Jonathan Caine: My experience of Biden and his team suggests that we shouldn’t fear his presidency – but need to engage

19 Jan

Jonathan Caine is a Conservative peer and former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office.

In 2013, along with the then Northern Ireland Secretary, Theresa Villiers, I attended the annual St Patrick’s Day lunch in New York City organized by the publishers of the Irish America magazine. Its purpose was to induct five new members into the Irish America Hall of Fame and chief among them was then Vice-President, Joe Biden, who delivered the keynote address.

My abiding memory of his speech that day, apart from it being rather long, was how perfectly he played his audience. His main theme of immigration reform – a key issue for Irish Americans – was peppered with the occasional light hearted jibe at the English and, of course, references to his own family of immigrants from Mayo (my own only made it as far as Leeds). They loved it.

While it was a typically jolly, and friendly, occasion It was, to put it mildly, a very ‘green’ one, which in reality catered exclusively for one version alone of Ireland’s story. I think I can safely say that I was the only person there that day wearing Union Flag cufflinks.

Fast forward to March 2018. I found myself at the Irish Ambassador’s private ‘after party’, at his Washington DC residence. It was a more intimate, but none the less convivial, gathering of the great and good of Irish America – including that evening the by then former Vice-President. My impression that evening was of Biden’s presence, and his easy-going charm, even posing for ‘selfies’ with one of my civil service colleagues. He was clearly among friends.

It hardly needs re-stating that Biden is fiercely proud of his Irish roots and heritage. Significant players within the Irish American community championed a Biden presidency, including when it looked doomed in the early part of 2020. Irish America will in turn now believe that they have a champion in President Biden.

As we approach his inauguration tomorrow, what should unionists in Northern Ireland, and those of us who speak up for the Union in Parliament, expect from the Biden presidency and should we be filled with foreboding about the prospects? On the basis of my experience, I do not necessarily believe so.

To be clear, I never dealt directly with Biden when he was Vice President. I did, though, attend a number of meetings and discussions with members of the administration who will now be senior figures in the incoming President’s team. They include Tony Blinken, now Secretary of State designate (and who I once saw performing in a State Department rock band called ‘Coalition of the Willing’), and National Security Adviser Designate, Jake Sullivan.

They were always very well informed, or briefed, about the situation in Northern Ireland. While we might disagree occasionally on certain issues – a public inquiry into the murder of Patrick Finucane being one – or have a difference of emphasis, their overriding interest was to do whatever they could to be helpful.

Biden himself always struck me as much more nuanced in his approach than his Irish-American background might lead one to assume. I suspect that given his lineage he will want to ensure that the administration is seen to be engaging fully with unionism, and operating in an even-handed way. As one well-placed US friend put it to me shortly after the election, Biden is a ‘smart and careful man’ and, 47 years after he first entered the Senate, ‘essentially a pragmatist’. He also strongly values the close ties that continue to exist between the United Kingdom and the United States.

Biden has, of course, been forthright in his commitment to preserving both the spirit and the letter of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, not least in the context of Brexit. Other senior Democrats have also been vociferous such such as the House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and the current Chairman of Ways and Means (the key Committee in Congress on trade) Richie Neal.

I have been involved in many frank and stimulating discussions with Rep Neal. He is a highly engaging, charismatic and intelligent individual but, on Northern Ireland, even a cursory glance at the pictures and artefacts in his office tell one on which side his sympathies lie.

Support for the Belfast Agreement is, of course, also the clearly stated position of the United Kingdom Government – which, we should not forget, has the greatest interest of all in peace and stability in a part of its sovereign territory – and of the Irish Government. We should, therefore, in theory at least, all be on the same page. In addition, the deal reached with Brussels on Christmas Eve should allay some US fears on the Irish Border.

The challenge, however, when it comes to the 1998 Agreement is one of approach and interpretation. The political class in the US (along Brussels and large sections of the British media) tends to view the Agreement almost exclusively through the prism of Strand Two – that is the relationship between North-South – and by extension the avoidance of a border on the island of Ireland.

While nobody disputes that this is of great importance, US audiences frequently need also to be reminded that the Agreement is a three-stranded one in which those strands interlock delicately. Moreover, and crucially, at the heart of the Agreement is the consent principle, which is sacrosanct and underpins Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom. It cannot be stated enough that the Agreement did not establish Northern Ireland as some kind of hybrid state. Sadly, too many assume that it did.

In ensuring that the Agreement, in all its parts, is properly understood and appreciated in Washington, the British Embassy needs to be at the top of its game and be fully equipped with the right arguments. This is not something that has always been the case where, regrettably, on Northern Ireland issues we are frequently outplayed by the Irish (I make no criticism of them for doing an effective job). What is required, as has been supported by Henry Hill on these pages, is a more fully developed UK narrative of the Agreement than the predominantly Irish nationalist, or even republican, one that currently prevails in the States.

The UK Government cannot, however, and should not do this alone. Unionism from Northern Ireland needs to step up and play its part in articulating a United Kingdom narrative of the Agreement to counter the influence of Sinn Fein. Authentic and moderate Unionist voices will often have more sway in DC and elsewhere than UK ministers and diplomats. Over the past decade I have spent more time with Irish-America, members of the administration and senior figures in Congress than probably any other British political figure. The lesson I draw is clear – those of us who support the Union, and Northern Ireland’s place within it, should not fear a Biden Presidency, but we do need to engage.

Garvan Walshe: Conservatives need to choose. Are they with democracy or with the Capitol terrorists?

14 Jan

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.

“Where are all the moderate Republican Imams?” asked David Frum, former speechwriter to George W Bush, after the Donald Trump-incited mob had ransacked the Capitol.

