1906 General Election: The zenith of liberalism

As we approach Brexit day, whenever it finally occurs, it is important to remember the struggles and victories that have defined the political liberalism that is at the core of the modern movement in Britain. One such famous example is the landslide victory for the Liberal party in 1906.  If 1951 was the nadir of […]

As we approach Brexit day, whenever it finally occurs, it is important to remember the struggles and victories that have defined the political liberalism that is at the core of the modern movement in Britain. One such famous example is the landslide victory for the Liberal party in 1906. 

If 1951 was the nadir of our history, then 1906 was surely one of the many high points. The creed which we might call ‘Gladstonian Liberalism’ was at its intellectual apogee, but the new ideas of social liberalism and equality were also beginning to flourish and resonate with the populace, with the rise of the new trade unions and the Labour Party forwarding the cause of worker’s rights and the voice for the less well-off in society. These new ideals were often supported by the Liberal Party, with Henry Campbell-Bannerman saying in 1903 that ‘we are kindly in sympathy with the representatives of Labour.’ 

This new political environment was changing Britain from the Victorian era into the 20th Century, although later moves on the continent would of course lead to disaster. In 1906, Campbell-Bannerman had already been Prime Minister for a year, having replaced Arthur Balfour, and consolidated his position as a reformer, with his controversial stand on the Boer War at the turn of the century. 

Balfour had resigned in the hope of seeing the Liberals split as his party had done so, but no such divisions were seen, and the widespread unpopularity of the Conservatives was echoed in the election result. Campbell Bannerman started the campaign with the following speech at The Royal Albert Hall:

Depend upon it that in fighting for our open ports and for the cheap food and material upon which the welfare of the people and the prosperity of our commerce depend we are fighting against those powers, privileges, injustices, and monopolies which are unalterably opposed to the triumph of democratic principles.

The mantra of Peace, Retrenchment and Reform’, that had been used by Gladstone to great effect in 1880 was widely popular with the general public once again. The study by Benjamin Rowntree in 1902 had found that huge swathes of the population were living below the poverty line. The calls for social reform were rejected by the previous government, something that Campbell-Bannerman seeked to reverse. 

The results themselves have become known as the ‘Liberal landslide’, with Campbell-Bannerman winning 397 to the Tories 156. It was a huge victory, that had huge ramifications for the social and political future of the country in the new century. With Lloyd George and a young Winston Churchill in the ranks, the era of social welfare reform and the long march towards to voting equality were starting to become in the realms of reality. Under the new government, the first of those reforms was introduced straight after the victory at the polls, such as the introduction, but not the compulsory issuing of, free school meals and the introduction of the Old-Age Pension Act for those over 70. This formed the bedrock of the social infrastructure we see in Britain today, and the positive influence that moderate state-influence can do. It was not a sudden revolution, but a radical project that changed the face of British society.

Though the actions of Campbell-Bannerman were over a century ago, they debunk the myth that radical, centrist liberalism was, and never will be, popular in Britain. It is alive and well, and the next leader of the Liberal Democrats must harness its spirit to fuel the flair of reform. 

* Patrick Maxwell is a Liberal Democrat member and political blogger at www.gerrymander.blog and a commentator at bbench.co.uk.

Enter – or rather exit – the Spartans

A dedicated band of Conservative pro-Brexit holdouts stands ready to perish rather than let May’s deal pass.

The battle of Thermopylae is famous in legend for the sacrifice of 300 Spartans.  They died in battle, but saved their city.  The tale has a modern day Brexit resonance.

As we approach a third “meaningful” vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal, the number of Conservative MPs still willing to oppose it is falling.  It was 118 in January, and 75 last week.

Switchers for last Tuesday’s second vote included David Davis, Graham Brady, Philip Davies and our columnist, Robert Halfon.  Among those who now suggest that they will switch on a third are Esther McVey, Simon Clarke and Daniel Kawczynski.

Which returns us to Thermopylae.

ConservativeHome is told that a hardcore of those determined to hold out now refer to themselves as “the Spartans”.  These include a significant chunk of the ERG – though calculations are complicated by the fact that not all those who oppose the deal are ERG members.

If the Prime Minister’s deal gets through, among the corpses of MPs slain in the pass should be those of: Peter Bone, Bill Cash, Christoper Chope, Mark Francois, Andrea Jenkyns, John Redwood and, we believe, Steve Baker.

Others who died at Thermopylae include Thespians, Helots and Thebans, history tells us.

Readers must decide for themselves which of these labels best describe Dominic Grieve’s band of pro-Second Referendum holdouts, but they, too, will surely stick against May’s deal – a fact that many of our media colleagues tend to overlook.

Last week, they included Guto Bebb, Damian Collins, Justine Greening, Sam Gyimah, Jo Johnson, and Grieve himself.  It is unlikely that many of them will peel off.

As we write, Downing Street is striving to win the DUP over to the deal.

If it succeeds, the calculation for May will be whether enough Opposition MPs will back her deal to cancel out the Spartans who oppose it.  We would say that the former are among the Persians, but are in danger of stretching this historical analogy way too far.

Among those well placed to pronounce on the question is Boris Johnson.  What will he do when the vote comes?  Will he stand with the Spartans, and return “with my shield or on it”, as he sometimes likes to write?  Or will he swap sides and join the Persians?

His Daily Telegraph column today is ambiguous on the point.  We are less qualified to pronounce on classical history than the former Foreign Secretary, but can’t help questioning whether the analogy holds at all.

