Dale fails to realise that the right to be rude lies at the heart of the British idea of freedom

19 Sep

Why Can’t We All Just Get Along…Shout Less. Listen More. by Iain Dale

Iain Dale has an acute grasp of the present and a defective sense of history. At the start of this book he laments “the growing trend towards rudeness and hatred”, which has been exacerbated by “the internet, and social media in particular”.

Manners, he insists, have got worse: “Over the years, I have grown hugely frustrated and a little bit angry about the decline in the way we talk to and debate with each other.”

He quotes a tweet in which Simon Schama calls Boris Johnson “fatso”. According to Dale, A.J.P.Taylor or Thomas Babington Macaulay would never have been so rude about the Prime Minister.

But one of the delights of reading Taylor or Macaulay is that they are rude about anyone who incurs their displeasure. It is true  they are wittier than Schama.

The right to be as rude as we like about other people, and especially about people who consider themselves superior to ourselves, is at the heart of our understanding of liberty.

Consider Chaucer: a very rude writer. Or John Wilkes, a libertine who was also one of the fathers of civil liberty, and was so rude about the Scots (whom he actually rather liked) that angry Scots army officers would stop him in the street and challenge him to a duel, and Scottish children would burn him in effigy.

Or recall what The Times wrote of George IV after his death in June 1830:

“There never was an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures than this deceased king. What eye has wept for him? What heart has heaved one throb of unmercenary sorrow?”

Politics too used to be rougher, and drunker. Just now we are having an argument about Ireland. Before the First World War we were on the brink of civil war about Ireland. Here is Winston Churchill, in his essay on Asquith, published in 1934:

“It was this sinister influence of eighty Irish votes – now happily for ever withdrawn from the House of Commons – making and unmaking Governments, swaying the fortunes of both great British political parties, which poisoned nearly forty years of our public life. The unconstitutional resistance of Ulster will be judged by history in relation to the fact that the Ulster Protestants believed that the Home Rule Bills were driven forward not as a result of British convictions, but by the leverage of this Irish voting power. That the lawless demonstrations in Ulster were the parent of many grievous ills cannot be doubted; but if Ulster had confined herself simply to constitutional agitation, it is extremely improbable that she would have escaped forcible inclusion in a Dublin Parliament.”

One cannot refrain from admiring Churchill both as a writer, and for the loyalty with which he defended his incendiary and almost unbelievably rude father, Lord Randolph Churchill, who in 1886 coined the shockingly unconstitutional words, “Ulster will fight; Ulster will be right”.

Talk about inciting people to break the law. The truth is that we live in an uncommonly polite age. We are more polite than we used to be about the monarchy, our football hooligans have become less violent, our trade unions less able to bring the country to a grinding halt, our book reviewers less keen to tear some respected author limb from limb, Private Eye inspires less fear than it did, foxes roam town and country undisturbed, and there is not a single parliamentarian who is as rude as Lord Randolph was about Gladstone.

Lord Randolph, as his son wrote in his life of him,

“flouted venerable leaders and mocked at constituted authority with a mixture of aristocratic insolence and democratic brutality”

We have lost the aristocratic insolence, suppressed the democratic brutality, and submitted ourselves to a tyranny of virtue organised and policed by the most sensitive members of the middle class.

I am myself a repressed and timid member of the middle class, who strives not to inflict unnecessary pain. But I cannot help feeling we have lost something.

What a neutered people we have become, terrified of giving offence to just about anyone, and forbidden by law from being rude about various groups of people who in my youth (I am 62) were the subject of wounding but not always malicious jibes, some to be found in the rhymes we were taught in the nursery.

Those rhymes have since been purified, to bring them into strict conformity with modern standards. We think of ourselves as free, and ignore the censorship to which we have consented, which in later ages may come to seem as ridiculous as anything Thomas Bowdler did to Shakespeare’s plays in order to make them fit to be read to children.

Then came the internet, and social media. The censorship collapsed, no one was in charge, and every brute who wanted to have his say could do so.

No sooner had we hailed a new birth of freedom than we witnessed, with horror, a tidal wave of filth and cruelty sweeping through the internet.

A comparable horror was felt at the end of the Victorian period, when high-minded advocates of universal literacy found that by teaching people to read they had paved the way for the yellow press.

The previous repression had been so effective that when a new outlet – the internet – became available, it became a sewer, anything pure contaminated by contact with muck.

What is do be done about Twitter? This is where Dale comes in. He says he is not writing “an intellectual book” but “from experience” and “from the heart”.

These qualities are familiar to readers of his Friday Diary on this site, and make him a successful broadcaster. When he started in radio, he relates, “for the first time in my life I was doing something I felt completely at home with”.

He had “no formal training” as a journalist, but this did not matter, for what he did have was the ability to react instantaneously and with deep emotion to some breaking news story.

His listeners know he shares and expresses their feelings, and ring in to tell him theirs. He enters into what is happening, or what he has just heard is happening.

He is very good on grief, and confesses that “Somewhat bizarrely, I feel more comfortable talking about grief on the radio than I do to people close to me.”

In this book, we get a glimpse of Dale as a student at the University of East Anglia, woken by someone shouting through his door, “Oh, you’re still alive then.”

On waking up and going into the communal kitchen, he sees in The Daily Mail that a Welsh Guardsman, Ian Dale, aged 19 from Pontypridd, has been killed in action in the Falklands:

“It was like being hit in the solar plexus. Tears streamed down my face, as they were to do many times over the next few weeks. Nothing else could have brought home to me the terrible waste of war like this did. I was the same age. It could have been me.”

