Radical: an open letter to Liz Truss. We urge you to see through your commitment to protect single sex spaces.

21 Jul

Dear Liz,

As you know, we’ve been thinking hard about sex and gender issues. We launched our Radical campaign last November, with the aim of searching out the truth, from a position committed to freedom, tolerance, and equal respect.

As planned, we’ve engaged with people from across the political spectrum, and learned lots from researchers, activists, practitioners, and more. We’re writing to you now to share our latest thoughts, ahead of your expected announcement on the outcome of the consultation on reforms to the Gender Recognition Act.

Our initial instincts haven’t changed much, although our concern has grown, greatly, the more we’ve learned. Our view remains that people who choose to act in ways stereotypically associated with membership of the opposite biological sex should be treated just as respectfully as anyone else, all other things being equal.

But also, that this doesn’t equate to believing that the law should mandate that biological men must be treated as women, and vice versa, solely on their demand – via ‘self-ID’. That would not only risk a downgrading of the value of truth in our society, it would have serious detrimental consequences for the policy prescriptions that seek to ensure equal opportunity, and the social-science research and records that inform these policies. It would also constitute a safety risk to girls and women, by effectively outlawing single-sex spaces and services.

Our view also remains that, if adults wish to seek medical intervention to make their bodies resemble those of members of the opposite sex, they should be free to do so. But, that in the case of children, such interventions are always wrong: over the past year, we’ve grown even more committed to fighting against these interventions, which equate to child abuse.

We’ve been grateful to write for ConservativeHome, once a fortnight, about why we hold these views — sharing what we’ve learned with the conservative community. We were aware that many people on the centre-right weren’t engaged with these matters, and we’ve sought to change that.

On that topic, as you’ll know, there’s been a recent flurry of polling and campaigning on sex and gender matters. We believe that the results of recent polls – and how they’ve been reported – serve to illustrate public confusion about relevant current laws, and the reforms that’ve been proposed.

This confusion is persistently manifested in mainstream-media reportage, in policy documents published by state bodies, and in statements by high-profile commentators and politicians. This confusion, as we’ve written here many times, has been propagated by a set of powerful activists, who’ve seized on the uncertainty they’ve sown, to advance their political cause.

Pink News – the chosen media outlet of many of these activists – recently published, with great fanfare, the finding that most women in Britain support the right of transpeople to self-identify. This, they proclaimed, means that the law must be changed to remove the current procedural requirements for obtaining a Gender Recognition Certificate (the document that legally changes a person’s sex).

However, what Pink News has actually done, is to highlight – inadvertently, no doubt – the reason why maintaining these controls on changing legal sex is so important. And also, how the retention of these controls is not only expected by the public, but that these controls are not generally seen as illiberal, or as ‘denying the existence’ of transpeople.

More detailed polling, subsequently released by YouGov, does indeed show high levels of support for people being able to self-identify their gender. But it also shows much lower levels of support for the idea of transwomen using women-only facilities, and serious disagreement — from almost all sections of society — with the idea that the legal ‘gender’-change process should be ‘made easier’.

It also shows widespread opposition to people who’ve not had gender-reassignment surgery using facilities reserved for the opposite sex. This is a crushing blow to those claiming that self-identified gender identity should solely determine one’s entitlements regarding single-sex services. It reflects the traditional understanding that ‘sex’ relates to membership of the biological sets of male or female, and that ‘gender’ relates to stereotypical societal understandings of masculinity and femininity.

As you know, we’re fully committed to free expression, and we’ve stressed many times that we’ll die on the hill for people to be allowed to dress and act however they like. But that doesn’t mean that men – adult human males – should be housed in women’s refuges or prison wings.

Now, you’ll be aware of current siren calls for ‘compromise’, rippling through Conservative Party circles. Common to these is the claim that a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) is ‘just a piece of paper’ – and, that, if a GRC makes a vulnerable transperson feel more secure and validated, then what’s the harm in making GRCs available, on demand?

Well, those making such calls simply cannot be aware of the realities of the current relevant laws – and the repercussions such a change would have. It would not only make it much harder to exclude men from women-only spaces, it would also destabilise all manner of legal structures, from equal pay to sex discrimination law to criminal law.

Sadly, the truth is that, as a society, we’ve moved beyond the opportunity of dealing with these matters at the level of individual choice and decency. We urgently need laws that clearly prevent men seeking residency in women’s refuges and prisons; that prevent men rendering women’s sport null; and, yes, that even help to prevent men using women’s toilets.

