgrounds, but for 2.5 billion Commonwealth citizens. If we must allow the possibility that someone somewhere might none the less feel uncomfortable as they pass a portrait of Elizabeth II, should we not also consider the rather greater possibility that Right-of-Centre students might feel uncomfortable in a college that routinely makes decisions of this kind?

Conservatives tend not to crave victim status. When we walk past, say, a poster of Che Guevara, we might grumble at the moral emptiness of the numbskull who put it up; but we don’t, as a rule, go to the authorities and claim to have been wounded by the experience.

Still, the fact that we don’t whinge doesn’t mean that there is no issue. There is real concern among some Centre-Right students that their opinions will result in their being penalised academically.

Left-wing lecturers are not a new phenomenon; but their increasing intolerance is. A growing number of undergraduates feel obliged to spout woke pieties in their coursework for fear of being marked down. A brilliant young Cambridge historian told me recently that his first application had been rejected because he failed to mention slavery at his interview. “It was my fault, really, for not researching the politics of the don before I met her,” he added, apologetically. “The trouble is, I’m mainly a mediaevalist.”

That sort of thing didn’t really happen in my day. I had some spectacularly Left-wing dons, but they were, in the fullest sense of the word, liberals – broad-minded, interested in other points of view, comfortable with debate. That, though, was before the Great Awokening – the defining characteristic of which is not that it made universities more Left-wing, but that it made them readier to punish dissidents and heretics. Academics, in this sense at least, are behaving more like student radicals.

Consider, to pluck another recent example, the boycott of Oriel College, Oxford by 150 dons in protest at its refusal to bow to the mob and pull down the statuette of Cecil Rhodes which stands in a niche in the building his bequest paid for.

L’affaire Rhodes merits a column on its own. The diamond magnate who stalks the imaginations of BLM protesters is a cartoon baddy, a one-dimensional colonialist. The real human being was more complicated. For example, the flesh-and-blood Rhodes opposed the disfranchisement of black men in Cape Colony, funded the newspaper of what became the ANC and, when establishing his famous scholarships, laid down that “no student shall be qualified or disqualified for election to a scholarship on account of his race” (a fifth of Rhodes scholars currently come from Africa).

He is not the most obvious candidate for cancellation – perhaps not even the most obvious candidate on his building, which also features a statue of a mediaeval clergyman who enthusiastically burned Lollards and of another who was on Spain’s side during the Armada.

Oriel listened politely to its critics, then established a commission to consider the future of the Rhodes statue. Although most of the members were committed decolonisers, their recommendations were surprisingly muted.

Essentially, they concluded that, yes, it might be nice to remove the statue but that, given the planning difficulties, there were other ways for Oriel to demonstrate its commitment to racial justice. The college duly announced that it would not waste a great deal of money on a lengthy application that would almost certainly be turned down; and so, appropriately enough, an imported American row was ended by British planning regulations.

It was this decision that sparked the “statement of a boycott of Oriel College” by various academics, determined to broadcast their purity by telling the world that they would not teach Oriel undergraduates. Most commentators fulminated against their lack of professionalism. One MP talked of “blackmail”. Almost everyone agreed that they were wrong to take out their politics on students.

But, thinking about it, I come to a different conclusion. School leavers who are not on the hard Left can now apply confidently to at least one college where they are unlikely to be harassed by the kind of don who sees conservatism as a mental illness.

Look at it from the point of view of a bright and unwoke sixth-former. Not necessarily a Scrutonian Rightist, just someone who feels that we have taken identity politics too far, and who worries that that view might provoke a negative reaction from tutors. The 150 silliest dons, those likeliest to resent divergent opinions, have conveniently given notice that at least one college will be spared their grievance-mongering.

Why not lean into the row? Why not advertise Oriel as an unwoke oasis? Why not appeal, on niche marketing grounds if nothing else, to students who don’t take the BLM line – not least the many conservative-leaning non-white students who are invisible to the broadcast media, but whom we all know in real life?

Full disclosure: Oriel was my old college as well as Rhodes’s. It used to have a certain reputation for social conservatism, heartiness and (not to put too fine a point on it) philistinism. Back then, different colleges had different personalities. Wadham, for example, was always a far-Left outlier.

But whereas Wadham remains as cheerfully extreme as ever, it has become almost unthinkable for any college to distinguish itself in the other direction. Why? Isn’t this a straightforward case of consumer choice? Or, to put it in terms that critics might prefer, of diversity and inclusion? Is one non-Leftist college out of 39 really too much to ask?

Daniel Hannan: A Levelling Up Fund will not, on its own, turn Sunderland into Singapore. Localism will takes us closer, though.

