Jonathan Clark: Brexit has reopened two constitutional conflicts which must be resolved

Does authority reside with Parliament or the People? And are MPs representatives or delegates? Both must be answered.

Jonathan Clark was a Fellow of Peterhouse; at Oxford, he was a Fellow of All Souls College; latterly he has been Visiting Professor at the Committee on Social Thought at Chicago, and Hall Distinguished Professor of British History at the University of Kansas. His latest book is a study of Thomas Paine.

The British have, typically, little interest in constitutional law. Unlike the French, who regularly rewrite their constitution in revolutions or attempts to prevent revolutions, the British tend to assume that little changes and that all is well. Alas, the constitutional problems accumulate nevertheless. Dominic Grieve was right in a recent Commons debate to say that there are areas of the British constitution that need clearer definition. But what exactly are they? Why is the Brexit question so difficult to resolve through the familiar Westminster machinery?

The big issues of constitutional conflict are so fraught because they happen in legal grey areas, in which agreement and definition have never emerged. Today there are two such major areas, though many minor ones.

The first is the question of sovereignty: where does ultimate authority reside? It is many centuries since any significant number of people claimed that it resided with the person of the monarch alone. But the decline of that image was followed by the growing popularity of another, ‘the Crown in Parliament’, that is, the monarch, the Lords and the Commons acting together. This image never went away, but was upstaged by the doctrine of the lawyer A. V. Dicey (1835-1922) that ‘Parliament’ (meaning, increasingly, the House of Commons) was sovereign. Yet from the Reform Bill of 1832 into the 20th century, successive rounds of franchise extension strengthened another old idea, that the ultimate authority lay with ‘the People’, however defined.

From 1973, when the UK joined the EEC, it slowly became evident that the answer was ‘none of the above’: ultimate authority lay with Brussels. Parliament rubber-stamped increasing amounts of secondary legislation from an evolving super-state. In 2019, departure from the EU would remove that layer of command. This prospect inevitably reopens an old debate, which had never really been settled: was Parliament or the People finally supreme? Its re-emergence reminds us that Dicey’s doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty was the opinion of one commentator only. That opinion partly corresponded to contemporary practice, partly not.

Today, the tide is everywhere running in the opposite direction. Deference and duty daily fade; the key word everywhere is ‘choice’, and this means the choices of the many, not just the few. The transformation of communications places steadily more power in the hands of a steadily more educated, better informed ‘People’. But this trend has been matched by another, seen across the West in recent decades and at all levels: in increasingly complex societies, the executive has everywhere grown more powerful vis-a-vis the legislature. Political scientists have largely ignored this tide, but it has swept forwards nevertheless. It means that two powerful social forces now collide. Across western democracies, ‘ordinary people’ find means of complaining that they are ignored by elites who ‘just don’t get it’; elites decry ‘populism’ and exalt the opinion of ‘experts’, expressed to within one decimal point in forecasts of outcomes 15 years hence.

This collision reopens a second, equally old, question. What is a Member of Parliament: a delegate, or a representative? Edmund Burke famously outlined the case for the second: MPs, once elected, represent the nation as a whole; they owe the nation their best judgment; they are in nobody’s pocket. But another idea is just as old, and equally honourable: MPs are sent to Westminster by their electors to redress the electors’ grievances, and are accountable to them. Against Burke, we can set another intellectual, Andrew Marvell, MP for Hull in 1659-78, who was paid by his constituents and regularly reported back to them. Understandably, Burke’s high-sounding doctrine proved the more popular among MPs. But after he framed it, his constituents in Bristol threw him out for favouring Irish commercial interests over theirs, and he represented thereafter only his patron’s pocket borough.

Both ideas in their pure form are unacceptable. But how the balance between the two is to be struck can never be quantified or defined, and a crisis like the present makes the impossibility of a definition clear. ‘The People’ voted by 52 to 48 for Leave, and a larger percentage now says ‘just get on with it’; but about five-sixths of the House of Commons are for Remain.

Among Conservative MPs, something under 100 are evidently for Leave; of the other 200 or so, about half are on the Government payroll in one capacity or another, and more would like to be. So profound a dissociation between elite and popular opinion is rare. Worse still, public opinion polls and the growing practice of referenda quantify the problem as never before; the issue is easily expressed in binary terms (Leave or Remain); and the arguments have been fully rehearsed. Other countries show similar problems of relations between the many and the few, but in the UK these are brought to a focus. Since the constitution has failed to resolve them, public debate is full of expressions of elite contempt for the ignorant, prejudiced, xenophobic, racialist populace on the one hand; of popular contempt for the self-serving, condescending, out-of-touch Establishment on the other.

Before 1914, Conservative peers making technical points over a budget were manoeuvred by Lloyd George into a constitutional confrontation that could be memorably summed up as ‘Peers versus the People’. In this clash, the peers could only lose. Now, the Remainers have been manoeuvred into a constitutional confrontation that, if it goes much further, will be labelled ‘Parliament versus the People’. In such a conflict it can only be Parliament that will lose. In that event, the damage would be considerable.

These great questions of constitutional definition are seldom solved; rather, the issues are defused by building next to them a new practice. The present challenge is to accommodate that new arrival in the political arena, the referendum, and to turn it into a clearly specified, moderate, and constructive institution, as it is in Switzerland. Those concerned about daily policy should think again about a subject, once salient in university History departments but now everywhere disparaged: constitutional history.

158 is not the magic number

A confidence ballot may be declared today, and it may not. But if it is, a simple majority for May might not be enough.

Godot is within sight, the boy is crying “wolf” at the top of his voice – and Wesminster is assuming that a ballot of confidence in Theresa May’s leadership will be declared today.  Graham Brady has reportedly received at least 48 letters demanding one.

Sir Graham being Sir Graham, he is keeping mum, exactly as he should, and it is still possible that the reports are wrong.  This being so, we will simply report that, if they aren’t, the confidence ballot is likely to take place later this week or early next.  If the Prime Minister isn’t successful in it, there is time for the Parliamentary stage of a leadership election to take place next week – indeed, more than enough, since the Commons doesn’t rise until next Thursday, December 20.  The membership stage would take place after Christmas.