Like many of the best journalists, Dale is a bit naive. He is surprised and outraged by events, rather than worldly wise and resigned. He talks the story up.

These invaluable qualities are accompanied by enormous energy and plentiful political experience. He fought North Norfolk for the Conservatives in 2005, despite being warned by Chris Rennard, the Liberal Democrats’ election supremo, that Norman Lamb, who had captured the seat from the Tories in 2001 by 483 votes, would this time “get a majority of 10,000.”

Dale is a gifted and indefatigable campaigner who loves knocking on doors. Lamb gets a majority of 10,606.

In this book, Dale claims that in 2018 “political discourse…plumbed poisonous new depths”. He complains that Question Time has become “a bear pit” which is “almost unwatchable”, and that interviewers are so intent on achieving some “Gotcha” moment that the interview becomes more about them than about the politician whose views they are supposed to be discovering.

Brexit has divided us into opposing camps which will not listen to each other, and Twitter is roamed by mobs who, for example, attacked with repulsive virulence the female Labour MPs who dared to make a stand against anti-semitism.

Many people will agree with all this. Such horrible things happen on social media that there is a temptation to avoid it altogether.

But I have the impression that the worst outrages have in the last few years prompted a reaction in favour of the decency and good manners which most readers, listeners, viewers and voters would for most of the time prefer, and that it has become easier to avoid various kinds of obscenity.

Dale himself detects “a real appetite for respectful debate nowadays, in a way that maybe there wasn’t in years gone by”.

Actually, the two appetites, for dignified and undignified behaviour, have always co-existed. I can’t be alone in having enjoyed the sight of Dale some years ago rolling around on the seafront at Brighton with a protester whom he was trying to stop interfering with a television interview – an event to which several pages are devoted in this book.

It was not the most elevated piece of footage we had ever seen, but for a day or two it took its place in the national pantomime and put a smile on people’s faces, not least because we recognised the unavailing sincerity of what Dale was trying to do.

At the end of his book, Dale offers a list of “50 Ways to Improve Public Discourse”. Many of these are sensible. He would like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube “to ban anonymous accounts and ensure all accounts are verified”.

What he doesn’t quite say is that if you want to purify social media, you have somehow to reintroduce the editorial function, enforce a house style and suppress antisocial behaviour.

A good letters editor on a traditional newspaper ensures that merely boorish letters aren’t published, and that the readers get the ten most interesting letters, not hundreds of semi-literate ravings which only a maniac would take the time to read.

The cure can, unfortunately, be worse than the disease. It is expensive, and although it raises the tone, and encourages good writers to think it might be worth contributing their thoughts, it can also reduce freedom of expression.

I recall working for a newspaper where the poor, conscientious letters editor supposed it was his duty to suppress any letter which would upset some member of the paper’s staff.

In the late 1930s, the editor of The Times, a paper of high seriousness, supposed it was his duty to suppress any news which might upset Hitler.

So we are unlikely ever to reach the state of perfection which we imagine to have existed in a past from which we recall only the highlights. In my opinion, only Robin Day was able to make Question Time a pleasure to watch.

But meanwhile Dale’s book will delight his innumerable fans, who relish his throwaway manner and know that he at least understands their dismay at the dismal state of our culture.

“O tempora, O mores!” – “O what times, O what habits!” – as Cicero put it in 63 BC.

David Gauke: May should lead the Commons struggle against her successor’s plan to break international law if necessary

12 Sep

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

The reputations of Prime Ministers tend to follow much the same trajectory.

First, there is a honeymoon period on the back of a Party leadership or general election victory. Their qualities are compared favourably with their predecessor and the country gives them the benefit of the doubt.

This period is usually as good as it gets. Popularity may fluctuate but eventually the attributes that once seemed refreshing begin to grate. A Prime Minister’s strengths become weaknesses. Disappointments accumulate and enemies become emboldened.

Whether suddenly (think John Major and the exit from the ERM or Gordon Brown and the election that never was) or gradually, they become damaged. A Prime Minister’s term in office usually ends on a low ebb.

At which point, the reputation of an ex-Prime Minister also tends to follow a familiar trajectory. Their qualities are compared unfavourably with their successor, and the country refuses to give them the benefit of the doubt. The troubled last period in office is fresh in the public’s memory. Former allies gravitate to the new powerbase or drift into well-remunerated obscurity. An ex-Prime Minister almost becomes a figure of pity and ridicule – the mighty fallen. Their reputation continues to decline.

And then, at some point, it begins to recover. The comparison with their successor becomes more nuanced. It is appreciated that the problems that beset their time in office were real and complex, and that maybe changing the captain hadn’t solved all the problems aboard the ship.

All of our recent Prime Ministers fit this profile to some extent, but none more so than Theresa May. On assuming office in 2016, her obvious diligence and decency won her the respect of much the nation. Her reserved, unshowy personality was seen as an asset. She was sensible and pragmatic, but also steely and determined. She polled extraordinarily well.

But, as is familiar to all readers of this website, this is all came to end – and very quickly. Over the course of the 2017 general election campaign, her reserved, unshowy personality was seen as uncommunicative and unsympathetic. A strength became a weakness and, when the Conservative majority was lost, she became a loser not a winner.

She then faced the almost impossible task of getting a Brexit deal through with a minority government, a deeply split Parliamentary Party and an increasingly polarised public. Her attempts at compromise failed to satisfy both sides of the arguments.

