Richard Ritchie: In-house, employee lobbyists are different

19 Apr

Richard Ritchie is Enoch Powell’s archivist and is a former Conservative Parliamentary Candidate. He was BP’s director of UK Political Affairs.

When I looked after BP’s UK Government Affairs team – and I did the job throughout the Blair, Brown and Cameron years – I never liked the word ‘lobbyist’. Though I realise that, to many people, that’s what we were. But while it was our job to advance BP’s interests within Whitehall, we performed this role entirely differently from a paid lobbyist acting for various clients ‘for hire’. Amidst the current controversy, it is a great mistake to assume that by requiring in-house employee lobbyists to register, anything beneficial would be achieved. In-house lobbyists are a different breed.

I always thought we were more akin to civil servants than lobbyists. Often, our most important advice was offered internally, and our main role was to understand the political dimensions of any commercial decision and advise our managers accordingly. Although most businessmen think they understand politics, those at the top very seldom do. They tend to resemble disgruntled and angry members of a golf club who are convinced that, if only they were running the country, all would be well. Such people never liked to be warned that a commercial decision might attract political criticism. Their conviction that the action was rational, and in the shareholders’ interests, was sufficient justification. But the internal lobbyist’s job was to advise senior management that this wasn’t necessarily the case, and this required someone with political rather than commercial instincts.

This could mean telling senior managers they were mistaken, rather like an external lobbyist informing a client that he is wrong and wasting his money. If that means losing the client, an external lobbyist might think twice before giving such advice. Maybe that happens sometimes. But it’s more likely that a lobbyist will go along with what the client wants, even though it may be unrealistic and politically naïve. Proffering such advice could be difficult for the in-house lobbyist too, especially when the budget of the Government Affairs department is seen as an additional cost by those engaged in profit-making activities. Occasionally, one heard of the concept of ‘lobbying-for-profit’ as a means of justifying the commercial existence of a government affairs department to those who were sceptical of its role. But I always felt that the greatest service I might have performed for BP was to help avoid (or mitigate) costly political mistakes, rather than add directly to shareholders’ dividends.

That is why sometimes our best advice was to “do nothing.” Because we weren’t client-driven, it was much easier for us to give internal advice which might be unpopular with our bosses but which was politically realistic. Our jobs did not depend on ‘winning business’ from outside, but rather on retaining the respect of those whom we advised internally. Like civil servants, we were there to point out the dangers, but also to offer suggestions on how best to steer through commercial decisions which might be politically sensitive.

Sometimes, we were required to fulfil an advocacy role. There are always instances when amending legislation or reducing a tax will benefit a company or industry. But when this was required, the manager or director concerned normally had greater credibility with the Government than any lobbyist. Or rather, the director became the lobbyist, which raises another flaw in the requirement for employee lobbyists to be registered. In the case of a company like BP, would the CEO have to sign up to the lobbyist register? Invariably he or she is the person who will convey the important messages, not the ‘lobbyist’ who advises and frames them.

Moreover, it’s a two-way exchange. For example, when I was at BP, North Sea taxation was a contentious issue for any Chancellor and the subject of numerous reviews and consultations. My impression was that the Treasury wanted to speak to oil companies as much as oil companies wished to speak to the Treasury. However much our interests may have diverged, it was never in the Government’s interest to devise complicated legislation without a technical understanding of the effect it would have on commercial decisions to develop, or not to develop, the North Sea. The Treasury and other Government departments were just as likely to seek out BP’s views, as BP was likely to wish to communicate them. My experience was that it was best to acknowledge when our interests didn’t coincide, and simply to explain how a piece of proposed legislation would affect us.

For the oil industry, perhaps the area where most suspicion existed was over climate change and the need for ‘green’ policies. Companies differed in their approach. In those days, Exxon was the most sceptical of the need to curtail fossil fuel development, while BP under John Browne was championing ‘Beyond Petroleum’. This was as much about strategic direction as image, and clearly it had an impact upon how the respective companies advanced their positions to government. But neither company was secretive about its position. And I know that both positions were fully debated within their own companies in which the respective Government Affairs Departments were engaged. But ultimately it was the CEO who decided and advanced the case to government – and no register of interests would have made any difference as it was already public knowledge where the companies stood.

When David Cameron spoke of lobbying as the next big scandal to happen, he was referring rightly to the lack of transparency prevailing at the time. It is easy for the issue of lobbying to become confused with freedom of information, and the extent to which private conversations between the Chairman of a large company and government have a right to be kept confidential. If David Cameron had been required to register as an in-house’ lobbyist, it’s unclear what practical difference this would have made. If a company hires a senior politician or civil servant once they leave the public sector, there is no secret why it does so. It wishes to benefit from that person’s experience both of issues and people. It will probably be more effective if the person in question is simply paid directly for his services, rather than as the recipient of future share options. That, again, is a different issue.

But for the lobbying industry as a whole, away from the famous personalities, there is a distinction between those who do the work openly as an employee of a private company and those who work for a range of clients, sometimes beneath the radar. If it is to become a requirement for any employee of a company who speaks to the Government to register as a lobbyist, it will be hard to escape the reality that “we are all lobbyists now.”

Richard Ritchie: Historic parliamentary debates show there was no mandate for mass immigration

20 Mar

Richard Ritchie is Enoch Powell’s archivist and is a former Conservative Parliamentary Candidate. He was BP’s director of UK Political Affairs. This is an abridged version of a 16,000 word paper.

Historic parliamentary debates are an untapped source for understanding today’s political issues. An example is immigration.

The British Nationality Act 1948 defined citizenship in a way which made it impossible to differentiate between UK and Commonwealth citizens. Some objected. Lord Altrincham, a former member of Churchill’s wartime government, argued “we are trying to give a common citizenship to what is geographically, socially and politically a most heterogeneous community at many different stages of development.”

But the Labour Government’s policy was summed up by Sir Hartley Shawcross: “…I cannot, of course, bind future Parliaments…but here as the metropolitan centre of the Commonwealth and the historical Motherland I hope that we shall always accord to the citizens of other Commonwealth countries the full rights and privileges that we are prepared to extend to our own citizens”.

Did this mean unrestricted Commonwealth immigration into the UK? Technically yes, but according to Quintin Hogg on 27th February 1968: “Neither (Attlee) nor I had the smallest conception in 1948 of what we now call the immigration problem… we thought there would be free trade in citizens, that people would come and go and that there would not be much on an overall balance in one direction or the other.”

