‘We need to talk about the Union’: An inside look at the new group of Conservative MPs fighting for Britain

16 Oct

Amongst the many changes wrought by the pandemic, one which people might not have predicted has been the way it has brought the constitutional conflict back up to the boil.

For several years after the Brexit referendum the question of Scottish independence remained relatively quiescent, even as the SNP fought tooth and nail to prevent the UK’s exit from the European Union because of how difficult it made their ultimate ambition.

But the breakdown of the ‘four nations’ consensus on Covid-19 has changed all that. Less than a year out from crucial Holyrood elections, the Scottish Government continues to enjoy the ‘rally round the flag’ effect that Boris Johnson has lost (despite a growing laundry list of woes). Both Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford, her Welsh counterpart, are talking seriously about introducing internal movement restrictions inside the UK.

After decades of complacency and a blithe assumption that conceding more powers to Holyrood and Cardiff Bay could buy them off indefinitely, the Government has at least started to wake up to the scale of the challenge. The UK Internal Market Bill was a welcome sign that ministers were prepared to defend the legitimate role of Westminster in national life.

But there will be much more to do over the next few years – and the new Conservative Union Research Group aims to make sure the Party is equipped to do it.

CURG is the brainchild of Robin Millar, the newly-elected MP for Aberconwy in North Wales. A committed unionist – he set out his thinking on the Union in a recent piece for the Daily Express – he was spurred to organise after realising how badly devolution had affected government attitudes towards constituencies such as his. When raising questions about flooding, for example, a response from DEFRA was simply forwarded from the Welsh Government, and at one point the Secretary of State expressed sympathy only for English constituencies affected.

Millar says he isn’t an instinctive centraliser. He’s a fan of subsidiarity and pushed for greater local power whilst a county councillor in Suffolk. But whilst he might be sceptical about Westminster’s capacity to directly run North Wales, he believes that it has not lost its ultimate responsibility towards all British citizens – but, after decades of ‘devolve and forget’, that it sometimes forgets that.

After speaking to other Welsh colleagues, Millar reached out to MPs from other parts of the country including David Bowie, the MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine. The goal was to set up a “simple, focused, and open” group to help backbench Tory MPs (although there were ministers who wished to join) work more effectively in Parliament on Union issues.

Membership has reportedly grown “organically” since the launch, and as of today, the URG apparently counts more than 70 of them amongst its membership. Crucially, four fifths of these represent English constituencies.

Whilst the name obviously invites comparisons with the European Research Group, Millar is clear that the URG is not a “disgruntled caucus”. The Government’s stated goal is to defend the Union, and the URG intends to help.

The Committee: Selaine Saxby, Fay Jones, Robin Millar, Andrew Bowie, and James Davies.

One way of doing this is simply making sure that MPs know more about the Union. Many MPs don’t come into politics to talk about the constitution, and Millar ended up setting himself a lot of reading up over lockdown to make sure he was across the issues. That’s perhaps one reason why the URG is geared towards mobilising people with shared convictions, rather than advocating for a specific and detailed set of solutions.

In Parliament, the group will hopefully help pro-UK MPs to make better-informed and more coordinated interventions on relevant issues by preparing briefing notes and other support. The UK Internal Market Bill is an obvious example, but the URG leadership are keen to highlight that there is a Union dimension to a huge range of issues. Ministers aiming to raise the Government’s profile in devolved policy areas won’t disagree.

Over the longer term, Millar hopes the group will be able to hone the intellectual arguments unionists need to take on the separatists. This involves tackling misleading comparisons between the British and European unions, challenging misleading attacks on the ‘English Government’, defending Westminster’s role in overseeing legitimately UK-wide initiatives such as the Shared Prosperity Fund, and combating the idea that support for the Union is nostalgic or reactionary.

It also means pressing the SNP on the inconsistencies in their vision, including the increasingly salient question of whether territories such as Orkney and Shetland should have the right to go their own way in the event of an independence vote: “Where does separation stop?”

They might also try to persuade ministers to broaden and deepen their arguments against granting Sturgeon a re-run referendum after next year’s Holyrood election. Simply repeating the “once in a generation” mantra won’t be enough, but better arguments are available.

It is too soon to say what sort of ideas might come out of this process. But even if it just gets minds concentrated on the problem and people talking about the Union, the URG would be doing the Party and the country a service. For too long, nationalism has enjoyed the advantage of having permanently-established parties and caucuses focused exclusively on attacking the United Kingdom. It is past time that unionism counter-organised.