For in this case, the city wouldn’t be saved if the Spartans are massacred, since a consequence of their defeat would be the deal passing.

And in any case, this time round, the Spartans may actually win.

Joan Seccombe and Fiona Hodgson: This year, we celebrate the founding of the oldest women’s political organisation in the world

Two former Conservative Women’s Organisation Chairmen on its centenary – “predating Labour’s Women’s Network by six decades”.

Baronesses Seccombe has served as a Shadow Minister Home Affairs and for Legal Affairs, and as Opposition Deputy Chief Whip. Baroness Hodgson is a former President of the Conservative Party’s National Convention.

This year is notable for several key anniversaries. It’s 40 years since Margaret Thatcher swept to power as Britain’s first female Prime Minister; 90 years since the first general election with full voting equality; a century since Nancy Astor became the first female MP to take her seat in the Commons; and we also mark the centenary of the founding of the Conservative Women’s Organisation (CWO) – which we have both been privileged enough to chair.

From championing votes for women and encouraging women to become more politically involved, through influencing policy and providing the environment to debate them, to helping the party campaigning on issues that matter to women and providing training courses for budding MPs, it’s no surprise the world’s oldest women’s political organisation – predating Labour’s Women’s Network by six decades – has undergone something of a transformation in the hundered years since its founding.

The beginnings of the CWO started to form during the early days of suffrage campaigning and the fight for greater rights for women, and it could be said to have its roots in the creation of the Primrose League in 1883. Set up to advance Tory principles, it was the first political organisation to give women the same status and responsibilities as men, and in 1885 a Ladies Grand Council was formed.

The council recruited a vast army of female volunteers up and down the country, proving such an effective force on the campaign trail that seats, previously considered unwinnable, turned blue. Commenting on the success of this growing women’s political movement,  Millicent Fawcett said it had become such a fixture in British life ‘that none of the parties can do without it or alienate it’. Women were finally making their indelible mark on the political scene.

Five women were given their first taste of local government in 1907, when the Qualification of Women Act granted them the right to become councillors. Just over a decade later in February 1918, the Representation of the People Act was passed, giving women over 30 the right to vote in parliamentary elections for the first time.

While Astor was not the first woman – nor the first Conservative woman – to take stand for national election following a change in the law in late 1918, she was the first to take her seat in parliament, becoming the first woman MP in the House of Commons in 1919.  It was during this period of upheaval following the Great War, when women were making great strides in politics, that the Central Women’s Advisory Committee (CWAC) was formed by the National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations – and the Conservative family gained a new and lasting member.

Yet despite this, attitudes towards Astor and other Conservative women were, in those early days at least, somewhat hostile. This only made the need for a women’s organisation more pressing, and records show what is probably the party’s first women’s conference took place in London in October 1920 at a private residence. However, a year later 3,000 women descended on the capital for the first mass women’s conference – a tradition that continues to this day, with our centenary conference taking place in Westminster today.

Less than a decade later, Stanley Baldwin signalled a real shift in parliamentary feeling when he remarked: ‘Democracy is incomplete and lop-sided until it is representative of the whole people, and the responsibility rests alike on men and women’. A year later, he extended the franchise to all women over 21 and affiliated the CWAC with the Conservative Party and the rest, as they say, is history.

Except that was just the beginning. The organisation went from strength to strength, going through two further name changes and, by the time Margaret Thatcher came to power, was one of – if not the – biggest women’s organisations in the world.

Thatcher never underestimated the role women played inside the party and was absolutely an ally to the CWO, telling the first author of this article, CWO’s chairman during the early 1980s, before becoming the Party’s Vice Chairman for Women between 1987 and 1997: “I really like hearing what the women say because they tell me as it is and not what they want me to hear.” Cabinet Ministers were subject almost to a ‘three-line whip’ to make a stirring speech at packed-out women’s conferences, which became a highlight of the Tory calendar.

After she left power, the fact the Conservatives had given us the first female Prime Minister made it easier to argue that having a separate women’s organisation within the party was no longer necessary. Following the dire 1997 general election in which Tony Blair won by a landslide with a record 101 female MPs compared to the Conservatives’ 13, Conservative Central Office, as it then was, had to make economies and funding was withdrawn.

Theresa May was very supportive of the organisation when she became Chairman of the Party in 2002, and an awareness grew that having a place for women in the party to support each other was a good thing. Not only was there still a role for the CWO, but Theresa and Baroness Jenkin took action and established Women2Win to identify and mentor aspiring women politicians.

Under Baroness Hodgson’s chairmanship, we were able to revive the women’s policy forums and tackle subjects such as stalking and prostitution, while the Conservative Women’s Muslim Group was also established. The women’s conference returned to the Queen Elizabeth II Centre and, when David Cameron, then the new Party leader, took off his jacket and got down amongst the audience to answer questions, the effect was profound. Once again, the Conservative Party felt an inspiring place for women.

The question now was how the CWO could attract more female voters and build on Women2Win’s work of getting more women elected. The answer would soon become clear.

The Westminster Foundation for Democracy was sending volunteers from the CWO abroad to run development sessions for women in sister parties in countries with emerging democracies. Pauline Lucas, then the Chairman, realised that what was now the CWO should establish a formal process to help women develop the skills they required for political engagement and planned initial modules ahead of the 2010 general election.