We came to learn that the 9/11 attacks, far from coming out of a clear blue sky, were the product of decades of radicalisation that Saudi Arabia had sponsored – because it gave its religious radicals something to do; because it allowed the kingdom to compete for influence with revolutionary Iran; and because the extremists sincerely believed in the doctrines to which the Saudi state paid only lip service. Riyadh was forced into a bloody counter-insurgency campaign against domestic terrorists and fighters returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The attack on the Capitol, in which an absurdly-dressed mob gave cover for what the FBI is now investigating as a terrorist plot to take senators hostage, is the direct result of Trump sponsoring the anti-democratic Right in America.

This is the price of the GOP’s deal with Trump. Trump added fringe voters to the Republican coalition, gave them power for four years and allowed it to put three judges on the Supreme Court, but it’s brought about the biggest threat to democracy in America since the Civil War.

Trump’s bullying of his party through his celebrity appeal to the Republican base, threatening any congressman or senator with the American equivalent of deselection in primaries, will be familiar to many current and former Conservative MPs, as well as to Democratic politicians at the receiving end.

But after losing to Joe Biden in November, Trump went beyond political hardball to subvert the constitution itself. Brad Raffensberger, Georgia’s elections chief resisted (we know, because he taped Trump’s threats), but 138 congressmen and seven senators broke their oaths of office to try and overturn the votes of the American people on the basis of Trump’s own lies about electoral fraud.

It seems that some Capitol policemen also broke their oaths, refusing to defend the Capitol from the mob. More worrying still is the slowness with which Defense Department Officials responded to requests for them to authorise the deployment of the DC national guard, and to give permission for Virginia and Maryland to send backup. In the end it was Mike Pence, himself under siege in the Capitol building, who stood in to authorise intervention.

Τhe crisis is about far more than Trump’s personality. In fact, his outrageously flawed character hides the danger he poses, in the same way that animal-skin clad rioter obscured the much more serious kidnapping plot at the Capitol. Trumpists and many democratic American conservatives agreed about getting their people onto the Supreme Court, limiting abortion and restricting immigration, but they should disagree on how it can get done.

What distinguishes the anti-democratic right from democratic conservatives is not policy, but the concept of political office.

American government, like that in all liberal democracies, was created to be carried out by people who hold certain political offices subject to constitutional law and conventions. That’s what John Adams meant when he talked of a “government of laws, and not of men.” In liberal democracies, we don’t elect kings, but people who are temporarily “clothed”, to use Abraham Lincoln’s phrase, in the powers of the office they hold.

Democratic conservatives believe that people hold specific powers in trust, repsecting the laws and conventions made in the past, and keeping them, adapted for the changing times, to hand over to their successors. The anti-democratic right wants to put their leaders in total power, to enact their will, disregarding traditions of the past and stability in the future.

They say it’s because people have the right to hire their leaders, and fire them when they come up short. But Trump’s behaviour gives the lie to that. Despite the American people firing him, Trump tried to intimidate election officials and incited a violent mob to try and stay in power anyway: there’s a technical term for this, by the way, invented in Latin America, it’s an autogolpe or self-coup.

Thanks to four years of encouragement from Trump, there’s now a large number of radicalised, violent and armed anti-democratic rightists in the United States. The FBI is bracing itself for coordinated acts of violence in on inauguration day.

As with all terrorist movements, the violent few are surrounded by a penumbra of fellow-travellers who make excuses for them, give them platforms on TV, amplify them on social media, and argue that their grievances must be addressed in the name of peace and unity. As with Islamist or Northern Irish terrorism, this would be a grave mistake.

The terrorists must be brought to justice, their funds caught off and the arguments of their fellow-travellers dismissed. Please no more specious arguments about Trump being “censored” by Twitter. Even had Twitter been a state entity, his megaphone should have been removed as a threat to public safety.

The application of the US’s extensive anti-terrorist legislation needs to be vigorous and swift. It must deny this movement access to weapons. It must put its leaders and activists behind bars. Trump and his accomplices need to be banned from future public office, either through an impeachment or the use of the third clause of the 14th Amendment.

Then there is the ideological battle against the anti-democratic tenets of this movement, which is not confined to America. The issue not that they are “extreme”, but that they’re anti-constitutional. Let them hold positions as right-wing as they like, and compete for support like anyone else, but only within the limts of constitutional government, where laws apply to public office-holders, and are adjudicated by independent courts.

As during the Cold War, where it was democratic lefitsts who stood up to violent communists, it’s now up to democratic conservatives to dismantle the ideology of the anti-democratic right, and its dangerous idea that law, constitutions, and the civil political process are part of some plot by a “liberal elite” or “activist lawyers”.

Even where we agree with some hard-right policies, or sympathise with their positions (about left-wing dominance at universities, say), upholding the institutions and norms of parliamentary democracy has to come first, something that escaped our own absurdly-dressed (and visually challenged) revolutionary before he was ejected.

Otherwise, make no mistake, they’ll come for us. No amount of toadying to Trump protected Mike Pence or Mitch McConnell on January 6th. All conservatives have to choose: are they with democracy or with the terrorists?

Ben Roback: Who would bet on Trump turning up at Biden’s inauguration?

16 Dec

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

The Electoral College has spoken. When will Trump listen?

For a man who loves to win, a check in on the President’s attempts to overturn the outcome of the November election makes dismal reading.

Recounts prompted by Donald Trump and his merry band of legal advisers have confirmed repeatedly that Joe Biden was the winner in the key swing states that shaped the election. The President urged the Supreme Court last week to set aside 62 electoral votes for Mr Biden in four states, which may have thrown the outcome into doubt. The justices rejected the effort.

Trump has urged his Republican colleagues to continue to question the outcome and validity of the election. It had been working on Capitol Hill, where only a handful of Republicans had acknowledged Biden as the President-elect.

That sense of lingering doubt has spread through to the American people. In a poll this month, only 61 per cent of Americans said they trusted the results of the election. Unsurprisingly, given the President’s ongoing campaign and the loyalty of the Republican base, 72 per cent of Republicans polled do not trust the results.

The president is running out of ways to deny the election outcome

The Electoral College met yesterday, rubber-stamping Joe Biden’s victory through formal votes in state capitals around the country. Electors gave Biden and Kamala Harris their votes in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — the six battleground states that Biden won and which Trump contested.