Andrew Bowie: We need to rediscover the quiet strength of British patriotism

5 Sep

Andrew Bowie is Member of Parliament for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, and a Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party.

It is ironic that one of the most distinctive British traits is a desire not to be seen to be overly patriotic. Not for us the flag waving, star-spangled brashness of our cousins over the pond; nor for the Brits the haughty, aloof self-confidence of our Gallic friends on the other side of the channel.

No, for us, a quiet, polite pride in who we are and what we stand for. Understated, unspoken, inoffensive, British.

A couple of minutes silence in November to commemorate our war dead; a parade one morning in early June to celebrate the birthday of the Queen; the closest the United Kingdom gets to national commemoration, celebration or recognition of who we are and what our nation has achieved.

Compare to the Bastille Day celebrations in Paris or the 4th of July fireworks in the USA.

Britain never needed these displays of greatness. Our nation was not forged from war or revolution, nor liberated from tyranny and fascism. Never have we suffered invasion and the indignity of occupation; we were not liberated from a foreign power. Never have we, unlike the Founding Fathers or Charles De Gaulle, had to reinvent ourselves, rebuild, or build anew our national identity.

To be British was understood; our greatness self-evident and accepted. We didn’t need to shout it from the roof tops. This is the country that abolished slavery, that fought with our Commonwealth, Empire, and allies to free the world from oppression, Nazism, and Communism; helped found the United Nations and NATO; and stood as a beacon for the poor and dispossessed of the world as a symbol of hope that good will, forever, overcome evil.

Of course, there are moments in our national story that we cannot be proud of. Our cities and empire grew on the back of the vile trade in human life long before we abolished it, and peoples across the world suffered from episodes of ill-judged and aggressive expansionism and exploitation at our hands and the hands of other European powers. We must understand and accept that in history, there is not, ever, one single view.

But I think, one of the glories of modern Britain is that have been, unlike many other countries with similarly blemished histories, confident enough in who we are to be able to reflect, debate, and discuss the rights and wrongs of our past without feeling ashamed of who we are or who what we represent.

So why this recent bout of uncertainty? Why this national vacillation about what Britain is? For what reason are we deemed to be in the middle of a culture war when in many ways the celebration of different cultures is what has made this country great since it was created through the binding together of our island in the Act of Union in 1707?

This week’s debate on whether or not the BBC should allow the singing of Rule Britannia at the Last Night of the Proms is symbolic of the national lack of confidence in ourselves. A lack of certainty in the future – in who we, the British, are. In what our country is and what we want it to be.

In Scotland, the SNP agitate for separation. On streets in our great cities, protests erupt and previous national heroes are held up as symbols of imperial oppression. People are questioning what Brexit means for our national identity. It is a time of confusion for many.

But I also know that this is a great country. A truly great country. A country that leads the world in so many ways. In foreign aid and charitable giving to the poorest on our planet. In combating climate change through government action, such as our determination to reach net zero carbon emissions or in the investment and research into green technology at our renowned research institutions. Our universities are the envy of most of the world. On the sporting field, in theatres, galleries, film and television and in technology, this country punches above its weight.

Our Armed Forces remain respected and relied upon by our allies, ready to fight and defend our friends and promote democracy and the rule of law wherever and whenever we are called upon to do so.

Ours is a tolerant nation. A proud multi-cultural nation. Survey after survey has found that Britain is one of the least racist and most accepting countries in the world. That is not to say that racism does not exist, and where it does we must call it out. but compared to many of our European neighbours, we are more welcoming and understanding than most. We are one of the most LGBT+ friendly countries in the world.

We have so much work to do. We must address our imperfections. We must examine this national downbeat mood. We must answer why we so lack confidence in who we are that our national broadcaster can contemplate not devoting fifteen minutes of one Saturday evening to a patriotic sing-song.

We must bring our country together; our people together. Uniting our country. That, for me, is the great challenge of this Government – of our generation. That is what ‘levelling up’ means.

I would not recognise a country that was more aggressively patriotic. More flags are not for me. I like the quiet, unspoken pride we share in being British.

But I am confident in Britain and our future. And if we can be confident in who we are and what our national mission is, then we have no need to erase our past. Let us instead build on it. Good and ill. Victory and defeat. Fair and unfair. It is our history. We should own it just as we own our future

Javid is Chancellor. Tugendhat, Foreign Secretary. May, Home Secretary. Introducing the Alternative Cabinet.