This is an extremely depressing, yet fully accurate conclusion. And, yes, the current laws are imperfect. In an ideal world, they would be torn up and rewritten, but – unless you have the time to do that (!) – then we are where we are, and the inevitable negative effects of changing these laws must be accepted.

So we urge you to resist the calls for so-called ‘compromise’, and to see through your commitment to protecting single-sex spaces, and to maintaining checks and balances in the gender-recognition process.

Neither of those commitments can be honoured by allowing self-ID. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to help support transpeople, and those suffering from gender dysphoria. Aside from small, genuine, unharmful direct compromises — such as removing the fee from seeking a GRC — foremost in these positive actions should be to improve resources for young people.

It must be ensured that children and teenagers get the proper support they need — and they must be protected from being instrumentalised and abused by political activists and politicised medical professionals.

Beyond that, we believe your priority should be to meet the urgent need for the review and clarification of formal guidance around relevant law. On all the YouGov questions, between 21 and 30 per cent of people answered ‘don’t know’. This is unsurprising, given the arcane nature of much of the debate, and — as previously emphasised — the confusing and often seriously manipulated advice that government departments and local authorities have been publishing and endorsing.

With very best wishes,

Rebecca Lowe and Victoria Hewson

Raghib Ali: Systemic classism, not racism. Why the main factor in health and educational inequalities is deprivation, not race.

21 Jul

Dr Raghib Ali is an Honorary Consultant in Acute Medicine at the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust, and a Visiting Research Fellow of the Department of Population Health, University of Oxford.

Last month, it was widely reported that Public Health England’s report,Beyond the Data: Understanding the Impact of COVID-19 on BAME Communities, proved that systemic racism had contributed to their increased COVID-19 death rate.

This report, coming out as it did during the fallout from the horrific murder of a black man by a white police officer in the US, was used by some as evidence that Britain is a racist country.’

The report itself was more nuanced, saying: “racism, discrimination and social inequalities…may have contributed to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on people from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.”

While it is true that the death rate for COVID-19 is higher in non-whites, the analyses presented did not account for the effect of occupation or comorbidities. The current evidence is inconclusive and most of the increased risk can be accounted for by known risk factors, including co-morbidities, deprivation, higher risk occupations, living in densely-populated urban centers, air pollution and multi-generational households.

In fact, the claims about racism were based on the subjective views of 4000 ‘stakeholders’ – not on objective evidence – as the report itself acknowledged. Although it is possible that racism  contributed to some of the risk factors, this certainly does not prove that racism caused Covid-19 deaths, and such inflammatory claims should not be made without solid evidence.

Also, if it were true that non-whites suffer from systemic racism throughout their lives – adversely affecting their health, education, income, housing, employment (the key determinants of health) – this would be reflected in life expectancy/overall mortality figures which are the best measures of overall health.

However, (in contrast to the situation in the US, where Blacks do have lower life expectancy) non-whites in the UK actually have higher life expectancy / lower overall mortality than Whites. In Scotland life expectancy (LE) is higher in Indians, Pakistanis and Chinese than Whites, and in England and Wales, both Blacks and Asians have slightly lower death rates than Whites, with those born in Africa, the Caribbean, and South Asia all having lower overall and premature mortality than those born in the UK.

This finding is surprising as some ethnic minorities are much poorer than Whites – with over 30% of Pakistanis & Bangladeshis and 20 per cent of Blacks living in the most deprived 10 per cent of areas (versus 10 per cent for Whites & Indians)  and deprivation is the main factor associated with lower LE. Those who live in the most deprived areas of England (predominantly in the North) live on average 10 years less compared to the least deprived (25 years between Blackpool and Westminster) – the gap is even worse for healthy life expectancy where the difference is 20 years on average (33 years between Blackpool and Westminster) and this gap or social gradient in health is seen within all major ethnic groups.

This gradient was also seen for Covid-19 where, amongst non-whites, the most deprived were four times more likely than the least deprived to require intensive care, again illustrating the need to focus on deprivation.

We see a similar picture when it comes to education – which is both a key determinant of health and hugely affected by deprivation. The Race disparity Audit showed that, when looking at outcomes by ethnic group alone, Indians & Chinese outperform other ethnic groups, including Whites, at every level of education while Black Caribbean children perform worst – and significantly worse than Black Africans – except for university entry where Whites have the lowest rate (although they then do go on to have the best degree and employment outcomes.) 