When she reached a deal with the EU – a compromise that had to address the contradictions and fantasies that had been peddled in previous years – she lacked the shamelessness necessary to persuade a sceptical Party and nation that she had achieved a triumph.

In the critical months that followed, she suffered Parliamentary defeat after defeat. Even those of us in her Cabinet did not know how she would try to find a way of out of the situation. In the end, she would not countenance what she saw as a risk of the return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland with the potential implications for the peace process. Consequently, she did not attempt to force through a No Deal Brexit. The wider Conservative Party neither understood nor accepted her position and she was forced out.

For the next few months, many compared her unfavourably with her successor. Boris Johnson secured a deal which permitted greater regulatory and customs freedom (for Great Britain) and won a majority for it at Second Reading.

Rather than allow the Withdrawal Agreement be subject to extended Parliamentary scrutiny, he pulled the legislation and managed to force the opposition parties into a general election. In contrast to May’s efforts in 2017, he triumphed with a thumping majority. Six weeks later, we had finally left the EU. He had achieved what she had not.

In the 30 months after the start of the 2017 general election campaign, May’s reputation had fallen further and faster than most. But, I would argue, it then began to recover somewhat earlier than happened with her predecessors.

The Covid crisis would have played to her strengths. Her moral seriousness and attention to detail would have been well suited to the circumstances. She would have provided grip. People remembered that these were useful qualities for a Prime Minister.

And when it came to the ‘fabulous, oven-ready Brexit deal’ obtained by her successor, all was not as it was portrayed. The Northern Irish question was always immensely difficult with the Brexit-seeking UK holding contradictory objectives. Boris Johnson had got a deal by selling out the Unionists, but failed to recognise publicly that this is what he had done.

This was either staggeringly incompetent or extraordinarily mendacious (I am afraid either explanation is plausible) but it has come unstuck. Ministers’ explanations for the problems the Government now perceives – ‘it was all done in a hurry and now we must not jeopardise the peace process’ – only make matters worse. They certainly destroy the argument that Johnson had proven to be a masterful and triumphant negotiator.

In order to try to interpret the Northern Ireland Protocol in a manner that is consistent with what the Prime Minister has been saying about it, as opposed to what he actually agreed, he has had to come forward with legislation that gives the Government the power to breach international law.

I am not going to dwell on why this is an appalling course of action that will do immense damage to our international reputation and destroy trust in the EU negotiations (they stagger on, but I wonder if they are now just zombie negotiations). This is not a specifically Brexit issue, or even a No Deal Brexit issue, but it is wider than that. That is why staunch Brexiteers such as Michael Howard, Norman Lamont, Tim Montgomerie and Iain Dale have been so condemnatory.

So has May. All those who worked with her would not be surprised by her principled objections to the proposal, and her concern that future international partners will not trust the UK to ‘abide by the legal obligations of the agreements it signs’.

It would have been inconceivable to May to have brought forward legislation such as this. From my point of view, this is just as well. As her Lord Chancellor, had she done so, I would have felt compelled to resign in order to uphold the rule of law.

In the next few days, the Commons will have to decide whether it is willing to endorse the proposed breach of international law. There is considerable disquiet in the Parliamentary Party about this, but caution about rebelling. It will be a stain upon the reputation of this country and the Conservative Party if the legislation, in its current form, were to pass.

There is only person who might be able to stop this in the House of Commons. If Theresa May were to indicate that she will vote against reneging on our commitments, it would embolden others.

Voting against the Conservative whip is not in her nature. She is not a natural rebel but were she to defy the whip – in a very specific and limited way – it would be immensely to her credit and very clearly in the national interest. History would judge her kindly.

Roderick Crawford: The EU has an obligation to improve the flawed Northern Ireland Protocol. And isn’t meeting it.

10 Sep

Roderick Crawford works on conflict resolution in countries such as Yemen, South Sudan and Iraq, and on Brexit-related matters. He is a former editor of Parliamentary Brief.

The Northern Ireland Protocol is back in the news again. This time, attempts to address problems with the Protocol are further haemorrhaging confidence in the Government at home and abroad. The proposal to provide powers to ministers that, if used, would, it is claimed, breach its obligations under an international treaty, has caused uproar.

There are a number of problems with the Protocol that have received widespread coverage since its publication in its original form in 2018; despite the important changes to the Protocol that were negotiated by the Prime Minister, the amended Protocol remains unsatisfactory.

The Protocol’s preamble declares in Article 1, that it is

‘without prejudice to the provisions of the 1998 Agreement regarding the constitutional standing of Northern Ireland…’; it ‘respects the essential state functions and territorial integrity of the United Kingdom’; it ‘sets out arrangements necessary to address the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland, maintain the conditions necessary for continued North-South cooperation, avoid a hard border and protect the 1998 Agreement in all its dimensions’.

The problem is that the Protocol does not achieve these aims. The constitutional position of Northern Ireland is changed by the Protocol; the essential state functions of the United Kingdom are not respected, and the Belfast Agreement is not protected: in David Trimble’s words, the Protocol drives a coach and horses through the Agreement.

It was always going to be hard to make the Protocol achieve all these aims, but in truth it was designed to do only two things: secure the EU internal market whilst avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland. The text that was agreed was a case of might creating right – hardly for the first time, and an example of what the UK itself has done in the past.