Women2Win and the CWO could be proud of their achievement: the number of women MPs almost tripled, increasing from 17 in 2005 to 49 in 2010. CWO Development was then formally established, creating an entry pathway for women and solidifying the CWO as a grassroots organisation.

Today, candidates are identified by both CWO and Women2Win and receive their initial training from CWO. Analysis conducted in 2015 showed more than half the newly elected female Conservative MPs had been on CWO courses.

As we celebrate our centenary this weekend, we pay tribute to all those women who, over the years, have played such an important role in securing our right to vote, campaigning for women’s rights, and shaping the policies of the Conservative Party today

Helen Whately: Why the Conservatives are the true champions of women

Ours is the party that believes in equality of opportunity, in everyone having the chance to fulfil their potential, irrespective of where you come from or who you are.

Helen Whately is the Conservative Party’s Vice-Chair for Women, and is MP for Faversham and Mid-Kent.

A fundamental principle of both feminism and Conservativism is the belief in equality of opportunity – something we have worked on for over a century.  It was a Conservative Home Secretary, George Cave, who steered the 1918 Representation of the People Act through Parliament, giving women the right to vote in parliamentary elections for the first time. And it was a Conservative peer, Robert Cecil, who introduced the Qualification of Women Act later that same year, enabling Nancy Astor to stand for the Conservatives in a parliamentary by-election in 1919, and to become the first woman to take her seat in the Commons.

Astor was the lone female voice among 643 men for almost two years. She not only eased the path to national politics for the women who joined her in 1921, but paved the way for every female MP since.  Despite calling herself a feminist and strongly advocating for women’s rights, she and other Conservative women have often been overlooked for not being radical enough – though I would argue the reason is one of style rather than substance.

Emmeline Pankhurst, known for her use of ‘deeds, not words’ to progress the Suffragette movement, was considered radical both at the time and nowadays. She joined the Conservative Party in 1926, and was selected as a parliamentary candidate for the 1929 election.
Pankhurst sadly passed away in June 1928, just two weeks before the Conservative government passed the Equal Franchise Act granting women equal suffrage with men, adding fivr million women to the electoral roll.

Thirty years later, another Conservative Government passed the Life Peerages Act 1958, bringing women into the House of Lords for the first time.

Then in 1975, Conservative MPs elected Margaret Thatcher as their party leader – the first woman leader of a British political party.
Her three successive election wins made her not only the first female Prime Minister of the UK, but our longest serving head of government in modern times.  The fact that we had a woman as our Prime Minister during my childhood meant I took for granted that women could succeed at whatever career they chose – including a political one.

With Theresa May as our second female Prime Minister, my daughters are growing up with the same assumption.  May has had her own firsts: she became the first female Chairman of the Conservative Party in 2002, and was the first woman to hold two great offices of state.

And just as Margaret Thatcher’s leadership showed girls of my generation that there should be no limits to our ambition, thousands of women have expressed solidarity with our current ‘bloody difficult woman’. We know she is not afraid to get things done; frustrated at the slow rate at which women were becoming MPs, she joined forces with Anne Jenkin in 2005 to set up Women2Win. Part of the organisation’s mission is the normalisation of women in politics and, during its 14 years, it has helped to identify, train and mentor female candidates for public office, enabling an increase in women Conservative MPs from 17 after the 2005 election to 67 in 2017.

Being one of 209 of female MPs makes Parliament a much friendlier place than I suspect it was for Nancy Astor, but at 32 per cent it’s still not enough. After all, more than half of the population are women. That’s why Brandon Lewis is driving the Conservative Party to do more to support women, including setting an ambition for our parliamentary candidate list to be 50:50 between men and women. Since that announcement, more than 400 women have come forward to say they are interested in becoming Conservative parliamentary candidates – double the number of women MPs currently in parliament.

For me, campaigning for true equality for women is a natural consequence of being a Conservative. After all, ours is the party that believes in equality of opportunity, in everyone having the chance to fulfil their potential, irrespective of where you come from or who you are – including your gender.

And we have been putting this theory into practice. In 2017, we introduced legislation which means that, for the first time ever, businesses report on their gender pay gap – at its lowest level since records began in 1997, while the female employment rate is at a record high.

This Conservative government has brought in policies to protect and support women suffering domestic abuse through the Domestic Abuse Bill, including the first ever legal definition of domestic abuse.  And we’ve committed more than £100 million in funding between 2016 and 2020 to tackle violence against women and girls, as well as making the largest ever single investment in tackling FGM, providing an extra £50 million to support work across some of the most affected countries in Africa.

There’s more to do. We have to tackle not just the well-known forms of abuse and discrimination against women, but also more hidden barriers to equal opportunity. And as we do so, I’m confident we can make things better for men too. This isn’t a zero-sum game. I know I’m an MP in a party that has done so much for women and is committed to doing more. That’s why I am proud to be the 436th woman to become an MP, and the Conservative Party’s Vice Chair for Women.

Daniel Hannan: The rule of law is our system’s foundation. Which is why there should be Bloody Sunday trials.

When we bend the rules in our favour, we cheapen our country. We become, in effect, the colonial power that the IRA accuse us of being.

Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit.

“Mr Speaker, I am deeply patriotic,” said David Cameron in a sombre voice when he presented the Saville Report to Parliament in 2010. “I never want to believe anything bad about our country. I never want to call into question the behaviour of our soldiers and our army, who I believe to be the finest in the world. But the conclusions of this report are absolutely clear. What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable.”