Once deprivation is taken into account – by comparing only those on Free School Meals (FSM) – White and Black Caribbean children have the worst outcomes on almost every measure and especially university entry. (Although there are again huge regional variations – 48 per cent of inner London FSM children v 18 per cent in the South West.)

Children from ethnic minorities are now also more likely than Whites to attend grammar schools whereas just 2.6 per cent of their students are on FSM (compared to 14 per cent of the population.) Even for Oxbridge entry, non-white students are now as likely as Whites to gain entry whereas those on free school meals have almost zero chance.

This was also my experience as a student at Cambridge where it was not my ethnicity which made me stand out as much as the fact I had been on FSMs. There were many non-White students – but invariably from middle-class, private or grammar school backgrounds – whereas there were barely any  deprived students of any colour.

Deprivation, therefore, is the key factor driving educational inequalities with children of all ethnicities on FSMs doing much worse than those who are not.. But again, we see that some groups (Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Black Africans) – despite being more deprived than Whites and Black Caribbeans – have better educational outcomes.

Based on this data, I draw three broad conclusions.

Firstly, the primary factor in health and educational inequalities is deprivation, not race.

Secondly, there is now no overall ‘White privilege’ in health or education (and especially not for deprived Whites) – or overall ‘BAME disadvantage’ – and these categories are now outdated and unhelpful. There are large differences in both health and educational outcomes between & within ‘Blacks’ and ‘Asians’ – with the biggest differences seen within Whites. Deprived Whites actually have more in common with deprived non-whites in terms of the challenges they face in education, employment, housing and health.

Thirdly, where ethnic disparities do exist (e.g. employment, promotion, criminal justice, etc.) we must take deprivation into account (i.e. compare deprived minorities to deprived Whites) – otherwise it is easy for some to blame racism when poverty may be the main factor. This also applies to those who, while rightly highlighting the plight of the white working class, blame ‘positive action’ towards ethnic minorities without presenting any evidence.

While I fully support the objective (if not always the means) of the young people demonstrating to eradicate racism, I have found that many of them are neither aware of these facts nor of the massive progress that has been made. Growing up in a white working class neighbourhood in the early 80s, we suffered racist abuse and attacks – with one of my earliest memories being of a brick being thrown through our front window. (But I knew they only represented a small minority and all my friends were also white).

My father had also faced open racial discrimination from the time he arrived in the early 1960s, but my parents never encouraged us to view ourselves as victims and stressed that education and hard work were the keys to a better future, with my mother – who enrolled in evening classes to gain additional qualifications while working full-time – as our inspiration.

Racism still blights too many lives today and we must we must continue to work towards a colour-blind society but Britain is not a racist country and what has been achieved in my lifetime is remarkable with my children growing up in a country transformed. Enoch Powell has been proven wrong – the UK is one of the most successful, multi-ethnic nations in the world, with huge, positive changes in social attitudes. Ethnic minorities are now well-represented – and successful – in almost every walk of life including medicine, business, sport, culture and politics. And this has been achieved without positive discrimination or quotas which ignore root causes and can be counter-productive – patronizing minorities and leading to resentment.

Unfortunately, there has been far less progress for the poorest in society – of all ethnicities – with evidence that gaps in life expectancy are worsening and social mobility is actually going backwards.

I therefore welcome the government’s ‘Levelling-up’ agenda to address the huge geographical variations in deprivation, health and education. These inequalities are longstanding and will require long-term solutions with better educational opportunities – particularly in the early years – being the key to breaking the cycle of deprivation and ensuring that everyone has the best possible start in life.

We can learn from those inner-city schools in London, which despite serving highly deprived (mostly non-white) populations, are producing outstanding results. And we should investigate why these deprived groups are doing better than others – including exploring the difficult terrain of whether cultural values, higher marriage rates and more stable homes are contributing to better outcomes.

In conclusion, we need geographically-targeted policies and interventions based on need, not ethnicity (but which will actually help those ethnic groups who have the highest levels of poverty the most – including deprived Whites.) Because the greatest determinant of your life chances today is not the colour of your skin but the circumstances into which you are born – and we must tackle this enduring injustice of ‘systemic classism’ to create a fairer Britain for all.

