John Redwood: The BBC is disruptive, anti-Brexit, divisive – and belittles and ignores England

23 May

Sir John Redwood is MP for Wokingham, and is a former Secretary of State for Wales.

The BBC’s decision to encourage and allow a journalist to use illegitimate means to gain an interview with the Princess of Wales was bound to damage her marriage more, and harm the family and monarchy that stood behind it. It was not just wrong in itself, but symptomatic of the BBC as an institution, which wanted to use its special place in our nation to disrupt our constitution.

The untruths encouraged more mistrust between close family members.  It was cruel on the children of the marriage with the interview and its questions, and wounding to the monarchists in the wider nation. This is why this dispute about journalistic techniques has such resonance. It sums up a characteristic of BBC journalism in recent years that wants to go beyond acting as a faithful mirror to the varying views within our nation to being a player seeking to make news.

BBC journalists often go beyond their welcome task of reporting accurately and in a balanced way what people are saying, to adopting a tabloid opinionated approach seeking to put words into people’s mouths. They attempt to get people to do ill-advised interviews in which they can try and make them say something disruptive, or can create a new division or split where it scarce existed before, or where the plan is to make one worse. All that may make sense for papers and campaigning websites with attitude if done with edge and not with lies – but is not what a public service broadcaster of record should be doing.

The BBC is meant to be a United Kingdom-wide institution. It should help create a sense of common culture and shared democratic conversation for citizens anywhere in our Union who want that. Instead, in recent years the BBC has fanned division. It has helped nationalist movements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland gain more voice for protest and grievance. It has stood for the continuing submission of our country to government from Brussels against the pro-Brexit majority. It has belittled and ignored England, perhaps with a view to building an English backlash to nationalisms elsewhere in our Union, as the SNP and others want. By highlighting the differences and the better deal Scotland has over funding per head, access to higher education and social care, the BBC has done the SNP’s work for them in trying to create English grievance.

The U.K. is a complex country. Many cannot describe the subtle differences between U.K and Great Britain, or explain the relative powers of the UK and Scottish Parliaments, or even remember the different voting system used in devolved elections. There is no adjective  to describe U.K-ness. Pro-Union citizens of the U.K. in Northern Ireland are happy to be called British even though, technically, our country is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The BBC seems less keen to be called British, using Scottish and Welsh branding in those parts of the Union whilst trying to break up England with regional branding that fails to resonate with most English people. The BBC often seems better disposed towards the EU/Republic of Ireland approach to Northern Ireland than to the view of the majority community in Northern Ireland it is meant to serve.

The BBC’s treatment of England is a disgrace. It is as if our country did not exist. We are treated in England to a regular diet of commentary on the words and deeds of the SNP government in Scotland. The BBC gives Scotland its own Scottish news, and then muddles the national newscast with English news, because it cannot bring itself to have an English news to match the Scottish news. We are told much more about rules and decisions in  Scotland. By contrast, large English mayoralties and county governments covering as many people as Scotland are largely ignored unless they are seeking to become part of the national opposition on things they do not decide.

The BBC is respectful of Scottish and Welsh culture and identity, but stumbles over UK and English identity. It loves pictures with plenty of Scottish saltires and Welsh dragon flags, but some of its presenters make a joke of the Union flag, and it repress the English flag most of the time. Most national broadcasters would be happy with their flag over their websites and close to their newsreaders, but you could not see the BBC ever wanting to do that. The BBC website is largely devoid of symbols, colours and familiar favourite history of the UK, and carefully screened to remove anything that could reflect well on England. The choice of topics and references to our history seems keener to reveal the flaws of the past which the UK usually shared with many other nations, rather than the exceptions where England and the UK made unique contributions to the advancement of freedom and prosperity through bold moves and radical movements. It is a great irony that an institution that is so keen to encourage and help many people to come as migrants to our country can never think of all the good things about the UK which means so many of them want to come.

John Redwood: Why now that we have left the EU are we still yoked to Maastrict austerity?

26 Apr

Sir John Redwood is MP for Wokingham, and is a former Secretary of State for Wales.

The UK economy is currently being run on the Maastricht rules as if we had not left the EU. The Office for Budget Responsibility made clear in its March report that whilst it awaits the Government’s conclusions on a new fiscal framework, the economy will be guided by the two familiar requirements that we get the running deficit down below three per cent of GDP, and that state debt as a percentage of GDP is declining all the time it is above the 60 per cent level.

It is clear that the whole five year budget in question is dominated by the perceived need to get state debt falling as a percentage of the economy by the end of the forecast period. This has led to a range of measures to increase the tax take, with a large increase in the Corporation Tax rate, and a big increase in the numbers of people paying higher rate income tax through freezing allowances.