However, as we have discovered across the centuries, such rights rarely last. It is a well-established rule that agreements reached when one party is compelled to sign up under intense pressure are unstable, and are at high risk of breaking down. The EU held the whip hand in 2018 and got an agreement on its terms, but it always looked unsustainable – and so it still looks today. It remains an example of poor statesmanship.

The UK is committed to the Protocol, despite this. However, in practice, a workable protocol requires arrangements that its wider aims – respect for the UK state’s functions and for the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom as well as the protection of the Belfast Agreement in all its parts.

In 2019, Theresa May’s government published ‘UK Government’s commitments to Northern Ireland and its integral place in the United Kingdom’. This set out unilateral commitments to build on commitments already made in paragraph 50 of the December 2017 Joint report ‘to protect Northern Ireland’s place in, and maintain access for Northern Ireland businesses to, the UK internal market. It is worth recalling the relevant sections of the Government’s 2019 commitment (paragraphs 35-37):

‘At the heart of preserving the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom is the maintenance of the UK’s internal market as we leave the European Union. This was reflected in the December 2017 Joint Report between the UK and EU. At paragraph 50 it set out that, in all circumstances, the UK will ensure the same unfettered access for all Northern Ireland businesses to the whole UK internal market.”

This commitment provided the platform for maintaining the integrity of the UK internal market, and ensuring that sales by Northern Ireland businesses to Great Britain, which are so critical for business and the economy, are protected.

‘The Protocol protects Northern Ireland’s position in the UK internal market through a series of safeguards and provisions within the legal text. For goods that are moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain, the Government has committed to ensuring that Northern Ireland businesses will continue to enjoy the same unfettered access to the whole of the UK’s internal market.’

‘The Protocol expressly confirms that nothing provided within it will prevent the UK from ensuring this unfettered access. It is also clear that there will be no tariffs, quotas, or checks on rules of origin between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.’

‘At the same time, we recognise the imperative to underscore that protection domestically as well. And that protection must be robust and lasting. That requires strong protections in law that guarantee unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses when placing goods on the rest of the UK market. This of course must recognise the devolved competences of the Scottish and Welsh governments, and recognise that we need to preserve a level playing field for businesses throughout the UK. But it is critical that the law is unequivocal in setting out that businesses in Northern Ireland would retain full access to the whole UK internal market, even in a backstop scenario. We will enshrine this protection in primary legislation.’

It was hoped that the consent clause that the Prime Minister negotiated last autumn would provide an added incentive for European Commission co-operation to make the Protocol workable. But rather than work with the UK to address the operational challenges and address the stark contradictions in the protocol, the Commission has treated the Protocol as a test that the UK must pass to be rewarded with a free trade agreement.

This has not helped. There are real, practical problems to implementation that require EU engagement and flexibility – we have seen very little of that so far. The Commission is happy to dictate the rules, but not prepared to lift a finger to help achieve our shared objectives.

Because the vast majority of Northern Ireland trade is with the rest of the United Kingdom, it is vital to ensure that this trade is fully protected and also, in line with the Protocol’s aims, the UK’s internal market is respected too. The original intention for the protocol was that it would be minimalist – it would require the minimum necessary alignment with EU law in order to avoid a hard border.

The Protocol allows for different treatment for goods deemed ‘not at risk of entering the Single Market’. Goods for sale in retail outlets have been proposed as falling within this status, thereby avoiding a rise in household shopping costs, but not even retail goods have thus far been designated ‘not at risk’ by the Joint Committee.

In failing to designate goods as ‘not at risk’ is the Commission not guilty of breaching, by omission, its international obligations under the Protocol. The difference between the UK and the EU is that the UK government is highly accountable: the Commission is not – not by the European Council, the Parliament nor by the Press.

In 2019, the Government set out in a unilateral declaration its understanding that if an agreement to supersede the Protocol cannot be concluded, in whole or in part due to a breach of good faith, then it would not be prevented from instigating measures that could lead to the disapplication of obligations under the protocol – but with the proviso that it would uphold its obligations under the Belfast Agreement and in all circumstances avoid a hard border.

We are not exactly in new territory. The powers proposed for ministers would allow them to fulfil the aims of the protocol in the event of bad faith by other parties and fulfil their responsibilities under the Belfast Agreement. Let us hope that this is just a storm in a tea cup.

Graham Gudgin: Now is the time to combat Scottish Nationalism

5 Aug

Dr Graham Gudgin is an honorary research associate at the Centre for Business Research, Judge Business School, University of Cambridge. He was Special Advisor to the First Minister in Northern Ireland 1998-2002.

When Douglas Murray wrote recently that Scottish nationalists are unique in escaping the opprobrium usually associated with nationalism he is only half right. Irish nationalists have pulled off this trick for decades or centuries even when their supporters were killing people. The trick is to make liberals view the nationalist cause as escaping from victimhood. Rather like escaping from a bad marriage, many will support the new beginnings of independence.

Who would not have supported the Finns escaping from Russian domination? The West always supports nationalists escaping from its opponents grasp, like the new nations emerging from the Soviet-bloc, even including Kossova a province of the greatly disliked Serbia.

Even more than the Irish, the Scots have a good case in arguing for independence. Their history and geography set them apart. They were an independent state for many centuries and could be one again. To write, as Murray did, that an independent Scotland would “join sub-Saharan Africa in the world poverty indices” is silly and will, of course, be taken as typical English condescension. The battle to save the union is now deadly serious and must be treated seriously.

