Merkel’s appeasement of Putin is cast into savage relief by the atrocities in Ukraine

5 Apr

For many years Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany from 2005-2021, was acclaimed as one of the world’s great leaders. Liberal commentators lamented that British leadership in this period was so markedly inferior.

This was a thriving school of thought. In 2020 a book appeared, Why The Germans Do It Better: Notes From A Grown-Up Country, by John Kampfner, which in retrospect can be seen as the high point of this school.

German conservatism had produced Merkel, “easily the most respected democratic leader in the world”, while British conservatism had produced Boris Johnson.

She was a genius and the British Prime Minister was a buffoon. That was until recently the prevailing view in liberal circles.

Volodymyr Zelensky, President of Ukraine, has just addressed some remarks to Merkel and to her French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy, President of France from 2007-2012:

“I invite Mrs Merkel and Mr Sarkozy to visit Bucha and see what the policy of concessions to Russia has led to in 14 years. To see with their own eyes the tortured Ukrainian men and women.”

Merkel’s policy towards Russia has been reduced to a heap of rubble. When she took office in 2005, construction of the Nord Stream pipeline from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea had not begun.

She could have stopped the project, but said she did not want to upset the Social Democrats, with whom she had formed a coalition government.

From that day on, she rejected criticism of Nord Stream by insisting it was “an economic project”.

What her real motives were is difficult to say. Even she might be hard put, were she inclined to stop being disingenuous, to explain why she decided to deepen Germany’s reliance on Russian energy. But it seems pretty clear that domestic political considerations took precedence over strategic thinking.

In 2011 she deepened Germany’s reliance by announcing the shut down of the country’s remaining nuclear power stations. She did this in response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, caused by a tidal wave.

There are no tidal waves in Germany. Merkel, one was tempted to conclude, had done this to damage the Greens, who benefited from hostility among the German public to nuclear power.

Merkel remained in power for 16 years in part because she was so good at placing herself at the head of a domestic political consensus. She stole enough of her opponents’ clothes to leave them looking under-dressed.

Helmut Kohl, Chancellor from 1982-1998, had done the same in the 1990s when he replaced the German mark, proud symbol of West German recovery, with the euro. His opponents on the Left actually believed in this policy, while his followers on the Right, in the Christian Democratic Union, were forced to swallow their reservations and vote for it too.

The introduction of the euro was rendered more tolerable by arranging things in such a way as to be good for German exporters, though less good for the Greeks.

Merkel aroused deep misgivings among the Christian Democrats, whose leader she became in 2002. They were used to being led by Roman Catholic men from the Rhineland, and had no idea who this Lutheran woman from East Germany was, or what she was thinking, nor did she ever tell them.

She was eligible for the leadership not only on account of her acute feel for politics but because, unlike her rivals, she was not contaminated by undue proximity to Kohl, who was found to have operated an illegal network of donations and bank accounts.

While growing up in East Germany as the daughter of a Lutheran clergyman who had arrived there from the West, so was a figure of suspicion to the authorities, she began a successful career as a scientist, without actually joining the ruling communist party.

Merkel spoke excellent Russian and visited Moscow. She was not a dissident. She accommodated herself to the realities of power.

In due course she accommodated herself to the realities of being Chancellor. A cardinal point was to be on good terms with Moscow.

Her immediate predecessor as Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, a Social Democrat, had been on such good terms with Moscow that as soon as he stepped down, he got a wonderful job as Chairman of the Shareholders’ Committee of Nord Stream.

Merkel knew the Russians well, spoke their language and believed she could trust them. After all, they had withdrawn from East Germany without a shot being fired. As far as the Germans were concerned, the Russians had behaved in an exemplary fashion.

Members of the German political class could flatter themselves that they were no mere provincials. By dealing with Moscow, they were dealing with a great power.

So too by dealing with Beijing. Here too they were in the premier division, and were doing what German industry wanted. They had less time for countries like Ukraine, which would soon be cut out of the gas business by the Baltic pipeline.

It suited members the German political class to show they were not just in the pockets of the Americans, while allowing the Americans to pay the cost of their defence, should the Russians after all prove not quite so trustworthy.

Germany’s armed forces were run down into a pitiful condition. But surely the Russians would not do anything mad. Surely in the end they would be as prudent as the Germans.

Then Putin did something which was both mad and bad. He invaded Ukraine. Germany’s policy had been based on an illusion; on mere wishful thinking.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who had succeeded Merkel, broke with her policy, and said Germany would at last spend proper money on defence, in order to pull its weight within NATO.

Schröder is now a totally discredited figure. Merkel too is in a rather embarrassing position. Her spokesperson said that in view of “the atrocities becoming visible in Bucha and other places in Ukraine”, all efforts by the German government and international community to stand by Ukraine “and put an end to Russia’s barbarism” have her full support, as well they might.