Most ConservativeHome readers will share the former Conservative leader’s patriotism; and almost everyone will echo his regard for our troops. We are enormously lucky in this country to have Armed Forces which are lethal when turned against foreign foes but which are not, in general, used for internal repression. Our Service personnel are brave but not bellicose, cheerful but not frivolous, polite but not obsequious, always ready to get stuck in. It is hard to have dealings with British soldiers and not end up liking them.

So of course we are uneasy at the idea of former Paratroopers being hauled through the courts because of something that happened nearly half a century ago. Yet we should never lose sight of what it is we admire about our Servicemen in the first place. We admire them precisely because they are professional and disciplined. We admire them because, unlike their counterparts in much of the world, it is hard to imagine them training their guns on civilians. That is what makes the events of 30 January 1972 so painful.

Bloody Sunday was a catastrophe for the Army. Many Catholics had initially welcomed the deployment of regular troops in Northern Ireland, seeing them as likelier to be impartial than the Protestant-dominated local security forces; but the deaths of 13 unarmed protesters in Londonderry convinced Ulster’s minority community that they could not expect fairness from the British state. Hundreds of young men were driven overnight into the clutches of the IRA, with dreadful consequences for themselves and for others. In the aftermath of the shootings, the British government behaved like some insecure dictatorship, more concerned with the reputation of its security forces than with justice.

It took 37 years for the government officially to acknowledge the truth, namely that there had been both a grotesque abuse of force by some soldiers on the day and a cover-up afterwards. I felt paradoxically proud when Cameron issued a national apology. The desire to get at the facts, however awkward, is a distinguishing characteristic of an open society. Lots of nations in such a position adopt what we might call an anti-Dreyfusard stance, elevating the reputation of their Armed Forces over the right of individuals to redress. I am glad to live in a country where the rights of those who resent it – as most of the young men who died in the Bogside did – count for as much as anyone else’s. My British patriotism does not rest chiefly on the accomplishments of our Servicemen, awesome as they are. It rests on our indignation at injustice, our preference for individual rights over collective identity, and our determination to follow the law.

Once the Saville Enquiry had overturned the previous whitewash, prosecutions became almost inevitable. Now they are reportedly set to go ahead against four of the soldiers accused of acting outside the law that day.

There are various hooks on opponents of the prosecutions might hang their doubts. They could argue that it is impossible to be sure of justice so long after the event. They could propose that the United Kingdom adopt, as the United States does in some circumstances, a statute of limitations. They could argue, with Gerry Adams, that there should be indemnity on all sides – British Servicemen, loyalist gunmen, Republican paramilitaries. (Martin McGuinness took a different line, contending that the amnesty should not apply to soldiers. It has since been confirmed that McGuinness was the Provisional IRA’s second-in-command on Bloody Sunday, and he eventually admitted that his men had been carrying weapons.)

By and large, though, these are not the grounds on which the Paras’ defenders are taking their stand. Rather, they argue that there is an asymmetry in the way in which the two sides in the conflict are being treated. IRA murderers have benefited from an amnesty, they say, so why should our boys be punished? Shouldn’t we (they continue) take mitigating circumstances into consideration? The Provos were, as McGuinness confirmed, armed that day. They were deliberately seeking to provoke a reaction. The Official IRA, the “Stickies”, actually fired shots (though only, it seems, after the Paras had started shooting). Do these things, ask the soldiers’ supporters, not count for something?

And anyway (they conclude), why this peculiar focus on 13 of the 3,532 victims of the Troubles? What about Bloody Friday? What about Birmingham and Warrington and Shankill and Crossmaglen and a hundred other IRA abominations? Why not spend a fortune on inquiries into them?

The answer, surely, is that our soldiers are not terrorist gangsters. They operate according to rules, and when those rules are breached, there are consequences. The idea of equivalence between the two sides was, paradoxically, a key IRA demand. The Provos gave their men military ranks, and demanded POW status when they were jailed for their crimes. When Adams called for amnesties all round, he was at least being consistent. But I suspect that most ConHome readers always regarded the IRA as a criminal gang rather than as a legitimate army. The reason we must hold our troops to a high standard is the same reason that we are the legitimate government in Northern Ireland, namely the demands of the law.

To be sure, there are arguments for clemency. It is hard to see how any purpose would be served by banging up men in their seventies for offences committed when they were very different people. That, though, is not the same thing as arguing that there should be no trials.

When we bend the rules in our favour, we cheapen our country. We become, in effect, the colonial power that the IRA accuse us of being, treating people living under our jurisdiction as something less than full citizens. Irish nationalism rests on precisely this claim. From the 1914 Curragh Mutiny to the 1974 Ulster Workers’ Council Strike, argue Irish Republicans, the British state has been prepared to bend the rules in a Unionist direction.

If we believe that Londonderry is a British city, then the people who died on Bloody Sunday were British subjects. If they were British subjects, then they – or their survivors – deserve the full measure of British justice. Without that principle, our Forces would be no better than the terrorist bombers they defeated. And that is not something we should ever allow.

Michael Josem: Company regulation. Westminster has no right to legislate for the Isle of Man.

It is neo-colonialist for MPs to attempt to do otherwise in relation to Crown Dependencies – and the attempt should be resisted.

Michael Josem is a marketing & communications professional.  He is a resident of the Isle of Man who formerly worked for members of the Liberal Party in the Australian Parliament.

