Daniel Hannan: We should thank, not demonise, the patriots who donate to political parties

4 Aug

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

The Financial Times is becoming slightly unhinged in its dislike of Tories. The paper’s loyalties have always been mercurial: over my lifetime, it has endorsed all three parties. Having enthusiastically backed Tony Blair, it gave some support to the Coalition and then to Theresa May. But Brexit seems to have tipped it over the edge. Even when the alternative was Jeremy Corbyn in 2019, it could not bring itself to back Boris.

Now it has taken to insinuating that donations to political parties are somehow dodgy – an odd stance for a newspaper that still sees itself as a defender of the private sector. For several days, the FT has been running news articles, features and comment pieces that vaguely suggest – without actually alleging any impropriety – that there is something suspect about the Conservative Party’s receipt of private money.

Property donors provide one-quarter of funds given to Tory party,” was Friday’s headline. Oh dear, we’re meant to think, not property donors! Not those johnnies who put roofs over our heads! It is a curious feature of our present discourse that, despite an acute housing shortage, developers can be presented as being almost on a level with arms dealers or pornographers.

The following day, it fired its second barrel: “Elite Tory donors club holds secret meetings with Johnson and Sunak,” was its lead story, followed up by pages of analysis inside.

Gosh. Secretive, eh? Bad enough that they’re property developers. But these, we learn, are furtive property developers. How did the FT find out about the donations of this sinister cabal? It turns out that they’re all registered with the Electoral Commission. Anyone can look them up. The organisation that happened to do so is an outfit called Transparency International whose Director of Policy (and evidently the driving force behind this report) is Duncan Hames, who is married to the former Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson and was himself the Lib Dem MP for Chippenham from 2010 to 2015.

Nothing wrong with any of that, obviously. Indeed, I have always had a soft spot for Swinson, who served her party with diligence and good humour, and whose dignified reaction when the SNP took her seat was a model of how to do it. But this was hardly a disinterested piece of research, as the FT must have known.

It is worth stepping back for a moment and reminding ourselves of some basic principles. First, there is nothing wrong with individuals giving money to things they support. I’m sure most ConHome readers give to charity, and I’d be surprised if most of us don’t also pay subs to our local Conservative Associations. If wealthier people make proportionately larger donations, God bless them. It must surely be better for the rich to support whatever causes they favour than to spend their cash on themselves.

We are, of course, rightly suspicious of oligarchy. I wouldn’t want a system where big donations bought policy changes, and neither would you. Such things can happen, even in Britain. Most of us remember the 1997 Bernie Ecclestone affair, in which the Formula One magnate gave Labour a million pounds in exchange for exempting his races from the ban on tobacco advertising. Fewer of us, for some reason, remember the 2009 cash-for-amendments scandal, in which two life peers asked for payments in return for moving legislation.

By any definition, both these were cases of straightforward corruption – that is, of politicians being paid to do things they would not otherwise have done. But such cases are extraordinarily rare in this country. Bad behaviour by our MPs tends to be rather more Pooterish, involving bath plugs or fumbling adulteries.

There is no suggestion that any Conservative donor has tried to buy favours. Indeed, far from seeking advantages for their own firms, these benefactors seem to be pushing for open competition. As the FT reports, with a hint of corporatist distaste, “the top donors are Thatcherite free marketeers, and they have no qualms about giving Boris a piece of their mind.” If so, good for them.

Which brings us to a second basic principle. Private donations are admirable whether or not we happen to agree with the cause being supported. One thing I have learned from social media is that there is an almost total overlap between people’s definition of “corruption” and their definition of “views with which I disagree”.

To see what I mean, consider the way Left and Right respectively treated the Koch brothers and George Soros. Depending on which side you were on, one was an example of high-minded generosity while the other was a conspiracy against the public weal.

ConHome readers should admire donors from all sides – philanthropists like Lord Sainsbury of Turville, for example, who, alongside vast charitable contributions, has given millions to Labour, the Lib Dems and various pro-EU outfits. We should likewise salute Keir Starmer’s ambition to increase the proportion of his party’s spending that comes from private contributions.

It must be better to live in a world in which rich people give their assets away. The alternative is a world in which we are forced to support political parties with our taxes. Quite apart from the tax bill being high enough already, this strikes me as morally repugnant. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.”

What applies to donors applies even more to the people who volunteer to fundraise for parties. Here is a truly thankless job. Make the slightest slip and you’ll be treated as a crook. Indeed, the chances are that you’ll be hounded and accused whatever you do. In 2012, the then Conservative treasurer, Peter Cruddas, had to resign following newspaper accusations that he had been peddling cash for access. He sued for libel and won substantial damages, but he was not reinstated and, nearly a decade on, the original story was still being used to keep him out of the House of Lords.