Senior Republicans have long insisted that the President had a right to contest close results, and pointed to the Electoral College as a key moment in that effort. Now that the Electoral College has formally ratified the election results, a change has been prompted amongst Republican leadership on Capitol Hill, whicj now acknowledges for the first time the resolution of the election.

Mitch McConnell yesterday said: “The electoral college has spoken. So today I want to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden”. The two men are by no means political allies, but ahave shared experience after accruing decades in the Senate together. Both have referred to each other as “friends” and the Senate Majority Leader was the only Senate Republican to attend Beau Biden’s funeral. They will need to work together in the coming weeks if Congress is to pass another Covid relief package, and a government funding bill to avert a December shutdown.

McConnell’s calculated statement gave Republicans permission to acknowledge the election outcome. Lindsey Graham, whose Trump journey has taken him from mocking sceptic to reliable ally, said he had a “warm” phone call with Biden. More are expected to follow in the coming days.

Despite the change in tone from Republican Congressional leadership, there has been no concession from the White House. On Twitter, the President continues to allege mass voter fraud owing to corrupt voting machines. Intriguingly, Trump retweeted a Breitbart news article whose headline included: ‘May God bless him, Melania, and their family, as God leads him to the next chapter in his life.’

McConnell has reportedly urged his GOP colleagues not to object when Congress formally certifies the Electoral College count on 6 January, in what is surely to be Mr Trump’s final throw of the dice. Trump allies in the House of Representatives, led by Rep Mo Brooks of Alabama, have pledged to object to the Electoral College count.

In order to successfully force a debate and vote on the objection, at least one Republican Senator would need to support it. There is currently no indication that will happen. For historic context, a lawmaker has never been able to succeed in throwing out a state’s results.

There is a prevailing sense that the inevitable outcome – Biden entering the White House as the 46th President of the United States – is being delayed in the minds of the Trump team. That is not enough to change the political reality shaped by the constitution.

The President-elect continues to shape his Cabinet and advisory team at pace. It was announced yesterday that Pete Buttigieg, an initial rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, will be nominated as Transportation Secretary. If approved by the Senate, he would become the first openly gay member of the Cabinet in US history.

As Coronavirus runs riot and reaps havoc across America, getting to grips with the vaccine rollout will the biggest challenge from day one for the incoming administration. The FDA has granted emergency authorisation to an over-the-counter, at-home Covid test, a new weapon in the government’s arsenal. Coronavirus has now killed over 300,000 Americans (CDC). It is high time the White House takes this crisis seriously, which Trump has so far failed to do.

When Congress meets in the new year, it will only be a fortnight before the inauguration. Traditionally, the sitting President attends as a visible symbol of the peaceful transfer of power. If Trump’s form thus far is anything to go by, you wouldn’t bet much on him acknowledging Biden’s victory in a statement let alone in person.

Biden’s top team takes shape. Diversity is required in principle though not always in practice.

2 Dec

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

Where were you at the precise moment when Joe Biden was announced as the President-elect of the United States?

Flashbulb memories, a phrase coined by Brown and Kulik in 1977, are moments defined as if people had taken a photograph of themselves while learning of a public, emotionally charged event. The long delay prior to the first news network’s projection of Biden’s victory meant that any sense of sudden excitement had somewhat dissipated.

Days of staring at ‘Election Update’ beaming across the screen on CNN had become numbing. We were all waiting for Wolf Blitzer to put us out of our misery. The lack of one single election authority in the United States complicated matters further. Similarly, the knowledge that, if he were declared the runner up, Donald Trump would refuse to accept the result.

The delay and subsequent litigation meant tht the ‘moment’ Joe Biden was announced as president-elect was hardly momentous at all. Trump eventually tweeted through gritted teeth that he had instructed the General Services Administration to begin the customary transition process. The Biden/Harris transition website went from buildbackbetter.com to buildbackbetter.gov. Neither were exactly flashbulb memories. The change happened not with a bang, but a whimper.

Trump clings on, but not for long

Trump is not going down without a fight. The president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has resorted to claims of voter fraud entirely bereft of legal substance or evidence.

An electoral overturn was always borderline impossible given the magnitude of the president’s defeat in the swing states he required to retain the White House. Watching Giuliani peddle the President’s latest conspiracy theories, it is easy to forget that the man was formerly such an immense political figure first in New York and then around the world that he was given an honorary knighthood by the Queen. First as tragedy, then as farce.

A top team that holds up a mirror to modern America

Meanwhile, as the Trump show prepares to pack its bags and leave town, Biden has been quietly preparing for office. It has become clear that two guiding principles are motivating his choices: experience and diversity.

The President-elect has announced a list of senior appointmeints to the White House and prospective Cabinet nominees, the latter requiring Senate confirmation. Cognisant of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and the fact that he hardly embodies diversity or youth himself, Biden has consistently expressed the need to build a team that reflected modern America in its range of background.

Glass ceilings are being broken, subject to Congressional approval. Janet Yellen would become the first female Treasury Secretary in its 231-year history. Those who refer to her gender as the primary motivation for her appointment overlook the fact that she could become the first person to have served as Treasury Secretary, Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, and Chair of the Federal Reserve.

On the world stage, President-elect Biden’s primary motivation will be to announce that America is back – to leading from the front and bringing allies with her. He will not be able to shed the skin of Trump’s ‘America First’ mantra entirely – the Rust Belt has been scarred by a skills deficit and the offshoring of jobs for decades, culminating in  Trump’s victory in 2016 and an aggressively hawkish national stance towards China ever since.

But on the world stage, Biden has entrusted Anthony Blinken as prospective Secretary of State to take America back to the epicentre of global affairs and international cooperation. As Deputy Secretary of State under Barack Obama, Blinken helped with the rebalance to Asia. He spent his most formative years as a student in Paris and speaks fluent French. In 2019, he said in relation to Brexit: “This is not just the dog that caught the car, this is the dog that caught the car and the car goes into reverse and runs over the dog.”