We write about May being successful (or not successful) rather than winning (or losing) because of an important point.  It is being claimed that “158 is the magic number” – since 157.7 is what one is left with if one divides the 315 MPs in receipt of the Conservative whip in half.

But imagine for a moment that 159 votes express confidence in her leadership, if a ballot takes place, and 156 do not.  Could she then carry on as Party leader?  We believe not.  The ballot would not have found sufficient consensus for her leadership.  We cite a precedent.  204 votes were cast for Margaret Thatcher during the 1990 Conservative leadership contest, and 168 were not – 152 Tory MPs opted for Michael Heseltine and 16 abstained.  She won a clear majority of those voting.  But she was forced out none the less.

In reply, you may quote the 1995 leadership contest, in which over a third of Conservative MPs didn’t back John Major – a substantial proportion.  But he stayed on.  We would counter-object that there is a difference between a third and, say, just under half.

At which point, others might join the conversation, pointing out that the rules of Tory leadership contests have changed since 1995, let alone 1990.  Which reinforces our point: deciding what does and doesn’t count as success in a Conservative leadership contest is an art, not a science.  As much depends on expectation – not to mention who spins loudest and longest – as figures.  Personality, mood, psyops and that glorious Burkean word, circumstances: all play their part in deciding the drama.  There is no magic number.

Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid and other Cabinet members with leadership aspirations will tremble at the possibility of the Prime Minister winning any ballot, but not winning well.  That would set up a conflict between loyalty and ambition from which they might not emerge undamaged.

So it looks like there might be a Tory leadership contest after all…..

The rumours have been circulating all evening, but if Kuenssberg and Peston are now saying it, there has to be some plausibility to the story: Hearing that SirGraham Brady has asked to see the PM after #pmqs tmrw, and multiple sources, including senior tories and a cabinet minister, telling us tonight they believe the threshold […]

The rumours have been circulating all evening, but if Kuenssberg and Peston are now saying it, there has to be some plausibility to the story:

Our Layla got a bit over-excited:

How very unlike the Conservative Party to embroil itself in its own self-indulgent civil war at a time of national crisis.

Of course, even if the ERG has managed to get itself sufficiently together to submit the letters and settle on a chosen candidate, maybe even one who has had a haircut recently, getting the letters in is only the first part of the job. They then have to persuade a majority of their Tory colleagues to back them to force a leadership contest. Apparently there was a huge amount of cheering coming from their meeting last night, and we can probably assume that it wasn’t because they were happy that Joe Sugg had got to the final of Strictly.

I can’t help but think back to 1990 when Mrs Thatcher was on borrowed time. Then, her toppling was really exciting. An out of touch, seemingly heartless Prime Minister who had done so much to eat away at the fabric of our communities, who had encouraged selfish and uncaring attitudes, was on her way out. The likely successors, patrician and Tory though two of them were, seemed like an improvement. Then the choice was made by Tory MPs. Michael Heseltine was the challenger and was punished for his disloyalty. Douglas Hurd was the patrician foreign secretary and John Major the Chancellor who, conveniently had wisdom teeth out and a weekend off at the crucial moment and then emerged innocently victorious.

Nobody thought he’d be around for long. Everyone expected the Tories to lose in 1992, but people seemed to like him and his normality and the soapbox he dragged round the country. To be fair, he was and is a genuinely decent human being and that came across to people. Friends of mine who worked in Westminster at the time were shocked to have doors opened for them by Major after he became PM. That said, 10th April 1992 goes down as one of the most disappointing days of my life.

He spent most of his term in office fighting the “bastards” in his own party, the malign, reckless right whose small-state, xenophobic ideology is so toxic. The way they scapegoat entire groups of people is utterly sickening. Today’s lot are so much worse and they could be on the brink of taking over not just the Conservative Party but the country. If one of them becomes PM, they will try to drive us over the No Deal cliff in their honeymoon period. They likely won’t succeed because there is a majority in the Parliament who don’t want that outcome, but the whole thing is a mess.

108 days before we are scheduled to leave the European Union, we should be much more organised and together. Instead the only deal that is currently possible is terrible news for us and there is no alternative plan that unites enough MPs to push it through.

Of course, May might see off any challenge and, newly emboldened, could do what she should have done in the first place and sought allies across parties to find a less destructive solution to the Brexit nightmare. Alternatively, the party might look to a Rudd or a Javid to bring a more stable outcome.

However the electorate for leadership elections is a Tory membership who, more than any other group of people, want Brexit and a hard-as-you-like Brexit at that.

So while there was an element of getting out the popcorn and watching with expectant amusement in 1990, now it’s a lot more terrifying. There is a much greater threat to our future, to our democracy than there ever has been before. If you’re not frightened, you should be. But we should channel that fear into doing all we can to achieve the fair, free and open society, where no-one is enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity that we dream of. If there was a time to get our message right, to show what we stand for and who we stand with, it’s now.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

Lord Ashcroft: My new Brexit poll. People are tipping further away from the Prime Minister’s deal.

Meanwhile, there is little common ground in which to find a solution which would satisfy many Remainers and Leavers simultaneously.

The vote has been deferred while the Prime Minister seeks “reassurances” from the EU, but her message to the Commons yesterday was clear – this is the only Brexit deal on the table, and there is no realistic prospect of substantially changing it.

Theresa May’s campaign to sell the agreement to sceptical MPs and the public therefore continues. My last survey in late November found that the proposed deal had a cool reception, but with large numbers still to make up their minds. My latest 5,000-sample poll finds shows that more people now have an opinion – but with the balance tipping away from the deal, rather than in its favour.

The deal is done?

An unchanged 19 per cent say the deal honours the referendum result, while the proportion saying it does not has risen to 46 per cent – including six in ten Leave voters and a majority of Conservatives. The public as a whole says the agreement is better than leaving with no deal by 36 per cent to 30 per cent – and while Remain voters think this by a 33-point margin, Tory voters as a whole now say it is worse, and Conservative leavers think so by 49 per cent to 30 per cent.