Immigration – the early debates, 1948-1961

Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth, the Home Office Minister responsible for immigration policy between 1952-1955, once stated “the system of controlling immigration worked perfectly well until about 1953, when immigration from the Colonies and the new countries of the Commonwealth began.” Ronald Bell (Con, Beaconsfield) confirmed this:

“The campaign (to control immigration) has been going on for eight years, and I have a Ministerial Statement made as long ago as eight years ago (i.e. in 1953) that the Government were on the brink of introducing legislation.”

This campaign had been led by Sir Cyril Osborne (Con, Louth), a ‘hate-figure’ for many, who was often accused of “out and out racialism.” But thanks to him, immigration was debated at length for the first time on 17th February 1961.

Those who opposed his calls for tougher controls included, on the Tory side, Nigel Fisher, Iain Macleod’s biographer, who said “what I object to is that today we have been talking about restrictions when we have not tried integration.” He believed nothing should be allowed to negate “this open-door policy for Commonwealth citizens” which “is one of the few cohesive ties that still remain.”

Those more sympathetic to Osborne included Norman Pannell (Con, Liverpool Kirkdale) who argued “…many Commonwealth immigrants come from countries with backgrounds and codes of conduct which are totally different from those in this country”, and cited as examples such as illegitimacy, lower standards of civilisation, criminal behaviour (“coloured Commonwealth immigrants are responsible for practically the whole of the drug traffic in this country”) and risks to health such as leprosy.

The Commonwealth Immigration Bill 1961 – the debates

It was not until 31st October 1961 that the Government announced its intention to introduce legislation. The Labour Party was implacably opposed, with Hugh Gaitskell, the leader of the Opposition, warning “this will be regarded very largely throughout the world as the imposition of a colour bar over here.” Harold Macmillan replied that “there will not be anything like a total ban on immigration.”

When the Bill was published, this became clear. Iain Macleod had already said “I detest the necessity for it in this country.” In introducing the Bill, Rab Butler confirmed the Government’s reluctance:

“…only after long and anxious consideration and a considerable reluctance that the Government have decided to ask Parliament for power to control immigration from the Commonwealth…. a sizeable part of the entire population of the earth is at present legally entitled to come and stay in this already densely populated country…It is not proposed by the Bill to impose a total prohibition on further immigration. It is proposed simply to control the flow….”

All Commonwealth citizens were to be subject to immigration control unless they were “persons who in common parlance belong to the UK”. Wives and families of those admitted would be allowed to join them. Moreover, the Act was only intended to be temporary. Butler concluded: “The Government regret having to produce these proposals…a course which is as distasteful to them as it is to many of their critics.”

The Opposition opposed the measure root and branch. Patrick Gordon-Walker, Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, conceded that MPs “who represent the affected areas – I am one of them – know that there is deep and genuine feeling on this matter … We have all been told by constituents ‘if you had to live in the conditions in which we live your mind might well be changed.”

But he argued the correct response was to spread industry more widely throughout the country, deal with the housing crisis and make “much greater efforts to disperse this (immigrant) population.”

Hugh Gaitskell chose to speak at the end of the debate:

“…these people have come here because they were wanted …the rate of immigrants into this country is closely related and … will always be closely related to the rate of economic absorption…It is, in my opinion, an utter and complete myth that there is the slightest danger or prospect of millions and millions of brown and black people coming to this country. Anyone who is trying to put that across is only trying to frighten people into believing that.”

The Committee stage of the Bill commenced on 5th December 1961. Not much of substance was changed, but interesting points were sometimes made. Robert Carr (Con, Mitcham), for example, stated that “I want to see a lot more immigration of all kinds” – an important remark from someone who would be Home Secretary in a government committed to “no further, large scale permanent immigration”.

Gordon-Walker again argued “there is absolutely no evidence that there will be an appalling in-flow of immigrants. This is a figment of the imagination” and Jennie Lee (Lab, Cannock), the widow of Nye Bevan, described the problem of migrant labour from the West Indies, Africa or Ireland as “trivial compared with the difficulties with which we had to contend in the past.” She added “When we speak about immigration today we do not speak about a fierce religious war. Religion hardly comes into the picture.”

A neglected issue was Britain’s entrance into the Common Market, save for a speech by Scottish Unionist Sir Thomas Moore (Ayr):

“If we enter the Common Market, this Bill will mean that our former enemies will be free to come here as they like and that neither our trade unions nor our Government can forbid them. Yet our friends who have fought with us and died with us and for us on many occasions will be excluded.”

The Government kept emphasising “this is not a Bill to stop all immigration” and Butler added that “we want them to come here.” In response to Labour pressure, Butler introduced into the Bill “a total guarantee of entry” for wives and children and also promised to view sympathetically “…the case of a woman who is living in permanent association with a man but is not legally married to him – a situation which I understand frequently obtains among West Indians”.

The Commonwealth Immigration Act 1962 – its implementation: 1962-1968

The Act, which Labour was committed to repeal, had its first renewal debate on 27th November 1963, with the Labour Leader Harold Wilson specifying certain conditions under which it might consent to its temporary continuance and stating “we do not contest the need for immigration control into this country.” Labour’s approach was to do so voluntarily with the cooperation of the New Commonwealth.

But each year, concern over the effectiveness and adequacy of the Bill increased. Frank McLeavey (Lab, Bradford East) in defiance of his party, believed that the Act was necessary and said “with all sincerity…we can no longer apply the old policy of an open door to all who wish to come to this country.” William Rees-Davies (Con, The Isle of Thanet) went further:

“There is now only the seed – the very beginning – of a much bigger problem…In Brixton there is already an area where neither white police nor policemen want to go at night …There is a similar area in Paddington and Ladbroke Grove. There are similar parts of Birmingham and Liverpool…The real problem is that these people, whatever their race may be, form small communities and then become intensely unpopular with those who live around them and who do not understand them.”

By the time the Act again came up for renewal, Labour was in office and had to explain why this measure should continue in force under its watch. The new Labour Home Secretary, Sir Frank Soskice, said on 17th November 1964 that while he hoped everyone continued to agree “that there would be no question of this country thinking it necessary to limit” the number of dependants, the Labour Party now believed “an effective control (of immigration) is indispensable.”

This did not please everyone. Jeremy Thorpe, a future leader of the Liberal Party, said “I still loathe this Act” and Michael Foot, a future Labour leader, described it as “a detestable thing which I should like to see removed altogether from the Statute Book.”

Tory thinking was also hardening. On 4th February 1965 Sir Alec Douglas-Home, now Leader of the Opposition, made a proposal “which might be worth considering, namely that the Home Secretary should assist the repatriation of people who wish to go back home, but cannot afford to do so.” Instead of dismissing this as racist, Sir Frank Soskice said “I will keep in mind the suggestion.”