My critics will argue that because we were outside the Euro we never had to follow the Maastricht rules. The truth is we did. We still do because we have never changed the rules, even though now we are free to do so.

We faithfully reported each year on progress with hitting the debt rules, and made clear that policy was primarily steered by the need to control debt. That was the central driver of George Osborne’s so-called austerity economics. The latest Government figures after Brexit continue to report our progress against these EU rules. This quote from the OBR’s March Report shows nothing has yet changed:

“The Chancellor has not set new fiscal targets in this Budget (despite two of the existing ones expiring this month) and is instead proceeding with the review of the fiscal framework proposed in last year’s Budget. But the absence of formal fiscal targets does not mean that the Chancellor has not been guided by particular metrics when selecting his medium-term Budget policies. The tax rises and spending cuts he has announced are sufficient to eliminate all but a £0.9 billion current budget deficit in 2025-26, while they are just enough to see underlying public sector net debt as a share of GDP fall by a similarly small margin of £0.7 billion in 2024-25 and £4.1 billion in 2025-26.”

I rest my case.

Requiring states to keep their overall state borrowing low makes a lot of sense in a single currency area where different governments have the right to borrow in a common currency. They need to avoid the free rider problem, whereby some states run up excessive debts, taking advantage of a low interest rate facilitated by the prudence of others.

The UK has no such problem. The UK as a single state with its own currency and central bank cannot take advantage of others. It does of course have to decide how much to borrow with affordability in mind. Borrow too much, and the interest bill could become unaffordable. Borrow excessively, and lenders could start demanding penal terms.

This means the best type of control over debt build-up for the UK should be a control over the size and growth of the interest burden. The UK has a tradition of borrowing long, and can do so in current markets. This protects taxpayers against sudden rises in rates, and reduces any strain from refinancing the debt. The Government has used debt interest targets, and should draw up a new realistic one. Given the way debt interest has fallen despite the increase in debt, this should not prove difficult.

The idea that we should carry on controlling the economy by state debt as a percentage of GDP is particularly silly given the great monetary experiment the UK along with the USA, the ECB and the Bank of Japan is carrying out.

The state-owned Central Bank is buying up large quantities of the state debt. Claiming that the gross debt is still a real debt is therefore wrong. The Treasury pays interest on nearly £975 billion of the debt to the Bank which it owns. If I had bought in my own mortgage but still kept paying the interest, I would not regard it as a real debt in the way I did before I bought in the loan, since I would be paying myself. Despite this obvious anomaly, the Budget is constructed on the basis that we need to get gross debt down, not the debt net of that owned by the state itself.

So what should we use as guides for economic policy? To a control on state interest payments to others, we should add a growth target and we should keep the important two per cent inflation target as a restraint on excessive credit and money expansion. The growth target should encompass aims to increase employment and productivity. What we need is to promote a higher wage, higher productivity economy. Our economic targets should reflect those aims.

The current state debt target is acting a constraint on faster growth. Offering tax rises and threats of tax rises for the years ahead damages confidence and deters new job creation and new investment. The UK’s productive capacity has been damaged by years in the single market where we lost out in many areas from steel to consumer electronics and from temperate food production to electricity generation.

We now need a favourable tax regime on self employment, investment, enterprise and individual incomes to promote a substantial increase in our productive capacity. The state debt control implies more of the same old policies which we had to follow in the later single market years which did not do enough to boost high paid jobs through industrial investment and higher productivity.

John Redwood: Let’s hear more debate about how the Church of England enjoys its privileges

31 Jan

Sir John Redwood is MP for Wokingham, and is a former Secretary of State for Wales.

It was a revelation to read a tweet from the Archbishop of Canterbury that was critical of recent words and attempted deeds of the European Union. The Church he leads has often been identified with the various Liberal Democrat and Labour Remain campaigns which he and  other Bishops have supported in the Lords. These campaigns have always worked from the basis that the EU can do no wrong and the UK can do little right.

His tweet is worth examining, because it explains why he and others like him have been so pro-EU before. It turns out to be grounded on some basic misunderstandings of both the nature of the EU and of the evolving constitution and nature of the English/UK state.

“The EU was originally inspired by Christian social teaching at the heart of which is solidarity. Seeking to control the export of vaccines undercuts the EU’s basic ethics. They need to work together with others,” he wrote.

Not exactly, Archbishop.

The EU began life as the EEC, a development of the German zollverein or customs union. It was neither free trade oriented, nor open to the rest of the world, but was based on protectionist thinking.