Nicholas Rogers: Over a decade, acid attacks in London have quadrupled

21 Jul

Nicholas Rogers is the Conservative London Assembly candidate for Hounslow, Richmond, & Kingston and is a former Metropolitan Police Special Constable

Things have changed since I patrolled the streets of London as a Metropolitan Police Special Constable in 2008. My work as a Special was the daily routine of community policing: patrolling estates in North Kensington, getting to know local residents and businesses, stop & search, traffic duties, with the occasional excitement of a foot chase.

The experience was valuable as a glimpse into the challenges police officers face day-in, day-out. I saw how the job could be immensely difficult and immensely rewarding.

Back then, the concept of acid regularly being used as an offensive weapon on our streets would have seemed nightmarish and almost dystopian, even to the veteran regular officers I worked alongside.

To my distress, London is now living that nightmare.

Data I obtained from the Met Police shows that in the ten years from 2008 to 2018, acid attacks in London increased by 430 per cent, from 59 cases to 313.

It is impossible to overstate the horror of acid attacks. Victims are left with life-changing physical injuries often requiring years of specialist treatment. The mental scars are far deeper and longer lasting. Survivors talk of battling anxiety, loneliness, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The Acid Survivors Trust states that ‘the path to recovery is long, complex and very painful at both a physical and mental level’ – exactly what the criminals who carry out these attacks intend.

It was with dismay that I learnt my home borough of Kingston – otherwise one of the safest in London – is among the worst in the city for violent offences involving the use of corrosive substances against a person; in other words, acid attacks.

My research shows a precipitous increase in these offences in Kingston, from three in 2015 to 13 last year – down from a worrying 20 in 2018. This makes us the joint fifth worst borough in the city. As recently as 2018 we were the second worst borough in London. This will likely come as shocking news for Kingston residents.

For context, neighbouring Richmond had five offences in 2019 and only one in 2018. Sutton had three in 2018 and 2019. Hounslow only had one in 2019.

There is clearly a serious local problem in Kingston. However, in response to my question, the Metropolitan Police advised that there is no specific local plan in place to tackle the issue; something that is surely urgently required and which I am now calling for.

Unfortunately, the Liberal Democrats, who run Kingston Council and hold both Parliamentary seats covering the borough, show no signs of understanding that this problem even exists.

At their party conference in 2019 they adopted a policy opposing mandatory prison sentences for those caught carrying acid. ‘Misguided’ doesn’t begin to describe how badly wrong this policy is.

Acid is an offensive weapon – it is carried solely to maim, disfigure, and terrorise its victims. It is not carried for self-defence. Those who carry it have made the decision to cause great mental and physical harm. They must be punished for that decision.

Ed Davey, Member of Parliament for Kingston & Surbiton and LibDem leadership candidate, doubled down on his party’s policy. In a series of tabled amendments to the Offensive Weapons Bill 2019 he sought to reduce the penalties for selling acid to youths and attempted to eliminate mandatory prison sentences for second convictions of carrying corrosive substances.

The Lib Dem London Mayoral candidate, herself a Kingston resident, is yet to disown this approach, which could hardly be less suited to addressing London’s violent crime epidemic.

While a nasty acid problem developed in his own back yard, Ed Davey sought to water down the law. I am curious to understand whether, in formulating his party’s policy on sentencing for acid offences, Ed Davey either knew a problem existed in his own constituency and chose not to mention it, or was entirely unaware that Kingston has become one of the worst boroughs in our city for violent acid offences.

To me it is obvious: if you choose to carry acid, you must go to prison.

We absolutely need to have a searching debate about how that time in prison is best used to ensure that criminals are rehabilitated and given the support they need to lead productive, lawful lives, but this does not change the basic fact that for a justice system to work and to be respected, actions must have consequences – and those who choose to carry acid must face the consequences of their actions.

The only candidate in the Mayoral race with a sensible approach is Shaun Bailey. He grew up on the same estates in North Kensington I patrolled as a Special Constable. He has seen violent crime first-hand and he is the only candidate I trust to deal with these problems in an informed manner.

In vivid contrast to the Liberal Democrats, Bailey recognises the gravity of these crimes and wants to make life harder for the criminals, not give them an easy ride. He is calling for those caught carrying acid to be imprisoned on the first offence, not the second. He will take a zero-tolerance approach to gang activity. Bailey is a crime-fighting youth worker who is best-placed to work with the government to secure a good deal for London.