We can now expect a reevaluation of Merkel’s 16 years in power. How respected she was at the time, and how discredited she now looks.

Austria’s illiberal lockdown policy should make leaders think harder about their Covid measures

15 Nov

Over the last couple of days, Austria has announced one of the most dramatic Coronavirus policies yet. Its government has decided to put two million citizens, who haven’t been fully vaccinated against the virus, into their own lockdown.

The new rule applies to everyone over the age of 12 and means they are only allowed to leave home for specific reasons, such as working and buying food. Already the police have carried out routine searches to check for people’s vaccine status and can fine them up to 500 should they not provide proof of one. The lockdown is expected to last 10 days before being reviewed.

Proponents of this policy will argue that Austria has had no choice but to introduce such a measure. It has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Western Europe and, at the same time, cases are rapidly rising. Health experts believe it won’t be long until hospitals are full. What else is the government meant to do, they will say, which has already barred unvaccinated citizens from restaurants, hairdressers and cinemas.

But this is an extreme step – which shows a troubling complacency around what powers the state should have, under the justification of Covid. If Austria or another country had announced such a policy in 2019, one imagines there’d have been unanimous bewilderment – and maybe even anger. Nowadays, however, there is a shrugging of shoulders when politicians set new rules; a feeling of “business as usual”.

Dividing the nation in two to counter a health threat is not only draconian, but contradicts the position many leaders took during the pandemic, in which susceptibility to the virus was never used as a determinant of freedoms. The Great Barrington Declaration was famously criticised, among other reasons, for advocating “Focused Protection”; the idea that society should be separated, with the high risk population shielded and the low risk released “to live their lives normally”.

This was seen as unacceptable, though. “We’re all in this together”, goes the logic. But this could similarly be extended to the unvaccinated, many of whom will be low risk and have stayed at home to protect others for long periods of time.

Unfortunately Austria’s lockdown is no anomaly in a world of ever-extreme Covid measures. Latvia, for instance, has banned lawmakers who refuse to have a jab from voting on laws and participating in debates until the middle of next year. They will also have a pay cut. Penalities, as opposed to engagement, are now seen as the primary way to deal with the vaccine hesitant.

Similarly, Queensland, in Australia, plans to bar unvaccinated people from restaurants, pubs and sports events from December 17. After the country had one of the world’s longest lockdowns, only to find – for all the misery it inflicted on its citizens – this had no significant difference as the Delta variant of Coronavirus took hold, you’d think policymakers would think twice about further curtailing people’s freedoms.

Having recently been to Berlin and Paris, which have more Covid measures than the UK, what disappoints me more than individual restrictions is how quickly people accept them. “This is the new normal”, seems to be the attitude. The public have become apathetic, with no expectation that bureaucracy and rules can be reversed.

Austria’s new policy, at least, spells out that we are on a spectrum of Covid policies – ranging from Sweden’s relatively relaxed one to house arrest. I know which end of the spectrum I’d rather be on. 

As I have written before for ConservativeHome, in years to come the UK’s own attitude to Coronavirus – which has been called callous – could age much better than people think. We may, in fact, have struck one of the best balances between the Covid “hawks” and “doves”, as they were once referred to.

Austria’s use of such an over-the-top measure – it’s worth pointing out that 65 per cent of its population is fully vaccinated, so hardly a disaster – should really be called out by the international community.

But when some leaders ask their own citizens to show a vaccine passport for some chips in a restaurant, you can see the difficulties they will have in criticising, let alone noticing, anything more drastic. The UK and Sweden, for all the accusations that they are uncaring, may find they have a better platform on which to stand.

Forget Covid Plan A or Plan B. Let’s Plan British.

27 Oct

Over the past couple of months, I have managed to do what would have seemed impossible over a year ago; that is, go abroad. I have been on two breaks to Berlin and Paris, where I relished the chance to do touristy things again. But, on a less romantic note, these trips also gave me the opportunity to see how Covid policies are playing out elsewhere.

Yesterday it was interesting to see a Times piece titled “Why Europe is ahead with control of Covid (for now)”, which started with the question “Is it the German mask-wearing habit that is putting Britain to shame?”

Though the article turned out to be quite fair in weighing up different pandemic strategies in Europe, it got me thinking about my time away – as well as whether Britain idolises other countries too much. 

It seems to me we have something of a “looking over our shoulder” syndrome about the Continent; a perception that others must be doing something better than us at getting Coronavirus under control.

Indeed, a recent YouGov poll suggests many English people are highly sympathetic to some of the policies that are enforced in France and Germany, with 81 per cent of people supporting masks on transport, 76 per cent masks in shops and 67 per cent social distancing in pubs and restaurants. 

Already the Government is being called on to unleash its “Plan B” Coronavirus strategy before Plan A has been allowed to get started. At every turn we seem to want more restrictions, convinced these will stem a winter wave of Coronavirus.