The early EEC/EU was strictly secular. The first reference to religions in the Treaties was introduced at Lisbon, and remains today as Article 17 of the Treaty of the functioning of the EU. That states that the Union respects different religions and different philosophical and non-confessional organisations recognised in individual member states.

It does not accord any priority to Christianity or any other religion, and merely says  the EU will have a dialogue with all these bodies. There is no official Church of the EU.  The preamble to the Treaty of Union shows how eclectic the sources of  EU thought are by saying “drawing inspiration from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe”.

France, a fiercely secular state, fought successfully to avoid any reference to the Christian religion in the EU Treaty or constitution. The EU has sought to define inalienable human rights that come from no particular faith or philosophy.

By contrast, there are several states in Europe that do afford a special place or mention to a Christian Church and Christian values in their constitutions.  Denmark, England, Greece, Hungary, Malta and Norway, for example, all have state Churches that are identified and given various special privileges or mentions. England is one of the most generous to its established Church – the Church of England which the Archbishop leads.

I do not hear him talking much about the special status that the Church enjoys in English and wider UK life. The Church owns substantial legacy property and investment wealth, courtesy of the UK state and Parliament.  MPs do not  question this.  Parliament, moreover, allows the Church to collect all rents and dividends free of income tax, take all capital gains free of Capital Gains Tax, and buy assets free of Stamp Duty, to give it maximum scope to build its wealth and grow its income.

It would be good to hear more debate about how that is being used.  The Church of England has its own Parliament, rule-making and disciplinary bodies, though they are answerable to the UK Parliament and ultimately governed by UK law. The Archbishops and senior Bishops have seats, votes and voices in the UK legislature.

Though they are there as part of the wider governing establishment, they are under no duty to support the government of the day, and often during a Conservative government vote and speak in opposition. They also vote on Northern Irish and Scottish matters outside the area of their clerical authority. The Archbishop himself has been a critic of various Brexit measures, including the recent Trade Bill and Internal Market Bill.

The Church of England benefits from its status as the established Church, gaining a near monopoly over all the main UK national and English civic events, from royal weddings and funerals through Remembrance Day services, national anniversaries, civic services for Councils and Mayors, daily prayers in Parliament, to a network of Church schools receiving taxpayer finance.

These swell otherwise dwindling congregations.  Solidarity is not a Christian word from the Bible, but a system of mutual insurance and action from  the world of the trade unions.  I look forward to the evolution of the Archbishop’s thinking on EU matters as he studies more how the EU seeks advantage and augments its power in ways that do not offer friendly co-operation with the rest of the world.

John Redwood: Why we would be better off with No Deal

14 Dec

Sir John Redwood is MP for Wokingham, and is a former Secretary of State for Wales.

No Deal would be a good outcome for the UK. It would mean that we take back control of our borders, our money, our laws and our fish, as promised by the Leave campaign. The deals on offer from the EU fall well short of improving on No Deal.

It wants to continue overfishing our seas with its huge industrial trawlers. It wants to control our law making in all areas related in any way to business and trade. It wants its court to adjudicate disputes between us – in a clear violation of usual international practice, in which an impartial arbitrator is used, or the two sides need to argue matters through to agreement. Its every word and action signals that it does not wish to accept the fact that we have voted to be an independent country, and intend to be one.

When Theresa May with senior civil servants foolishly sought to recreate many of the features of our EU membership under the cover of a so-called comprehensive partnership, the EU made it impossible for her. If we just wanted a free trade agreement like Canada or Japan, that seemed to be on offer.

Once a new UK government offered to do just, that the EU decided to impede and prevent it, and to pretend the UK still really wanted special access to the Single Market which in turn required subservience to its laws.

There was little good faith in trying to implement the Political Agreement by the EU, given that it said that a free trade agreement would lie at the heart of a new relationship between the EU and the UK. The EU has always behaved with discipline and severity in its negotiating stance, assuming that it can have its cake and eat it. It has repeated its mantra that you cannot have access to the Single Market without accepting many limitations on your freedoms.

This of course is simply not true for the rest of the world, which trades with the EU without having to obey its laws. In every other case, the EU accepts mutual respect for World Trade Organisation rules. The EU as a member of the WTO accepts its disputes resolution. The EU has a history of some violations of WTO rules with penalties – as with subsidies to Airbus.

I was asked to give many speeches during the EU referendum campaign to business audiences. I always said No Deal was the only outcome we could guarantee. It was an outcome which would give a good answer for the UK, achieving all our aims to be independent. On the past economic evidence, I expected a No Deal Brexit to offer us a small boost to GDP if we used the new freedoms well.