We must recognise that devolution in the form adopted in 1998 was a mistake. Although there were misgivings at the time, the Labour view that devolution would strengthen the union prevailed but is now in tatters. Devolution cannot deal with a contested adherence to the wider nation any more than it could in Ireland. Labour domination of Scottish politics was viewed as sufficient protection for the union especially with an admirable leader in Donald Dewar. However, as the unifying memories of the world wars faded, along with strong memories of Scottish martial prowess, feelings of separateness could be built upon.

Although the SNP hate the idea, latent nationalism was reignited by North Sea Oil. The SNP first made real electoral gains under the slogan, ‘Its Scotland’s Oil’. The potent mix of a distinct national identity allied with financial strength was there to be exploited by middle-class Scottish nationalists who stood to gain financially and in status from independence.

The SNP’s problem was to carry with them the working class, especially on Clydeside. Thatcherism provided an opportunity with its use of Scotland as a testbed for the poll tax and the SNP grasped it gratefully. Ever since they have presented themselves as progressives. The long withdrawal of Labour from its historic role in defending working-class interests gradually overcame electoral loyalty, and just as in the red wall of northern England, Labour surrendered its Scottish base.

All of this is a national tragedy, but we are where we are. The task now for unionists is to face up to the realities of the problem and to avoid superficial remedies and soft-soap talk. These include avoiding a reliance on throwing money at the problem. Just as in Northern Ireland, the flow of cash from England does little to soften nationalist sentiments. Money is accepted without gratitude. Feelings of financial dependence can just as easily foster resentment as generating a need to ‘cling to nurse for fear of finding something worse’. In Scotland, the majority have never heard of Rishi Sunak, the saviour of their economy during a global pandemic.

Although the realities do indeed include living standards supported by financial subsidies from London, we should not assume that this will be decisive. Scotland’s economy is quite strong, with per capita GDP at close to the UK average. There is little doubt that Scotland could emerge as an economically successful nation rather like Denmark.

Subsidies are not necessary to bring Scots up to English living standards but rather have allowed Scottish living standards, and especially public services, to be better than in England and higher than their own resources would allow. ONS data shows that Scottish living standards are well above the English average and close to those of London once house price differences are taken into account. Scots may be willing to settle for a degree of austerity in return for independence, and with post-independence living standards at something close to the English average, their lot could be acceptable.

So, what is the case for the union? The core case is that three-hundred years of successful union should not be lightly tossed aside. The UK has been a force for good in the world through this period and can continue to fill this role. As a nuclear power with a seat on the UN Security Council and at the centre of a multi-racial Commonwealth of nations, its global reach is immense.

The SNP’s alternative of a future inside the EU may yet backfire if the UK secures a satisfactory deal with the EU and demonstrates that, like Switzerland, Norway and Iceland, economic life outside the EU can be quite satisfactory. A slogan of ‘Give Back Control (to the EU)’ would hardly help the SNP. An EU border at Berwick would be a nuisance for everyone but especially the Scots.

The financial strength of the UK might not be decisive but is nonetheless a strong card which should be played vigorously. The Barnett Formula under which Scotland has received its subsidies since 1979 does little for the union since it leaves financial support largely invisible to voters. It needs to be quickly replaced by a UK Cohesion Fund. Public funds should be initially allocated on a simple basis pro-rata to population. This would leave Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland well short of what they currently receive, and the difference should be made up from a cohesion fund which makes it fully clear what money is coming from where. We need not go as far as putting Union Jacks on new roads or buildings, but the message would be clear.

Finally, although it is dreadfully late in the day, efforts should be made to contest Scottish beliefs about their own history. Like the Irish, the core of national identity is built upon beliefs about a successful resistance to English attempts at dominance, in the Scottish case most notably at Bannockburn.

The real story, as in Ireland, is not of attack from the English but by French-speaking Normans who, having overrun England, expanded further into Wales. Ireland and Scotland as well as Southern Europe and the Middle East. Scots’ resistance was helped by bringing in their own Norman barons, including the Le Brus and Balliol families, and unifying their own diverse ethnic groups under William Wallach (William the Welshman).

Even so, this would not have worked without the Great Famine, the Black Death and the Hundred Years War to deter the Norman descendants. Independence from then on was then a largely sad story of poverty, feudal dominance and dissension, until the Scots flowered magnificently within the British Empire.

David Starkey’s description of pre-union Scotland as a “benighted hellhole” might be too strong but is reminder of why the union was so positive for the Scots

Having tied themselves to an England on the up, Scots are tempted to jump ship from what they see as English decline. The best tactic is to persuade and demonstrate that a post-Brexit UK has a bright future, remaining a force for good in a troubled world. This needs to be a national effort involving historians, economists and many others. If we leave the task to Johnsonian bluster, we can expect the worst.

Sunder Katwala: Gandhi does not quite fit the bill of recognising ethnic minority Britons on our currency

4 Aug

Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future.

There is a certain irony in Mahatma Gandhi being the dominant face of India’s currency. There was talk from the moment of independence of Gandhi replacing the image of the king on the money of the new Republic, though it took some decades for that plan to come to fruition.

A special commemorative 100 rupee note was produced as part of the centenary celebrations of Gandhi’s birth in 1969, but it was only during this era of India’s post-liberalisation boom after 1996 that the austere home-spun Mahatma became routinely the image and watermark of modern India’s new high-security banknotes. It is still only Gandhi who appears on Indian banknotes, reflecting both his role as the spiritual father of the nation, and the lack of consensus whenever additional figures have been proposed.