Being abroad, however, has convinced me that the Government has actually struck a sensible balance in its management of Covid; one that lockdown sceptics would be more grateful for if they lived under the alternative. 

The most noticeable difference is how strict France and Germany are about face masks, which are called for in almost every indoor setting. Even at an outdoor exhibition in Berlin, where people were metres away from each other, this rule was in place, with little indication it will be removed any time soon.

Stranger than that, though, was being asked to show proof of vaccine in order to have some moules marinière at a Parisien cafe. Even the waitress looked embarrassed as she asked for our records, and added that the decision was not up to her. Polls suggest that Brits are keen on such a measure – but we should think hard about its impact.

Some reading this will say that these rules are no big deal. Was it really so hard for me to get my vaccine passport at a restaurant? I would argue, however, that small changes shouldn’t be downplayed; they add up, making our lives more complicated and miserable (who wants to demonstrate their health status for some moules?).

The extent to which Coronavirus has changed our society became obvious to me as I arrived at the Eurostar – having forgotten to fill in my Passenger Locator Form. It turned out that tens of others were in the same boat, and we huddled together in the entrance, manically typing our passport details onto our phones. It seemed like one sure way to help Coronavirus spread quickly. Either way, having to worry about a locator form, a passport, vaccine passport and train ticket is no fun – and you can bet the list of travel requirements will only increase with the next crisis.

Ultimately we should be more appreciative of the UK approach to Coronavirus, which remains less stringent than others in Europe. In general, there’s a tendency to think restrictions should only go one way (becoming stricter) and that urge becomes stronger when France, Germany or another European country has moved in such a direction. But free choice (and, yes, that includes the decision to wear a mask) and less admin matter too; they are hallmarks of greater freedoms.

This week Professor Sir Pollard, one of the creators of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, warned that we shouldn’t compare ourselves to European countries in regards to high numbers of Covid cases, as we are doing so much testing. He added that the Government has to do what’s right for the British people, instead of comparing internationally. Hear, hear!

One of the ironies of the last year is that, despite having left the EU, we all too often have a knee-jerk urge to converge with its biggest players on Covid strategy. In the initial stages of the pandemic, many praised Germany for its approach. But what’s so great about indefinite mask wearing? We have to define our own way forward in the Covid wars; lead, even, in the path towards normality. Forget Plan A, B or whatever next; we must plan British.

Lord Frost’s opening speech to Königswinter Conference, June 17

18 Jun

As delivered, 1330h

It’s conventional at this point at events like these to reflect on the strength of our bilateral relationship.

But I hope that for the UK and Germany that hardly needs doing. The events, the connections, the reality all speak for themselves.

Let me give a few examples.

Germany, which we described as our “essential ally” in the IR, was the only country in the world in 2020 to receive visits from the Prince of Wales, the PM, the Foreign Secretary, and the Chancellor. And we were delighted to have Chancellor Merkel here for the G7 in Cornwall last week, with a very warm and friendly bilateral meeting with our Prime Minister too.

We will have soon a Joint Declaration on Foreign and Security Policy, to complement the existing Joint Defence Vision – and, I hope, with more to follow soon. I agree with Ambassador Michaelis that there is room to make the governmental relationship a bit more structured and we should work on that in the months to come.

There are 1800 cooperation projects between our universities.

We have huge investment in each other’s countries – 1400 British companies in Germany, 2500 German companies in the UK.

And cultural exchanges are equally rich. Neil MacGregor’s role at the Humboldt Forum is well known, as is Hartwig Fischer’s at the British Museum – but there is much more.

I could go on. But there is no need to. The short version is that this is what you would expect between two great European countries. There’s a rich set of contacts at all levels – government, business, broader civil society, and beyond.

And of course KW itself is part of that and has been since the beginning. And let me put in a plug here for not just the main event but for YKW. My own engagement in KW is actually framed, until today, by 2 YKW events – my first involvement, in 1995, in Berlin, and my last, as a speaker at YKW in Frankfurt in 2018, where HansHenning was present, where I fear I shocked some of our German friends, and quite a few Brits too, with my views on Brexit. So I’d like to say thank you and well done Annika Muller De Vries and everyone else who has kept YKW going and to underline my hope that we can keep and intensify the pipeline of people from YKW to KW proper. It’s crucial that KW makes an effort to be representative of all parts of our societies – by generation, by profession, by political views.

I want to say a little more on that last point. This is a UK-Germany event, not an EU one. All the same obviously Brexit has been a matter of huge controversy at KW over the years, even if the 52/48 split in British opinion hasn’t generally been reflected in the perspectives of the British guests!

This isn’t the moment to go over the arguments – they are done. It’s time to look forward and I want to set out how politics now feels here, and why, to help frame our discussions in the next 24 hours.

First, a reflection on the current situation. Our relations with Germany are, I think, good. Our relations with the EU collectively and with the institutions are a bit more bumpy. Obviously no one is happy with that situation.