9 Jun

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

How exactly does levelling up work? The aspiration is unimpeachable and the slogan pithy. But how does a government go about realising it? Imagine that you’re the official in charge of enriching one of our poorer regions. You sit at your desk, you open your laptop. Now what?

Part of the answer has to do with infrastructure. That’s the easy bit, the bit that the PM, with his boyish enthusiasm for bridges, railways and airports, most enjoys. But a £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund is not, on its own, going to turn Dudley into Dubai or Sunderland into Singapore.

A certain reshuffling of government departments might help at the margins. When, for example, the Department of International Trade moves 500 jobs to Darlington, it slightly boosts the economy of County Durham. But it does so at the expense of other regions, since those jobs are maintained at public expense.

So what can ministers do? How might they stimulate the generation of new wealth rather than simply pushing piles of cash around? The obvious answer is one that, for some reason, is rarely heard these days: more localism.

Let’s stick, for a moment, with Teesside. Labour, in retrospect, made a bad mistake when it held the Hartlepool by-election on the same date as the regional mayoral contest. Ben Houchen, the incumbent Conservative Tees Valley mayor, romped home with an astonishing 72.8 per cent of the vote. Why? Because he is seen as an effective local champion who stopped the airport from closing, is redeveloping the former steel works at Redcar and is turning the region into a freeport.

It is an iron law of politics that, the bigger the unit of government, the less efficient it becomes. Town halls are by no means perfect, but they are far less likely than Whitehall departments to preside over monumental cock-ups involving consultants and computers. So why not extend the model? Why not push more powers out to local people?

In 2008, Douglas Carswell and I co-wrote a book called The Plan: Twelve Months to Renew Britain. It set out a comprehensive agenda for the diffusion, democratisation and decentralisation of power.

Some of its ideas were successfully implemented by the Coalition government which took office two years later. A recall mechanism allowed local voters to challenge an unpopular MP. Proposals could be forced onto the Commons agenda by petition (people tend to forget that this is how Brexit first made its way into Parliament). Whips lost some of their patronage powers, and parliamentary committees were elected. MPs’ expenses were reformed.

Other ideas turned out to be less successful. Locally elected sheriffs were watered down until they became Police and Crime Commissioners. I have always disliked that name: it is boring, technocratic and inaccurate (read literally, it suggests that PCCs are responsible for crimes). But, in a depressingly ahistorical spasm, Whitehall decided that sheriff sounded “too American”. Nor were the PCCs given anything like the powers we had proposed. In any event, the reform never caught the public’s imagination. People carry on grumbling about woke coppers without it seeming to occur to anyone that PCCs are there precisely to ensure that the police’s priorities don’t drift too far from everyone else’s.

Our biggest idea, granting English counties and cities the sorts of power that are exercised by Holyrood, wasn’t tried. It never is. Central governments are not usually in the business of devolving power. In almost every democracy, the long-term tendency is the other way – driven, in part, by media cultures which make it almost impossible for a minister to say “this is nothing to do with me – talk to the local council”.

Go back, for a moment, to the idea of freeports or special economic zones. The original example, Shenzhen, was a huge success. It didn’t simply suck activity in from neighbouring provinces. It generated new wealth, because it had real power.

Imagine that our freeports could, say, scrap all taxes on savings and inheritance, or require balanced budgets, or introduce Singapore-style healthcare systems. Then we would get the growth that comes from innovation. New schemes would be piloted and trialled. What worked would spread. Jurisdictional competition would give us something we have never known before in this country – downward pressure on tax rates.

Sadly, though, whatever interest politicians show in localism when they are in opposition tends to evaporate once they assume office. Indeed, it is surprising – and creditable – that David Cameron went as far as he did.

Still, there are real dangers in letting things lie. The epidemic and the lockdowns have placed powers in the hands of the central administration that would have been unthinkable two years’ ago. Closed committees decide whether we can leave the country, enjoy our property or meet our friends. State budgets have grown commensurately. And governments are never in a hurry to return the powers that they had assumed on a supposedly emergency basis.

We left the EU precisely to take back control. Having repatriated power, it would be unforgivable to leave it in the hands of Whitehall functionaries. Instead, we should give local communities the tools to raise themselves. Otherwise, four or five years from now, we might find our levelling up rhetoric thrown back at us in anger.

Daniel Hannan: We cannot allow our solution to the problem of illiberalism depart from liberal principles

26 May

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

Every time you think woke students can’t get any more pompous, risible or absurd, they surpass themselves. The latest madness is a campaign by the “Birkbeck Students Anti-Racism Network” to remove Eric Kaufmann from his position at their college. Dr Kaufmann is one of the most original and brilliant political scientists of our age. He writes a great deal about identity issues, basing his work on original research and polling rather than on woke pieties.