Whilst Dominic Raab has his work cut out, commentators are too quick to dismiss the UK-US relationship purely on the anecdotal grounds of one personal view on Brexit. Assuming a deal is done between the UK and EU, the decision taken in 2016 will become an afterthought in American minds.

It is only if no deal is reached and the knock-on effects are seen adversely to impact the Good Friday Agreement and peace process that Blinken’s forethoughts become relevant. Brexit aside, the incoming administration has plenty to agree with Downing Street on – namely, promoting democracy around the world, combatting the rise of China and misinformation spread by Russia, and using diplomacy once again to cool Iranian nuclear ambitions.

In John Kerry, the former Secretary of State, the Biden White House will benefit from one of the foremost global leaders on climate change. Climate science will once again be trusted and not contested in the White House.  Biden and Kerry will look to old allies like the UK to pursue equally radical climate ambitions, addressing climate change with the required level of urgency. COP26 in Glasgow provides the perfect platform to push for global change.

In the White House, Biden will be advised by experienced heads whom he has trusted for decades. It is here where experience seems to have trumped diversity. Ron Klain served as Joe Biden’s Chief of Staff from 2009-11 and will perform the same role again. He also worked as an advisor on Biden’s 1988 and 2008 Presidential campaigns; his experience is undeniable.

The fringes of the Oval Office will be dominated by Steve Ricchetti (Counselor to the President) and Mike Donilon (Senior Advisor to the President). The President-elect’s closest circle of advisers certainly fail to fulfil his ambitions of diversity and representation. Instead, their selection looks to be based on trust and experience.

Ironically, it is the British system of Cabinet appointments which is positively presidential. The Commons or Lords have no say over whom the Prime Minister ascends to the Cabinet table. President-elect Biden has made his Cabinet picks with the Senate majority leader and Republicans in mind, who will inevitably select and handful of nominees to oppose.

Republicans might have lost the White House, but their supporters will thrive off a fight in the Senate. That would limit the President-elect’s ambitions and ability to surround himself with the voices and views he desires to deliver the change his campaign promised. As in so many years previous, huge power huge power lies in the hands of Senator Mitch McConnell.

Adrian Pascu-Tulbure: As the recent US election showed, the minority vote is no longer automatically Democrat

11 Nov

Adrian Pascu-Tulbure is the Director at FTI Consulting.

The President-elect may well come to regret his offhand comment in a radio interview earlier in May, where he joked that “if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black”.

In one sense, he was right: black voters did overwhelmingly vote Democrat. And yet exit poll data shows that Donald Trump doubled his vote among black women. The number of black men who voted for him increased by 25 per cent. More Hispanic American men voted for him this time round; and Hispanic American women, and American Muslims, and white women. The influence of the Cuban vote in Florida has already been the subject of extensive coverage. In an ironic twist, the major demographic shift towards the Democrats came from the much-derided category of white men.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that the GOP has somehow morphed into the party of minorities. But, aside from being the highest Republican share of non-white voters in a presidential election since 1960 (quite the result for someone it’s long been fashionable to dismiss as a white supremacist), these results show that increasingly, the minority vote is no longer automatically Democrat.

The coming months will doubtless see much soul-searching about why the Democrats failed to make electoral inroads into these demographics. Some conclusions will be sensible and some will be ugly: already Twitter is full of depressingly predictable slurs about minorities being bamboozled by anti-socialist propaganda, attracted to the macho idea of the strongman, or desperately trying to assimilate into their new society by voting in a way their white neighbours would approve of.

The answer, I suspect, is simpler. It is that conservative values speak to minority communities in a way that the Left simply does not understand.

You cannot, of course, lump all “minorities” together. There is, for instance, a distinction to be drawn between recent migrants, such as those pesky Cubans and Mexicans that voted the “wrong” way, and communities that have been in America for centuries. And within ethnic groups there are also significant differences in culture, cohesion, and attainment. But there are also important similarities.

When we speak of “communities” this implies a group of people with shared values. And, to a lesser or greater extent, these values include patriotism (both where you originate from, and where you have settled), a belief in the family as the basic building block of society, self-advancement, education, thrift, religion, and a sense that rights also confer responsibilities.

These are, in other words, conservative values. To some they might appear as old-fashioned, even a little embarrassing. One could well make the point that there are many within those communities that have abandoned some (or all) of these values. But to many more, they are instantly recognisable as a decent set of values to live by – and to vote by.

For recent immigrants, the link is even stronger. These are often people who have taken significant personal risk to leave their old life, settle in a new place, start again from the beginning, often in lowly and glamorous jobs, and carve out a better life for themselves and their families. Many know the ugly side of repressive regimes and the evils of an all-powerful State; others have bitter and direct experience of what happens when anarchy is allowed to flourish. They have shown courage and determination to get this far, and want to succeed further. Is this not conservative?

We see much the same debate taking place in the UK. For a long time, the narrative has been allowed to develop that it is only the Left that can help immigrant and minority communities.

This is not just patronising but potentially dangerous. The implications of much of what the Left tells minorities – that we live in an endemically racist society, that we are doomed to underachieve, that we cannot meet our full potential without a great big helping hand – all of this, though often well meant, is grating at best, and at worst risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Tell a person they are second-rate often enough and they will eventually believe you.

It is also intellectually lazy. There are big problems existing in the UK to do with failures of integration, under-achievement in specific communities, genuine racism, ghettoisation, and the fact that a regrettable number of individuals come to the UK to do wrong. I arrived here from Romania with my family almost three decades ago, and, though I’ve been hugely lucky, I can’t claim it’s always been an easy ride.

But these problems cannot be allowed to become the entire story. Because – as in the US – the overwhelming objective, particularly for recent migrants, is to get on, make a success of your life, exercise personal responsibility, and reap the rewards in later years. And that’s what most of us have been trying to do.