I used to go on to say it would be very easy – if there was political will – to add a free trade agreement on top of No deal, which would be beneficial to both sides. In most free trade deals, there are delays and problems with each side wishing to defend a tariff here and a non-tariff barrier there.

In the case of the UK and EU, we start from a position where there are no tariffs and no untowards barriers to goods trade, so it would just be a question of rolling over what we have.  I also sometimes added that some thought the EU would not behave well or want to do that.

In that event, surely it shows how right we are to leave if our EU neighbours, friends and allies behave in such a silly way towards us, to the point of hurting their own access to our own lucrative market. To the EU, the UK has indeed been Treasure Island. It has taken large payments from us in the form of our net contributions to the EU, and has ru a huge surplus on goods and food trade through tariff-free entry.

The Prime Minister has been clear and right in saying we will leave the Single Market and Customs Union. We want our own international trade policy, and will be a more powerful and consistent voice for freer trade than the EU. To do this, we need to have full control of all matters relating to trade and business.

The Single Market has been damaging to the UK overall. In our first decade in the Common Market, as it was then erroneously called, we lost half our motor manufacturing capacity as tariffs were removed. Over the years, we have seen the loss of most of our steel industry and aluminium output, serial damage to textile and ceramic manufacture, the mass closure of foundries and the break up and contraction of our chemical industry.  Our market share in temperate food production has fallen sharply, and we have gone from being a net exporter of fish to a shrunken industry, with consumers reliant on imports for much of our demand.

EU grants and subsidies have bid some business investment away from the UK. EU rules have often been based around the needs and methods of large-scale continental producers at the expense of our firms. The EU has failed to negotiate trade deals at all with two of our largest trading partners, the USA and China, and has not bothered about proper service sector access in other deals, despite the UK’s strong position in many service areas.

Our average growth rate was faster before entry into the Common Market post-war than during the years of Common market membership, which in turn was faster than our average growth rate in the years which followed 1992 and the so-called completion of the Single Market.

The UK establishment has never been willing to analyse the data and understand what was truly happening. It visited upon us the disaster of the Exchange Rate Mechanism, whose predictable impact caused a major recession at the very point there was meant to be a boost from completing the Single Market.

So how can now use our freedoms as we leave with No Deal, assuming there is no last-minute wish to be sensible by the EU and agree a free trade deal?   We should be up and running with tax cuts – at last, we can take VAT off all those green products from insulation to boiler controls the EU insists on.

We can lift tariffs from South African oranges and other tropical fruit and food that we cannot grow for ourselves. We should pursue our offer to the USA of removing EU retaliatory tariffs on its goods if it will drop their tariff on Scotch whisky, which was an unwelcome hit from an EU trade spat.

We should set up freeports and enterprise zones to marshal new investment and make more in the UK. We should reorient farm subsidies to slash the food miles, and grow more of our own salads, fruits,and vegetables. We should land more of our fish at home, and add fish processing to create meals and products that we want to eat or which we can export.

We should put in more electricity capacity, and end our growing dependence on imported EU power. As the Government encourages the planting of many more trees, we should ensure more sustainable forestry to cut the massive timber imports.

These are all good economic reasons to press for the No Deal Brexit. The best reason of all is to be free, living in an independent country. I want to help pass on a country that is self-governing – a beacon for democracy.  Brexit means taking back control of our laws, our borders and our money. That way we will be better governed. If any given government lets us down we can sack it, and get the answer we want from another. That is something we can never do as members of the  EU. They give us the laws and we do not control the government.

John Redwood: Covid-19 – and the hard questions that must be asked about forecasts, numbers, data and treatments

3 Nov

Sir John Redwood is MP for Wokingham, and is a former Secretary of State for Wales.

Throughout this pandemic, I have been dismayed by the poor data and the misleading forecasts produced by some of  the official advisers to the government.

On Saturday evening, like many people, I was left trying to read graphs purporting to give the reasons to justify a major curtailment of personal and business freedom, only to be unable to see the varying scales, the sources of the data or the relevant dates. There were as often glaring omissions. Why, for example, are we never given up to date figures of bed occupancies for the NHS either nationally or regionally?

Over the last six months, we have been shown some gloomy forecasts that proved wrong, regular changes in the way figures like the numbers of deaths are computed, misleading international comparisons with countries that compile data differently and a refusal by the advisers to engage in public with legitimate professional concerns of other medical and scientific experts who take a different view.

We hear a stupid mantra that we must follow the science. There is no single agreed scientific view of this disease because it is new and talented scientists and medics are wrestling to understand  it and to work out how best to treat it. There are healthy disagreements between them as they seek  better knowledge.