His very rigour enrages his detractors. A lengthy charge-sheet is levelled against the Vancouverite professor, much of it in what Orwell called duckspeak: “He’s indistinguishable from the institutions that create, legitimise and perpetuate the ways of thinking that ultimately serve to install and preserve capitalism and colonialism alongside the social systems that sustain it: the patriarchy and white supremacy…”

Among other things, Kaufman has apparently committed the abominable sin of being “associated with Quillette, UnHerd, Spiked and many other far-right & bigoted magazines”. He is, hilariously, accused of being a white supremacist – I say “hilariously” because Kaufmann is of mixed Chinese, Latino and Jewish heritage. Worst of all, he is apparently engaged in “cancelling ‘cancel culture’.”

Such, I suppose, is the logical end-point of woke. Simply to argue against cancel culture is now considered grounds for cancellation. True, these Birkbeck blockheads are outliers; but less so than they would have been five years ago – even two years ago. Each stunt of this kind ends up dragging the centre of gravity further towards what would until recently have been almost universally seen as a lunatic fringe.

A straightforward vindication, you might think, of the Government’s plan to appoint a campus free speech tsar. Kaufmann himself has written on this website in support of government intervention, arguing that legislation will alter behaviour, as happened with the seat-belt law.

We should be careful, though, that our solution to the problem of illiberalism does not itself depart from liberal principles. Free association, like free speech, is a fundamental right. University societies are entitled to disinvite speakers. They can do so in a self-righteous, inconsistent and discourteous way without trampling on anyone’s freedoms. What they can’t do – or at least shouldn’t be allowed to do without sanctions – is to disrupt other people’s meetings, or use the threat of physical force to keep a speaker away.

The distinction matters. Legislation aimed at punishing universities that have deplatformed speakers is, as Steve Davies argued in a paper published yesterday by the Institute of Economic Affairs “an intrusion of political power into the internal affairs of a private body and would be rightly resisted if it were attempted elsewhere.

The real problem, as Dr Davies correctly points out, is the lack of ideological diversity, not only on campus but in a number of graduate professions. The solution lies in lowering barriers to entry so as to encourage heterodoxy rather than yet more state bans.

That, though, is a difficult argument to make in the current climate. Wokery undoubtedly provokes an angry response. But that response is more often Trumpian than libertarian. Bans are met with counterbans, cancellations with more cancellations. You got one of ours sacked? Well we’ve dug up something silly that one of yours once said!

As the culture war becomes more vicious, we lose sight of what ought to be the elemental precepts of a liberal society: free contract, free expression, free association. A few months ago, I wrote a ConHome column making the basic case for liberty and property. Businesses, I wrote, should not be compelled to take customers. A restaurant should be allowed to insist that you wear a tie, a hotel to refuse to cater to children, Twitter to reject Donald Trump, Amazon to refuse to host Parler, a cruise ship to demand proof of vaccination. Whether they were wise to exercise these rights was a different issue; but our presumption should be in favour of freedom.

That case would once have gone almost without saying on the Centre-Right. Not any more. The comment section was filled with angry screeds, several of them from people who think of themselves as mainstream conservatives, complaining that I had gone over to the other side.

As so often, we are being pulled by American cultural currents. Republican state administrations have taken to banning vaccine passports – that is, making it illegal for private firms to set their own conditions on who can use their facilities. As David Frum points out, the tendency predates the Coronavirus: Oklahoma Republicans had already passed a law that made it a criminal offence for a company to ban employees from taking firearms into its parking lot.

To argue that, just as the state should not impose vaccine passports, neither should it prevent private companies from requiring tests, is an increasingly lonely business. To believe that people should have free speech, but others should be under no compulsion to give them a platform, is at odds with the authoritarian mood of the time. To aver that students have every right to be wrong and rude, and even to object to having teachers from outside the hard Left, but that universities should not indulge their nonsense, is nowadays an eccentric position. Liberalism is in retreat. No one cares about process when they happen to favour a particular outcome.

Yet take those precepts away and everything we understand by a free society – fixed rules rather than arbitrary rulings, the ability to innovate and invest without fear of confiscation, the freedom to speak your mind without being blacklisted, East Germany-style – suddenly becomes a lot more precarious. There was a time when conservatives understood that.