2 Sep

The Cabinet is widely and correctly dismissed as weak.  So we’ve had a go at assembling a stronger one.  Here is the result.

Our only rule is that no Commons member of the present Cabinet can be listed in this imaginary one. Some of those named below are very familiar to this site’s editors.  Others we don’t really know, and one or two we’ve never met.

The aim of the exercise isn’t to suggest that the entire Cabinet should be swept away, and this one appointed.  Nor that all the alternatives to the present incumbents are better.

None the less, We think that, person for person, this is a better and certainly a more experienced mix of potential Ministers – all of whom are waiting in the wings either in government or on the backbenches,

– – – – – – – – – –

Chancellor of the Exchequer

Sajid Javid

Javid never got a chance to deliver a Budget.  In our imaginary scheme, he would.  His economic instincts are dry, pro-current spending control, lower business taxes, and more infrastructure investment

Foreign Secretary

Tom Tugendhat

Undoubtedly a gamble, since he’s never held Ministerial office, but the Foreign Affairs Select Committee Chairman and former soldier is one of the country’s leading foreign affairs thinkers.

Home Secretary

Theresa May

Whatever you think of her period as Prime Minister, May gripped a department that famously is “not fit for purpose” and, with some of her Tory colleagues campaigning against her, worked to keep net migration down.

Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office

John Redwood

He is more than capable, as his blog confirms, of thinking creatively about policy, the civil service and delivery – as one would expect from the most effective Tory head that the Downing Street Policy Unit has ever had,

Defence Secretary

Penny Mordaunt

Steeped in defence through family background and her Portsmouth constituency, Mordaunt had less than three months to prove herself in this post.  There’s a case for her having more.

Justice Secretary

Geoffrey Cox

Cox is a Queen’s Council as well as a convinced Brexiteer, and would bring heavyweight credentials to dealing with the judiciary, prisons, human rights and judicial review.

Business Secretary

Greg Clark

Clark is the sole former Cabinet Minister left in the Commons who lost the whip over Brexit, and under this plan would return to his old department.

Trade Secretary

Liam Fox

If Boris Johnson thinks Fox is capable of running the World Trade Organisation, he must surely believe that he could make a success of running his former department again.

Education Secretary

Robert Halfon

Our columnist is now Chair of the Education Select Committee, is a former Minister in the department, and has a populist, work-orientated passion for the subject.

Health Secretary

Jeremy Hunt

The appointment would be risky, because Hunt is bound to be caught up in the Coronavirus inquiry, but he has consistently been ahead of the game on social distancing plus test and trace.

Work and Pensions Secretary

Iain Duncan Smith

Universal Credit has been a quiet success story of Covid-19, and Duncan Smith has the seniority and experience to take it to the next level, given its indispensability as unemployment soars.

Housing, Communites and Local Government Secretary

Kit Malthouse

Former local councillor, London Assembly member, Deputy Mayor to Boris Johnson in London, Minister of State for Housing and Planning – and so well-qualified for the post.

Environment Secretary

Owen Paterson

Paterson knows almost everything about the brief, having held it under David Cameron, and as a convinced Leaver would have plenty of ideas for the future of farming post-Brexit.

Transport Secretary

Jesse Norman

Would be a promotion for a Minister who’s worked in the department before, and did a committed job there as Roads Minister.

Culture Secretary

Tracey Crouch

Knows everything there is to know about sport, and would be a popular appointment, were she willing to take the post on.

Scottish Secretary

Andrew Bowie

Young, personable, and seen as close to Ruth Davidson, which would help with a row about a second Scottish independence referendum coming down the tracks. A calculated gamble from a limited field.

Welsh Secretary

Stephen Crabb

Senior, thoughtful, knows the brief from first hand, will be across the internal Party debate in Wales about the future of devolution.

Northern Ireland Secretary

James Cleverly

Successful on conventional and social media as a Party Chairman, a strong communicator, and now gaining diplomatic experience at the Foreign Office – Northern Ireland would represent a natural transfer.

Party Chairman

Kemi Badenoch

Right-wing, and not afraid of thinking for herself on culture issues – as she has shown as a Minister in sweeping up in the Commons on race, justice and Black Lives Matter.  Would make a strong spokesman.