Today, the legitimacy of parliaments to make laws comes not from their divine rights but, rather, from the consent of the governed. The Westminster Parliament has a legitimacy to make laws for the UK, because the people of the UK give their consent through a free and fair democratic process. The US congress has a similar legitimacy – just as the parliaments of Canada, Australia, France and elsewhere do. They have a right and duty to make laws for their own people – but not for others. This principle should not be controversial in 2019.

In a bygone era, parliaments (most obviously Westminster, but other European parliaments, too) did not accept such constraints on their power. In colonial times, Westminster created laws for its overseas colonies of North America, Australasia, Africa and elsewhere. This practice substantially ended in the twentieth century, because our civilisation recognised that the parliament of one people has no moral right to rule over another people. The United Kingdom was a key leader in recognising that its parliamentary “children” should be allowed to mature and make their own decisions.

Despite the obvious moral illegitimacy of one parliament making laws for another people, there is today a group of Westminster MPs who appear to recognise no such constraint on their power. Led by Andrew Mitchell and Margaret Hodge, these neo-colonialists are seeking to change company regulation in the Crown Dependencies of the Isle of Man and Channel Islands without the consent of the peoples who live there.

With the support of much of Labour and the minor parties, they appear to have been able to construct a parliamentary majority to amend the Government’s Financial Services Bill to impose these new rules upon the Crown Dependencies.  A vote has been postponed but is none the less likely to happen.

There are good arguments in favour of the legislation that they propose, and good arguments against it, too. But those arguments should not be heard in Westminster, because Westminster has no moral legitimacy to force its rule upon the Crown Dependencies on this issue. The people of the Crown Dependencies do not vote in Westminster elections, and so their view is not represented Westminster. Because the people of the Crown Dependencies have no say in Westminster, there is no legitimacy for Westminster to say what happens in the Crown Dependencies.

Of course there are some areas in which Westminster can legitimately legislate for the Crown Dependencies. The governments of the Crown Dependencies have consented to various British regulatory and legislative instruments over the years. Most obviously, this includes assenting to Westminster administering foreign affairs and defence.

Similarly, with the consent of the Crown Dependencies, Westminster legislated earlier this year to form a post-Brexit Customs Union with the Isle of Man (despite unhelpful, troublemaking votes from f the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats to oppose this move). This empowerment of Westminster to make trade deals on behalf of the Isle of Man with foreign nations was legitimate because it has the approval of the Manx people, as represented by our own democratically elected government at Tynwald.

The modern political world is witnessing many challenges to established norms of behaviour – mostly from the executives of various countries. While it is unusual to see a legislature break its own behavioural norms, these are clearly interesting times. Rather than try to expand their jurisdiction in an undemocratic manner, Westminster MPs should continue to have some humility about the moral limits to their powers.

Today, the public is demanding more than ever before that political office holders should recognise that they are servants of their people. In that vein, Westminster MPs should remember that they are the representatives of the British people, not their rulers – and when it comes to the Isle of Man, Westminster MPs are neither their rulers nor their representatives. These Westminster neo-colonialists should stop trying to leverage ancient suzerainties to achieve their short-term political goals.

MPs supporting this move covet the power to rule over the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, despite never being elected by the people of the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands. If they want to make laws for the Isle of Man, they are welcome to seek election to the Manx parliament at Tynwald. Their legislative power grab will only be legitimate if they have nothing less than the approval of the Manx people.

How Brexit will save Britain

Leaving the EU will be painful — hopefully painful enough to make the changes the UK needs.

LONDON — It’s often said that the British don’t “do” revolutions. Barricades and communes might be all well and good on “the Continent,” but over here we handle things differently. What need of Madame Guillotine in a land where parliamentary democracy has flourished for 300 years and where talking on the Underground is considered a dangerously seditious act?

For most of the last 200 years, Britons were too busy propping up an Empire-on-which-the-sun-never-set, or working their fingers to the bone in factories and big houses, to find the time to turn pitchforks on their masters.

And besides, at every point when the country could have tipped, the ruling elite pulled back and ceded just enough power to the people to maintain the status quo.

Having successfully fended off invasion and kept the specters of revolution at bay, Britain has no “ground zero” moment akin to the American declaration of independence or the reunification of Germany. While most countries on the Continent have been obliged several times to start again, the United Kingdom has simply plodded on with the mechanisms that saw us through the 19th century — including an unwritten and unfathomably complex constitution.

Britain, in short, has never been obliged to stare deeply into its soul and reimagine itself.

Until now.

As much as Brexit presents an unprecedented existential crisis — it could yet serve a useful purpose.

By any sane measure, Brexit has been a catastrophe. In seeking a quick fix to an internal party squabble, the hapless former Prime Minister David Cameron managed to accomplish what the Spanish Armada, Napoleon and Hitler all failed to achieve: Britain has finally been defeated. What’s more, in a display of the “can-do” spirit that made it great, it has managed to do it all by itself.

The country has painted itself into a corner, tied a sovereignty shaped bomb to its underpants and put a gun marked “no deal” to its head. And yet, as much as Brexit presents an unprecedented existential crisis — it could yet serve a useful purpose.

Former Conservative MP Anna Soubry and former Labour MP Chuka Umuna might seem like an unlikely vanguard of the revolution, but their newly created Independent Group has been a first and important step in the realignment of our political system, and there is a sense that this is just the start.

Something has been rotten in the state of Britain for years, but instead of dealing with the illness, successive governments merely slapped on band-aids upon band-aids.