Daniel Hannan: Super Thursday’s results weren’t a victory for conservatism, but for our leader: Brexity Jezza

12 May

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

It was, as every pundit rushed to explain, an incumbency vote. The Conservatives held England, Labour held Wales and the SNP held Scotland. In a crisis, people rallied to the regime.

Yes. But let’s spell out, in full depressing detail, precisely what kind of regimes they were rallying to. They were rallying to free stuff. They were voting gratefully for administrations that were ladling out grants, subsidies and interest-free loans. They were cheerfully endorsing the idea of being paid to stay at home.

Indeed, they had little option but to vote for these things. Who was offering an alternative? What politician, in the current mood, wants to be the gloomster reminding everyone that accounts must be settled? Who feels like being a Cassandra, droning on about how the debts of the past 14 months will drag us down for years to come? I mean, look what happened to Cassandra.

The rise of big government is paradoxically bad news for Labour. Boris Johnson has always had a thing about bridges, airports and other grands projets. Even before the pandemic hit, the man who once described himself as a “Brexity Hezza” was starting to unscrew the spending taps. But the lockdowns altered the fiscal terms of trade utterly and irretrievably. Not so much Brexity Hezza now as Brexity Jezza.

Corbynistas are claiming belated vindication. “You see? There was a magic money tree after all! Your guy is spending more than our guy ever promised!” Yes, he is. And that is precisely Labour’s problem. How can Keir Starmer – how can anyone – criticise the government for not spending enough? The usual Labour line, namely that they’d be more open-handed than those heartless Tories, is redundant.

If it can’t attack the Government on fiscal policy, what else can Labour go for? Sleaze? Yeah, right, good luck with that. The country decided early on that it was fond of the PM. Sure, he might be seen as a bit chaotic, but he is doing things that people like. At a time when he is leading the UK through a world-beating vaccination programme, moaning about a redecoration that is not alleged to have cost taxpayers a penny is not just pointless, but self-defeating. Labour has made itself look unutterably small during a crisis. Wallpaper for Boris, curtains for Keir.

Green issues, then? Again, forget it. The PM has embraced the eco-agenda as wholeheartedly as any head of government on the planet. Labour would, as voters correctly perceive, pursue the same agenda, but in a less cost-effective and market-friendly way.

With economics, sleaze and environmentalism off the table, Labour is left only with the culture war. Oddly, this is one of the few issues that unites Corbynites and Starmerites. The trouble is, it doesn’t unite them with anyone else. The two Labour factions squabble furiously on Twitter, but both are leagues away from the patriotic working people who used to be their party’s mainstay.

As Khalid Mahmood, the Birmingham MP, put it after the result: “A London-based bourgeoisie, with the support of brigades of woke social media warriors, has effectively captured the party”. Mahmood was the first British Muslim MP, and is generally happy to take up causes for his co-religionists outside Birmingham. But he has little time for identity politics – at least, not in the deranged form that the British Left seems hell-bent on importing from the United States. In common with most Brits of all ethnic backgrounds, Mahmood a patriot, proud of having had ancestors in the Merchant Navy in both world wars. That his love of country should set him at odds with the Labour leadership is telling.

The culture war is where Labour is weakest. Corbyn was more or less openly anti-British, siding automatically with any nation against his own, regardless of the issue. Starmer at least sees why this is unpopular, and does his best to be photographed from time to time with flags. But, coming late and awkwardly to patriotism, he offers a slightly cringe-making version. The country at large – not just Labour’s old base, but the 80-plus per cent of us who think that, with all its faults, Britain has been a benign force down the years – senses his inauthenticity. As I write, opinion polls suggest an 11-point Conservative lead.

The combination of social liberalism and extreme internationalism that Corbynites and Stamerites share is, outside a few cities with big universities, unpopular. That may change over time, of course. The historian Ed West, rarely a man to look on the bright side, believes that demographic change will eventually align the electorate with Labour’s purse-lipped culture warriors. The population, he glumly notes, “is going to be more diverse, more urban, more single, more university-educated and more impoverished by rental prices” – all trends that help Labour.

Perhaps so. Indeed, as Henry Hill noted on this site yesterday, the one region of England where the Conservatives have started slipping is my old patch, the South East. Local election results saw reverses in Kent, Surrey, Sussex, Oxfordshire and (by extrapolation from the new boundaries) Buckinghamshire. But, to be brutally frank, it makes little difference. Under the first-past-the-post system, the Tories can slide a lot further in the Home Counties without endangering more than three or four MPs. For the next couple of election cycles, at least, the Long Awokening won’t much matter.