Indeed I would go further. I think those who campaigned for Brexit wanted and expected genuinely friendly and free-trading relations between the UK and the European Union – and still do. Nothing was further from our thoughts than the current fractious and friction-filled relationship that we seem to have now.

Why is that?

  • Some of the current difficulties are teething troubles.
  • Some of it might relate to what happens when people can’t travel, can’t meet,
    have no real means to discuss things informally or to defuse arguments.

But I fear some of it goes deeper.

  • Some of it stems from lack of trust, for our part from the legacy of what seemed to be attempts to frustrate our referendum result during what seems to us to have been a period of British intellectual and negotiating weakness in 2018 and early 2019, which this government has had to spend a lot of time trying to correct.
  • And finally some also stems from what we see now. We have been surprised by the EU’s willingness to resort quite quickly to threats when problems arise – over vaccines, over fish, over financial services, and indeed over Northern Ireland.
  • I didn’t want to speak about Northern Ireland in any depth, but I do need to respond to Ambassador Michaelis’s comments. We are spending hundreds of millions on operating the Protocol, and that is the source of the problems, so we take no lectures on this. I am afraid the idea that we could take the politics out of Northern Ireland and the Protocol is not exactly realistic. We agreed the Protocol to deal with a very particular and delicate situation, and the best thing our European friends can do is to respect this delicacy and to work with us to find a pragmatic and negotiated solution.

So I want to be clear – we don’t wish for difficult relations, we look for this time to
pass, we will work to make it better – but it takes two.

Second, a reflection on why Brexit matters so much to us. It’s worth saying perhaps to our German friends that there is no longer any serious debate on the subject in Britain. No major political party advocates EU membership, and, while a proportion of the public may still regret Brexit, there is no energy behind a rejoin movement. Overwhelmingly we are now looking forward.

That matters. Those of us who became convinced, publicly or privately, in the years after 2010 of the need to leave the EU did so not because of some obsessional attraction to sovereignty. We did so because we believed EU membership had been detrimental to the UK, had sapped our energy and ability to solve problems for ourselves, and had stopped us making hard choices and clear decisions about how we wanted to run our country.

I think it’s worth making clear that this is not just a Brexit of the right. We’ve seen perhaps the most significant change in British politics for a generation – a profound shift towards Brexit, and the Conservative Party, from parts of the country which have traditionally leaned left.

Some are inclined, even now, to dismiss this as a cry of anger against “being left behind”. That is far too dismissive. What we have seen is a call for the country to be run in a different way, injecting new ideas into the political class, creating alternative possibilities, and crucially, holding politicians to account for different things, against different standards.

The point I want to make is that leaving the EU wasn’t the final goal – it was a doorway, a portal through which we had to pass, the beginning of a journey to national renewal and a repositioning of Britain on the world stage. I think it’s because people sense those possibilities that the mood in Britain is better than many thought it would be.

We think we have made a fairly good start to that renewal process, with a world class vaccination programme and indeed vaccine – as indeed does Germany. The predicted collapse in trade has not happened. We are putting in place a programme of reforms – to subsidy policy, to procurement rules, to agricultural support programmes. We are establishing genuine freeports to encourage investment and rebalancing around the country. We are setting up our own pure scientific research agency, ARIA. On the global stage, we are putting our money where our mouth is on defence, with spending going up to 2.3% of GDP, well above the NATO target. And just this week we agreed our first FTA, with Australia, showing as we always predicted that the ability to tailor agreements to our own needs would mean we could agree them more quickly.

All this is why, for those sitting in our government, it is hard to feel anything other than a profound sense of responsibility to deliver upon the trust bestowed upon us. And if you will forgive me a few personal remarks at this point – it is also why we must be vigilant. We do have a challenge as we take our programme forward as a Conservative Government. It is to respond to the new political configuration here without falling into the trap of statism or the intellectual fallacy that a big state, high levels of public spending, more regulation, and government-determined goals and investment plans can build sustainable economic growth over time. Germany demonstrated this was a false path in the Wirtschaftswunder and I think we could do worse than refresh our knowledge of the Ordoliberal tradition, weakened though it may be in the context of broader European policy-making, as we make our plans.

We must also avoid being too influenced by the current pandemic situation, that Ambassador Michaelis referred to. . The pandemic has ushered in a range of measures literally unprecedented in a free society – indeed for the last year or so we have not really lived in a free society. We now know governments can act decisively when there is a genuine crisis – but we always knew that. I personally don’t want to accept that the levels of state involvement in our lives and in the economy we have seen in the last year are in any way normal. I want to get back to the old normal as soon as we can. To me and to many Brits it is striking that it was in Germany, that has learned to be vigilant about these things, that we saw the first, and still in many ways the strongest, protests against lockdowns. As we emerge from the pandemic, we must not lose our conviction that individual not collective rights are paramount, that living with risk is inevitable, or our belief that free debate and free expression of opinion is the right way forward for a free society.