Now Gandhi may be set to achieve an unusual double, following reports that the Royal Mint proposes to feature him on British currency too. Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is supporting a call to recognise ethnic minority contributions in those celebrated on our currency.

Sunak wrote to the Royal Mint that “Black, Asian and other ethnic minority communities have made a profound contribution to the shared history of the United Kingdom. For generations, ethnic minority groups have fought and died for this country we have built together; taught our children, nursed the sick, cared for the elderly; and through their enterprising spirit have started some of our most exciting and dynamic businesses, creating jobs and driving growth”, in requesting that they bring forward proposals to reflect this on coinage.

The Chancellor’s intervention was a response to the “We Built Britain Too” campaign, coordinated by former Conservative candidate Zehra Zaidi and Windrush campaigner Patrick Vernon, of which I am a supporter. The campaign had hoped to persuade the Bank of England to feature the first ethnic minority Briton on a banknote.

Despite broad cross-partisan political support across right, left and centre, the Bank of England took a perfunctory and dismissive response to the campaign. The Bank’s remit includes “recognising the diversity of British society” in its choices, but it has considered this primarily through the lens of balancing artists and writers with engineers and scientists.

It seems entirely possible that we will have reached the post-cash society before Britain’s ethnic diversity enters onto the Bank of England’s radar. The support of the Chancellor and the Royal Mint will make a crucial difference to this happening on coins first.

It is not quite the case that no ethnic minority face has ever featured on British coinage. For example, the first black British army officer Walter Tull featured on a special £5 coin, part of a limited edition first world war centenary set in sterling silver and 22 carat gold, for the First World War Centenary.

But no ethnic minority Briton has featured on legal tender, or on the notes or coins that any of us might spend at the shops. The campaign is not proposing any specific individual – wanting to see a process of public engagement and debate – but suggestions including Noor Inayat Khan, Mary Seacole and black abolitionists such as Olaudah Equiano and Ignatius Sancho, the first black British voter in the 1774 general election, have been suggested.

Gandhi does not quite fit the bill for the campaign’s aim of recognising ethnic minority Britons. Though he did not live almost of his eight decades of life as among the king’s subjects, though the central mission of his life was that this should cease to be the case. He saw India become independent, and the trauma of Partition, but was assassinated by a fanatical Hindu supporter of the far right RSS within six months.

To the British public, Gandhi is a famous name, one of the great figures who shaped the 20th century and of very few names that would mean at least something to most people. Standing alongside Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher as British leaders are a handful of international figures: Hitler and Stalin as the villains of the last century, while Gandhi and Nelson Mandela are cast as its secular saints. No other figure from the end of Empire – including Nehru in India, or any other figure from Ireland, Asia or Africa – has any similar level of public recognition.

So Gandhi’s iconic image is claimed for many causes. An image of integrity, to contrast with the politicians of our time; an image of simplicity and sustainability, perhaps now to be seized by environmentalists; an image of activism, “to be the change you want to be in the world” used for myriad causes.

A simplistic deification of Gandhi risks losing the complexity of the man and his times. He was a pacifist, who helped Britain to recruit Indians in the First World War as a strategy to earn Dominion status, and whose philosophy could drive the British from India but lacked answers to address the menace of Hitler and the Holocaust in WWII.

His arguments with Nehru over India’s post-Independence path illustrates how part of Gandhi’s appeal as an icon in the West can reflect a problematic romanticisation of Indian poverty. Gandhi was a crusader against caste and for India’s untouchables, and developed his strategies in campaigning for Indian rights in South Africa, but held dismissive prejudices against the black Africans, as his leading biographer Ramachandra Guha has set out. “Gandhi’s blanking of Africans is the black hole at the heart of his saintly mythology”, as Patrick French wrote in his review of Guha’s Gandhi before India.

So Gandhi too has been challenged by anti-racist campaigners. We should recognise that there are no flawless heroes. The school curriculum should interrogate every controversy, so that we understand them, warts and all. Yet we can not set standards for the recognition of past achievements that not even Churchill or Gladstone, Gandhi or Mandela can attain, or we would surely have no statues at all.

That Gandhi’s statue now stands in Parliament Square – joining the statesmen of previous ages, along with the suffragette campaigner Millicent Fawcett – is modern Britain’s way of acknowledging the justice of Gandhi’s and India’s cause. It places his campaign against British rule as part of the story of British democracy, whose traditions and arguments were used by Indian Nationalists to tell the British that it was time to go.

The statue was welcomed across the British party spectrum, though it was David Cameron and Sajid Javid who unveiled it. The proposal to feature Gandhi on coinage may also be considered an important gesture of Global Britain’s commitments to the Commonwealth – and the warmth of its bilateral relationship with a rising India today – but this is a different, parallel proposition to the case to recognise British ethnic minority contributions.

This timely change would be one simple response to the growing appetite to deepen the public understanding of the history of race in Britain, and how that has shaped the country that we are today. Most people don’t want that to turn into a culture war over the history of our country. If the focus is almost entirely on who might be removed, we risk neglecting to ask contributions we want to recognise better.

This constructive campaign to reflect significant ethnic minority contributions to British history on national symbols, like coins, symbolises how our generation can contribute to broadening Britain’s national story in an inclusive way. Zaidi says her hope is that “it helps build cohesion, inspires young people and unites us as a nation that we all have an equal stake and contribution in society.

Having as open as possible a process of public debate about the potential candidates would maximise the educational value of this positive, symbolic change.