Half of all voters now think the deal sounds worse than remaining in the EU on our current terms, with just under one in five saying it would be better. Even Conservative Leave voters are closely divided on this question, with 39 per cent saying the deal beats our current membership package and 38 per cent saying it does not.

When we asked in November what people thought MPs should do if they did not like the deal – accept an imperfect compromise and move on to other issues or reject the agreement even if the outcome was then unclear – people as a whole chose the latter by a 20-point margin. That has now widened to 29 points, with a majority now saying MPs unhappy with the deal should reject with unknown consequences. Conservative Remain voters, the only group to prefer compromise, now do so by a much smaller margin.

So now what?

While the alternatives to the draft agreement are not altogether clear, there are several possibilities: these include a delay while the Government seeks a new agreement with Brussels, leaving with no deal, various forms of second referendum, and a general election. We put these to our poll respondents in different combinations and asked them to choose their most and least preferred options each time (a technique called ‘max diff’ or ‘maximum difference’ which is used in the research industry to give the most comprehensive account of people’s preferences when faced with a list of choices).

For voters as a whole, there is very little to choose between the four most popular (or least unpopular) options which are, in order: a referendum to choose between the draft deal and remaining in the EU; a three-option referendum on the draft deal, no deal and remaining; delaying Brexit while the Government seeks a new agreement; and leaving with no deal. Accepting the current draft deal comes slightly further behind, followed by a general election and – least popular of all – a referendum to choose between the draft deal and no deal.

Unfortunately, this overall list masks wide disagreements between groups. For Conservatives and Leavers, the clear first choice is leaving with no deal, followed by a delay to seek a new agreement, with accepting the current draft agreement in third place. Conservative Remainers also put the Government’s deal third – but behind the rather different first choice of a referendum to choose between the draft deal and remain, and in second place, a three-option referendum to choose between the draft deal, no deal, and remain. Remain voters as a whole also put these two referendum options at the top of their list, but with a new deal, rather than the existing deal, in third place.

If there is no agreement as to the best next step, there is at least a consensus as to the most likely one if Parliament ultimately rejects the draft agreement, in whatever form it is finally presented to the House. This is a delay in Brexit while the Government seeks a new agreement with the EU, with a no-deal exit seen as the next most probable. A general election, though less favoured than a second referendum, is regarded as marginally more likely to happen.

Have you got it now?

If there were to be a second referendum of one kind or another, do people feel they are any better informed about the choice at hand than they were in June 2016?

According to my survey, only just over three in ten say they are – in fact a majority say either that they are no more or less clear about the implications and consequences of Brexit than they were during the referendum campaign (40 per cent), or that they are even less clear now than they were then (18 per cent).

Back to basics

With the Brexit debate now dominated by issues of process and procedure, we went back to first principles to ask again which potential outcomes from Brexit were ultimately the most important. Using the same process of asking people which options mattered to them most and least, we found little to choose between the three biggest priorities for voters as a whole: the UK being free to do its own free trade deals, continued free trade with the EU with no customs checks, and the UK making all its own laws without being subject to rulings from the European Court of Justice.

If the EU would protest that this amounts to an admissible combination of cake-having and cake-eating, there is also little agreement between groups: while Remain voters prioritise frictionless EU trade, UK citizens being allowed to move freely to other EU countries to live and work easily, and EU citizens already in the UK being allowed to stay, Leavers most want to see the UK making all its own laws with no ECJ jurisdiction, the UK making its own free trade deals, and the UK no longer paying money to the EU.

Using TURF analysis, a technique used in commercial market research designed to show which products and services would appeal to the greatest number of customers, we see that a deal combining the UK making its own laws and continued free trade with the EU would include at least one element that appealed to 45 per cent of all voters. Combined with an end to payments into the EU, this would extend its appeal to 61 per cent. As if this were not a tall enough order in itself, the competing priorities from different sides mean there is no deal that could please a majority of Remainers and Leavers at the same time.

Don’t panic

Meanwhile, how serious is the Brexit “crisis” in the great scheme of things, if indeed it is a crisis at all? I found a majority of voters thinking the state of affairs over Brexit was equally or more serious than the financial crisis of 2007-8, with nearly as many saying it is at least as serious as the miners’ strike of 1984-85, and the power cuts and three-day week of 1973-74.

Just over four in ten, but a majority of Remain voters, think the situation is at least as serious as the ‘winter of discontent’ in 1978-79. More than one in ten Remainers think things are comparable to the two world wars, and a quarter of them think there is little to choose between Brexit and the Cuban missile crisis, which could quite literally have brought about the end of the world. And to think some say that people are losing a sense of proportion.

> Full details of the research can be found at

Nick Hargrave: The Conservative split is coming. Indeed, it is already here. Unless…

Perhaps, against all the odds, we will find a way of muddling through and preserve our broad church for a time after the era of Brexit has passed.

Nick Hargrave is a former Downing Street special adviser, where he worked under both David Cameron and Theresa May. He now works at Portland, the communications consultancy.

My career in backroom politics began in an institution called the Conservative Research Department. Depending on how charitable your view of professional politics is, CRD can either be viewed as the meritocratic engine room of the Tory machine that in the past century has produced more Cabinet ministers than any public school or Oxbridge college; or it can be seen as an elitist playground of Westminster bubblery that shows how remote the mindset of SW1 is from people in the country at large.

Fortunately, that is not up for debate in this column. The reason I mention it is because its interview process is reflective of the tension that sits at the heart of the Conservative Party. The way in which its leading participants react to this tension will determine whether it continues to exist in its current form.

The first question every CRD interviewee is asked upon sitting down is the immortal line: ‘why are you a Conservative’?’ As someone who interviewed more potential staffers over the years than I care to remember, it is a question with the capacity to flummox even the most articulate applicant and has done so throughout the ages.