There is a rich electoral seam to be explored here. For too long, Labour successfully claimed a monopoly on migrant and ethnic minority votes. Conservatives were smeared as golf-club racists, Little Englanders, or migrant-hating xenophobes. Genuine concerns about immigrant criminality, or the rate at which the UK could absorb new people, were caricatured as simply wanting to send everyone back. And, it has to be said, there was a small but vocal section within the Party whose rhetoric was hardly geared to win over ethnic minority voters.

What Labour excelled at was being offended on our behalf. When I was growing up, for instance, it was a left-wing trope to label The Daily Mail evil for daring to run stories of Romanian pickpockets. And the other Romanians I knew were, like me, furious about those stories: furious, that is, at the disgraceful behaviour of our fellow countrymen.

Beware of generalisations. But there are many, many in the UK, migrants, or the children of migrants, or from established ethnic minority backgrounds, who have a robust, common-sense approach to life that chimes exactly with conservative values.

They don’t want to be patted on the head; they’d far prefer lower taxes. They appreciate law and order being maintained, but distrust the hand of the State intruding too far into their private lives. For them, patriotism isn’t a dirty world, and they have an instinctive understanding of the importance of national sovereignty. They prize academic rigour and aren’t embarrassed by ambition or the pursuit of excellence. They would vigorously reject the notion that rising to the very top – say, by becoming Home Secretary or Chancellor – “isn’t for the likes of you”. They are natural conservatives. But, tragically, too many of them still don’t vote Conservative.

As in the US, there is some evidence of the dial beginning to turn. If upsetting The Guardian is a measure of success, then its article complaining about the “prominence” of British Indians in the Conservative Party is the most back-handed of compliments to the Party’s engagement programme. Similar efforts are gathering results with Jewish communities, which, at the last election, can only have been bolstered by the fact that we were fighting against Jeremy Corbyn.

Elsewhere, however, the “anyone but Tory” narrative still holds sway – and changing that offers an electoral prize well worth the effort. A good start would be a full-blooded programme of measures that incentivise economic growth, help the pursuit of educational excellence, reward aspiration – and challenge, at every opportunity, the toxic narrative that ethnic minorities are in any way second class.

Ryan Bourne: A British overspill from America’s result. Why the debate on the right over economics will now intensify.

11 Nov

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute. 

Donald Trump loyalists might not yet admit it, but their man was defeated handily in the U.S. Presidential election. A post-mortem will soon be undertaken within the Republican party, and with it a debate that has been bubbling since his primary victory in 2016 on both sides of the Atlantic: what economics should conservatives champion?

Ideally, that debate would be about what policies actually work to improve our lives or liberties. But winning elections is politicians’ raison d’être. So it’s little surprise that those representing major strands of Republican economic thought have conflicting economic narratives of the results already as to what is electorally desirable, a division made somewhat easier by the fact that “Trumpism” blended free-market policies with protectionism and interventionism, in turn offering something for everyone.

Free-market Republicans’ story goes like this: tax cuts and deregulation delivered by a Republican Senate and Presidency delivered robust pre-pandemic economic growth, low unemployment, and rising household incomes. So strong was that economy before Covid-19, that even after a deep pandemic-induced recession, 56 percent of surveyed voters nationwide said their family was still better off financially after four years of The Donald in the White House. Tellingly, Trump led Joe Biden in every battleground state on who voters trusted most to “manage” the economy.

Combine that evidence with the party’s unexpected electoral resilience in the Senate, and huge pick up of Cuban-American and Mexican-America votes in Florida and Texas, and it’s easy to conclude, as former Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has, that more free-market Republican economic policies are not unpopular.

In fact, polls suggest voters baulked at the socialist ideas aired in the Democratic primary, and were wary of even Joe Biden’s quite ambitious progressive agenda, particularly on decarbonisation. What lost Trump the election was, in this view, not his domestic economic policies then, but his personal conduct, handling of Covid-19, and, possibly, even downsides of his trade wars, the most obvious consequences of which were government welfare for Americans farmers and manufacturers struggling with inflated input costs.

The “national conservative” counter-blast provided by, for example, Samuel Hammond in the Guardian, says the exact opposite. The last two elections supposedly show the party’s future is to reach into working-class communities of all ethnicities. This opportunity, in part, came about from Trump’s willingness to challenge traditional Republican views on free trade and industrial policy, giving him a hearing with voters suffering the effects of market-led deindustrialisation. The party should build on that to become a true “workers’ party” by embracing a more interventionist abour market and manufacturing agenda, according to the Missouri and Florida senators, Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio.

This interpretation even posits that Republicans may have failed to win the Presidency because they did not sufficiently embrace the “good government can do” (to use a Theresa May phrase.) Hammond postulates, for example, that Biden was able to pick up white working-class votes in the Rust Belt by going further on nationalistic “Buy American” agendas and tax incentives for re-shoring manufacturing jobs than Republicans would ever opt for. A more serious policy agenda and a compassionate Republican frontman could therefore build a whole new electoral coalition on this type of platform that Trump opened the door to, if only the Republicans could move on from Reaganism and their commitment to free market ideas.

Now, on the facts, I (perhaps unsurprisingly) find the first narrative more compelling. Exit polling shows that, contra the national conservative view, Republican support still skewed towards those on higher incomes, not lower. If preferences for a more interventionist agenda, as opposed to, say, the culture war or Donald Trump’s personality, are the dominant explanation of vote patterns, it’s difficult to square that with Republican Senate candidates, most of whom are more free market on economics than Trump, outperforming the current President. Of course, in reality voters don’t vote according to policy preferences, so a monocausal link between economics and electoral outcomes is dodgy ground on both sides.

But at heart here is a debate that we’ve heard plenty of in the UK: how far does the political realignment we are seeing necessitate a change in conservatives’ economic ideas? The new “national conservatives” in the U.S. and modern “One Nation” Tories in the UK, such as Nick Timothy, want to throw-off any libertarian influence  with the latter even thinking the 2017 Tory manifesto an appropriate place to caricature the “libertarian right,” as if voters would read that document and take that signal as a cue to shift their vote.