“Much of the shock in the immediate aftermath of the June 2016 referendum was that a vote had for once actually meant something” | Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images

Chief among those ailments is the broken first-past-the-post voting system that encourages a confrontational political climate, while rendering millions of votes essentially worthless. As a result, many seats in general elections are foregone conclusions and smaller parties beyond Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have found it almost impossible break through the iron wall of what amounts, in England at least, to a two-party autocracy.

Britain has stuck with the system for no other reason than that it serves the interests of the Labour and Conservative parties, which have conspired to take it in turns to rule us for the last 100 years. Brexit has drawn back the curtain to reveal cossetted Westminster’s creaky heart. Our Hogwartsian parliament, and our current voting system are quite obviously no longer fit for purpose.

Much of the shock in the immediate aftermath of the June 2016 referendum was that a vote had for once actually meant something. For the first time, real power had been handed to the electorate, and millions of disaffected and marginalized individuals vented their rage by voting against a system they deemed had ignored them.

That they were encouraged to do so for a cause that did not serve their interests is perhaps beside the point; the genie has now been released from the bottle, and it is impossible to imagine that the nation will be prepared to surrender control again. For all the poison and odium that this invidious process has unleashed, that’s a good thing.

And it is by no means the only Brexit positive. As the government has reeled from crisis to crisis, the great lie that Britain is somehow too big for Europe and that “they need us more than we need them” has been exposed as the shabby fairytale that it always was.

It is Prime Minister Theresa May, after all, who has been running in desperation to the EU leaders in Brussels — and not the other way around. The British people, long guiled into believing that the EU is holding us back from fulfilling our full potential, are now being served a daily dose of stark reality.

Brexit has been a grotesque act of self-defenestration.

Should we crash disastrously out on March 29, our Brexit-driven political class will be faced with an even greater quandary: Once we are no longer entwined with our neighbors, who will they have to blame for NHS waiting lists, the housing crisis, queues on the motorways, foreign criminals and straight bananas?

So yes, Brexit has been a grotesque act of self-defenestration. It has caused indescribable damage to our international reputation and unforgivably put the future well-being of our nation at stake. Britain now stands at a dangerous fork in the road from which many hope it can yet turn back.

But maybe, just maybe, all of this madness will not have been entirely in vain. Sooner or later, Brexit will devour its children and once it has, perhaps we will get the revolution we actually need.

Otto English is the pen name used by Andrew Scott, a writer and playwright based in London. 

Bob Seely: Bloody Sunday prosecutions would betray our armed forces

Former paramilitary fighters are out of prison. IRA killers have restarted their lives. Yet British soldiers face the threat of prosecution.

Bob Seely is a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and is MP for the Isle of Wight.

Bloody Sunday was the single most significant failure by the British security forces in Northern Ireland. On 30 January 1972, 13 civilians were killed a protest march in Derry (a fourteenth died later). They were 14 out of  the 3,532 civilians, soldiers and paramilitary group members killed on all sides during ‘The Troubles.’.

I do not for a second dispute that bad things happened that day. This is not a case of ‘my side, right or wrong’. Rules of war are there to be obeyed. I have Irish Catholic friends who take a very different approach to ‘The Troubles’ than I do. I respect their opinion. But I am bemused by how on earth the decision to prosecute members of the Parachute Regiment – if that is what is now planned – serves peace in Northern Ireland today.

Prosecution does not send a signal of justice. It is without a semblance of equality. UK soldiers are being hung out to dry whilst those they fought are treated by different rules. There is a natural and obvious injustice. I do not argue that all the Paras behaved as they should. Some didn’t, and people died as a result, but the purpose of the peace process was to accept that while bad things happened in the past, they should stay there. Gavin Williamson is said to be planning legislation to introduce a 10-year limit on alleged historic abuses. Such a law can’t come soon enough.

When judging this issue, it’s helpful to have experience of insurgencies or at least understand their principle. The purpose of the IRA was to force Catholics out of the security forces in Northern Ireland, sectarianise the country, set up rival ‘shadow’ institutions, to murder members of the (overwhelmingly Protestant) security forces, and then hope for violent reprisals and chaos in Northern Ireland – forcing the UK out and achieving a united Irish state, presumably imbued with a socialist, revolutionary anti-British hostility.

The IRA failed in its aim. That they lost when insurgent paramilitary groups have succeeded in so many parts of the world is testament to the remarkable work of the security forces – the UK Armed Forces, the security agencies and the then Royal Ulster Constabulary. This does not mean that our security forces were always right or that there were no breaches of trust. There were some, but failures in command and standards were rare enough for the forces of law and order to survive and to defeat the IRA’s violent aims. By preventing civil conflict on the level of Bosnia or Syria, UK forces that served in Northern Ireland – including the Parachute Regiment – saved the lives of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands. This is not said often enough.

Bloody Sunday was one of those occasions when our ability to police Catholic communities collapsed. It was a moral and political failure. The IRA and Sinn Fein milked the occasion for propaganda for decades. If the British and Irish Governments now had a policy of prosecuting all those involved in the injury or deaths of others, there would at least be a consistent standard by which to put soldiers and former paramilitary members on trial.