It’s a brilliant interview question because there is no perfect answer. There are some unacceptable answers that will meet with a stony reception such as that enterprise should not exist or that the concept of a British nation is entirely without merit. But other than that, the tent is broad and the floor is yours. Acceptable answers include but are not limited to: a belief in personal freedom and liberty; a general love for the nation, its institutions and traditions; backing business and free enterprise; low taxes; wanting government to get out of the way; thinking government should focus its energy on programmes that give people the opportunity to make the most of their talents; aspiration; social mobility; the family; a hand up but not a hand out; supporting our armed forces; localism and community; a deep scepticism to the bureaucracy of the European Union and many more things besides.

The truth is this: conservatism is really a disposition rather than an ideology. It is a complicated web of values rooted in the free market and nation state that have fused together as a product of our national history, British level-headedness, a sense that getting things done in Government beats the pompous purity of Opposition – reinforced and helped along by the electoral system of first past the post. If the delicate web of values can be condensed into a simple sentence it is only this: a belief that change is inevitable and often beneficial but it must be managed organically and in accordance with the traditions of the country.

That at least would have been the historic definition. But the United Kingdom’s place with the European Union has gnawed away at this sense of unity for as long as I have been alive. It is the perfect juxtaposition of the competing values of national identity and economic security. And it’s been given new life by a worldwide reassessment of capitalism and nationalism in the displacing effects of a global market, a new era of digital discourse where the old give and take seems irrelevant – and David Cameron’s decision to get out of a political bind in 2013 by bringing this question to a head in a referendum. All despite the fact that our country is constitutionally ill-equipped to deal with direct democracy.

But we are where we are, the genie is out of the bottle and there is no point pretending that a second referendum will make this go away. The people are boss; they voted for Britain to leave the European Union and it must be implemented. We should also accept that, despite the best will in the world and no matter what clever solution is arrived at in the next few months, the debate about Brexit isn’t going to go away anytime soon.

There is no magical answer – whether compromise or extreme – that will suddenly make the country think this is dispatched and done. The only thing that could conceivably change the national conversation any time soon is a new arc of politics around a global recession, a global security incident or something else out of left-field and probably deeply unpleasant; and as corrosive and boring as Brexit is to our political culture, I would take it any day over those options.

Once you accept this premise, the path ahead for the Conservative Party becomes a little clearer. There are only three ways to go on the road ahead.

We can have a ‘soft split’, more likely if the Deal does somehow gets passed. We morph after March into an explicitly protectionist and nationalist party as a form of catharsis to what the then previous Prime Minister, Theresa May, agreed. This will be a popular position in some parts of Britain and it is where the bulk of our membership is. But it has little future in our capital city, other metropolitan areas and – in my view at least – it will provide diminishing returns over time with the voters of tomorrow. This scenario inevitably sees us becoming the ‘We Shouldn’t Have Signed the Deal’ party. There are many branching histories to this, but I think most of them end up with a Labour Government by 2022.

We can have a ‘hard split’ where the Conservative Party becomes separate political entities over Brexit-defined lines; the parliamentary flux over the next few weeks makes this a possible outcome. Dispassionately, if the alternative is chaos, there might merit to this proposal if the moderate Conservative faction were to find common cause with the moderate Labour one to deliver an orderly Brexit . But, again, the only way it doesn’t lead to a hard-left Jeremy Corbyn Government is if tribal loyalties were to be left behind on both sides. I am yet to be convinced.

Or, against all the odds, we find a way of muddling through and preserve our broad church for a time after the historical era of Brexit has passed (with an inevitable peeling off of some MPs on the extremes). To do this, the party can only do one thing. It has to come to its senses and decide an imperfect compromise – whether the PM’s current deal or the Norway option as a backup – is the best long-term bet for our political family and national unity. You would need a leader of exceptional political skill to make this argument given where we have got to now. Any takers?

Garvan Walshe: What Macron can learn from Thatcher’s victory against the miners’ strike

The Gilets Jaunes protests are not just a challenge to his tax policy, but to the democratically elected government of France. He must hit back.

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international  security policy adviser for the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy

Friends and foes have called France’s President “Thatcher”. The Gilets Jaunes protests are his miners’ strike.

Last Saturday, an organised mob laid waste to Paris, burning cars, vandalising the Arc de Triomphe and engaging in pitched battles, for which they had travelled to Paris equipped, with riot police.

They had infiltrated and hijacked a drivers’ revolt: the original “yellow jackets” were angry at diesel tax rises and reduced motorway speed limits which they saw as symbols of an urban-based government that imposed the burdens of climate policy without caring for their way of life.

The original discontent had caught Paris off-guard, but the violent assault on the capital, and the extremist demands of some of the decentralised movement’s spokesmen, provide an opportunity for Macron to reset his administration after almost half a year of drift.

While the broad group of demonstrators, whose number has been decreasing over the last several weeks, have grievances that are the stuff of ordinary politics, an increasingly radicalised core, egged on by an official opposition dominated by the extreme right Marine Le Pen and extreme left Jean-Luc Melenchon, has turned revolutionary. One Gilets Jaunes spokesman, Christopher Calençon, has even called for Macron to be replaced by a general.

When the coal miners presented their first demands for higher pay to Thatcher in 1981, she conceded. The country lacked the reserves of coal to keep the lights on and time to convert power stations to burn oil instead. But she ensured that her Government was better prepared for the next confrontation when it came. Arthur Scargill’s decision to call a strike without a ballot divided the miners, stripped the strike of considerable legitimacy and weakened their ability to disrupt industry and power generation.

Scargill wasn’t interested in a policy dispute; he wanted to bring down the democratically elected government of the country. So it is with the violent “casseurs” and their increasingly radicalised spokesmen.

Macron was elected 18 months ago and subsequently won an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly. He has a mandate to reform France and should be given the space to implement his reforms. There is no justification for him to heed calls by Le Pen to resign, or from the “centre” right leader of the Republicains to put the fuel taxes to a referendum. His personal approval ratings may be low, but so are those of his opponents.

With last Saturday’s violence, the Gilets Jaunes have converted themselves from political opposition to a revolutionary movement threatening the democratic institutions of the French Republic. There is increasing evidence that they are being egged on by the far right and that what had been a broad based-movement is being narrowed to a hard knot of fanatics.