Bailey will also address why outcomes for these offences are so poor: in 2018 barely more than ten per cent of these offences had positive outcomes (i.e. a charge or caution) whereas in almost half of all cases, no suspect was even identified. It is a poor record and one that has fallen consistently from 2010, when there was a positive outcome in 40 per cent of cases.

The Liberal Democrats, now something of an irrelevance both nationally and in London, cannot be expected to take a serious approach to tackling crime in our city.

I was shocked when I learnt the scale of the acid attack problem in Kingston and how bad it is here relative to the rest of London. It is a problem that absolutely cannot be ignored.

I will make it a personal mission on the London Assembly to understand how this problem has developed and why Kingston is so much worse than other areas of London. The Metropolitan Police needs to investigate how our otherwise safe borough came to be blighted with this problem and – crucially – we need a local strategy to get these figures down to zero.

“If universities can’t defend free speech, the Government will”, said Williamson in February. He meant it.

20 Jul

For a long time, the UK’s silent majority has been quite clearly concerned about “cancel culture” – which describes when people are demonised or sacked for having “the wrong views”. This concern partly explains why Labour suffered such a big defeat at last year’s election. The result was not only down to its confused stance on Brexit, or Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, but the party’s woke worldview.

Unfortunately, cancel culture since seems to have accelerated, particularly during lockdown, when the nation watched statues toppled, innocuous TV shows like The Mighty Boosh removed for being “offensive” and an author even fired from her agency for Tweeting support for JK Rowling.

There have been growing calls for the Government to intervene before it gets too late; something which it’s not always easy to do, but last week Gavin Williamson announced a policy that could make a sizeable difference. 

Titled the Higher Education Restructuring Regime, it essentially incentivises English universities – many of which are struggling as a result of the Coronavirus crisis – to tackle censorship on campus in order to receive a Government bailout.

Williamson’s restructuring regime is broadly focussed on three areas. First, it asks universities to reduce administrative costs, including vice-chancellor pay, to focus resources “on the front line”. Second, it asks them to cut courses that lead to poor employment outcomes –  with the Education Secretary wanting to strive for “great value for money” as part of his commitment to levelling up Britain. And third, it requires institutions to “demonstrate their commitment to academic freedom and free speech”.

An independently-chaired Higher Education Restructuring Regime Board will be established, and Williamson will draw on its expertise to assess which universities should receive bailouts, by way of repayable loans.

Jo Grady, General Secretary of the University and College Union, has strongly criticised the move, suggesting that the Government is exploiting Covid-19 to “impose evidence-free ideology”, and there have been similar objections. But one suspects that this will be an incredibly popular policy with taxpayers, for a number of reasons.

For starters, it has been said repeatedly that there are now too many young people going to universities, due to Tony Blair’s target for 50 per cent attendance (the figure hit 50.2 per cent in 2017-2018). Williamson has said he will stand up for the “forgotten 50 per cent”, paying more attention to skills training, and other parts of the further education sector

This is great news; the UK needs qualifications and training to be better tailored to the economy, and there’s increasing evidence many undergraduate degrees aren’t providing a return on investment. As Neil O’Brien has written for ConservativeHome, “poor-value degree courses… waste taxpayers’ money, but don’t actually increase opportunities for students.”

Then there’s the universities’ free speech issue. Censoriousness has become so prevalent that Amber Rudd was “no-platformed” at the University of Oxford in March. There are numerous examples of universities banning speakers, as well as political hostility to those who hold Conservative/ Brexiteer views. Last year I wrote for The Telegraph about the amount of insults young people had been subjected to on campus because of these.

Williamson’s intervention is clever because it doesn’t tell universities how to combat this problem, and they have the option to do nothing; it simply motivates them to promote free speech. One way they could do this is by adopting the Chicago Principles, which are widely recognised in the Government and elsewhere, as best practice in this regard.

These were developed in 2014 following a series of incidents at different universities in which students tried to ban speakers deemed controversial. Academics at the University of Chicago drafted a statement that made an “overarching commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the University’s community.”

Another way universities might tackle this is by trying to improving safety measures for speakers – so that they cannot be no-platformed, or maybe even interviewing students on their attitudes to free speech before offering them a place. There’s lots of ways in which the issue can be approached.

Some will not be surprised about Williamson’s announcement. In February he wrote for The Times that “If universities don’t take action [to promote free speech], the government will.” Strangely enough, it was the Coronavirus crisis that allowed him to stick to his word. Let’s hope that his policy gives other ministers some ideas for how to fight cancel culture too.