On 9th March 1965, the new Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, made a further statement on immigration stating that “Since the Act is not working as was intended, a fresh examination of the whole problem of control is necessary.” A fortnight later, the Opposition selected immigration for debate, opened by the Shadow Home Secretary, Peter Thorneycroft.

When read today, it is surprising that his speech at the time was judged as moderate by Labour. For example, he expressed his dislike of the word integration because “I do not believe that many of these immigrant communities have the slightest intention of integrating with one another. I do not think that they really want to integrate with us.” He went further in arguing that there was “the problem of absorbing these new cultures within our existing community”, and “there ought to be a drastic reduction in the inflow of male immigrants.”

Roy Hattersley (Labour, Birmingham Sparkbrook) admitted that “in the light of time and with the advantages of hindsight, I suspect that we were wrong to oppose the (1962) Act.” But he also said, “I have no doubt that over the next year or two the actual number of immigrants coming into this country will decline.”

The Government issued on 2nd August 1965 a White Paper which said “new measures are necessary” to control immigration, and these included a reduction in the number of vouchers available, and tighter rules on the children allowed entry as dependants. Thorneycroft said in reply that it “goes a long way towards a drastic reduction in the number of immigrants” which the Conservatives had called for. Cyril Osborne asserted that the Government “have come to the point that I have been advocating” over the last twelve years.

This consensus did not last. Once the Act came up for its annual review on 23rd November 1965, Thorneycroft argued “The question now is not why we should keep them out but by what conceivable justification do we allow them in” and continued “The Act is beginning to break down.” But the Home Secretary’s response was to challenge Thorneycroft on the right of dependants to enter, taking place then at a rate of around 30,000 per annum:

“I ask him whether his party … would seek to …put up some barrier against wives who wish to join their husbands here and against children under 16 who wish to join their parents? If he says “No” — and I would greatly hope that that would be his answer because it would be very inhumane if he did not say “No” — then he and his party are committed to accepting… the fact that wives and children have a right under the terms of the 1962 Act to join their husbands and fathers in this country. Therefore, when the right hon. Gentleman says, “The Government’s policy does not go far enough” I ask him where we fall down over it and whether he accepts that what I have said is right. I hope that he will reply, ‘We accept that you are right’.”

This was the Opposition’s ‘achilles heel’, and it was during this debate that the speeches of Enoch Powell were first raised in Parliament. In noting that “the more the Government have moved towards accepting (the need for immigration control), the further the Opposition have retreated in the opposite direction,” Hattersley cited “the remarkable speech made by Powell in Birmingham on Sunday night.” As an example of how times have changed, it was also during this debate that Thorneycroft intervened “it is no more an insult to a man to say that he is coloured than to say he is a Jew or has got a red head.”

A year and a White Paper later, the annual debate on 8th November 1966 was significant because it included the first Parliamentary speech by Duncan Sandys on immigration, a former Secretary of State for the Commonwealth and at the time a possible contender for the Tory leadership. He argued “we are deliberately building up trouble for ourselves in the future”, and that we were creating “a nation within a nation.”

Soskice had now been replaced by Roy Jenkins, and in his first speech, he returned to the charge that the Conservatives “must face up to the fact that the only substantial impact which could be made (to reduce immigration) would be by going back on policies regarding dependants.” In respect of immigrants already here, Jenkins said: “In my view, integration is rather a loose word because I do not regard it …as meaning the loss by immigrants of their national characteristics and culture. I do not think we need, or want, in this country a sort of melting pot…”

East African Asians and The Commonwealth Immigration Act 1968

By this time Quintin Hogg was the new Shadow Home Secretary. Although still at pains to maintain a consensus, not least because “I am certain that there would be considerable danger to public order, as well as to the decencies of public debate in public life, if we were to depart from that rule”, Hogg’s speech revealed the growing tensions within the Tories. Indeed, he admitted:

“…had we, in 1958 and onwards, been faced with an influx of Frenchmen, Germans or Italians on the scale of the influx with which we were faced from the Commonwealth, we would have acted more quickly and more drastically than we did. It was precisely because we did not wish to raise a racial issue that we wished, if anything, to err on the side of delay rather than to arouse antagonism in our Commonwealth partners.”

In referring to the situation in East Africa, Hogg estimated that in East Africa alone there were about 150,000 persons who were entitled to immigrate to Britain, and “quite obviously, like the customers of a bank, if they all entered and asked the bank for payment of their outstanding balances at the same time, they would cause a run on the bank.” This was the reality which gave rise to emergency legislation.

The Labour Government rushed through a new immigration bill in two days, principally to deal with the immigration crisis caused by the government in Kenya (27.2.68). Its provisions have always been a matter of controversy. Dingle Foot (Lab, Ipswich) rejected any idea of “a draftman’s error to be put right through subsequent legislation.” Powell, on the other hand, argued in 1971 that “It was never intended by the Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1962 – and it was never at any time suggested that there was an intention – that citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies, any more than other British subjects, should be exempt from control.”

Whatever the legalities, the new Home Secretary, James Callaghan said: “If, as I believe, it was the objective of the 1962 Act to control everyone except those who ‘in common parlance belong to the UK’, it was not achieved.” Callaghan conceded, “to impose control on holders of United Kingdom passports, even though they have not had a direct connection with this country, is no light matter.”

Although divided, the Conservative Party accepted the necessity of the legislation, but senior Conservatives were amongst the 62 who voted against, including Iain Macleod and Michael Heseltine.

The last of the renewal debates under a Labour Government took place on 11th November 1969, which was the occasion chosen by Enoch Powell to make his first Parliamentary speech on immigration. Unlike some of his supporters, he did not assume any difference in the birth rate between the immigrant and indigenous population. But simply by an analysis of the births taking place in London and other areas, he identified “a continuing, sustained and rapid increase in the proportion of births which are Commonwealth immigrant” and concluded that to an extent “the composition of the future population is already determined.”

During his speech, there were cries of “So what?” Callaghan intervened to say that for him the term ‘immigrant’ meant “one who comes to this country”. But Powell argued he was “using exactly the Government’s definition. I am using the term ‘coloured’ or ‘Commonwealth immigrants’ in exactly the meaning in which it was attached to the estimate of numbers in 1967 and 1969” and which included the children of parents who came to this country.