This development, though dangerous, is one that Macron can turn to his advantage. There are two issues here: the ordinary politics of tax policy, and the assault on the Republic. France’s constitution allows them to be dealt with separately.

The ordinary politics can – and is – being dealt with by the Prime Minister. A moratorium on the tax increase buys some time. Macron is right not to concede on the principle. Diesel cars will go the way of coal mines as new and cleaner energy generation technologies are brought into use. But the costs of environmental adjustment fall most heavily on people who live in smaller towns and the countryside who already miss out on the fruits of the urban engines of economic growth. Though many of these people are not natural Macron supporters, French political culture expects them to be taken care of, and a mooted increase in the wealth tax may be the way to show solidarity.

The threat to the state, however, is the responsibility of the President, and needs to be met robustly on two levels.

The first is a matter of the exploitation of social institutions. In Thatcher’s time it was labour legislation, which she reformed to limit its use as a tool of political disruption. In our day it’s social media. It has been casually written that the movement formed on social networks. While such insouciance might have been acceptable before Facebook and Twitter had transformed themselves fully into advertising juggernauts, we now know that their algorithms facilitate radicalising propaganda. They are easily abused to funnel people towards extreme positions by stirring up and capitalising on anger. As a friend from Sao Paolo told me reflecting on Saturday’s riots: this feels like what happened in Brazil.

The pattern is a standard one: create chaos, paralyse the authorities, and wait for the people to demand a strongman – a military man, perhaps – to restore order. Three measures are required (with legislation, if French law doesn’t permit this already) to disrupt the anger funnel.

  • Social networks should record, and publish in electronically accessible form, the beneficial owner of all advertisements in France. Advertisements themselves should also be made to carry this information.
  • They should be made liable for content that incites violence on their platforms. Germany’s NetzDG law provides such mechanisms (though they can be tailored to focus on incitement to violence rather than to operate against hate speech as necessary).
  • Courts should be able to order closed discussion groups on Facebook to provide their content and metadata where there is reason to believe they are being used to incite violence against or threats against the institutions of the republic.

The information gleaned should allow for the effective disruption of the anti-republican extremists in the Gilets Jaunes movement.

At the same time, Macron needs to get stuck back into the business of politics. He cannot afford the luxury of a De Gaulle-style “Jupiterian” presidency. Unlike the general, who relied on his personal authority to preside over the crises of decolonisation, Macron is trying to build an ideological reforming movement from the ground up. He needs, in effect, to get back on the domestic campaign trail and make the case, not against the Gilets Jaunes, but for Macronism.

He and his deputies in the Assembly need to make themselves available in their constituencies regularly to argue for his government’s policies. These occasions won’t be glamorous. They will be in the back rooms of bars and restaurants or on plastic chairs in draughty community halls. The chicken will be made of rubber and the coffee vile. But their job isn’t just to be legislators. They’re the people’s deputies and need to live among them.

This needs to be complemented by direct and accurate social media output and further use of mainstream media channels. The party needs to build up its network of regional media officials to organise locally-known activists and spokespeople to get the party’s message across. When her back was against the wall, Thatcher could always rely on the Daily Telegraph to support her. Its presence gave hope to beleaguered supporters and took up space on the political spectrum, and thus helped define where the centre of opinion lay. Where is Macron’s equivalent house journal? Can one be created, bearing in mind technology and the media landscape have changed so it would probably be an online operation?

Finally – and this is an aspect Thatcher understood well – he needs to choose his enemies wisely. A centrist, as the Iron Lady said, apparently quoting Bevan, risks getting run down by traffic in both directions. Macron’s situation is more complicated, and defies road-based metaphor. Politics is shifting from its post-1960s phase where economics was more important than culture, to one where cultural questions dominate but don’t entirely overwhelm economic ones.

The new far right defines itself culturally. Its enemies are not the rich per se, but an urban mobile and educated population who share the characteristics that their predecessors attributed to Jews. Though all this group detest the extreme right, a solid proportion are relatively affluent leftists who still think politics is defined by material inequality and have become disillusioned by Macron. To win them back, his economic reforms need to be accompanied by a rhetorical shift leftwards and a more direct style.

One of the more powerful moments of the 2017 campaign was when he visited a factory and started arguing with the workers. They didn’t agree with him but they respected the fact that he treated them as grown-ups. If his presidency is to succeed, this is the Macron we need to see.

A day to honour George Herbert Walker Bush

This article was originally published on the anniversary of the former President’s election. We re-issue it today as news comes of his death.

This article was originally published on November 16, 2016.  We re-issue it today as news comes of the former President’s death.

On this day, over a quarter of a century ago, the best living former President of the United States was elected.  George Walker Herbert Bush is not the most eloquent man to have held the office.  Nor is he the most electorally successful.  Nor was he the most popular with his own party: how could he have been, when he followed Ronald Reagan?  Nor is he identified, like “the Gipper”, with representing a body of ideas, reflecting America back to itself, and changing the course of history.  But Bush was a fine President, in at least one way a better one than Reagan, and his reputation continues to grow – towering over the moral dwarf who succeeds him as Republican candidate today.

Admittedly, Bush travelled belief-light.  He wooed the Goldwater right when he ran unsuccessfully for the Senate, abandoned it once elected to the House of Representatives – where he voted for civil rights as a moderate Republican – stayed in the broad centre of his party when he contested the Presidency in 1978, and then tacked back to the right again when fighting the 1988 election, which he won in a near-landslide, carrying 40 states…only to return to the political middle ground once governing.  All this is a rough and impressionistic take on his progress, but none the less an accurate one.

What held Bush together as a politician was less conviction than character – and expectation.  He was born into the aristocracy of the Republican Party: his father, Prescott Bush, was an anti-McCarthy senator and Eisenhower’s golfing companion.  The family can trace its lineage back to the Mayflower: the former President himself, we read, is a 13th cousin of the Queen.  (Patrick Buchanan, who challenged Bush for his party’s nomination in 1992, mocked him as “King George”.)  “Poppy” Bush was the fourth family member to study at Yale, where he captained the baseball team, won a prize for “capacity for leadership” and was “last man tapped” for the Skull & Bones – “a distinction reserved for the leading Yale undergraduate of his day”, in the words of his biographer, Jon Meacham.