No, far more alarming is the way in which fiscal conservatism has simply disappeared, an early casualty of the lockdowns. Even as the country reopens, there is almost no talk of cutting spending back to where it was, let alone of starting to repay our debts. Just as after 1945, a collective threat has made us more collectivist. We crave big government. We feel we have earned a pay rise, and we vote accordingly. The Labour Party may have had it; but so, alas, has the free market.

Daniel Hannan: The epidemic, in Britain, is over. But are we ready to cry freedom?

28 Apr

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

Would anyone, coming fresh to our current situation, propose a lockdown? The vulnerable have been shielded: around 95 per cent of people over 50, along with healthcare and care home workers, have had what turns out to be a highly effective vaccine. The inoculation programme is now reaching healthy people in their early forties – people for whom, in most cases, the virus would manifest as a cold. As I write, the latest daily death count is six. Not six per million. Six.

It is true that no vaccine is a 100 per cent effective. A return to sports matches, music festivals and crowded 747s will lead to an uptick in fatalities – just as it will lead to an uptick in colds and traffic accidents. But the epidemic, in Britain, is over. Deaths are lower than usual for the time of year, and 96.5 per cent of deaths are caused by something other than Covid-19.

The trouble is that lifting restrictions is an altogether tougher proposition than not imposing them in the first place. People tend to anchor to the status quo. Governments are reluctant to relinquish the powers they assumed on a supposedly contingent basis. Just as with post-war rationing, bureaucrats fear chaos if controls are lifted, and struggle to understand the (admittedly counter-intuitive) notion of spontaneous order. Freedoms, as always, need to be prised from the cold grip of the administrative state.

You might think it eccentric of me to raise this issue just as restrictions are being loosened. Schools and shops are open, and most of the remaining prohibitions seem almost certain to be lifted two weeks on Monday. Why bang on about the lockdown now, when it is being eased?

Well, for one thing, each of the next 19 days will cost us several hundred million pounds. Sums that would have horrified us a year ago have now become unremarkable; but they haven’t become any smaller. To say “just another couple of weeks” is much easier if you are a government official at home on full pay than if you are, say, a restaurateur or hotelier. Every day in lockdown is adding weeks to our recovery.

For another, there is a question of good faith. We were assured that the closures would not last a day longer than necessary, that they would be driven by “data not dates”. Yet on every metric, things have turned out better than expected. Infection rates, hospitalisation rates and death rates are all lower than had been projected; the take-up of vaccines has been higher, as has their efficacy, both in preventing serious illness and in reducing transmission. Sadly, though, the current political discourse makes it much harder to ease the restraints: the accusations against the PM make it almost impossible for him to accelerate the reopening.

Still, the vaccines are working. A mass inoculation programme was sold as the way to restore normality. It was reasonable enough to hold back until we knew that it was having the promised effect; but now we do know. Once vulnerable people have been offered protection, the case for remaining restrictions of any kind – masks, travel bans, vaccine passports – falls away. The justification for repressive measures was that the Coronavirus could cause mass fatalities, not that we needed to protect younger people from something that might knock them out for a few days.

Which brings us to the third and most important point. What we do next will establish a new baseline. There was much talk in March 2020 of whether the Coronavirus was “just ’flu”. Frankly I wonder whether people who talk about “just” ’flu have ever had ’flu. But leaving that aside, the danger is that, from now, ’flu will be treated like Covid. Lockdowns, utterly unthinkable 15 months ago, could easily become a standard response to new diseases.

So it is vital to understand their costs and benefits. Obviously, immobilising the entire population is bound to have some impact on slowing the transmission of a disease spread by human contact. But the correlation is weaker than you might think. As Noah Carl has shown, there are plenty of examples of countries that imposed strict lockdowns and then, while the restrictions were in full force, saw major surges.

The reverse is also true. It has for some reason become fashionable to argue that Sweden’s approach failed, because it had more infections than its Nordic neighbours. (Sweden, for these purposes, is only ever compared to other Scandinavian states, for reasons that no one explains.) But this is fundamentally to misunderstand what the original argument was about.

Supporters of the Swedish approach did not argue that it was exactly like Britain or, indeed, that it was doing everything perfectly. Their contention, rather, was that Sweden was the control in the global experiment. Back in March 2020, when the rest of the world locked down, closures were sold as the only way to halt exponential spread. Sweden disproved that contention as early as May 2020 when, without closing shops, schools or restaurants, it saw a decline in case numbers.

That should have been that. Plainly, a country could protect itself without a complete shutdown. Cases would peak with or without draconian measures. Indeed, Professor Simon Wood, a statistician at Edinburgh University, has shown that the rate of new infections had already started to decline before the imposition of each of the three British lockdowns.