Two things have frustrated me about these intra-conservative debates to date. The first is that the anti-market conservatives appear to just assume that the left is correct and that economic policy is class-based: that policies that are pro-the interests of the working class must necessarily be more interventionist than conservatives have previously considered acceptable.

I’ve written before about why that is not true and how market-led policies could deliver pro-poor outcomes. The U.S. results also show that the assumption is a sham in electoral terms: working class minorities in the south were frightened of Democratic industrial strategies when it meant cheap energy was set to be sacrificed and vast new regulation of a structurally sound labour market were proposed.

But my second frustration is deeper. Thus far thinkers such as Timothy and others in the U.S. have written extensively on why conservatives should move on from free market ideas in the abstract. They document social and economic phenomena that have moved in the wrong direction in the past three to four decades, and then link these to the Thatcher-Reagan revolutions and supposed commitments to “market fundamentalism”.

Yet anyone who has followed conservative policy closely since the 1990s would find it laughable to frame recent offerings as being influenced by an unabashed commitment to libertarian ideas. So this narrative is best understood as rolling the pitch for an even more interventionist conservative economics.

What we have had far less off yet is the specifics: what, exactly, do those such as Timothy want from policy instead of what we see today? National conservative thinkers have hid behind the shield of big picture views of what is electorally desirable to win in the Rust Belt or the Red Wall as a substitute for outlining what actually should be done, and providing evidence for why those proposals would in fact work where previous dalliances with industrial planning have failed.

One consequence of this messy Presidential election outcome and its failure to clearly repudiate Trumpism is that those debates will now be crucial in determining the future direction of the Republican party. And stateside narratives have a tendency to be imported into UK politics too.

Ryan Bourne: A British overspill from America’s result. Why the debate on the right over economics will now intensify.

11 Nov

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute. 

Donald Trump loyalists might not yet admit it, but their man was defeated handily in the U.S. Presidential election. A post-mortem will soon be undertaken within the Republican party, and with it a debate that has been bubbling since his primary victory in 2016 on both sides of the Atlantic: what economics should conservatives champion?

Ideally, that debate would be about what policies actually work to improve our lives or liberties. But winning elections is politicians’ raison d’être. So it’s little surprise that those representing major strands of Republican economic thought have conflicting economic narratives of the results already as to what is electorally desirable, a division made somewhat easier by the fact that “Trumpism” blended free-market policies with protectionism and interventionism, in turn offering something for everyone.

Free-market Republicans’ story goes like this: tax cuts and deregulation delivered by a Republican Senate and Presidency delivered robust pre-pandemic economic growth, low unemployment, and rising household incomes. So strong was that economy before Covid-19, that even after a deep pandemic-induced recession, 56 percent of surveyed voters nationwide said their family was still better off financially after four years of The Donald in the White House. Tellingly, Trump led Joe Biden in every battleground state on who voters trusted most to “manage” the economy.

Combine that evidence with the party’s unexpected electoral resilience in the Senate, and huge pick up of Cuban-American and Mexican-America votes in Florida and Texas, and it’s easy to conclude, as former Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has, that more free-market Republican economic policies are not unpopular.

In fact, polls suggest voters baulked at the socialist ideas aired in the Democratic primary, and were wary of even Joe Biden’s quite ambitious progressive agenda, particularly on decarbonisation. What lost Trump the election was, in this view, not his domestic economic policies then, but his personal conduct, handling of Covid-19, and, possibly, even downsides of his trade wars, the most obvious consequences of which were government welfare for Americans farmers and manufacturers struggling with inflated input costs.

The “national conservative” counter-blast provided by, for example, Samuel Hammond in the Guardian, says the exact opposite. The last two elections supposedly show the party’s future is to reach into working-class communities of all ethnicities. This opportunity, in part, came about from Trump’s willingness to challenge traditional Republican views on free trade and industrial policy, giving him a hearing with voters suffering the effects of market-led deindustrialisation. The party should build on that to become a true “workers’ party” by embracing a more interventionist abour market and manufacturing agenda, according to the Missouri and Florida senators, Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio.

This interpretation even posits that Republicans may have failed to win the Presidency because they did not sufficiently embrace the “good government can do” (to use a Theresa May phrase.) Hammond postulates, for example, that Biden was able to pick up white working-class votes in the Rust Belt by going further on nationalistic “Buy American” agendas and tax incentives for re-shoring manufacturing jobs than Republicans would ever opt for. A more serious policy agenda and a compassionate Republican frontman could therefore build a whole new electoral coalition on this type of platform that Trump opened the door to, if only the Republicans could move on from Reaganism and their commitment to free market ideas.

Now, on the facts, I (perhaps unsurprisingly) find the first narrative more compelling. Exit polling shows that, contra the national conservative view, Republican support still skewed towards those on higher incomes, not lower. If preferences for a more interventionist agenda, as opposed to, say, the culture war or Donald Trump’s personality, are the dominant explanation of vote patterns, it’s difficult to square that with Republican Senate candidates, most of whom are more free market on economics than Trump, outperforming the current President. Of course, in reality voters don’t vote according to policy preferences, so a monocausal link between economics and electoral outcomes is dodgy ground on both sides.

But at heart here is a debate that we’ve heard plenty of in the UK: how far does the political realignment we are seeing necessitate a change in conservatives’ economic ideas? The new “national conservatives” in the U.S. and modern “One Nation” Tories in the UK, such as Nick Timothy, want to throw-off any libertarian influence  with the latter even thinking the 2017 Tory manifesto an appropriate place to caricature the “libertarian right,” as if voters would read that document and take that signal as a cue to shift their vote.

Two things have frustrated me about these intra-conservative debates to date. The first is that the anti-market conservatives appear to just assume that the left is correct and that economic policy is class-based: that policies that are pro-the interests of the working class must necessarily be more interventionist than conservatives have previously considered acceptable.