Of course we 100% do not have all the answers. As I hope I’ve made clear, I personally think we have a lot to learn from Germany. What we do have is the ability to make our own decisions, and yes our own mistakes, but also to correct errors and make changes. That is a crucial advantage in developing good public policy.

So, although we are rebuilding our relationships beyond Europe – and as the Integrated Review showed we are going to be putting lots of effort into that – relationships with Germany, and our other great European friends, remain crucial to us. We recognise we have to manage them not just bilaterally but through the EU institutions – but events like today show that the bilateral remains crucially important.

To conclude – as you may be able to tell I am profoundly optimistic about this country and our future. This is an optimistic government and we believe in the ability of the British people to recover from the setbacks we’ve all faced over the last year and to turn our country into something special. In doing so, we look for friendly collaboration wherever that is possible; with Germany I am confident it is possible; and KW has a huge role in keeping it possible. Thank you.

Mohit Lal: Come buy with me – Let’s onshore the benefits of duty-free shopping

10 May

Mohit Lal is Chairman & CEO of Pernod Ricard Global Travel Retail. This is a sponsored post by Pernod Ricard Global Travel Retail.

The careful reopening of international travel is a welcome step on the road back to normality. It’s also a valuable reminder that Global Britain is not just about the work of diplomats and top business executives – it is also built on Britons’ openness to the world and the conviviality that travel experiences bring to our lives.

In a normal year, a greater proportion of Britons travel abroad than almost any other nationality. European destinations are particularly keen to welcome Brits back, as friends and as lucrative customers. And while much of the debate has focused on holidaymakers, or reuniting us with loved ones abroad, international travel is also key to the livelihoods of many people at home.

The travel industry supports almost one million jobs and generates £8.5 billion for the economy. Beyond airlines and hotels, Britain’s airports and airport retailers are significant employers in their own right.

While many sectors face challenges to get back on their feet, the travel industry has been more severely impacted by Covid-19 than almost any other. With the number of flights at less than 10 per cent of normal levels, footfall and revenues have plunged to negligible levels.

Travel retail will play an integral role in the recovery of the travel ecosystem; it supports the financial viability of airports in every region and every nation of the UK, helping to protect our international connectivity. Shopping revenue represents up to 40 per cent of the income for our airports, helping to pay for infrastructure and keeping ticket prices lower, whether we’re flying from Cardiff.

Our duty-free halls are also an invaluable showcase for British produce – duty-free sales are the number one market for Scotch whisky worldwide, representing 22 per cent of the market for high value Scotch.

When travellers get back to UK airports, they will notice they can benefit from duty-free shopping when flying to EU destinations. This is a welcome reform that will benefit 72 million passengers annually.

The UK Government has also increased in-bound duty-free allowances on wine, beer and spirits, meaning passengers travelling to the UK can buy up to four litres of spirits duty-free. This is one of the most generous allowances in the world, and a testament to the Government’s efforts to liberalise trade.

While this is a boon for travellers, it is not – as it stands – as much of a boost as it could be for the UK economy and British jobs. The reforms mean someone flying from Paris, Dublin, Berlin or New York can buy four litres of spirits duty-free on departure and bring it back duty free to the UK, but they cannot currently buy any alcohol duty free on arrival in the UK. This places UK airports at a significant commercial disadvantage.

Thankfully, there is an easy way for the Government to onshore the benefits of this policy. By amending the rules to allow UK arrivals stores, travellers could purchase four litres of Scotch whisky on landing in the UK, instead of giving their money to airports and retailers elsewhere. A total of 60 countries already have arrivals stores in place, from Norway to Russia. Indeed, our Commonwealth friends such as Australia, New Zealand and Singapore have had arrivals stores for many years. This policy change would also not require a full Act of Parliament, so it won’t disrupt the Government’s busy legislative agenda, or its ongoing response to the pandemic.

Our experience suggests arrivals stores could boost UK airport passenger spending by between 20 and 30 per cent, creating jobs and supporting our airport infrastructure. York Aviation estimates that for every one million passenger journeys, arrival stores generate 155 jobs, £14 million in gross value added, and over £5 million in tax revenue (through corporation tax and national insurance, for instance). And on a practical level, it would make it easier for Britons and visitors to transport glass bottles at a time when airlines are continuing to crack down on on-board luggage allowances, and allow for lighter aircraft loadings and lower fuel requirements and carbon emissions.

The Government has already shown a willingness to innovate on duty-free shopping. By going a little further, we can secure more business for Britain’s airports, more sales for British producers, and ultimately more British jobs. This would be a win for consumers and would help the UK economy and our regional airports to really take off after Covid-19.

Imran Ahmad Khan: Now is the right time for the UK to evolve a sharper and tighter foreign policy

22 Dec

Imran Ahmad Khan is Member of Parliament for Wakefield and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Foreign Affairs.