That, though, is an unpopular message. It suggests that at least some of the suffering we have gone through over the past year – not just the economic losses, but everything from ruined education to poor mental health – could have been avoided. To repeat, the argument is not that lockdowns are wholly ineffective, but that their cost is disproportionate.

Why am I saying this now? Because it is sensible, immediately after an event, to write yourself a memo to which you can refer next time. There will be more pandemics – whether derived from the Coronavirus or from new sources. And, given the state of our media discourse, they will now be met by calls for new lockdowns. Yet gathering evidence suggests that our closures were wrongly targeted, excessively harsh and, above all, too long. That, surely, is the enquiry we need most urgently.

Daniel Hannan: A tribute to Jens-Peter Bonde. A devastatingly able campaigner and giant of the Eurosceptic movement.

14 Apr

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

A giant of the Eurosceptic movement died last week, unreported and largely unremarked. Jens-Peter Bonde, who spent 29 years in the European Parliament and was, for much of that time, the closest thing it had to a Leader of the Opposition, passed away at his home near Copenhagen, aged 73.

There has, of course, been a more newsworthy death grabbing our attention. But, even without the passing of the Duke of Edinburgh, we would not have heard much about the cheerful, detail-obsessed Danish campaigner.

This is partly because Brexit has short-circuited the arguments about the decentralisation of power. I have written more than my share of papers on how a looser, more flexible EU might have worked. But all that is over now. Eurocrats responded to Britain’s withdrawal by pushing ahead with the integrationist schemes that had previously been held up by our veto – tax harmonisation, an EU army, the lot. A country can either get with that programme or leave. A Europe of nations is no longer on the agenda, if ever it was.

There is another reason, though, that Bonde faded from public consciousness. He might have been the moving spirit behind the Euro-critical movement, but he does not fit the popular image of the anti-Brussels campaigner. Thoughtful, polite and Left-of-Centre, he was the Eurosceptic whom federalists found it hardest to dislike. He worked on various projects with Romano Prodi, Guy Verhofstadt and Jean-Claude Juncker, who remarked on hearing of Bonde’s death that their clashes over the burgeoning EU budget “didn’t take away from the friendship I had with him”.

Bonde began as a revolutionary and ended as a reformer. He had campaigned against EEC membership in Denmark’s referendum in 1972 – a campaign at that time dominated, like its British equivalent, by the Bennite Left – and was elected as an MEP for the People’s Movement Against the EEC in 1979. After Denmark voted against the Maastricht Treaty in June 1992, he established the June Movement, reaching out to those Danes who had been happy enough with the EEC, but who disliked the new push for political and economic amalgamation.

That made him the de facto head of something that had not existed until that moment: a Europe-wide anti-federalist movement. As the leader of the tiny Eurosceptic bloc in Brussels, Bonde had the time and the resources to co-ordinate the efforts of new allies: Philippe de Villiers’ souverainiste movement in France, the successors to the various Scandinavian “No” campaigns from 1994 and, in Britain, Jimmy Goldsmith’s Referendum Party and Alan Sked’s UKIP.

I remember asking him, when I was first elected in 1999, whether he thought it was acceptable to use EU money that way. Then, as now, the European Parliament made resources available to individual MEPs and their parties for political projects. The idea, of course, was that the moolah would translate into greater support for the EU. But there was no way to draw up the rules so as explicitly to exclude Eurosceptics. Did he think it was okay to finance his projects with Brussels cash?

“I used to wonder the same thing when I arrived here 20 years ago, Daniel. In the end, I asked a man who had been one of my mentors. He was a partisan leader in the war, and he told me, ‘Jens-Peter, when we siphoned gas off German vehicles during the occupation, it wasn’t an act of theft – it was an act of legitimate resistance.’”

I laughed out loud at the mental picture the mild-mannered, bespectacled Bonde stealing petrol by moonlight. In truth, by then, he was already more interested in making the EU less intrusive than in taking his country out of it. But he remained a devastatingly able campaigner.

The following year, he and I worked together on the “No” campaign in Denmark’s single currency referendum. We started more than 20 points behind in the polls, but Bonde knew how to appeal to waverers. He block-booked advertising space with bus companies all over the country. A week before polling day, a question appeared on the side of almost every Danish bus: “Do you know enough to abolish the Crown forever yet?” It was the “yet” that did it, rallying undecideds to the status quo and carrying us to a surprise victory.

For all that they found him personally agreeable, the EU’s leaders could not forgive such behaviour. Had they been a bit cleverer, they would have treated Bonde and his allies as a kind of loyal opposition, engaging with his ideas on democracy and transparency, and using his presence to show that the EU was not an intolerant monolith. But, subject to their federalist purity-spiral, they could never bring themselves to do it.