On the policy implications, Powell agreed that this was a situation which could not be altered simply by restricting further immigration, or terminating the right of dependants to enter. But this only confirmed for Powell the justification for his party’s repatriation policy, as the sole means of averting what was otherwise inevitable in terms of the population. And why should it be averted? This was when Powell answered the “So, what?” question:

“I have to tell the House that in my opinion, for which I take responsibility, such a prospect is fraught with the gravest danger of internecine violence. [HON. MEMBERS: “Oh.”] it is a prospect which, if we can avoid it, we should prevent from being realised even at this stage.”

Hogg proposed an alternative:

“…we have got to persuade our own children and the children of immigrant origin to owe loyalty and allegiance to a country which has played no small part in the history of the world…if we can persuade people to be British in culture and in their relationship to one another, we shall have succeeded. Unless we succeed in that, we must fail, and (Powell’s) worst predictions may prove to be true. But I am on the side of those who are going to try.”

Norman St John-Stevas summarised the theological divide between these two stalwart Anglicans: “(Powell) takes an Augustinian view of the complete corruption of human nature and (Hogg) takes a Thomist view, that human nature is flawed by original sin but is not totally corrupted by it.”

The Commonwealth Immigration Act 1971

The Conservative Government elected in June 1970 was pledged to allow “no further large scale permanent immigration” and to give “assistance to Commonwealth immigrants who wish to return to their countries of origin”. A new Immigration Bill, which had its Second Reading on 8th March 1971, was its attempt to honour this commitment, even though Commonwealth citizens already in the UK “free of conditions” were still to be allowed to to be joined by their dependants, and Maudling stated “I do not believe in large-scale repatriation.”

Callaghan opposed the Bill, especially in equating Commonwealth with alien immigration. He also regretted that the Bill failed to address the issue from the perspective of citizenship. In this, he was in unlikely agreement with Powell who spoke immediately after Callaghan and called it “a mistake” that this “is a Bill about immigration and not about citizenship.” Although Powell disagreed that continuing net immigration of some 40,000 a year was a mere ‘detail’, “it is not, as everyone knows, the heart of the problem either now or in the future.” That could only be addressed by repatriation provisions of the Bill which, if administered fully, offered “a seed and germ of hope for the future.”

Jenkins summed up for the Opposition, describing the Bill as both unnecessary and irrelevant:

“This Bill does not restrict numbers at all, but by means of the so-called patrial Clause—a particularly nasty word to describe a pretty nasty concept—it greatly extends the number in theory by at least 20 million who have a right to come and settle here, but it does so on a highly discriminatory basis.”

This was the last attempt to reform immigration control in the sense it was understood in the 1960s. Although hardly referred to in the debate, within two years Great Britain would be part of the European Economic Community, which changed everything.

Conclusion

No attempt has been made to cast judgment on the opinions of past Parliamentarians – merely to record what they said. But these do encourage certain conclusions. The first is that there was never a democratic mandate for “large scale, permanent immigration” because it did not come about knowingly or deliberately. The second is the general lack of enthusiasm for restricting immigration, and the marked reluctance of the Conservative Government to act.

This lack of enthusiasm meant that when the Conservative Government in 1961 introduced immigration controls, it did so apologetically and without any intention other than of controlling immigration for a temporary period. The Labour Party was pledged to its repeal until 1964, when immigration became an “an election issue”, the greatest evidence being Patrick Gordon Walker’s defeat at Smethwick.

Finally, the nearest that the country came to an electoral choice between the parties was when the Conservatives, in both 1966 and 1970, promised not only to control immigration more drastically, but to facilitate a reduction through voluntary repatriation.

Richard Ritchie: Why I believe that Enoch Powell would have supported this Brexit trade deal

29 Dec

Richard Ritchie is Enoch Powell’s archivist and is a former Conservative Parliamentary Candidate. He was BP’s director of UK Political Affairs.

During the twelve days of Christmas, people like to play games in order to pass the time.  One such game this year, for those of a political inclination, might be to guess how the original Brexiteers of the 1970s – especially John Biffen, Richard Body, Ronald Bell, Neil Martin, Enoch Powell and Derek Walker-Smith – would have reacted to Boris Johnson’s deal, were they alive today.

Would they have supported it, or preferred to leave without one?  Since Powell’s writings and speeches on the subject are more extensive than the others, perhaps he is best placed to speak for them all.  But he has no claim to originality or primacy.

Powell was later to the party than some of those listed above, and for a specific economic reason.  As he readily conceded: “I had entered Mr Macmillan’s Cabinet only six months before the veto fell; but I am prepared to confess that in those days I used to argue the case, and answer objections, on purely commercial grounds.”

Indeed, he admitted in 1965 that he was worried by the thought of Britain being “excluded” from “her fastest growing market”.  This was not a fear shared by, for example, Walker-Smith, who identified the political implications of membership far sooner than Powell.  But then, as now, exclusion from the European market was one of the greatest anxieties of those who felt that Britain’s economic future would be bleak outside.  As Alec Douglas-Home put it in 1967: “where do we find the jobs for our people unless we take advantage of an opportunity like this?”

While Powell was always a fervent free trader (although less so as he grew older and more immersed in Ulster politics) he was slower than the earliest Brexiteers to acknowledge the distinction between a customs union – a Zollverein – and a Free Trade area.  As his understanding of this discrepancy grew, so did his support for entry diminish.

Broadly, his free trading instincts were impeccable, albeit defined in their purest form which seem somewhat remote from the provisions of even the freest trade deal today. He never seemed especially exercised over so-called non-tariff barriers, which are now cited as one of the biggest potential weaknesses of the new arrangements.

Ironically, it is today’s criticisms of the deal which make it more probable that Powell would have welcomed it.  Europe’s move towards a Single Market and the reforms of 1992 ended for Powell any pretence that free trade in his understanding of the term had any similarity with the Customs Union enshrined by the European Community.

As he eventually recognised, “The Community is not about free trade; the Community is about perfect internal competition – which is something essentially different.  It is also about common restriction of external trade. There is no such thing as perfect internal competition and common external trade regulation between free nations.”

For this reason, he would have rejected as false the premise that leaving the Single Market is equivalent to reducing the scope of free trade.  He didn’t think we had it anyway, although how he would have answered specific objections over additional administrative expenses and red-tape provoked by new non-tariff restrictions is unclear from his speeches.

Of one thing, however, we can be confident.  He would not have called for a ‘tit-for-tat’ response against the EU’s invisible barriers to trade.  He distinguished between revenue and protective duties, having no objection to the former but rejecting the need for the latter –  because he believed that “one of the beauties of free trade is that it is a ‘a-political’: you do not have to browbeat or overrule anybody else in order to enjoy its blessings for yourself.  It is a game at which, like Patience, one can play”.