The UK has seldom faced such an array of challenges. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to wreak damage to our lives and businesses. Brexit negotiations have uncovered numerous flaws in our institutions, our negotiating skills, and our knowledge of our closest neighbours. The Presidential elections in the US have re-sparked divisive domestic issues. A rising China and a revanchist Russia, both of whom seek to expand their sphere of influence, now present an alternative, illiberal, world order.

Despite these threats, the UK’s recent foreign policy has been marked by missed opportunities and withdrawal. The UK’s weak presence at Davos and the Munich Security Conference in 2020 sent a signal of disinterest. Foreign leaders from countries in Asia, South America and Africa have lamented British disengagement from issues. European leaders have also debated strategic autonomy in Berlin and Paris, while London has remained silent.

Britain has a chance to reverse this deficit. Brexit presents us with the opportunity to deploy new tools of statecraft in pursuit of foreign policy objectives. The recent surge in defence spending – £16.5 billion over four years – will rebuild our pared back military capability. Upcoming commitments in the Sahel and the Indo-Pacific point to new arenas for British influence. Bilateral relationships, although attenuated in some cases, remain strong, and cooperation with the Commonwealth on issues of importance is close.

Now more than ever, a coherent, holistic strategy is required that will unite and enhance our capabilities to advance Britain’s position in the world, her interests, and her values.

What does Britain want?

Her Majesty’s Government’s principle role is to ensure the security and prosperity of her citizens. The British people not only expect this, but recognise the UK’s moral duty to prevent atrocities against oppressed and persecuted peoples, and promote stability across the globe.

These objectives are only achieved through the construction and defence of a world in which Britain is a leading and respected authority. This position does not have to stem from seizing the trident of global power or ruling as a hegemonic power.

Rather, Britain can achieve this through working within a group of like-minded nations that understand our values which set the parameters of the world order. Where there is a hegemon, we ought to influence them. When Britain wants to ensure freedom of navigation in the Bab el-Mandeb, or a free trade agreement with Japan, it helps to be listened to, and for our advise to be carefully weighed upon by military and diplomatic powers.

A critical part of this strategy has relied on maintaining good relations with the US. For decades, we have striven, buoyed by cultural similarity and shared history. The character and extent of American power is changing rapidly and significantly. Our strategy must consider this.

Why must it be Britain?

The defence, maintenance and championing of British security and prosperity internationally is critical. Yet as the current international order comes under strain, questions are raised as to whether Britain should pour its efforts out upon the world stage, and indeed why.

There is a very simple answer – no one else will. The US faces domestic challenges. The special relationship with Washington has weathered worse, but President-elect Biden will likely be distracted with ensuring an economic and institutional recovery. The European Union presents itself as a putative world power, but significant challenges and internal divisions demonstrate some of its many flaws.

Regardless, authoritarianism and illiberalism does not go unopposed. France, in collaboration with Sahelian nations and the UN, leads the charge against terrorism in North Africa. Japan provides development funding across Asia. Australia has stood up to Chinese influence, and has matched their rhetoric with a major increase in defence expenditure.

These actions are predominantly motivated by national interests. It is clear that no one will defend and champion our national interests on our behalf. We must do so ourselves.

What should be done?

Britain cannot enforce the rules of the international order alone. Through acting as a contributing nation for multilateral groups with different geographical and operational remits, Britain can maximise its influence and capacity to achieve geopolitical objectives.

There are circumstances in which Britain would act as the leading authority. The Joint Expeditionary Force that brings together eight northern European nations under British leadership is an excellent example. In other cases, Britain would play the role as a principal lieutenant, supporting and enabling a partner nation to achieve a common objective. Appreciate how British mine countermeasure vessels supported US efforts in the Strait of Hormuz and Bab El Mandeb.

Simply being a member of many organisations would improve British influence, providing us a greater understanding how other nations deploy their capabilities.

Our strength has always been as a convening power; we ought to accentuate it.

Using our leadership in the Joint Expeditionary Force to help France recruit more troops for Task Force Takuba, a pan-European special operations unit in the Sahel, would be one example. In turn, Paris may well help us convince Germany to take a stronger position against Iran, winning us plaudits in Washington.

Relationships like these are the very foundation of diplomacy and international strategy. As we forge our new path outside of the European Union, it is crucial that we fully understand and utilise this concept in order for Britain to position itself as the foremost, flexible, international power.

Our value should come not only from our military or economic strength, nor chiefly from our historic competencies, but rather because the UK has a unique capacity to act as a hub for dozens of overlapping webs of commitment, alliances and amity.

Such a policy would generate increased international political capital and create greater manoeuvring space for British diplomacy. Such space, and such capital, is sorely needed if we are to protect and promote our interests in an increasingly unstable century.

As Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, “the international situation is now more perilous and intensely competitive than at any time since the Cold War.” Britain, for all its often reflexive pessimism, has many valuable assets it can use, and important interests it must protect. Now is the right time to evolve a sharper and tighter foreign policy, based on a cool appraisal of the international partnerships and associations which really count. A new strategy which reshapes old alliances, forges new connections, takes advantage of Brexit, and which focuses on key priorities.

Germany enters a critical stage – as Europe increasingly converges in its Covid-19 response

15 Oct

With much of the UK media focussing its energies on the Government’s latest Tier 2 and 3 restrictions, it’s easy to think that the country is alone in having to go through such harsh measures. But European countries are, in fact, converging in many ways, from facing the same challenges – to how leaders are reacting to them.

One country whose current situation is not too dissimilar to the UK’s is Germany. It has been better at controlling the virus in a number of respects, thanks to its high quality healthcare, localised response to outbreaks and ability to introduce testing early on in the crisis. Even so, it is not immune to the same problem that this country, France and others have experienced. That is, rising cases with the emergence of colder weather.

In fact, today Germany has seen a record daily increase in cases – reporting 6,638 new infections, according to data from the Robert Koch Institute (the national agency responsible for disease control and prevention). It’s previous record daily increase was 6,294 on March 28. While it should be said that improvements in testing regimes will inevitably lead to more cases being detected (paradoxically making a country’s situation look worse), it’s the rapid uptick that has concerned its government.

What is the answer to this? As with UK politicians, German leaders have issued some strong words to the public, urging them to be sensible. “It is up to us to stop the infections”, Helge Braun, Merkel’s chief of staff, told one broadcaster, adding that the situation “depends on the population”.

Angela Merkel, the chancellor, has warned that there could be over 19,000 new infections per day if the trends continue, and taken strong action to prevent this, meeting with the leaders of Germany’s 16 federal states – who will soon reveal tougher restrictions to slow down the virus.

One of these will be compulsory mask-wearing in crowded spaces when an area reaches 35 per 100,000 cases in people in seven days. There have also been new curfews for bars and restaurants in hotspots for Covid-19, in addition to restrictions on how many people can gather in public and private settings. In Berlin, alcohol can no longer be sold between 11pm and 6am – a similar policy to the one enacted by Nicola Sturgeon recently, who has imposed a two week alcohol ban for pubs and restaurants.

Merkel especially focussed on young people, asking them to stop holding parties together – “in order to have a good life tomorrow or the day after.” In one of the most radical warnings, Markus Söder, the Bavarian state premier, even suggested that Germany could be close to another lockdown.

In better news, Jens Spahn, the health minister, has said that a vaccination drive for Germany was just months away; a far more optimistic assessment than Boris Johnson’s recent admission to Steve Baker, when quizzed in parliament, that “there is a good chance of a vaccine, but it cannot be taken for granted.” The plan in Germany so far is for it to be voluntary, and given to high-risk groups to start with. 

Until then, it looks as though Germany will indefinitely face similar restrictions to the UK, and that of France (where Emmanuel Macron implemented 9pm curfews). As I wrote yesterday for ConservativeHome, there is a tendency to believe that countries are taking radically different approaches, particularly with Sweden – which has become more cautious in recent times. In fact, the evidence is that countries are increasingly unified in their strategies to deal with the pandemic.

Stephen Booth: As the Brexit deadline nears, the UK is strong on fishing rights – but Frost indicates movement on state aid.

15 Oct

Neil O’Brien: No, more economic prosperity doesn’t depend on more social liberalism

13 Jul

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Danny Finkelstein took issue with Boris Johnson’s idea of “levelling up” in the Times the other day. He reviewed the work of Richard Florida, a thinker dubbed the “patron saint of avocado toast” for highlighting the role of bohemian urbanites in driving economic regeneration.

Danny concludes from his work that, “Social liberalism and economic prosperity go together.” He argues that: “in order to match the success and power of metropolitan areas, non-metropolitan places need to become more… metropolitan.  The problem with the metropolitan “elite” isn’t that there is too much of it. It’s that there aren’t enough members of it, drawn from a wide enough background and living in enough places.”

I hesitate to disagree with one of the smartest columnists on the planet. But economic growth and social liberalism don’t always go together.

What about the Victorians, combining breakneck growth with a religious revival and tightened public morals? What about Japan during their postwar decades of blistering growth and conservative “salaryman” culture? Over the last 70 years, Britain has become more socially liberal as our growth rate has slowed.

Even in Britain today, it’s highly questionable. London is the richest and fastest growing part of the UK.  But where is opposition to homosexuality and pre-marital sex strongest? London. Where is support for censoring offensive speech highest? London.  The capital mixes liberal metropolitan graduates with religious immigrants. Its success is shaped by both.