By then, he had already married his sweetheart, Barbara Pierce.  But there was more to Bush’s story to date than effortless superiority.  Volunteering to serve in the Second World War, like so many of his generation, he became the youngest pilot in the U.S Navy, and was nearly killed in action.  His plane was shot down while trying to knock out a Japanese radio transmission station.  His two fellow crewmen died.  Bush leaped from the plane, injuring his head on the back of it, and ripped his parachute, dropping faster because of the tear.  He was lucky not to fall into the hands of the Japanese, being eventually fished out of the water by an American submarine.

Post-Yale, following his father’s preference for making one’s own way, he turned his back on banking and headed down to Texas, where he did well enough in the oil business (though he didn’t make a fortune).  But the weight of political – indeed, presidential – expectation already hung heavily on him, as it had done even before he entered Yale.  Texas was risky political country for a Republican in the 1960s, and Bush first lost a Senate race before winning a seat in the House…and then contesting the Senate again and losing again.  But although he had already made an impression on his party, he never quite made it, in this early stage of his career, to the Vice-Presidential slot on the Republican ticket that he was tipped for.

Instead came a series of glittering appointments marred by ghastly timing.  He was America’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations at a time when the President who appointed him, Nixon, was widely distrusted abroad.  (“What am I to do with this turkey?” Kissinger allegedly complained.)  He then became Chairman of the Republican National Committee – Party Chairman, as we would say here – just in time for Watergate.  A interlude as Ambassador to China, a post that Bush asked for, was interrupted by his appointment as Director of the CIA at a time when it was mired in scandal and congressional investigations.

“Both George and Barbara Bush cried when they heard the offer,” writes another biographer, Timothy Naftali.  “It seemed to them to mark the end of Bush’s political career”.  Not so.  He performed creditably in the Republican presidential primaries before the 1978 contest, winning a raft of states in the north-east.  But Reagan didn’t want the runner-up on the ticket: he was unimpressed by Bush’s conduct during a showdown in New Hampshire, in which the latter was outmanoeuvered over the terms of a debate.  Reagan’s team originally wanted Gerald Ford as Vice-President.  But having a former President in the post would have been unworkable.  When Reagan came to realise this, and suddenly cast around for a replacement, the safest bet was Bush.

The vice-presidency is a tricky assignment.  If you try to do too much, you risk seeming to undermine the President.  If you do too little, you will fade away.  Bush was outstandingly loyal – there was no more talk of “voodoo economics” – and gradually won Reagan’s trust.  In particular, he behaved immaculately when the President was shot in 1981, shrewdly spurning an offer of taking a helicopter to the south lawn of the White House while Reagan lay injured in hospital.  “I’ll miss our Thursday lunches,” the latter wrote in a note to Bush at the end of his own Presidency, after scribbling the words: “Don’t let the turkeys get you down”.

Yes, Bush succeeded Reagan in 1988, having survived the Iran-Contra scandal, and having then defeated the Democrat candidate, Michael Dukakis.  Bush was judged likely to lose at one point, but a savage election campaign, led by Lee Atwater, turned the contest round.  Reagan’s successor as Republican candidate was distrusted on the right of the party, and Bush over-compensated in consequence, making his famous pledge: “read lips: no new taxes”.  It was one that he abandoned in office.  Perhaps in reaction to his predecessor, “the Great Communicator”, he didn’t strive to explain why.  Bush believed that action, and not words, would be enough: that the American people would grasp that the deficit had to be reduced without the case having to be pitched to them.

It turned out not to be so – and, in any event, there is a cycle in politics.  The Republicans had won three successive presidential elections, and America wanted change by 1992.  That the country had been in recession helped to drive the mood.  But Bush was right about the public finances.  “The deficit is big enough to look after itself,” Reagan once said, but to say so is to laugh reality off, or try to.  Indeed, Bush’s stewardship of the economy, by an irony of the kind familiar in politics, helped to pave the way for two terms of the man who defeated him, Bill Clinton.

Elsewhere at home, Bush got a lot done in his single term, working with Congress to improve education, expand free trade, protect the environment, and pass the Americans with Disabilities Act – the model for our own Disability Discrimination Act, steered through by William Hague under John Major.  And abroad, Bush brought all his experience to bear at a tumultous time.  His judgement call was to back Gorbachev, who he originally distrusted, and it proved to be right.  Bush eased the collapse of communism by not publicly celebrating the fact.  America was the dominant world power by the time Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and Bush used its position to form an overarching international coalition that took the country back.

The once-dashing pilot is now in a wheelchair, having made a final jump on his 90th birthday.  His presidency was flawed, of course, but all presidencies are – and it doesn’t look at all bad in retrospect.  A measure of the man is his attitude to the man who beat him.  “Dear Bill,” he wrote in a note to Clinton, as he himself left the White House, There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course.  You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you. Good luck – George.”

Jonathan Clark: The price of Brexit In Name Only could be decades of bitter political division and upheaval

For a comparable example, think back beyond Irish Home Rule or the repeal of the Corn Laws to the Revolution of 1688.

Jonathan Clark was a Fellow of Peterhouse; at Oxford, he was a Fellow of All Souls College; latterly he has been Visiting Professor at the Committee on Social Thought at Chicago, and Hall Distinguished Professor of British History at the University of Kansas. His latest book is a study of Thomas Paine.

As foreshadowed in her Lancaster House speech, Theresa May’s ‘Letter to the Nation’ promises that her 585-page deal would ensure that the UK takes back control of its borders, its money, and its laws. But that is not what the text sets out, as enough analysts have carefully demonstrated. She has therefore placed herself, or has been placed by her advisers, in the position of arguing that night is day, or that a square is a circle. She was already famous for the phrase “nothing has changed”, but her U-turn over financing the care of the elderly was minor compared to this.