He would have argued that EU barriers against UK businesses would in the end hurt them more than us, provided we didn’t reciprocate. In the end, what some perceive as the greatest dangers of the new arrangements are what would have made them acceptable to Powell and most of his fellow Brexiteers of the past.

But of course, for Powell, these points would have been peripheral to what really matters, encapsulated in his assertion that “a political nation which cannot tax itself or make its own laws is a contradiction in terms.”  What would have made this Agreement acceptable to him is that it has succeeded, for the first time, in recovering powers which some thought had been lost permanently.

That does not mean that Great Britain is free from all international constraints. There was an occasion in 1966 when Powell severely criticised the Labour Government for imposing “illegal” import surcharges “which damaged our EFTA partners and severely shook confidence in Britain’s word and in the seriousness of her desire to enter into closer ties with Europe.”  He did not regard international trade agreements as inconsistent with sovereignty, provided Parliament had the right to scrutinise and reject them – but not to unilaterally renege from them, once signed and ratified.  That was another reason why Powell was so opposed Britain’s entry into the European Union – the longer that one was in and ‘absorbed’, the harder and more impractical it became to consider withdrawal.

But it has happened.  Something which the original Brexiteers warned was virtually impossible before entry, but which they demanded once EU membership was a fait accompli, has been achieved.  We have left the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice – a massive recovery of sovereignty.  We are free of the risks of further political integration in the EU which were ever present so long as we remained a member.

While we may still be affected by the Euro’s vulnerability, we are at least spared the legal obligation to recuse it or those it damages.  We have recovered the right to negotiate our own international trade deals.  We may not have yet fully recovered our ability to deregulate and compete fiscally with Europe, but the fact that financial services fall outside the deal may make it possible for the UK to do just that in what is the most important section of our economy.

Talk of ‘free ports’ and the like suggest an economic direction entirely in accordance with free market principles – but which could equally be reversed should the British people choose a government with different priorities and beliefs.  This safeguard was, too, a fundamental belief in the recovery of sovereignty.

If Powell and his fellow Brexiteers were around now, perhaps they would have preferred leaving without a deal – especially if David Cameron had permitted Whitehall to prepare for Brexit in advance of the referendum, thus avoiding the consequent delay and enabling a new relationship to be formed before a pandemic struck.

But the fact is that Powell once accepted the case for entry on the grounds that exclusion from the European customs union was a danger.  He supported EFTA and other such trade agreements, even though they carried obligations and restraints upon domestic policy.  Given what this deal’ has recovered politically, it is doubtful whether he would have allowed its weaknesses to dissuade him from believing that, finally, the ratchet has been turned back, and Britain is once again a sovereign nation.  He would have supported the deal with a clear conscience.

Richard Ritchie: The climate crisis – and this pandemic – have made the case for a carbon tax stronger than ever before

15 Oct

Richard Ritchie is the author of a recent history of a secretive group of Conservative MPs called The Progress Trust (Without Hindsight: A History of the Progress Trust 1943-2005). He is Enoch Powell’s archivist and is a former Conservative Parliamentary Candidate. He was BP’s director of UK Political Affairs.

There is something in the air, and it’s not just carbon or virus emissions. Earlier this month, ConservativeHome carried a piece by Rachel Wolf, championing carbon pricing – that is the polite way of describing some form of carbon tax. Then, the influential economist Dieter Helm published in September a new book, Net Zero: How We Stop Causing Climate Change, which explains in detail the rationale behind a carbon tax. And from The Times, we’ve learnt that the Chancellor is considering such a tax for his next, Covid-19 budget.

It’s not a new idea. When I worked for BP and climate change first entered the political agenda – before, the main worry was that oil would run out and become too expensive – thoughts on how to price carbon were already in circulation. The oil and gas industry saw some merit in the concept, but favoured emissions trading over a tax, correctly identifying this as a less expensive, Europe-inspired fudge. Now, the combination of a pandemic and climate crisis gives the idea of a carbon tax real traction.

The political implications are important. Climate change and Covid-19 have much in common. Both require us to “follow the science”, although in neither case is the science unanimous. Both are manna from heaven for those who wish to “shut-down” the economy, and limit personal freedom. Both provide excuses for expanding the state. And in both cases, the cure can prove worse than the disease.

There can be little doubt that, so far, global policies to reduce carbon emissions have failed. This won’t worry those who are sceptical of the causes of climate change. But if one believes a failure to act now is to bequeath a catastrophe to future generations, then those on the “right” should be as concerned as those on the “left”.

Where we differ will be on the remedies. So far, “left-of-centre” remedies have generally been the norm. The Kyoto Protocol in 2007 and the Paris Agreement in 2015 have been little more than an opportunity for governments and lobbyists to parade their compassion. Whatever Trump’s motives may be surrounding climate change, his analysis of the Paris Agreement is basically sound. Some of course think its failure is due to inadequate targets; but their targets would make the economic consequences of Covid-19 seem trivial in comparison.

So the question is whether there is a policy which would reduce carbon emissions effectively, in an economically rational way. This is surely one reason why Rishi Sunak is attracted by the idea of a carbon tax as a means of reducing carbon consumption.

In Dieter Helm’s view, the word “consumption” is pivotal. It is no good concentrating solely on industrial emissions, as these won’t necessarily have any global effect – it simply drives emissions abroad, frequently to China. But a carbon tax which crucially incorporated a carbon border tax on imports would, by targeting attention on everyone’s personal carbon footprint, incentivise many things which probably make sense in themselves anyway.

There will be many Conservatives who will argue that all taxes do harm, and that the introduction of a “new” tax is incompatible with Tory beliefs. But unless one is totally sceptical of the science, and dismissive of the need to balance the books, there is much to be said for taxing “bads” rather than “goods”.

Of course it is open to many objections. For example, does the Treasury regard a carbon tax as an emergency measure to raise revenue, or a longstanding instrument to influence behaviour? If it is to serve its purpose, it will eventually yield less revenue.

Equally, if applied in the wrong way, it could merely make this country less competitive. Without care, it could prove regressive. Indeed, if the Paris riots over fuel duty are any guide, it could also prove politically impossible.

Then, for it to work, there must be alternatives for consumers to choose from. Not many will choose an electric car, for example, if there is no guarantee that it can be charged along the journey. (Although mention of electric cars also serves as a reminder that not everything is at it seems – an electric car takes twice as much carbon to produce than a conventional one. A carbon tax would sort that out too).