But there is no intent to do this. Former paramilitary fighters are out of prison. IRA killers have restarted their lives. Yet British soldiers, whose collective actions in the course of the Troubles saved Northern Ireland from civil war, face the threat of prosecution. They face life imprisonment. Any former terrorist brought before the courts – an almost unthinkable event anyway – would face under the Good Friday agreement a maximum two-year sentence. Every kneecapping and killing was a morally squalid event. Where are former paramilitaries being hauled before the courts? This is not an example of fairness, but of double standards.

The Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) is nowadays repeatedly drummed into servicemen and women. Yet time and time again UK forces feel under-protected by politicians and at the mercy of parasitical lawyers keener to attack the institutions of our state or make a quick buck than they are in the service of justice. The wretched, demeaning spectacle of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, which allowed multiple trumped-up charges to be thrown at the UK Armed Forces, is just the latest episode in that sorry relationship.

I talked with some former army mates this weekend. The assumption is: no matter what you do on operations, others without experience will judge you years down the line, doing so from the comfort of a legal chambers or a court, and the politicians won’t defend you. This is an insidious place for the Armed Forces to be in.

The additional irony is that it will be very difficult to obtain guilty verdicts. No one will be satisfied by the trials. Soldiers will feel betrayed by politicians. The families of the Bloody Sunday dead face failed prosecutions. The trials will open up old wounds in the province just weeks after a recent terror attack in Derry. Those accused will be treated as martyrs or murderers. The trials may provide justification for further acts of violence by dissident republicans. The only winners will be lawyers. The original Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday cost £200 million. The Iraq Historic Allegations Team cost £30 million. Nearly a quarter of a billion pounds for both; what a staggering use of public money.

If this were happening under a government lead by a Marxist IRA fellow-traveller such as Jeremy Corbyn, I would be appalled but not surprised. Instead, it is happening under a Conservative Government. It is an unnecessary, self-inflicted wound. Let the dead rest in peace and let those who survived – on all sides of the conflict – reconcile themselves and their consciences.

Craig Hoy: The middle ground is where elections are won and lost in Scotland

Davidson has parked the Conservatives there – and the emergence of the Independent Group opens up new opportunities.

Craig Hoy is a former Downing Street lobby correspondent and is a member of the Scottish Conservative Party.

Tony Blair has always believed that the political centre-ground is where elections are won and lost. It’s no surprise, therefore, that in an interview with Holyrood Magazine – a journal which, incidentally, I co-launched 20 years ago – he says that Labour in Scotland is in trouble because it lost the middle ground to Ruth Davidson.

As the tectonic plates of British politics reposition themselves following the launch of The Independent Group (TIG), something interesting is taking place in Scottish politics. Something which, for once, might play out in the Scottish Conservatives’ favour.

Scratch beneath the surface of a recent Deltapoll, and you’ll find some significant data. Asked how they would vote if an election was held today and Labour and the Scottish Tories are on 26 per cent apiece: with the SNP still polling an alarmingly high 41 per cent, despite its decade of broken promises in Scotland.

But asked how they might vote if TIG field candidates in Scotland, things look a bit different. Labour drops to just 13 per cent and the Tories and the SNP get a boost, the Tories up three points to 29 per cent. TIG scores nine per cent in Scotland – eight per cent lower than the 17 per cent support the poll suggests it might get in London. Meanwhile the beleaguered Scottish Liberal Democrats get squeezed to just two per cent if TIG fields candidates.

What do these numbers tell us, and what are the takeways for the Scottish Conservatives?

From my reading, it backs up Blair’s point. That the centre-ground is where we need to be, and that’s where Scots are starting to believe the Tories are positioned under Ruth Davidson.

Capitalising on this will be crucial. The launch of TIG might make Scottish voters think more seriously about how they cast their vote, and by doing so they could start to see something that has been staring them in the face for a while: the Conservative Party in Scotland has changed, and changed for the better. It’s a centrist party – and the only one that can beat the SNP and remove the clear and present danger it poses to the Union.

This is something Blair recognises when he tells Holyrood: “The question the Labour Party should ask itself in Scotland is how do you get beaten by the Tories? Why is that happening? It’s happening because it’s the politics that Ruth Davidson represents. That’s why it’s happening. You gave up the middle ground. That was always the thing, the myth about Scotland, it was seen as this great leftist territory, but it’s always been much more complicated than that. People forget that, I think in the 1950s, actually, you had a majority of Tory MPs in Scotland.”

So there you have it. Blair, a Scot of sorts himself, concedes that Davidson is the kind of politician who represents the middle ground in Scotland. Blair evokes the memory of 1955 when the Conservatives – running under Unionist and National Liberal & Conservative banners – secured the majority of seats and votes in Scotland. This reminds us that Scotland has a tradition of voting Conservative, but perhaps back in the 1950s it was a different kind of Conservatism.

The commonly-held view that the rot set in under Margaret Thatcher misses this point. Long before her “Sermon on the Mound“, Scots had set out on a different path electorally. Many Scots have a far less equivocal view on the role of the state than those down south. Perhaps it is this fact, combined with the stridency of the Thatcher era and her decision to finally address the failing state industries upon which many Scots jobs depended, that set Scotland out on a fundamentally different path politically.

You cannot overlook the impact that significant levels of state involvement and public spending have had on the way Scots think and vote. State spending has accounted for as much as three quarters of the local economy in some parts of Scotland. When it comes to social policy, many Scots have more sympathy with the Nordic model than they do with the more neoliberal approaches advocated by those on the right of the UK Conservative Party.