Her letter expresses the wish that exit be ‘a moment of renewal and reconciliation for our whole country. It must mark the point when we put aside the labels of “leave” or “remain” for good and we come together again as one people.’ But is this plausible?

It seems more likely that the label BRINO, Brexit In Name Only, will be hung round her neck, just as securely as ‘appeasement’ was hung round the neck of Neville Chamberlain. But any such facile comparison needs careful reconsideration. Chamberlain was an able public servant, as Lord Lexden’s recent short study emphasises, and his rehabilitation is under way. There were far stronger grounds then for thinking that the UK needed time for rearmament than that UK industry now needs time for a transition to a trading relationship still undefined. It was more plausible then to hope that the German problem might be managed than it is now to say that the evolution of a trade association into a United States of Europe with its own army, foreign policy and taxation system is not taking place.

But there are more important differences between the two cases, and they point to far more domestic conflict ahead for the UK today. In the 1930s, the few Westminster politicians who warned of the rise of Nazi Germany won scant reception, preoccupied as public opinion then was by the slaughter of the First World War. Public debate was limited. Now, the choice between Leave and Remain has been fought as an epic ideological battle, as the debate over appeasement in the 1930s never was. Europhiles and Europhobes have set out their cases with economic, constitutional and historical sophistication, and also with effective passion. They have struck a chord, or two chords, in public opinion. Remainers especially see their cause as one that goes to heart of their very beings. Friends, and even families, are divided.

Second, the outbreak of war in 1939 largely ended the debate over appeasement. It created national unity to a remarkable degree. But no such unification is now in prospect. Indeed, the reverse is the case. As the implications of a legally binding exit treaty become evident in practice, the outcry against its terms and its authors could only grow. The future economic relationship between the UK and the EU would be explored in lengthy, and seemingly unending, agonies of negotiation: the UK’s bargaining weakness, as a result of May’s exit deal, would regularly rub salt into these wounds. Appeasement did not break up the Union, although the Irish Republic stood neutral in 1939; in 2018, BRINO would have major implications for Northern Ireland and Scotland. The chorus of mutual blame in the UK could only escalate, and these flames could only be fanned as the 2022 general election approaches.

If this results in a Corbyn victory, the Conservative Party would see a decade or two of introspective recrimination. In the 1997 general election, the Conservatives lost 11.2 per cent of the votes and 178 seats, ending with just 165; a loss on this scale in 2022 is perfectly plausible. One hopes that Conservative MPs have their new jobs lined up.

For how long would such turmoil last? Other divisive episodes have occurred in the British past. But for a comparable example of an ideological division among the elite coinciding with passionate division among the people one would have to go back beyond Irish Home Rule or the repeal of the Corn Laws to the Revolution of 1688, when one of the two great parties in the state changed the succession to the throne by a palace coup. As historians now appreciate, it split the nation for decades, arguable until the 1760s. The consequences of BRINO would probably be similar in kind, if unknowable in extent.

Would the consequences be equally shared? The Labour Party seems least likely to be damaged by this issue: the near prospect of ministerial office is the strongest political glue yet invented. But commentators are now reporting confidently on rival groups of Conservative cabinet ministers about to resign if their positions do not win the day. They remind us that there are some situations in life in which a compromise is impossible. In 1939, the UK either went to war with Germany, or it did not. There was no middle course, and there could be no transition period to make possible a middle way.

Then, Chamberlain’s ministry took a decision and Parliament backed it. Now, the ministry has adopted a deal that satisfies neither Leavers nor Remainers. If Parliament nevertheless backs it, the resulting Heath Robinson machine may end in wreckage. The long-term consequences for the standing of the UK’s parliamentarians would then be considerable. Coming after the financial crisis of 2008 and the MPs’ expenses scandal, the institution of Parliament itself will be ripe for reform in a future Labour government.

Is there, even now, a way out? The least bad tactical scenario may prove to be that there is no parliamentary majority for any option. Perhaps a change of Prime Minister will slow things yet further. Time would run out. If so, the UK’s political elite – by its mediocrity, its clumsiness, its self-deception and its careerism – would blunder unintentionally into the best outcome of all, a Brexit on WTO terms. The law of unintended consequences may yet take precedence over human inadequacy.

Dan Boucher: How to control Facebook’s use of our data

Social media providers should be required to present UK consumers with an ongoing, highly visible, simple, unavoidable choice over its use.

Dr Dan Boucher was the Conservative candidate in Swansea East at the 2017 General Election.

It has not been a great year for Facebook: the Cambridge Analytica scandal, accusations about conveying disinformation and fake news, and the refusal of Mark Zuckerberg to appear before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee have done nothing for its reputation.

Such is the level of frustration that representatives from nine different parliaments have come together to form an ‘international grand committee’ to call on Zuckerberg to give evidence. He has again refused to attend, sending instead a representative, Richard Allan, Vice President of Policy Solutions, Facebook. Allan will be cross examined by the committee in Westminster today.

One of the central challenges relating to the growing power and influence of social media providers is how they use our data.

The interim ‘Disinformation and Fake News report’ of the DCMS Select Committee looked at, among other things, the ‘definition, role and legal liabilities of social media platforms.’ The report expresses real concerns about privacy, and says that social media companies ‘give users the illusion of having freedom over how they control their data, but they make it extremely difficult, in practice, for users to protect their data. Complicated and lengthy terms and conditions, small buttons to protect our data and large buttons to share our data mean that, although in principle we have the ability to practise our rights over our data …in practice it is made hard for us.’

At the root of this lack of effective control over our data is the fact that the business model in question is predicated on assumptions associated with the re-emergence of what in practice is barter economics.

I well remember that on the occasion of my very first A-Level economics lesson, my teacher briefly observed that early models of economic transactions were based on barter before we moved to a money-based economy. In two years of economics teaching, he never returned to the subject and I can’t recall it coming up at university even once.

This lack of regard for the barter economy now seems strangely misplaced. At first glance, the fact we can all access social media services free of charge seems like a great boon for the consumer. It isn’t very often we can get something for free! Of course, there has to be a catch and the catch is that in return for the free service, social media providers get to harvest our data, which then enables them to target advertising at us from which they make a lot of money. The service user thus effectively trades his or her data with the company in return for use of the social media platform in question.