On the other hand, if properly devised a carbon tax has the capacity both to raise government revenue and to reduce carbon emissions, and even to incentivise other countries to follow suit. Matters to be decided include how the carbon price is fixed and at what level it should be introduced. Should it be levied on consumption or production? Does the tax provide sufficient time for consumers to adjust?

This is the political danger. Carbon taxes could come to the rescue of a cash-strapped Chancellor, because they hold out the prospect of raising new revenue without breaking a manifesto commitment not to raise existing taxes. But if the carbon tax is set too high at the outset, it will be counter-productive. If the Treasury is following Helm’s advice, “the trick is to start low, but credibly signal that the price is going to go up as high as is necessary to achieve the (carbon reduction) target.”

There is no painless way of reducing carbon emissions. Those on the “left” will embrace a policy which involves “picking winners”, nationalisation, subsidies, exemptions, regulation and illiberal compliance. A lobbyist’s paradise. The alternative is to incentivise new technologies, create new markets and provide practical signals to consumers. This is the purpose of a carbon tax. It will never be “popular” because the costs of transforming the networks, communications and transport of this country to facilitate lower carbon emissions are enormous.

But compared with the alternatives, a carbon tax is at least rational and addresses all the major sources of carbon emissions, namely agriculture, transport and electricity. Moreover, it produces a new source of government revenue at a time when it is desperately needed.

Any new tax is depressing to a free market Tory. But climate change, like pandemics, raises issues which are more important than economics. If it is a whole load of nonsense to claim that today’s climate change is man-made, then we are free to carry on as we are.

But if not, Tories have an obligation to advocate alternative solutions to those of the socialist “greens”. The market is the best way of allocating scare resources effectively. But in a time of war, the market cannot tell us how much to spend on butter or guns. That is a political choice, and it is the nature of the choice presented by climate change, if most scientists are to be believed. On so many levels and for so many reasons, it is hardly surprising if Sunak is pondering one.

Richard Ritchie: What the great Commons debates on devolution can teach today’s unionists

4 Jul

Richard Ritchie is the author of a recent history of a secretive group of Conservative MPs called The Progress Trust (Without Hindsight: A History of the Progress Trust 1943-2005). He is Enoch Powell’s archivist and is a former Conservative Parliamentary Candidate. He was BP’s director of UK Political Affairs.

The appearances by Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, at her regular Covid-19 press conferences are a reminder of how skilful politicians never waste a crisis.

One should not be surprised at her zeal in presenting herself as a Prime Minister of an independent nation, with a distinct approach from the British Government’s. All this will be very useful when normal politics is resumed, and Scottish independence is restored to its primary place on the UK political agenda.

If anyone doubts this, or is surprised by her behaviour, they need only turn to the historic Parliamentary debates on Scottish devolution, which commenced on the floor of the House of Commons in the late 1970s when a Labour Government with a very small majority sought to establish legislative devolution for Scotland and Wales.

Always, the crucial difference of opinion has been between those who believed offering devolution would discourage nationalism, and those who believed precisely the opposite. And although the jury is still out, a reading of past Hansard debates suggests that those holding the latter view are most likely to be vindicated.

Both parties had woken up to the threat posed by Scottish nationalism some ten years before. In opposition, Edward Heath established a Scottish Constitutional Conference which, under the leadership of Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the former Prime Minister, recommended in 1970 “a directly elected Scottish Assembly with legislative responsibility and powers of debate and supervision.” But once in government, the Tories did nothing.

In October 1973, a Royal Commission established by the previous Labour Government under the chairmanship of Lord Kilbrandon advocated the creation of directly elected Scottish and Welsh Assemblies. Within months of its return to office in 1974, the Labour Government committed itself in a White Paper to directly elected Assemblies; a further White paper in October 1975 discussed the detailed schemes for doing so, which were the subject of important Parliamentary debates in January 1976.  These culminated, on 13th  December 1976, with a four-day Second Reading debate of the Scotland and Wales Bill.

But Parliament’s first substantial discussion took the form of a two-day adjournment debate on 3rd February 1975, concentrating on the Labour Government’s White Paper of the previous September.

These were the days when the economic policies of both parties were interventionist, and neither front bench wished to be regarded as unsympathetic to Scotland so long as Westminster maintained “overall management of the economy” and avoided what Edward Short, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons, called “the fragmentation of the UK which could be the consequence of an unwise, ill-planned scheme”.

For the Opposition, William Whitelaw at least posed the possibility that “response to demands for self-government in Scotland and the maintenance of the unitary character of the state are ultimately capable only in the realm of rhetoric.” But it was left to backbenchers to confront the issues directly. Robin Cook referred to the White Paper as a “stalking horse” for the SNP. John Biffen argued that devolution “provides an unreal resting place between union and separation” and Tam Dalyell – who was destined to be the leading opponent of any attempt to establish a Scottish Assembly or Parliament – warned that “there is conflict in the situation by its very nature.”

Enoch Powell concentrated on “the problem of England which is central to whatever conclusions are going to be reached” and in particular the implications that a Scottish Assembly would have for “representation in this House.”

The next significant parliamentary occasion was a four day debate which started on 13th January 1976, when Harold Wilson set out his Government’s detailed proposals for the legislation planned later in the year as outlined in the White Paper Our Changing Democracy.

The Government hoped the consultative approach embodied in the White Papers would encourage cross-party support, which was essential given its tiny majority and internal divisions. Prominent Labour MPs – notably Eric Heffer and Neil Kinnock – disputed that the Labour Party was democratically committed to devolution of the kind envisaged.  Both saw the proposals as incompatible with socialist state planning of the economy, and Heffer argued that “if we allow these matters to get out of hand and if we go too far, the risk that we run is that eventually we shall see the break-up of the United Kingdom.”

Edward Heath on the other hand, who had just been removed as leader of the Conservative Party, became a leading advocate of the opposite view: “The Union is in danger…I do not believe that the complaint is about over-government (which was precisely the belief of Thatcherites) … we have to decide whether we are dealing with a passing whim or a settled conviction of the people.”  He concluded: “I can foresee a situation at Westminster in which both major parties suffer great losses in Scotland, in which there is a large nationalist representation pledged to separation.”

He was right, but for the wrong reasons.  Heath’s belief was that pressure for separation would be strengthened by a failure to provide devolution. In fact it has grown, despite the creation of a Scottish Parliament and Government (which amounts to a much more substantial measure of devolution than Heath or others were pressing for at the time).