I’ve written before about why that is not true and how market-led policies could deliver pro-poor outcomes. The U.S. results also show that the assumption is a sham in electoral terms: working class minorities in the south were frightened of Democratic industrial strategies when it meant cheap energy was set to be sacrificed and vast new regulation of a structurally sound labour market were proposed.

But my second frustration is deeper. Thus far thinkers such as Timothy and others in the U.S. have written extensively on why conservatives should move on from free market ideas in the abstract. They document social and economic phenomena that have moved in the wrong direction in the past three to four decades, and then link these to the Thatcher-Reagan revolutions and supposed commitments to “market fundamentalism”.

Yet anyone who has followed conservative policy closely since the 1990s would find it laughable to frame recent offerings as being influenced by an unabashed commitment to libertarian ideas. So this narrative is best understood as rolling the pitch for an even more interventionist conservative economics.

What we have had far less off yet is the specifics: what, exactly, do those such as Timothy want from policy instead of what we see today? National conservative thinkers have hid behind the shield of big picture views of what is electorally desirable to win in the Rust Belt or the Red Wall as a substitute for outlining what actually should be done, and providing evidence for why those proposals would in fact work where previous dalliances with industrial planning have failed.

One consequence of this messy Presidential election outcome and its failure to clearly repudiate Trumpism is that those debates will now be crucial in determining the future direction of the Republican party. And stateside narratives have a tendency to be imported into UK politics too.

Biden is a conservative – succeeding not because he is old, but because he is old-fashioned

10 Nov

Joe Biden is a conservative. Amid anxious speculation about what kind of a President he will turn out to be, this crucial point has often been overlooked.

For some, the lower-case “c” in conservative will be unsatisfying. But for many American voters it was and is profoundly reassuring.

It would be idle to pretend we can know with precision how far those Republicans who voted for Biden were repelled by the uncouth behaviour of Donald Trump, and how far they were attracted, or reassured, by Biden’s conservative demeanour.

The two motives are not mutually exclusive: for most of these voters, both were in operation.

Trump is a reality TV star who has again and again yielded to his own worst instincts, and for this reason his performances possess a certain horrific authenticity. No one, surely, could behave that badly without being in some way genuine.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign against him in 2016 failed in part because she sounded so hypocritical. For while she claimed to be on the side of ordinary Americans, anyone could see she preferred the company of her billionaire friends in the Hamptons. Her grand liberal condescension was for many voters at least as off-putting as Trump’s unabashed sleaziness.

Biden’s campaign has succeeded, not exactly because he is old, but because he is old-fashioned – a manner which comes more easily and naturally when one has lived for a long time, so his advanced age is not necessarily the drawback which the media assume it to be.

He takes trouble with ordinary Americans: his courtesy and warmth of feeling are authentic, attested by among others the people he got to know on his 8,200 train journeys between Washington and Delaware, during which he travelled a total of over two million miles.

That is a conservative thing to do. He found a routine, a rhythm, which suited him, and he stuck to it. Each night he went home, and he speaks of home with unfeigned emotion.

Loyalty to existing institutions is a conservative characteristic. Biden is loyal to his family and his church, and to a certain idea of his country, expressed in his victory speech:

“I pledge to be a President who seeks not to divide, but to unify, who doesn’t see red states and blue states, but the United States.”

George Washington, President from 1789-97, would have agreed with this. Washington was a gentleman of the 18th century who refused to turn himself into a party politician, and in his Farewell Address delivered this solemn warning to his compatriots:

“I have already intimated to you the danger of Parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on Geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party, generally…

“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual: and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty…

“It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions…”

Many Americans have feared in recent years that “the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension” would end by tearing the country apart, with each side justifying its excesses by pointing to the excesses of the other.

Biden offers himself as the President who can avert this disaster by governing as an American, and not just as the leader of a faction.

This idea of rising above faction is old-fashioned, but America is an old-fashioned country, with attitudes on such matters as the right to bear arms which are no longer found in Europe.

It is the oldest republic in the world, an eighteenth-century nation with deep roots in the English common law and a proper reverence for Magna Carta, a document more honoured now in Washington than it is in Westminster.

James Madison and the other drafters of the American Constitution did not only look to England. They pored over the history of the Roman Republic as they sought to devise a form of government which would endure.

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” Madison wrote in The Federalist Papers, but since men are not angels, “ambition must be made to counteract ambition” by means of a system of checks and balances.

And this is what has happened. The system does not work perfectly – no system can – but neither Trump nor any of his predecessors has attained the despotic power against which Washington delivered his solemn warning.

In March this year (though so much has happened since that it seems longer ago) I brought out a volume called Gimson’s Presidents: Brief Lives from Washington to Trump. 

While writing it, one could not help but notice that many of the presidents were tawdry, third-rate figures, a point from which the undoubted greatness of a handful of them can distract one.

And yet the republic has endured, and has shown a capacity, albeit at sometimes terrible cost, to correct its own most grievous faults.

Biden is already coming under fire from various factionalists on the Left of his own party, who want him to adopt their partisan opinions.

He knew this would happen, so took the precaution of declaring in his victory speech:

“Folks, I’m a proud Democrat, but I will govern as an American President.”

In that speech, he quoted from the Bible, in its best and most traditional version: yet more evidence of his own conservatism, and his determination to appeal to the conservatism of millions of Americans who are fed up with the party-political dogfight, and want a President who will put the national interest first.

During his 36 years in the Senate (1973-2009) Biden generally sought to work with Republicans, rather than pick fights with them.

He will now draw on that experience. He is not a man of brilliant intellectual gifts – few presidents are – and he is also a dull speaker, who if anything will sound duller as he becomes better known.

But unlike Trump, who in 2016 reaped the electoral reward of being an angry outsider, Biden is trusted in Washington, knows who everyone is, is supported by a tried and tested team of advisers who have been with him a long time, and has already appointed a panel of public health experts to advise him how to tackle the pandemic with an altogether unTrumpian seriousness.