How should Conservatives respond to this re-emergence of barter economics?

In wrestling with this question, one inevitably turns to the historic approach of Conservative social reformers to barter. Although the sense I got from my very first economics lesson was that barter was replaced by money many hundreds of years ago, the truth is that it was actually a feature of economic life even during the nineteenth century through the ‘truck system.’

That great Conservative social reformer, the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, was particularly critical, observing that barter tended to result in transactions that favoured the powerful (the employer) over the weak (the employee), the employer providing things in return for labour that under compensated the employee. He spoke out passionately against this system and, when he acceded to his title in 1851, immediately prohibited its use on his estates.

As we reflect on the need to develop an effective regulatory system for dealing with the challenges presented by social media today, it is well worth reflecting on this past Conservative approach to barter. If we do so in the context of upholding another key Conservative value – choice – one way forward that immediately commends itself is legislation requiring social media providers to present UK consumers with an ongoing, highly visible, simple, unavoidable choice either: i) to access the service in question in return for allowing the social media company to use their data for specified money-making purposes, or ii) to access that service for a monetary fee on the basis that the company would then not use the person’s data as a means of making money.

To this some might respond by saying that legislating for the internet is not possible, but that tired old assumption has been shown to be completely without foundation, not least by the Digital Economy Act 2017. Of course, we want to keep legislation to a minimum, but limited legislation to underwrite choice in the context of the threat of more drastic legislation banning barter outright, which could then be held over the heads of social media companies if they don’t start treating people and their data with greater respect, would provide an interesting place to start.

Social media is an important part of our lives. It needs a strong foundation going forwards and this depends, crucially, on affording better protections for the consumer. This constitutes a key policy challenge and one in relation to which we as Conservatives must lead the way. We must examine the challenge from every angle, including from the perspective of the Conservative critique of barter economics and what it shows about the impact of that system on the rights of users of social media platforms.

Chloe Westley: If the Conservatives bow to May’s betrayal of the referendum result, they will be cursed for a generation

By refusing to consider the option of leaving without a deal, Conservative Ministers are essentially admitting defeat. And we deserve better than a defeatist political class.

Chloe Westley is the Campaign Manager of the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

Brexit has been blamed on so many things – on the ignorance of voters, on words on the side of a bus…even on the Russians! On and after June 24th 2016, there were many who were looking for someone, anyone, to blame.

But there wouldn’t have even been a referendum, or indeed a vote to leave, if politicians hadn’t signed us up to this disastrous political union in the first place.

When Edward Heath signed Britain up to the European Economic Community (EEC), there was no referendum. It was only years later that the public were asked their opinion. When John Major handed over more powers to Brussels by signing the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, establishing an entrenched political union, there was no referendum. When Gordon Brown surrendered even more sovereignty to Brussels by signing the Lisbon Treaty, there was no referendum.

These treaties were agreed by politicians behind closed doors, without the consent of the people. Now that the British people have finally had a say on Britain’s membership of the European Union, there are some politicians who are intent on destroying any hopes of bringing that sovereignty back to the UK. In order to justify this, they’re telling voters that it’s just too hard to untangle Britain from these EU institutions. But when they say that it isn’t possible to leave the EU without keeping a foot in the door, what they really mean is: they don’t us to leave at all.

When the overwhelming majority of MPs voted to have a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, I’m sure many would have simply assumed that the people would behave like good citizens, and vote how the political establishment expected. When that turned out not to be the case, many flocked immediately to either conspiracy theories or dismissive snobbery.

I can certainly understand why it would make pro-Remain MPs feel better about themselves by disregarding 17.4 million voters as misinformed or uneducated. It’s a lot easier than having to admit to being out of touch with the general public. But it’s unworthy of elected representatives and damaging to our civil discourse.

Instead of accepting that the general public looked at the evidence and made a balanced decision that Britain is better off outside the EU, we’ve seen several politicians – including some in the Conservative Party – berate voters as though they are naughty school children who didn’t do their homework. For the most part, leavers have accepted this gracefully. They’ve watched many in the political class attack their intelligence, their right to vote, their integrity, and even celebrate the passing of older leave voters.

Up until now, many in the silent majority have been quiet, patiently waiting for the Government to do what it said it would do, and deliver on the referendum result. But now that the Prime Minister has returned with a deal makes Britain a satellite state of the European Union, the mood is starting to shift.

Make no mistake. If the Conservatives fail keep the promises they made at the last general election, it will be a defining black mark against the Party’s name for a generation. Before the referendum, many people already feared that the political system was geared against them, and that politicians were ignorant of their concerns. Those Tory MPs advocating for a second referendum are proving them right.

Politicians shouldn’t threaten to stop Brexit in the event of a no deal scenario. We all know this deal is terrible, and that it doesn’t deliver Brexit. By refusing to consider the option of leaving without a deal, Conservative Ministers are essentially admitting defeat. The British people deserve better than a defeatist political class. We often hear of the dangers of ‘crashing out’ without a deal – but these are the exact same arguments that were made during the referendum.

Instead of betraying the electorate, the Government should look to the opportunities of leaving on WTO terms.  If we leave on a no deal Brexit we can immediately begin to negotiate free trade deals around the world; we can take advantage of the growing markets in Asia and America.

We can take back control of our laws, borders, money, fisheries and trade immediately. We won’t have to be locked into European defence structures, or be ruled by technocrats. And we won’t have to pay that £40 billion Brexit bill, nor £20 billion or so in EU contribution fees for the next two years. That’s money that can be invested immediately in the things that matter to British taxpayers, as well as help to fund tax cuts for families and businesses to boost economic growth.

Politicians handed over sovereignty to Brussels without the consent of the British people. It’s not good enough for them to now shrug their shoulders and say that Brexit is just too difficult.  Yes, Britain can thrive independently outside the EU. But if we fail to leave properly, it will not be because Brexit is impossible, but because our politicians have failed us again.