Under Davidson, the Scottish Tories have shifted significantly. By dropping opposition to free prescriptions, the party has shown they are where Scots are: in the political centre-ground. It’s a commonsense, centrist conservatism, which presents a credible alternative to an SNP government which is now taxing Scots more while delivering lower outcomes in health, education, crime and transport.

A YouGov poll in 2015 found that on every single issue Scots are to the left of the UK-wide position. But that does not mean they are necessarily left-wing, as Blair justly points out. With the presumption being that the UK is somewhere on the right of the political spectrum, then it can be argued that Scots might be somewhere very close to the centre-ground, or maybe even just a smidgeon to the right on some issues.

So that is where the next Holyrood election, which takes place in just over two years time, could be won or lost. The SNP have shifted markedly to the left, becoming focused on the one-time Labour heartlands of the Central Belt and in cities such as Glasgow and Dundee. Many voters in rural Scotland, where the SNP traditionally cast themselves as Tartan Tories, have abandoned the SNP following its lurch to the left.

The impact of The Independent Group could therefore be very different in Scotland. It might make our politics more binary, focusing minds on the fact that the next Holyrood election is a two horse race between the SNP and the Scottish Conservatives: with Labour and the Lib Dems as non-starters. To quote Tony Blair at his best: “The kaleidoscope has been shaken, the pieces are in flux, soon they will settle again. Before they do let us reorder this world around us.”

Capturing those pieces in Scotland will be no mean feat. But Davidson has already done a lot to persuade Scots she is different sort of politician. The challenge now is for the party to extend its reach across the middle ground of Scots politics – to build support for its policies just as it has done for its staunch defence of the Union. In practical terms, this will entail winning over centrist Labour voters in seats such as East Lothian, and disillusioned Nationalists in seats like Perth and North Perthshire.

Getting anywhere near the party’s historic high watermark in 1955 is a massive political undertaking. Becoming the largest party at Holyrood, let alone securing a majority, would be a significant achievement. When Davidson returns from maternity leave in May, she will have two years to get her party there. But more than anyone else in politics today, she has the popular appeal to be able convince middle ground Scotland that it’s finally permissible to vote Tory again.

Nuclear powers, spiralling tension – and Kashmir’s fallout in urban Britain

Brokenshire must keep an eye on the potential knock-on from the latest flare-up over terror, reprisals, a captured pilot and the disputed territory.

The community cohesion post at HCLG is viewed as the most junior in the department.  Which is why it was originally siphoned off to Andrew Stunell, the only Liberal Democrat placed in it when the Coalition was formed, while the Conservatives bagged housing, planning and local government finance.  The present holder of the post isn’t even in the Commons: he is Nick Bourne, the former leader of the Welsh Party, now Lord Bourne and re-badged as Minister for Faith.

Given this set-up, it would be well worth James Brokenshire keeping half an eye on the military escalation between India and Pakistan.  The two countries have fought three wars since they were founded over a territory about which both make claims: the former princely state of Kashmir.  In a nutshell, India occupies a part of it, the valley, against the wishes of its inhabitants, and has a long record of committing human rights abuses there; Pakistan, meanwhile, equips, trains and manipulates jihadi terrorists, who cross the line of control to commit atrocities in Indian-occupied Kashmir and in India itself.

The present flare-up was sparked by an attack on Indian police in the valley which left 40 of them dead.  The Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist group was responsible for the assault.  A line of control separates the Indian and Pakistani-occupied parts of Kashmir.  The terrorists will almost certainly have crossed it to carry out the attack.  They would not be able to operate in Pakistani-controlled territory without the protection of the Pakistan Government.

Consequently, India launched retaliatory air strikes.  Unsurprisingly, there are conflicting accounts of who they hit and to what effect, but what is certain is that at least one Indian plane was shot down and at least one pilot captured.  He has duly been paraded on Pakistani television.  That Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister, faces an election shortly is inflaming the situation: he must prove to the country’s voters that he won’t go soft on terror.  Imran Khan, his Pakistani counterpart (yes: that Imran Khan), has sought to pour oil on these troubled waters.  There will be more to his motives than meets the eye, but his words are worth pondering none the less.

“With the weapons you have and the weapons we have, can we afford a miscalculation?  Shouldn’t we think about what will happen if the situation escalates?” he said, calling for talks.  As we write, Modi, doubtless with that election in view and outraged Indian voters in mind, isn’t willing to take up the offer.  Most likely, the confrontation will simmer down, and the near-70 year old Kashmir dispute duly vanish from the headlines, before duly simmering up again.

But there is always a chance that it will not.  There will now be over 1.5 million people of Indian origin in Britain and at least that many people of Pakistani origin.  Roughly 60 per of these are, strictly speaking, not Pakistanis at all: they originate from the Mirpur area of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.  The two populations don’t exactly live side by side, but they do share parts of some cities, such as Birmingham and Leicester.  Local councils will be in the lead when it comes to defusing potential tensions, but national government also has a role – just as it does in relation to the Israel-Palestine dispute, which is more visible, at least to Britain’s white majority.

The Attlee Government may not have handled Britain’s departure from the old imperial India well, but given the country’s communalism there would doubtless have been mass bloodshed in any event.  In a different world, there would be some Northern Ireland-type solution to the Kashmir problem.  But neither India nor Pakistan are remotely, to borrow a phrase that Brokenshire sometimes uses in other contexts, “in that space”.  For the moment, he can only watch, get briefed and plan, but “they also serve who only stand and wait”.