Cruddas comes close to living up to John Wesley’s injunction to “earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can”. Brought up in a council house in Hackney, he has set up a £100 million scheme to help kids from deprived backgrounds. Had he not also backed the Conservatives, he’d have been in the Lords years ago.

A similar campaign is now being waged against the party’s current Co-Chairman, Ben Elliot – again, a successful businessman who has given up a great deal of time to take on a role for which the only payment is abuse. He is the real target of the press campaign. The original allegations in the FT prompted a bizarre story in The Sunday Times which seemed to be based around the idea that there was some impropriety in his arranging for a wealthy donor to back one of the Prince of Wales’s charities.

Again, does anyone think it is a bad thing for successful people to volunteer as Elliot is doing? If he raised cash for Prince Charles’s good causes, we should applaud him. If he raises cash for the Conservatives (and he does, with extraordinary effectiveness) we should likewise applaud him.

We are in danger of driving public-spirited individuals out of politics altogether. The assault may come in the form of negative press, as with Cruddas and Elliot. It may come in the form of actual legal harassment, as with Alan Halsall, the big-hearted businessman who was pursued for three years by the electoral authorities after acting as the treasurer of Vote Leave (all the allegations were eventually shown to be nonsense, but the stress and the financial burden of those three years can never be undone).

A combination of partisanship and purse-lipped puritanism threatens to make politics a no-go area for patriots who want to support a cause bigger than themselves – whether on the Left or the Right.

So, just this once, let’s say it. Thanks to everyone who is prepared to act on principle. Thanks to all those who put their money where their mouths are. And thanks, especially, to those who give up their time and risk their reputations to make the system work. Without you, our public life would be colder, meaner and smaller.

Jonathan Rogers: A psychiatrist’s view. Lockdowns reversed Cameron’s progress on mental health.

27 Jul

Dr Jonathan Rogers is a psychiatrist and researcher at UCL.

A decade ago, the Coalition Government, as part of its broad-ranging health reforms, pledged “parity of esteem” for mental and physical health, promising that future policy would give equal weight to services.

This was welcome and was underpinned by David Cameron’s ideology of bolstering the country’s wellbeing, not just its pocket. It is also an idea that is still present in healthcare policy with mental health waiting time targets the latest attempt to enshrine parity of esteem.

However, despite the rosy language, the past 16 months have witnessed a staggering deterioration in the nation’s mental health. Although thankfully suicides have not increased, ONS figures suggest that the proportion of adults with symptoms of depression during the first wave of the pandemic rose to almost one in five, twice its pre-pandemic level.

It might have taken years of patient investment to shave 10 per cent off these figures, but they have doubled in the pandemic in one great swipe. Meanwhile, hospital admissions for young people with eating disorders have risen by 50 per cent.

There would likely be an outcry for other areas of health and, indeed, there has been for patient groups such as those suffering from cancer. However, mental health seems to be a disposable asset at crunch points.

This is partly a reflection on the Government’s narrow definition of health during the pandemic: essentially – being alive. The daily death toll has emphasised that what really matters in Whitehall is saving as many lives as possible without very much regard to the quality of those lives.

Early in the outbreak, several psychiatrists examined the potential mental health impact of lockdown policies, concluding from historical examples that lockdown is associated with various poor outcomes, such as post-traumatic stress symptoms, depression and insomnia, some of which can persist beyond the duration of the epidemic.

They recommended that any such policy should be brief and extensions should generally be avoided, due to the risk of compounding mental ill-health through uncertainty.

As a researcher, I have spent a considerable amount of time examining the neurological and psychiatric consequences of being infected with SARS-CoV-2, which are not trivial.

However, I have increasingly become convinced that at the population level the mental health consequences of lockdown substantially outweigh those of actually being infected.

New research looking at the first lockdown in the UK has found that mental health took a massive hit during the first few months of the pandemic and only started to improve as lockdown eased. Moreover, even local lockdowns were associated with poorer mental health in the specific regions where they took place.

This chimes with research from Europe showing that mental health problems eased in tandem with liberalising lockdowns. With this in mind, the broader perspective of Sajid Javid on healthcare beyond Covid-19 is encouraging.

However, the Prime Minister’s refusal to rule out a further lockdown, even after 90 per cent of the adult population has received at least one vaccine dose, is concerning for society and particularly for my patients, as those with pre-existing mental health problems are among those who have suffered the most from this pandemic.

Health means more than just being alive and parity of esteem means giving consideration to mental health even during a pandemic.