Biden intends to draw on the rich American tradition of pragmatic, unglamorous, bipartisan work. And since to work within a tradition, rather than attempt to make things up from first principles, is yet another conservative characteristic, conservatives could well end up approving of President Biden.

Trump’s path to a narrow win and Biden’s to a comfortable one

6 Nov

We don’t believe that Donald Trump will win all of the states in which postal votes are still being counted – Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Indeed, it is possible that he will win none of them.

But here is a counter-factual map for this Friday morning – or pre-factual map if you prefer – showing how he could still win, when the process of voting, counting, legal challenge and whatever else may be up America’s sleeve is eventually complete (courtesy of the Cook Report, and not taking into account pecularities in Maine and Nebraska).

And here below is another pre-factual map, or counter-factual, or whatever you want to call it – which shows the best result for Biden now apparently possible.

These uncertainties and others help to explain why we have kept our counsel about the results so far – since we have a difference here between a potential narrow Trump and a comfortable Biden one.  And the electoral college result is only the beginning, rather than the end, of any probe into what actually happened, and is happening.

As Ben Roback wrote on this site on Wednesday, the Blue Wave that some opinion polls suggested has not materialised.  It is very early to draw more conclusions, other than that the President’s intention to contest the result was clearly pre-planned (Ben has been writing about it in his columns for some time).

If Trump has any evidence for his claims, he hasn’t offered it yet – and the Republican Party institutionally is keeping its distance from them. America is deeply divided on culture, Trump himself being both a symptom and a cause of these differences, and if Biden offers much other than a better yesterday we’ve yet to see it. Let’s see what happens next.

Iain Dale: Trump is displaying all the signs of believing his own lies. And he is undermining democracy itself.

6 Nov

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

As I write this column on Thursday lunchtime, we still do not know for sure who will be inaugurated in Washington on Wednesday 20 January next year.  As Sky’s Mark Austin said earlier this week, the Americans will never be able to take the micky out of us for cricket – a game that can go on for days without a result.

It looks more than likely that Joe Biden will be the next President, which didn’t seem to be the case when I finished presenting LBC’s marathon seven-hour overnight election show.

At that point, it seemed clear that Donald Trump would be staying in the White House. He was ahead in most of the crucial swing states. But when I woke up after three hours’ sleep on Wednesday morning, the situation was beginning to change.

By the end of Wednesday, Biden had pulled ahead in both the popular national vote. Michigan became the American equivalent of Nuneaton or Basildon.

When he saw which way the wind was blowing, Donald Trump did what he does best: disrupt. He went on TV to say that there was widespread vote fraud in the states that he now appeared to be losing, and that all vote counting there should stop. However, the counts should continue in all the states where he was ahead. Brazen.

Rudi Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer – a man who has lost all of his previously respected reputation – made public pronouncements in which he speculated on whether the Democratic National Committee was behind multiple voting, and even went so far as to ponder whether Joe Biden himself may have voted 5,000 times. He demeaned himself – and not for the first time.

All candidates are entitled to challenge a count if they genuinely fear there has been foul play. In this country that rarely, if ever, happens. It has to be said that in the US it has happened rather too often.  But if you accuse your rivals of interfering in the electoral process, you need to have some evidence for your accusation.

This is dangerous talk from Trump, since it completely undermines any trust in the democratic process. It is now easy to imagine a situation in which Biden scores a higher number of electoral college votes than Trump did in 2016 – and yet the President still doesn’t accept the result. There will also be protests, and maybe even violent riots, which seek to keep Trump in the White House.

Being a disrupter is not necessarily a 100 per cent bad thing. But being a president who cannot accept a basic tenet of democracy – i.e. the acceptance of electoral loss – is not a good look. The trouble is that Trump displays all the signs of being someone who comes to believe his own lies.

The fact, however, that he has won five million more votes than he did in 2016 does tell us something important. We cannot write him off as an aberration. Trump caught a political wave in 2016 – one of dissatisfaction with politics in general and Washington in particular. If it hadn’t been him it would have been someone else.

The Tea Party’s rise in the 1990s and early 2000s was the first sign that something was changing, but the Washington elites chose to ignore it. It’s a bit like the Labour Party telling the electorate here that they keep getting it wrong, and what they really want is something that the elites in Islington tell them they should want. The electorate resile against this, and do the very opposite.

On Wednesday morning, I was watching the BBC’s election coverage and heard one of its journalist saying that to appeal to working class voters amounts to “economic populism”. It’s that kind of elitist arrogance that turns people off the so-called mainstream media – and plays into the hands of Trump.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rishi Sunak seemed to catch Labour off balance yesterday, when he announced that the furlough scheme is to be extended until the end of March. This will provide a lot of reassurance to a lot of people who previously must have feared they would lose their jobs entirely.

It is a legitimate criticism that this announcement came very late in the day, and too late for many thousands of people who had already been laid off – but better late than never.

There is still not enough support of the self-employed, and those who operate limited companies. After eight months, this is simply not good enough. To say “it’s all too difficult” just does not wash. These are, as Margaret Thatcher, might have said “our people” – and they deserve better treatment than they have so far had from a Conservative government.

– – – – – – – – – –

On Tuesday I achieved a lifetime ambition – to interview Sir Cliff Richard.

I have a very short list of people I would like to interview before it’s too late, and he was top of it. I spent an hour with him via Zoom, and it was all I hoped it would be.

I told him I wanted it to be a conversation rather than an interview, and that’s how it turned out. I didn’t want it to be an hour where he would just come out with well-worn anecdotes and lines, and I didn’t want to just ask the usual questions he gets asked in interviews.

The fact that I had an hour meant that it really could be a proper conversation. He talked openly about his religious faith, the sex abuse allegations that he had to endure, what he really thinks of the BBC and why he’s fallen out of love with Britain. And of course we talked about his music career.

Even if you’re not his biggest fan, I think you’ll enjoy the interview, which you can hear on my Iain Dale All Talk podcast.