It is the worst kind of talking down to tell us there is one perfect settled scientific view which leads to one simple policy prescription of lock down. When I asked about the forecast of four thousand future daily deaths and the huge range in estimates for both deaths and cases into December, there was no convincing answer. The truth is that the government advisers do not know how many cases or deaths there will be next week or month.

I fully accept that for a minority this is a dangerous and potentially lethal disease.  For most, it is at worst a flu-like illness; for others, there are no symptoms at all. I am seeking changes to the way that the fovernment responds to the pandemic. I wish them to do all that a government can to save lives, and to help the vulnerable find the protection they need and want from the disease.

I also wish to see the Government avoid measures which do substantial damage to jobs and livelihoods. As we saw,  the last national lockdown was unable to stop the virus spreading again come the autumn. The Government’s own advisers who think the lockdown itself brought down case numbers and deaths substantially accept that a tough national lockdown does not solve the problem. They recommend continuing with various lockdown measures as long as we have no cure or preventative vaccine. Others think the virus had peaked at the point where the lockdown was imposed, and maybe the weather and other factors played a part in its temporary demise.

I am urging the government to work closely with medics and pharmaceutical researchers to identify more treatments to cut the death rates. There are various steroids, anti-virals, clot busters and antibody treatments that have now been found to help, or may emerge from trials as useful additions to treatment.

Health professionals have also now discovered using non invasive ways of administering extra oxygen are often best. There are also issues about whether Vitamin D and zinc supplements can help. I have urged more emphasis on qualified people seeking new ways of treating and preventing. There is much medical and pharmaceutical talent in the UK, and it may well make more breakthroughs, as it did with the introduction of steroid treatment.

I have urged better data.  The basis of defining a death has been changed several times during the pandemic, and there are issues about whether Covid-19 deaths have been overstated whilst understating other lung infections and serious co morbidities in the mainly elderly people dying. In the early stages, the authorities boosted death numbers from Covid-19  by directing its inclusion on a death certificate even if there was no confirmatory test for its presence, based on reported symptoms.

There was also a wish to ascribe all deaths to Covid-19 where it was present, even though the elderly person concerned muay have died from one or more of several other bad conditions they had. Some of the most common tests for the disease may also report false positives, which needs to  be taken into account when examining  figures for deaths and cases.  The latest forecasts for cases and deaths take the form of very wide ranges where the upper figure is three times the lower figure, making them meaningless as planning forecasts.

There is an absence of reliable public data on hospital bed occupancy, which seems to be the main worry of NHS management and the scientific advisers. We must not close the economy down to save the NHS if it can now cope thanks to the building of the Nightingales, greatly expanding intensive care facilities and recruiting many more staff. Why are we not using some hospitals as isolation hospitals specialising in Covid-19, and leaving the rest of the system free of the disease to reassure patients needing many other treatments?

What we do know is a lockdown is very damaging to jobs and business. The first national lock down took around a quarter off our national income and output – an unprecedented fall. We cannot afford to do that again, as government rightly spent a fortune on subsidising public services and private sector employment to cushion the blow.

I am pressing for substantial changes to lockdown plans. I see no need to close outdoor sports facilities. I think a range of specialist retailers should stay open with suitable measures to cut risks of infection spreading. Pubs and restaurants should be allowed to sell drink as well as food for take away. Government should work with business and offer help to improve air extraction so more can function safely indoors.

I do support the schools staying open as this is important to the development and future prospects of children and teenagers. This disease is usually very mild in young people. I have urged the resumption of non Covid-19 work by the NHS as Ministers seek, as many more people die of causes other than Covid-19 every day.

In order to reduce, the spread of the virus everyone needs to reduce the number of social contacts they have in enclosed spaces with poor air. This requires buy-in by the public. There is no agreed set of laws and controls on our everyday movements that will guarantee success. Government needs to persuade people to reduce social contacts rather than try to find  a set of laws they can enforce against the wishes of a significant minority. It could also help by assisting more people and businesses to live with the virus for all the time we have no cures and vaccines.

Can we have more UV sanitising systems deployed in public places? Can we have more assistance to adapt air systems in commercial premises to extract dirty air promptly to make them safer? Can we have some better understanding from government that we need all the small businesses that serve us, and they are the ones that are in danger of being hounded out of work by clumsy generalised lockdowns.

We can adapt our lives to living with the virus by many small steps of a practical nature. This battle cannot be won by taking too many liberties away, and lecturing people to stop their social and business lives. My constituents want the government to work with them to help protect the vulnerable and make normal life safer for the rest. There is no silver bullet or single answer. We all need to help, and that requires a general spirit of collaboration, tolerance and commonsense.