Emma Revell: The triple-lock for state pensions is not a priority right now. Guaranteeing young people’s futures is.

20 Oct

Emma Revell is Head of Communications at the IEA.

Young people are having a rough year. They are at mercifully low risk from Coronavirus but they have nonetheless endured months at home with no schooling, isolated from friends, cared for by flustered parents juggling Zoom meetings and childcare, and wondering why they must wave at granny from across the road. Their older siblings may have had academic achievements thrown into jeopardy and university places removed then restored, only to find freshers week more like serving time.

18-24-year olds have witnessed jobs in hospitality and retail vanish. Some have “celebrated” virtual graduation ceremonies with little hope of a graduate position come the autumn. This is before we mention the financial burden of paying back the colossal government debt accrued over the past seven months or, perhaps more likely, the interest on that debt.

Who is fighting their corner? Where are the political leaders willing to stand up and advocate for young people, speaking out against the constant wedge being pushed between generations, that leaves each generation less likely to reach the level of personal attainment and comfort achieved by those that came before?

After a slow start, civil liberties campaigners found their voice in Parliament, with Steve Baker, then Graham Brady, then a slow trickle of others across the political spectrum beginning to speak out against Coronavirus measures, especially those imposed without parliamentary scrutiny. So why have young people not got the same attention?

Inter-generational inequality can be seen in almost every policy area – but nowhere more so than housing. It is one of the most pressing issues on the domestic policy agenda. But the failure of successive governments to build sufficient new housing stock means dreams of home ownership slip out of reach, or even imagination, for the children and grandchildren of baby boomers. The average UK house costs eight times an average salary, almost double the ratio in the early 1990s. In London it is thirteen times average wages.

Is this an issue the Prime Minister, the latest in a long line of political leaders to trot out the old saying “generation buy not generation rent”, is tackling head on? No. Instead Boris Johnson used his speech to party conference last week to suggest policies to facilitate 95 per cent mortgages, inflating demand yet again while refusing to tackle supply, replicating the problems created by Help to Buy.

He also recently pledged to protect 30 per cent of UK’s countryside by 2030 and his government is facing a backlash over a new algorithm to calculate where new homes should be built. Outrage focuses on the seeming desire of the Tory heartlands to protect the value of their house prices, with scant regard paid to the fact that this is yet another government that will fail to allow house building in sufficient numbers and condemn yet more people to a life living in rented, shared accommodation, unable to put down roots or start families.

At a time when the country is faced with pressure on the public purse, delaying fertility and the associated complications, including a lower birth rate, is something the Government should be seeking to prevent, not actively contributing to.

It is hard to over-state the catastrophic performance of the UK housing market in recent years. Between 1991 and 2016, the proportion of 25- to 39-year-olds who own their own home almost halved. For those under 24, it is now just 10 per cent. A report published by the Centre for Policy Studies last year showed that the increase in homes owned by private landlords between 205 and 2015 was higher than the number of new homes built in the same period. Effectively every new home built for a decade was bought to rent out, not sold to an individual or a couple looking to get on the housing ladder for themselves.

News of the Chancellor’s commitment to maintaining the triple-lock may have pleased pensioners, but it irked many others. Arguably the worst policy introduced under the Coalition government, it guarantees a state pension uplift every April of whichever is the highest: inflation, average earnings growth or 2.5 per cent. It means pensioners are guaranteed an annual increase in their state pension even if the rest of the taxpaying country is faced with wage freezes and unemployment, alongside a spiralling bill for public sector borrowing.

The young especially, who are more likely to be in insecure work, low paid work, or unemployed, will be languishing on Universal Credit, which incidentally could face a cut in April as the temporary uplift comes to an end.

This needn’t be the case. It isn’t difficult to imagine a vision for house building which rests on being able to provide decent, secure homes in which young people can start families, set up businesses, or stay close to their families. It is politically difficult but not impossible to tell granny and grandad that a slightly smaller increase, or a freeze, in their pensions allowance is necessary to set their grandchildren on the path to prosperity.

The voices of young people are always difficult to hear in British politics. They are often disengaged, much less likely to vote than their elders, and certainly less likely to vote for the party that has held the purse strings for the last decade. But none of this is an excuse for the inability of our political leaders to recognise, let alone act to mitigate, the damage their policies are doing to the youngest in society.

Profile: Graham Brady, who played a quiet part in deposing May, and now keeps a watchful eye on Johnson

24 Sep

An adviser to Boris Johnson warned him earlier this year not to be alone with Graham Brady. Here already was a sign of prime ministerial weakness, or evasiveness, in the face of a determined upholder, not just of the rights of Conservative backbenchers, but of parliamentary scrutiny of the Executive.