This would not have surprised Powell, Dalyell and the many Conservative critics of the Bill. Powell predicted that the establishment of directly elected Assemblies “will confront us with the choice of separation, of conversion to a federal state with all its implications, or an attempt to reverse the process and somehow subordinate the new Assemblies to the sovereignty of this House.”  The high Tory Julian Amery put it even more starkly:

“But my advice to the House, for what it is worth, after experience of several devolved constitutions under the Colonial Office and the Commonwealth Relations Office, is that it is difficult to find a single foothold on which we can stand.  It did not happen in Australia, nor did it happen in Canada. I do not believe it has happened in any other instance.  They all went on to demand full executive control…An assembly that will not slide into total independence…I do not believe that is possible.”

In the end, because it was a debate on a White Paper designed to reach a wider consensus, only 37 MPs forced a division against the Government.  But this disguised the latent principled opposition to the proposals.  It was only because Margaret Thatcher lacked sufficient political strength within her own party to oppose outright what she instinctively detested.

These were but opening skirmishes. On 13th December 1976, James Callaghan as Prime Minister introduced his Scotland and Wales Bill, promising as many as 30 sitting days on the floor of the House to consider its details and leaving open the possibility of a referendum. The Government’s principal case was that the status quo had become untenable; that the SNP would never be satisfied; but proper devolution would remove their support.

No direct tax-raising powers were on offer.  The “block fund must remain the main source of revenue for the devolved services” and what was to be devolved had to be laid out in detail, with everything else reserved to Westminster. But, Callaghan argued, nothing short of a legislative Parliament would suffice.

The Conservative Party remained divided. Unlike her former leader, Thatcher indeed believed the problem was ‘over-government’, but some of her MPs were more sympathetic to Heath’s position and a few – including Alick Buchanan-Smith and Malcolm Rifkind – disobeyed their whip and supported the Bill on Second Reading (when the Government achieved a majority of 45).

Indeed, Buchanan Smith had resigned as Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland five days before, arguing that “the worst course of all is to do nothing. Opinion in Scotland cannot be ignored… If we in the House appear to frustrate the genuine aspirations of the Scottish people, this is the very thing which turns moderates into extremists.”

Under David Steel, the Liberals were in favour of going even further than the Government and their support was vital to the Government’s survival.  More crucial and uncertain were the Ulster Unionists, who under Powell’s influence were indirectly sustaining the Labour Government on issues of confidence. Stormont was often cited, by the Bill’s advocates, as a precedent for Parliaments in Scotland and Wales. However, as James Molyneaux, the Ulster Unionist leader, argued: “the devolution which matters and has always mattered in Ulster is not legislative but administrative devolution.” This might have been the view of Unionists in Westminster, but not necessarily in Ulster itself.

Once the Bill began its Committee stage, Parliament’s lack of enthusiasm became apparent. Most of the credit for the Bill’s demolition lay with Dalyell, the Scottish Labour MP who represented West Lothian from 1962-1983, and thereafter Linlithgow until 2005. It was Powell who, on 14th November 1977, coined the phrase the ‘West Lothian Question’, and justifiably so because, from the start, Dalyell had been the most assiduous and relentless in asking how it could be justified for Scottish MPs at Westminster to influence English legislation, while lacking the power to do the same in Scotland.

As Dalyell explained in Committee, under the Bill’s proposals:

“I can vote on policy and money for the Arts in Alnwick, but not in Armadale, West Lothian. I can vote on aerodromes at Heathrow and Gatwick, but not Edinburgh, Turn house. I can vote on buildings in Bath but not in Bathgate in my constituency. I can vote on the burial laws in Blackpool but not in Blackridge. I can vote on betting, bookies and gaming in Blackburn, Lancashire. But I cannot touch the bookies or the gaming laws in Blackburn, West Lothian. Etc. etc.”

These lists became a common feature of Dalyell’s contributions to these Committee debates, exasperating his front bench and providing delight to the Bill’s critics.

The West Lothian question raised further difficulties. First, there was the over-representation of Scotland in the House of Commons. As an answer, some proposed a reduction in the number of Scottish MPs, as well as restricting their right to vote on ‘English’ matters.  But Dalyell countered:

“In no way would reduced representation solve the problem of irresponsible participation in other People’s business. The principle remains the same. It makes it no better whether 50, 57, 35 or ten. Hon. Members can vote on matters for which literally they have no responsibility whatever.”

Powell supported Dalyell, reminding the House that the idea of “in and out” members had been raised and rejected in the past when dealing with Irish Home Rule, and that “there is no logical reason and no logical ground which underlies the proposition that representation should be proportionately reduced.”

Even today, when the number of Scottish MPs has been reduced to 59 and a change in Standing Orders facilitates “English votes for English Laws”, the objections of Dalyell and Powell remain valid.  As Powell explained on 24th February 1977, “if we were to attempt something in between (i.e. the situation today)…the Scots would be under-represented when deciding upon Imperial matters (i.e. all those matters not devolved) and over-represented when deciding upon all other matters”, not to mention the difficulties of classification.

In 1977, however, such questions remained academic since the Bill could not be carried without a timetable motion, which Michael Foot, contrary to all his past beliefs and arguments, was embarrassingly forced to introduce on 22nd February. He reminded the House that the Bill had already received a four-day debate on Second Reading and ten days in Committee (involving all-night sittings).

He proposed a further 20 days of debate, but the House of Commons was having none of it. The Government’s guillotine was defeated by 29 votes, and from that moment this Bill was dead.

But not the arguments. Labour’s first attempts to create devolved legislative assembles had marked out a divide.

Either one agreed with Heath’s conviction “that neither the people of Scotland nor Wales want separation. I do not believe they will move in that direction, provided they get meaningful and viable devolution”; or with Teddy Taylor, who claimed twenty years later: “Those who think that devolution will knock the SNP on the head are living in cloud cuckoo land.  Those who think the move to devolution will lead to the collapse of the SNP will be subject to a brutal shock.”

It was another twenty years before fresh legislation was introduced. Callaghan had made a second attempt in November 1977 by introducing separate bills for Scotland and Wales, and promising a referendum before their enactment.

In response to the objections which had killed the previous legislation, the Scottish Bill sought in various ways to reduce “the scope for dispute between the United Kingdom Government and the Scottish Executive” and, in particular, by limiting the UK Government’s rights of intervention to defence, trade, the economy and industrial relations (but leaving out health and education which had previously been included).

But no concessions were made in response to the West Lothian question. Moreover, the Assembly would continue to be funded by a block-grant from Westminster, always regarded by critics as another source of conflict. This time, the Government managed to guillotine the Bill from the outset, thus denying Dalyell, Powell and other opponents of the Bill their opportunity to renew their detailed onslaught.