Leader of the Lords

Natalie Evans

The Lords leader is the exception to our rule, on the ground that the Government’s problem with top Ministers is focused in the Commons, not the Lords – where what’s needed is wider reform.

– – –

Entitled to attend

Leader of the House

Andrea Leadsom

Leadsom was an excellent Leader of the House, standing up to bullying John Bercow, and well up to dealing with the knotty complex of bullying/harrassment issues.  No reason for her not to come back.

Chief Secretary to the Treasury

Steve Baker

Adventurous choice – but, contrary to the fashionable noise about tax rises, what’s really needed is a proper zero-based review of public spending, a task to which Baker would commit himself zealously.

Attorney-General

Lucy Frazer

This QC consider herself unlucky to miss out last time round, and if there has to be a change in post she would slide in seamlessly.

Chief Whip

Graham Brady

The long-standing Chairman of the 1922 Committee Executive knows the Parliamentary Party as well as, if not better, than anyone, and would be perfect for the post were he willing to take it.

Andrew Bowie: Our new Trade and Agriculture Commission will protect – and economically enhance – British farming

29 Jun

Andrew Bowie is MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine.

I grew up in Aberdeenshire – surrounded by some of the best farmland in the United Kingdom; home to some of the best produce in the world. The highest quality beef, lamb and malting barley was produced, quite literally, on my doorstep. Sitting now, as the Member of Parliament for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, I am proud to represent these famers, the guardians of our countryside, the producers of our food and drink, in Parliament.

And as a Conservative, I am also proud to support our Government and stand behind its commitment to have 80 per cent of our trade covered by free trade agreements. This means that Aberdeenshire, Scottish and indeed British produce – salmon, beef, lamb, whisky and so much more could and should be enjoyed in every corner of the world.  

British farmers in particular have so many opportunities ahead of them: we have a £66 million opportunity for beef in the US, but it could be even bigger if tariffs of up to 26 per cent were dropped. As for British lamb, it’s currently banned from the US. Just a three per cent market share represent an £18 million opportunity. I want to see the great produce we make here in the UK, enjoyed across the world with all the benefits that can bring for British farmers and producers.

But too often, these opportunities and benefits that these deals might bring are drowned out amidst the noise, nonsense and mistruth peddled about the Government preparing to lower our import standards and undercut, “sell out” British farmers.

It is simply not true and utterly misses the point about the enormous economic benefit that free trade deals can bring to the farming industry and the British people. Indeed, it is our very high standards and quality of our produce that makes it so attractive to the outside world. 

We will always stand full square behind our farmers. And we will strain every sinew to enable farmers make the most of these new and exciting opportunities. And we will not allow our fabulous producers to be undermined due to their high standards. British farmers are, and will remain, competitive. 

That is why I am delighted to see that today, Liz Truss, the Secretary of State for Trade, has announced there will be a Trade and Agriculture Commission to provide expert advice in setting our agricultural trade policy.

The Government has listened and engaged, with the industry. We recognise and understand the concerns they have. It has listened to the National Farmers Union’s across England, Wales and Scotland, as well as the Ulster Farmers Union in Northern Ireland. We are determined to get this right for our whole United Kingdom.

And we agree that any trade deals the UK negotiates must be fair and reciprocal to our farmers; it must not compromise on our high standards. We are fighting for the interests of our farming community in every agreement that we negotiate.

As a newly independent nation, freed of the restrictions placed on us by the European Union and the Common Agricultural Policy, we are deciding the shape of our own agricultural trade policy for the first time in over 40 years. This needs to consider the views of consumers and farmers to ensure that we have a sustainable and thriving agricultural industry. A Trade and Agriculture Commission can bring these voices together. 

Like ConservativeHome’s readers I do not support generating additional layers of bureaucracy. That is why the Commission will not be another quango or regulator.

It will have a clear set of objectives and be strictly time-limited. Once the Commission has finished its work, it will produce a report that will be presented to Parliament by the Department of International Trade.

The Commission will look at how we can ensure fair competition for British farmers in our trade agreements, while protecting consumers and developing nations. It will advise on how we can use the WTO to advocate for higher animal welfare standards internationally and identify export opportunities for UK farmers. It will advise on the best way forward for UK agriculture.

We must make the most of our new lease of freedom and strike trade deals far and wide and spread our produce to every corner of the earth. We’re Great Britain and we believe in free, and fair, trade. We’re just getting started.