Nobody would describe Sir Graham Brady as evasive. He is sincere, vigilant and as Chairman of the 1922 Committee, considers it his duty to convey, in the manner of a polite but implacable shop steward, the views of his members to the Prime Minister.

Like a considerable number of those members, he is furious that ministers have “got into the habit of ruling by decree” during the pandemic. In May, Brady called on ministers to look at “removing restrictions and removing the arbitrary rules and limitations on freedom as quickly as possible”, though he recognised that many voters approved of these restrictions:

“The public have been willing to assist. If anything, in some instances it may be that the public have been a little bit too willing to stay at home.”

Last weekend, Brady went further, and told The Sunday Telegraph:

“In March, Parliament gave the Government sweeping emergency powers at a time when Parliament was about to go into recess and there was realistic concern that NHS care capacity might be overwhelmed by Covid-19.

“We now know that the NHS coped well with the challenge of the virus and Parliament has been sitting largely since April. There is now no justification for ministers ruling by emergency powers without reference to normal democratic processes.

“It is essential that going forward all of these massively important decisions for family life, and affecting people’s jobs and businesses, should be exercised with proper supervision and control.”

In other words, Parliament must have the final say on any new measures the Government introduces to fight the pandemic. That is the amendment to the Coronavirus Act 2020 demanded by Sir Graham, which as Paul Goodman noted here on Monday, could command widespread assent on the Conservative benches:

“The danger for Downing Street, if it comes to a debate and a vote, is that it faces a coalition of high-minded constitutionalists, supporters of a Swedish option, low-minded opportunists who dislike Johnson, feel under-promoted, are grievance-haunted (or all three), plus backbenchers who are simply unhappy and bewildered.”

Every Tory leader has to be mindful of what his or her own troops will wear. The Conservative Party is a coalition of such disparate or even contradictory elements that many people, unaware of the lesson (“never again”) learned from the disastrous split over the Corn Laws in 1846, cannot comprehend why it remains together.

Brady possesses a resolute independence of mind. “He really couldn’t stand David Cameron,” one of his colleagues remarks. Nor, one may surmise, is he particularly keen on Johnson.

For in Brady, we find a Conservative of a different stamp. He was born in Salford in 1967 and educated at Altrincham Grammar School for Boys, an establishment to which he remains fiercely loyal, after which he read law at Durham, where he was immensely active in student politics and married Victoria Lowther, with whom he has two children.

In his twenties, he earned his living by working for public affairs companies, and also for a couple of years for the Centre for Policy Studies, before gaining selection for his home seat of Altrincham and Sale West, which in the Labour landslide of 1997 he retained by the slender margin of 1505 votes.

At the age of 29, he was the youngest Conservative MP, and in his maiden speech he declared his passionate loyalty to grammar schools:

“In the borough of Trafford, successive Conservative administrations have worked, not only to preserve our excellent grammar schools, but to raise standards in the high schools as well. What we have achieved is an example of selective education that works and it should be taken as a model for improving education across the country.

“I believe passionately in the role of the grammar schools as the greatest of social levellers and I fear that before long I will be called upon to defend my old school, Altrincham boys grammar school, from those who would see the remaining 160 grammar schools destroyed. As a believer in grammar schools, I have always thought that the goal of state education should be to achieve such high standards that parents would not wish to send their children to private schools.”

He served as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Michael Ancram, a junior Whip, Education spokesman and in 2003 as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the new Leader of the Opposition, Michael Howard.

The following year he became Shadow Europe Minister, a post he retained under Howard’s successor, David Cameron. But in 2007, when a tremendous row erupted within the party over grammar schools, Brady resigned because “in conscience” he had to be free to speak his mind, and to argue his unfashionable case:

“Grammar schools in selective areas are exactly the motor that does drive social mobility more effectively than comprehensive areas.”

A generally sympathetic colleague says of Brady that when grammar schools are mentioned “his eye lights up with insanity”, an expression coined by Disraeli, who reported that this was what happened to General Peel on hearing the words “household suffrage”.

Cameron says in his memoirs, For The Record:

“I felt that the call to ‘bring back grammars’ was an anti-modernisation proxy, and I wasn’t going to stand for it.”

There was a class element in this row. Etonians couldn’t generally see the point of grammar schools. Conservatives from less gilded backgrounds often knew from personal experience that such schools could transform lives.

In 2010, Brady stood for the chairmanship of the ’22, just after Cameron’s brazen attempt to neuter that committee as the voice of backbenchers had been seen off, with his proposal to allow members of the Government to vote in its elections being withdrawn.