Both Dalyell and Powell were now clear that ‘independence’ was preferable to the Government’s proposals. But that should be up to Scotland since, in Powell’s words:

“…none of us has the means of knowing whether Scotland is to be a nation. What is quite certain is that we cannot answer that by passing legislation which is itself incoherent… this is a constitution which, being inherently unstable, will force those who live under it in one direction or the other; and there is all too great reason to guess in what direction they will be forced.” 

In this, Powell had the support of the SNP. Its leader, Gordon Wilson, made it clear that: “My party regards the Bill as the first step along the road to self-government.”  Or, as Dalyell had said first time round:

“Many electors want an independent Scotland and will continue to want that. Jolly few people, the more they know about it, want devolution… those who want devolution want it as a stepping-stone, a launching pad for a separate Scottish state.”

But finally, what killed this Bill was a change in the proposed referendum rules. Through the Cunningham amendment, the Act could only come into force if it gained the support of 40 per cent of the registered electorate. In a referendum on 1st March 1979, it gained only 32.9 per cent. thus putting to an end any chance of creating a Scottish legislative assembly in time for the next election.

Thatcher was never tempted down a similar path. It was not until Labour’s landslide victory in 1997 that a fresh attempt was made – and by this time the Labour Party had learnt a lot, at least from its former tactical mistakes.

For a start, in 1997 a pre-legislative referendum was held before the House of Commons had the opportunity of debating the legislation.  The referendum posed two questions i.e.

  • I agree/do not agree there should be a Scottish Parliament
  • I agree/do not agree that a Scottish Parliament should have tax varying powers

On 11th September 1997, the first question was agreed by 74 per cent of those who voted, and the second by 63 per cent.  A government with a massive majority and the authority of a referendum was clearly not to be obstructed, even by die-hard opponents such as Dalyell, who remained an MP.

Moreover, instead of listing devolved subjects, the Scotland Bill 1998 merely specified matters which were reserved to the UK Parliament, not those which were to be devolved. In addition, the new Scottish Parliament was promised a limited power to vary the basic rate of UK income tax in Scotland by up to 3p.

This power was never used, but in April 2016 the Conservative Government gave Scotland a range of new tax and financial powers (including Scottish Income Pax paid directly to the Scottish Government), which went much further than ever would have been contemplated by even the most fervent devolutionists of twenty years earlier.

This new bill reached the statute book in 1998 without difficulty but to no avail since, on 16th May 2007, Alex Salmond formed the first SNP Minority Government in Edinburgh. Four years later, he rubbed salt into the wound by winning an overall majority – the very result which Labour had hoped to prevent by granting such a significant amount of devolution in the first place.

Some say this was because too much was devolved; others too little.  But whatever the cause, Dalyell had predicted thirty years earlier “if a majority of Scots voted for the SNP, it would be a separate state.  There is no question about that.”  Except the Union still stands.

True, those who said it would satisfy nobody have been vindicated.  But those who claimed a Scottish legislative Parliament was a logical impossibility within a unitary political system haven’t yet been proved right. Attempts have also been made to address the West Lothian question, although not to the satisfaction of those who posed it originally and who still believe it’s unanswerable.

During debates on the Scotland Bill 1998,  Liam Fox put it thus: “An answer to the West Lothian question requires either a federalist solution, providing a balanced solution constitutionally within the UK, or independence, which would remove the question altogether.” Powell would have agreed with the latter, but not the former:

“The reason why federation is only a logical reduction ad absurdum and not a practical possibility is that we do not want it. The House and the vast majority of people behind Members are not prepared to consider the notion of resolving ourselves into a federal state.”

But perhaps they are now, given the quantity and complexity of modern legislation which threatens to overwhelm Parliament and which a federalist approach is designed to mitigate. It wouldn’t, however, placate the SNP, at least not while they have 48 members of the House of Commons. In the late 1890s, there were over 80 Irish Nationalists in the House of Commons and history tells us what happened next.

Exactly the same situation is faced today. Once a separatist element is represented significantly in the House of Commons, only two things are possible.  Either it is removed via the ballot box; or independence is granted, and it departs voluntarily.  As Powell had put it as early as 27th September 1968 in a speech at Prestatyn: “England will never again consent to live through the long and harrowing episode of the coercion of the Irish. We have learnt, and learnt once for all, that enforced unity is a curse, to which almost any other consequence or condition is preferable.”

Renewed calls for independence are now portrayed as Brexit’s fault. But past Hansards show how there were always only three choices – unionism, federation, or independence. Unionism could embrace extensive administrative devolution, including special laws for Scotland if passed at Westminster. Federation would necessitate English participation. If neither is an option, then independence becomes the least harmful. As concluded by Powell:

“I have always said that if it be the preponderant and settled wish of the inhabitants of any part of this Kingdom no longer to remain part of this Kingdom, that preponderant and settled will should not and could not be resisted.”

But how does one know this “wish” exists?

Some hard and unfair things have been said about those who sit in the House as members of the Scottish National Party or of Plaid Cymru. They sit in the House by the same right as the rest of us. If we are looking for  the answer to the question “Is it or is it not true that there are nations in this kingdom which will not abide the present constitution of the United Kingdom?”, they are a way whereby we can find out.

We can identify a nation, as it were, only after the event. We cannot identify a nation by historical, sociological and cultural studies. A nation is a people who have made good the right to be a nation, not necessarily by force but, according to our institutions, by proving overwhelmingly that they are not content to remain part of another State, in our case the Kingdom as it is at present constituted.

Such “overwhelming” proof is not yet forthcoming, but we may be close to it. Ironically, by accepting this reality and remaining neutral, England has the best chance of averting it.

England’s love of Scotland has made her zealous in her opposition to independence. An understandable mistake, but a tactical error. If both Scotland and England are united in believing the current settlement unstable, then maybe this will concentrate minds on the real choice. The best hope of maintaining the Union lies with England remaining neutral in any further independence referendum.

But what England cannot be neutral about is the prospect of Scottish MPs determining the political composition of a Westminster government which has transferred power to Scotland. Had Jeremy Corbyn been able to form an administration last December following the General Election, it is almost certain that he could have done so only through the support of SNP MPs with the power to influence English issues but no power to shape legislation directly affecting Scotland.

The fact that this danger was averted does not mean that it won’t arise again.  It almost certainly will, unless and until Scotland becomes an independent nation, is governed once again as an integral part of the United Kingdom; or the UK breaks up into a federation.

That is the lesson from Hansard.  What will be the lesson from Covid-19 we shall also know soon.