As the EU pushed ahead with deeper and deeper union – Maastricht was followed by Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon – the idea of devolving power fell away, leaving withdrawal as the only alternative. Bonde was replaced by Nigel Farage as leader of his group and, more broadly, as the voice of Euroscepticism. While he was shifting from secessionism to constructive criticism, the Eurosceptic movement was going the other way.

Bonde’s idea of a Europe of nations now survives only as a counterfactual, a might-have-been, like Gladstone’s Home Rule proposals or Pitt the Elder’s plan to conciliate America. The EU’s leaders may soon wish they had taken the well-mannered Dane more seriously.

Daniel Hannan: I hate everything about the lockdown. But most of all, how much we like being bossed around.

31 Mar

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

I hate everything about the lockdown. I hate the confiscation of liberty, and the ease with which it is surrendered. I hate the damage to children’s education. I hate the prying and the prissiness and the pettiness. I hate the way university students have missed out on what should be the best time of their lives. I hate the tone in which police officers address people going about their lawful business.

I hate the way the goalposts keep moving: flatten the curve; no – wait for a vaccine; no – keep the pressure off the NHS; no – stop new variants. I hate the cataclysmic impact on small businesses, and the indifference of large parts of the public. I hate the debt we are racking up. I hate the protectionism and the authoritarianism. I hate hearing words like “hoarder” and “profiteer” – words we used to associate with extremist ideologies. I hate the loneliness that I see weighing on my elderly neighbours. I hate the profusion of pettifogging laws.

But d’you know what I hate the most? I hate what it has revealed about us. It turns out that we quite like being bossed around – at least, a lot of us do. Given the excuse of a collective threat, we revel in crackdowns and prohibitions.

I am not talking about the contingent acceptance of some restrictions. Almost everyone can see that an infectious disease requires proportionate limitations on normal activity. Infecting other people is what economists call an “externality”, a cost borne by someone else.

No, I am talking about the equanimity, even the enthusiasm, with which some have taken to house arrest. “I loved lockdown”, declared a secret card returned to an enterprising London printer who is inviting people to send her their most intimate lockdown confidences on anonymous postcards. I reckon most of us have heard that sentiment, whispered furtively. Many of the printer’s postcards tell the same story: “a lot of people not wanting to unlock,” as she puts it.

King’s College London and Ipsos Mori found last week that 54 per cent of us will miss some aspects of the lockdown. Think about that for a moment. We’re not talking about things that we are free to do at any time. Obviously lots of us find staying at home more pleasant than commuting. Lots of us have enjoyed walks more than usual. Lots of us like seeing more of our children. But the essence of the lockdown is not that it allows us to rebalance our lives; it is that it mobilises the full force of the law to compel us.

We could always choose to forego a foreign holiday in return for working shorter hours. The idea that we need to be coerced into doing so – and have all our neighbours similarly coerced – is a terrifyingly illiberal one. So is the idea that we should be paid to stay at home – with money that someone or other is presumably supposed to find down the line.

I always knew that libertarianism was a minority creed. For most people, safety trumps freedom every time. Even so, it is distressing to see the near-universal demand for the smack of firm government. Take, to pluck an almost random example, the prohibition on leaving the country. Governments have every right to impose whatever conditions they want on people seeking to enter their territory, including quarantine. But leaving? Isn’t that for the receiving country to decide?

Yet that ban, like all the others, was cheered through with barely any debate. Politicians can see which way the wind is blowing: 93 per cent of people backed the first lockdown, 85 per cent the current one, and every easing of restrictions has been unpopular in the polls. There are honourable exceptions, but few MPs or commentators want to take what they know would be an utterly pointless stand. Even the PM, whose dislike of nannying has until now been his ruling principle, seems to have decided that there is no purpose in placing himself in the path of an authoritarian electorate.

This is not a column about the efficacy of lockdown measures. I happen to think that they are disproportionate. It has for some reason become fashionable to mock Sweden, but that country has suffered fewer excess deaths than most of Europe. Then again, there are good and sincere people who take a different view. The question of how much suffering we should inflict in exchange for a given number of lives is never going to have a simple answer.

No, this is a column about what ConservativeHome has called “the freedom gap” – the way in which a country that used to define itself as individualist, eccentric and undeferential now leads the world in its unhesitating acceptance of controls. An alien visitor, judging only from the texture of daily life, would assume that Britain in early 2021 was a far more repressive state than Russia or China.