Brady’s resignation three years earlier had proved his independence, and he had indicated, after the 2010 election, that he and other Tory MPs would have preferred a minority Conservative Government – “That, I think, is generally the feeling of colleagues” – to the coalition formed by Cameron with the Liberal Democrats.

In a piece for ConHome he explained why he was standing:

“Coalition government has been hailed as a part of a ‘new politics’. I believe that enhancing the role of Parliament and the status of MPs as the elected champions of our constituents is just as important. For too many years the Executive has eroded the power of Parliament and back benchers have increasingly been marginalised, I want to play a part in reversing that process.”

Brady defeated the other candidate, Richard Ottaway, who was thought to be favoured by Cameron, by 126 votes to 85.

If one wants to see how deeply Brady feels about things, one has only to read the Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture which he delivered under the auspices of the Centre for Policy Studies in April 2014. He began by quoting with approval Margaret Thatcher when she gave the same lecture in 1996:

“In politics, integrity really lies in the conviction that it’s only on the basis of truth that power should be won – or indeed can be worth winning. It lies in the unswerving belief that you have to be right.”

Brady went on to say:

“Political parties have become over-reliant on focus groups and opinion research to identify the key target voters in the key ‘swing’ seats. The message is too often crafted to appeal – not to be right, and the biggest focus group of all – the British electorate – grows ever more disenchanted.”

Conservative backbenchers have not grown disenchanted with Brady. Sir Charles Walker, who became Vice-Chairman of the ’22 in 2010, the same year as Brady became Chairman, told ConHome:

“He’s a man who believes in Parliament and a man who believes in doing things properly. Graham is straight as a die. He’s straight in his dealings with people. So it’s no surprise he’s moving this Amendment. The Chairman of the ’22 should be spiky. That’s his role – to be a critical friend. The ’22 is rightly regarded as being a powerful organisation and leaders are best advised to be wary of it. But it’s also capable of providing great support in time of difficulty.”

The most difficult period in Brady’s chairmanship came during the last two years of Theresa May’s prime ministership. He was knighted in the 2018 New Year honours, the investiture taking place in March 2018, so at this point in the story he becomes once more Sir Graham.

The ’22 was fractious and divided, and Sir Graham was the recipient of the letters from Tory MPs which, if and when the 15 per cent threshold was reached  – 48 MPs out of 317 – would mean she faced a motion of no confidence.

Nobody knew how many letters he had received, for he did not breathe a word, but nobody doubted he was showing complete integrity in his counting of them.

In December 2018 the 15 per cent threshold was crossed, but the Prime Minister survived the subsequent ballot by 200 votes to 117. This supposedly meant she could not be challenged by this method for another year.

But on 24th May 2019, after the Conservatives had performed disastrously in European elections which would not have taken place in the UK had she managed to get Brexit done, out she went.

Brady’s role in this was one of the utmost delicacy. He reckoned the game was up, but had to say so with discretion, for not all his colleagues agreed with him.

Once she realised she had to go, he wished to take soundings to see whether he could launch his own leadership bid. Since the ’22 would be running the leadership election, he stepped down.

He soon found he had no support, so he did not run. Nor, to the astonishment of more worldly figures, did he endorse any other candidate: not even his fellow Leaver, Boris Johnson, when it became evident that Johnson was going to win.

Others who rushed to join the winning side were rewarded with Cabinet posts. A minister told ConHome: “I know Graham believed he was going to be offered a job, and thought it should be a Cabinet position.

“But he had never come out for Boris, and Boris’s whole operation is based on people who are loyal to him.

“Graham was disappointed he didn’t get anything, went back to being Chairman of the ’22, and since then he’s been quite grumpy.”

This reading of events comes from a Johnson loyalist, and others will feel it was to Sir Graham’s credit that he did not sell out his long-established independence.

Sir Graham, who is still only 53 years old, is in person an affable figure, ready to be amused by things, unperturbed by journalists, and not inclined to idealise Tory MPs, of whom he remarked at the 2018 party conference, when the question of letters demanding a vote of confidence was starting to become of interest:

“The distance between what some of my colleagues say they might have done and what they actually have done can be considerable.”

On another occasion, interviewed by ConHome, he lamented the “ennui, apathy and cynicism” shown by colleagues who declined to use the machinery set up to enable them to feed in policy proposals for consideration in the 2015 manifesto.

He is loyal, as we have seen, to an idea of truth which stands above party politics. Sir Graham is now a severe impediment to any attempt by Downing Street to go on running things without proper parliamentary scrutiny.

And if and when Johnson suffers a severe loss of confidence on his own side of the House, Sir Graham will once more find himself being asked from day to day, indeed from hour to hour, how many letters he has received.