Crispin Blunt and Sue Pascoe: It’s time to correct the stoking of alarm and spreading of misinformation about trans people

16 Jul

Crispin Blunt is Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Global LGBT and Rights, and is MP for Reigate. Sue Pascoe is Acting Area Chairman of the Conservative Women’s Organisation in North and East Yorkshire.

As the UK strives for a new global place in the world, it’s important that we place equal weight on our personal freedoms, the prosperity of our communities, and equality and equity of opportunity for our people as we level up our country.

We must not leave any section of our society behind because of misunderstandings, prejudice or fear.  It is the first duty of government to foster an environment where this exists for everyone. We hope as a Party, a Government and members of society that we can each hold out a helping hand to all those who still struggle, who still face the difficulties of daily life, who still cannot be their authentic selves.

Our freedom and our basic humanity are two of the key components of what defines us as individuals. When we cannot be our authentic selves, our freedom and our humanity is taken away from us.

During recent months, we had begun to despair with some sections of the media and its relentless stoking of alarm and spreading of misinformation about trans people. There appear to have been orchestrated campaigns to try and roll back the hard-won rights of not only trans adults but of vulnerable trans young people as well.

We would like to bust some myths.

  • Women and trans people have the same need to live in safety from abuse, sexualharassment and physical violence. Trans women and trans young people are not aninherent threat to women. Sadly, there are a small number of abusive people in thisworld of all genders and measures and efforts should focus on stopping their actions.
  • We are out of step with other countries around the world in adopting rights fortransgender people – from such countries as Pakistan, Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia to many of the states in the US to countries closer to home like Portugal, Belgium and Ireland. United Nations Free and Equal recommends that a range of measures are introduced by states to support transgender people, from legally recognising the gender identity of trans people in official documents through a simple administrative process in line with their lived identity to gender-affirming healthcare services free from stigma and discrimination.
  • The World Health Organisation made clear in 2019 that being transgender is not amental illness, and should not be treated as such.
  • Considerable scientific evidence has emerged demonstrating a durable biological element underlying gender identity.
  • Language respecting the sex in which trans women and trans men live has beencommon decency in Britain since the 1970s, and has been clearly upheld in UK law since 2004.It is never necessary to humiliate or degrade trans people in order to discuss sex and gender or to address health needs or social inequalities.
  • The Equality Act brought in the concept that gender reassignment was a ‘personal process’ rather than a ‘medical one’. Trans people have been accessing single-sex service and facilities in line with their lived identity for many decades,  and with proportionate protection from discrimination since 2010. Misinformation is driving current fear to try and change this. It will remain permitted under the Equality Act to exclude trans women from single sex facilities, such as a woman’s refuge, on a case by case basis, but it would be anathema to British values to attempt to blanket-ban trans people from toilets and shop changing cubicles.
  • Trans people already access services matching their gender under the law, except inrestricted individual circumstances, with all the protections that have been campaigned for to balance rights. This is why we say so much of the campaigning ismisinformed.
  • All that’s been asked for now for GRA reform is a minor change in administrative arrangements for birth certificates that only impacts the holder of the certificate onmarriage, death, getting a job or a mortgage. Can you remember when you last used your birth certificate or even where it is? GRA reform has never had anything to do with toilets or changing room cubicles.
  • Currently, less than 0.03 per cent of under 18s in the UK are referred to gender identity development services, of which only a tiny number may eventually go on to receive puberty-delaying medication for two or three years while under 16.
  • Changes to curtail trans young people’s healthcare could have serious unintended detrimental consequences on wider children’s health services. We have clinical safeguards such as the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) to ensure best evidence-based protocols. ​We must be guided by evidence and clinical experts and not lobby groups to make policy decisions.
  • Only 5,000 trans people currently have a GRC, fewer than 100,000 have changed their driving licence or passport. The numbers remain small and any proposed reform of the Gender Recognition Act would only apply to people living permanently in theirgender with all their other ID such as passports or driving licences already changed.

We really wonder if the good people of our great nation realise they are being manipulated through fear and false information to roll-back the basic dignity, privacy and safety of trans people who are just trying to live ordinary lives.

Yes, the bodies and life experiences of trans people will never be identical to those of people who are not trans. But that is not good reason to segregate and demonise them. It is also the same with trans young people. Parents of young people who are struggling with their gender simply want their children to have unconditional love and support – to explore their identity and time to enjoy their childhood with assistance from trusted multi-disciplinary professionals in the field free from political interference. That is the right and humane way forward.

In recent weeks, voices have spoken up from global businesses in the City, global media and entertainment businesses, members from across the Commons and the upper chamber; voices from across all sections of society, from within the LGBT community and its close allies, from faith leaders and parents of trans children but, most of all, from trans people with a simple message.

With one voice, asking for trans inclusion and equality, trans people say: we are just like you, human beings who just wish to go about our lives free from hate and persecution. Be kind, let us love and be loved. Let us be our authentic selves. We are not an ideology to be fought over by others.

The bottom line is most people in the UK do not want to reduce trans people’s inclusion in services or undermine their identities. Polling consistently shows the majority of women support trans women’s inclusion in services and reform of the GRA (see the British Social Attitudes Survey and recent YouGov polling).

Ipsos MORI reported this month that 70 per cent of Britons believe that transgender people face discrimination, with a quarter (26 per cent) saying they face a great deal. We have ended up entangling ourselves in unnecessary scaremongering against trans people at a time when most people want us focused on tackling Covid-19, rebuilding our economy and bringing our society together.