Danny’s other argument has more important implications. Is it really the case other places must emulate London to succeed? Like other capital cities across Europe, London has grown faster than the rest of the country since the 1980s. The shift to an economy based on “office jobs” over has favoured the centres of larger cities.

But we shouldn’t get too carried away by the idea that hipster-powered megacities are sweeping all before them. For starters, there are successes elsewhere. Cheshire has high tech in a rural setting, with productivity and wages above the national average.  Milton Keynes likewise, because it’s easy to build there. Productivity in Preston has grown faster than average because it’s a transport hub with advanced manufacturing.

On the surface, large cities outside London have done well.  Since 1997, our 16 largest cities grew their GDP faster than their surrounding areas: Leeds grew faster than West Yorkshire, Manchester faster than Greater Manchester, and so on.

But on average, those cities saw also slower growth in income per head than their surrounding areas. In other words, people became more likely to work in city centres, but that growth was fuelled by people commuting in from smaller places around them. Their growth has been powered more by smalltown commuters than flat-cap wearing uber-boheminans.

It’s right that there are cities outside London that have things in common with it, and might benefit from similar investments. Lawyers in London will soon get Crossrail. So why have lawyers in Leeds waited 20 years for a tram?

But too often Richard Florida’s work leads politicians to focus on shiny cultural facilities. A cool art gallery in West Brom.  A national museum of pop music in Sheffield. It’s not just that these projects flop and close. It’s that they distract from two bigger issues.

First, most people aren’t graduates – so we need a plan to raise their productivity and wages too.

Second, places outside urban centres are perfectly capable of attracting high-skill, high income people – with the right policies.

Britain’s economy is unusually unbalanced compared to other countries.  Pre-tax incomes in Greater London are nearly 60 per cent higher than the national average, but more than 20 per cent below average in Yorkshire, the North East, Wales and Northern Ireland.  These imbalances mean our economy is overheating in some places and freezing cold in others, slowing growth overall. There are no major economies that are richer per head than Britain which have a more unbalanced economy.

But these imbalances don’t represent pure free market outcomes. It’s true that low-skill, low wages places can get stuck in a vicious circle. True that some places on the periphery have very deep problems. Nonetheless, the British state doesn’t do much to stop that – in fact it does a lot to unbalance growth.

Consider how we spend money. Capital spending on transport infrastructure in London is nearly three times the national average. Research funding per head is nearly twice the national average. Nearly half the core R&D budget is spent in Oxford, Cambridge and London. Spending on housing and culture per head in London is five times the national average. We’re “levelling up” the richest places.

We’ve rehearsed these problems for years, but not fixed them. Instead of chasing flat white drinkers, we need to find a cool £4 billion a year to level up R&D spending in other places to the levels London enjoys. Fancy coffee can come later.

Consider our tax system. Overall, the tax rate on business in the UK is about average.  But we combine the lowest headline rate in the G20 with the lowest capital allowances. The combined effect of this is a huge bias against capital intensive sectors, particularly manufacturing.

That in turn has a regional impact, hurting places more dependent on making things: manufacturing accounted for only five per cent of London’s productivity growth since 1997, but nearly 50 per cent in the north west. A hostile tax system is one reason Britain has deindustrialised more than any other G20 country since 1990, and why manufacturing’s share of the economy is half that in Germany or Japan.

Manufacturing should be a key part of levelling up outside cities: it needs space, not city centre locations. In English regions outside London, wages in manufacturing are about nine per cent higher than in services, and manufacturing productivity grows faster than the economy as a whole.  But Britain’s excessive focus on professional services makes it harder to grow high-wage employment in non city-centre locations.

Consider where we put our key institutions. In Germany the political capital was Bonn, and is now Berlin. The financial capital is Frankfurt. The Supreme Court is in Karlsruhe. The richest place is Wolfsburg, home of Volkswagen. There are major corporate HQs spread across the country. TV production is dispersed because central government is banned from running it.

In Britain, all these things happen in just one city. We’ve talked about this for years, but made little progress.  In recent years, we managed to move one chunk of Channel 4 to Leeds, and a bit of the BBC to Manchester. But that’s about it. Whitehall only wants to move low-end jobs.

The debate on levelling up is frustrating, because we know some things work, but we don’t do them. “Regional Selective Assistance” boosted investment in poor places with tax breaks and subsidies.  Thanks to evidence from natural experiments, we know it boosted growth. Yet it was allowed to wither.

I don’t want us to be just another government promising the world, then not delivering. Politically, it’s vital we deliver. Lots of people who haven’t voted Conservative before put their trust in us last year. It’s telling that the centre point of the seats we won is just outside Sheffield.

We won on a manifesto combining centrist economics, (50,000 more nurses) mild social conservatism, (ending auto early release) and national self-confidence (Getting Brexit Done).  Levelling up is central to all this. We promised voters steak and chips.  We could serve up avocado toast instead, but we shouldn’t be surprised if the voters don’t thank us.