The editor of this site recently speculated that the elevation of security over liberty might reflect the feminisation of politics. Jonathan Haidt would put it down to the vogue for “safetyism” – the idea that people should be at all costs be protected from unpleasant experiences rather than learning from (and being hardened through) them.

Let me proffer a gloomier explanation. Safetyism is a natural instinct. Throughout almost all human civilisation, people have accepted various forms of hierarchy and tyranny in the name of security. The liberal interlude through which we have lived is exceptional. We may be witnessing its end.

Daniel Hannan: Laws must be general, equal and certain. And yes, that applies to lockdown gatherings too.

17 Mar

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

Look, either it’s ok for people to gather in crowds or it’s not. We really can’t work on the basis that it’s wrong for other people to do so, but fine for you and your mates. Laws, as F.A. Hayek put it with admirable economy of phrase, must be general, equal and certain. Yet politicians, police chiefs, BBC presenters and – let’s not dance around the fact – the public at large now want a more or less arbitrary system where the rules are differently enforced depending on whether they share the opinions of the people infracting them.

This shouldn’t need saying, but the virus doesn’t care whether you’re demonstrating against the lockdowns, or for the safety of women, or against a police killing in the United States, or for the restoration of the Brazilian monarchy.

My own view is that many lockdown prohibitions are disproportionate. We know that outdoor transmission of Covid-19 is rare and, as a general principle, we should trust people to use their common sense. I would therefore allow peaceful demonstrations to go ahead. But plenty of good and sincere people disagree with me. Indeed, if the polls are to be believed, most voters want restrictions tightened further.

Fair enough. Where to draw the line between liberty and security is a legitimate argument – and, during an epidemic, an especially difficult one. If you’re in favour of people being allowed to congregate outside, fine. If you’re against it, fine. But if you want bans on sports crowds, weddings and other gatherings, but think that a special case should be made for demonstrators whom you happen to like, then you need to go back to basics and understand what the rule of law means.

When I say “you”, I include all the Labour and Conservative MPs who have spent this week complaining about the application of a law that they themselves passed only last year. I have no doubt that they were genuinely shaken to see images of women at Clapham Common being roughly manhandled. But what did they imagine would happen when they voted to outlaw demonstrations?

There is no dishonour in changing your mind, of course. If MPs were respond to the footage by easing the restrictions on public gatherings, or at least by bringing forward the end of the lockdown to take account of better than expected figures on infections, hospitalisations, fatalities, inoculation take-up and vaccine effectiveness, I would be the first to applaud. But that is not what they are doing, at least not in most cases. They still want people to be banned from attending the funerals of loved ones. But they want the law to be selectively disapplied when, as in the case of the Clapham protest, they sympathise with the demonstrators.

Not that I want to pick on MPs. They are reflecting the prejudices of their constituents. The rule of law – the idea that the rules apply equally to everyone, and that the people in charge shouldn’t get to change them as they go along – does not come naturally to us. Very few societies, in the sweep of history, have tried to apply it, let alone succeeded.

Think of the TV dramas that we watch: Game of Thrones, Narcos, Peaky Blinders. They appeal to a much older, tribal instinct, a desire to take sides. In evolutionary terms, Magna Carta, the American Revolution and “a government of laws not of men” happened an eye-blink ago. Our instincts and intuitions come from a different world, a world in which two completely different sets of rules governed our behaviour – one set for our kin-group, and another for everyone else.

That, in a nutshell, is why people are uninterested in due process when they happen to want a particular outcome. It is why they hold other parties to a very different standard from their own. It is why the first thing they ask, when they see people protesting against lockdowns, or holding a vigil for a murdered woman, is not “what do the rules say?” but “are these my kind of people?”

The rule of law, in many ways, contradicts human nature. We need to appreciate it intellectually, because we struggle to feel it in our bellies. The institutions of a modern state – legislature, judiciary, media, police – must build and maintain the norm through careful and rigorous impartiality.

Last year, that stopped happening, for two reasons. First because, in a panicked response to the disease, MPs passed too many rules. “If you make ten thousand regulations,” as Churchill once put it, “you destroy all respect for the law.”

Second, because, over the summer, the police – cheered on, it must be said, by the organs of Official Britain – subordinated the duty of consistency to the imperatives of identity politics. Having spent months harassing people for walking too slowly, sitting on park benches or chatting to friends, they dropped to their knees when Black Lives Matter protesters took to the streets.

Unsurprisingly, our respect for the law has taken a hit. With each violation of the lockdown rules, the taboo against law-breaking buckles further. The police come to be seen, not as impartial upholders of the law, but as just one more group with an agenda. And the worst of it is that there is no reason to expect these things to end when the lockdown does.