Equality and inclusivity for all is an essential bedrock of our free society. We wish to work towards a society where we treat each other with respect, dignity, compassion, tolerance and understanding. We wish to see policy measures which bring social cohesion, and focus on our common welfare, as we work together to emerge from these troubling times.

Roderick Crawford: The EU must drop its maximalist approach to the Northern Ireland Protocol

29 Jun

Roderick Crawford works on conflict resolution in countries such as Yemen, South Sudan and Iraq, and on Brexit-related matters. He is a former editor of Parliamentary Brief.

Any final agreement on the future relationship is dependent on the successful implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement; not surprisingly, it is the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol where British and EU positions are furthest apart.

The UK and EU have always viewed the protocol through different lenses. In part this difference is because the EU doesn’t fully understand the Belfast Agreement and was incredibly slow to recognise that it undermined rather than supported many of its positions.

Having framed the protocol as a defender of the Belfast Agreement, the EU struggled to accept that the agreement upheld east-west relations as well as north-south ones in ways the protocol undermined. In the context of the political constraints and crisis of last autumn, the concession on consent did bring the protocol sufficiently in line with the Belfast Agreement for the UK to accept it, however unsatisfactory the protocol remained constitutionally, politically and as practical policy.

Now at the implementation stage, both parties are again looking at the protocol through their different lenses. Last month the Government published its approach to implementation; the Commission’s response showed no sign of welcoming a light-touch regime favoured by the UK, stating: “the UK will have to meet all the requirements of the Protocol, rigorously and effectively. That includes putting in place all the necessary checks and controls for goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain. That includes applying EU rules on customs and sanitary and phytosanitary protection”.

The strict requirements of the protocol secure the EU’s primary interests, but not those of the UK, so the EU has little incentive to problem solve with the UK to try and realise aims it signed up to but does not really share, or to agree trade offs between these other aims and its core interests. However, there is one factor that alters these dynamics – potentially significantly.

Before the end of 2024 the UK government will provide the opportunity for consent to the continued application of the main economic aspects of the protocol (articles 5-10). Consent will require a simple majority of votes in the assembly. It is assumed that a vote on the continuation of the relevant articles of the protocol will be for no change; this is based on expected party representation after the next assembly election, though this expectation may overstate likely future decline in unionist seats.

The assumption that there will be no vote to change the working of the protocol assumes the question is seen in largely or wholly political and communal terms: a vote against the protocol on principle. However, removing consent to a system because it is damaging economically would not be a matter of political principle and communal allegiance but of mutual and thus cross-communal interest.

A rejection of the relevant economic articles of the protocol would result in an improvement to the working of the protocol, one that would likely command a majority in the assembly; it would not threaten north-south co-operation (excluded from the issues that would be voted on) and could not require a hard border, for which there would be no majority anyway. Addressing the faults of a cumbersome and expensive protocol would benefit Northern Ireland: it would, however, be a loss for the Commission.

The point of the consent principle in the protocol is not only that one day the voice of the people of Northern Ireland will be heard; it is that because this is the case, their voice and interests will be taken into account from the very beginning – from the design stage itself: i.e. now. In the light of this, the EU’s incentive to make a deal that works for everyone and balances the full aims of the protocol is far greater. The EU is no longer the final judge on the acceptability of the protocol.

The question that faces the Commission therefore, is how it can ensure that the operation of the protocol is not overly detrimental to the economic interests of the people of Northern Ireland, thus risking its rejection by democratic vote in just over four years. That is likely to be the cost of a heavy-handed approach to implementing the protocol.

The EU needs to change its thinking from a maximalist approach focused on its limited interests to a more balanced approach that allows trade offs between rigorous application of the Union Customs Code and the economic interests of Northern Ireland. A maximalist approach is not needed to secure core EU interests and a more flexible and innovative approach is needed to manage the trade offs – and these do need managing.

There is plenty of scope to apply exemptions to the strict application of checks and customs duties. For instance, Article 5 of the protocol, on movement of goods, provides that goods that are not at risk of entering the single market will not pay customs duties; there are no practical grounds for strict application of the Union Customs Code to apply to such goods.

Retail shipments bound for the high streets and shopping centres of Northern Ireland would fall within this “not at risk” category, thus preventing hikes in the cost of weekly shopping that would affect people across Northern Ireland. A decision on this is required before the end of the transition period, December 31: it should be made now.

Goods subject to commercial processing cannot be designated “not at risk” of single market entry. Getting the necessary checks and controls undertaken as lightly and swiftly as possible for these goods is a problem that still needs to be solved and agreed but the incentive to do so has not really been there for the EU. Long-established supply chains could have special status and arrangements based on such trusted trading could allow the minimal paperwork.

Consent was not a sop to allow the UK to swallow the protocol whole: it introduced democracy into the working of the protocol and so made it accountable to the people, not just the EU. This change should affect the approach the Commission takes to getting the protocol implemented; like the UK, it now needs a protocol that works with the least hindrance to east-west trade. Failure to get this right risks rejection of the protocol in four years and its replacement with a lighter-touch regime. The EU should work to achieve that regime now.

One of the conditions the EU has set for an agreement on a UK-EU future relationship is respect for democracy. We will see how serious the Commission is about that in the weeks ahead. Michel Barnier warned that there were costs to Brexit for Northern Ireland; there are also costs of democracy for the Commission.