Nick Cook: Watch Gove’s crucial role as a pro-Union strategist – with Scotland’s elections just ten months away

20 Jul

Nick Cook is a Conservative councillor in Edinburgh, where he holds responsibility for group policy and political strategy.

The first phases of lockdown saw me progressively tune out of the news. I’ve no doubt that juggling nursery-free parenting and arrival of a puppy both contributed.

However, the poll earlier this month putting support for Scottish separation at 54 per cent gave me the nudge I needed to again fire up my go-to news apps proper.

Yes, polls are but a snap shot in time. Yes, political pollsters worldwide have increasingly struggled to correctly predict results.

But despite damning failings on care home deaths, school reopening, comparably tight-fisted business support and a dog whistle border row that would make Donald Trump proud, Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP have been judged to have had a ‘good pandemic’.

By extension, support for a separate Scottish state seems to have risen too. I suspect temporarily, but in truth nobody is yet sure of the medium to longer term impact of Covid-19 – on politics or anything else.

Notably, the Indy uptick comes despite the fact it is the UK Conservative government – not the SNP – that has been directly paying the wages of Scotland’s 628,000 furloughed workers and 146,000 self-employed.

I firmly believe that seeing Sturgeon conduct a high budget daily press conference has boosted the SNP’s polling. The opposition simply haven’t been afforded similar exposure by broadcasters, as they would be required to at election time. As John Curtice has pointed out, it appears polling reflects two decades of relatively low public understanding of the devolved settlement has given way to a public better engaged with Holyrood’s responsibilities.

To follow this through logically, an increasing number of Scots will also be becoming better equated with what is – and crucially, is not – the UK Government’s responsibility in Scotland.

Perhaps this unprecedented pandemic will finally do what opposition parties at Holyrood have largely failed to do, which is to unambiguously pin blame for the Scottish Government’s failures at the SNP’s feet in the mind of the casual voter. Increased awareness presents risks and opportunity for unionists and nationalists alike.

However, if the recent summer statement from the Chancellor is anything to go by, the UK Government is – contrary to detractors – prepared and ready to take the fight to Scottish nationalism, based not on historical identity, but by delivering financially for Scots in the here and now. Austerity be gone.

The statement itself had Rishi Sunak’s fingerprints all over it: his predecessor, Sajid Javid, would have given it a Thatcherite rinse.

But the strategic decision to largely bypass Holyrood and spend the bulk of the £800 million directly in Scotland makes good on months-long UK Government murmurings and best the imprint of Michael Gove and his unassumingly monikered cabinet subcommittee for Union policy.

It also belatedly gives teeth to Cameron-era messaging that Scotland does indeed have two governments.

Fellow Conservatives can often be critical of Theresa May’s premiership. But she remains broadly well-regarded in Scotland by Remainers and Leavers alike, because she was rock solid on the Union and Scotland’s place within it. Lacking the Bullingdon baggage of her predecessor, Mrs May had no hesitation in tackling Nicola Sturgeon head-on. And she was modest enough to defer to Scotland’s Conservative leadership.

Some might suggest that May’s decision to put in motion the Dunlop review on devolution, when she had one foot out the door of Number Ten, was intended to put a marker down for her successor. She would know that any new government would be unlikely to be bound by its conclusions.

While Boris Johnson would declare himself ‘Minister for the Union’, his decision to heed Lord Dunlop’s call to task a senior minister with inter-UK relations betrays a good degree of self-awareness that critics – and allies – would question.

Either that or Dominic Cummings, Eddie Lister and company know full well that Johnson’s undeniable charisma and quintessential English charm quickly meet a brick all in Scotland, amongst Unionists across the political spectrum.

Gove’s influence penetrates right across government, but his pivotal role as Union tsar is probably as shrewd a decision as the current government has made. While many English MPs point to their Scottish heritage as a sort of tokenism, it is clear Gove’s Aberdonian upbringing is central to his politics. He has remained dialled in to Scottish politics across his career. Bluntly, he gets the nuances of Holyrood. Many others do not.

He is already known as a zealous reformer, but if the UK government is to succeed in more loudly stamping its mark across Scotland through direct investment, they will need to be bold and channel the sort of zeal usually reserved for an underdog. Even Kevin Pringle, Alex Salmond’s former spin doctor, recently suggested such an attitude could play well for Unionists.

Back at Holyrood, current the Scottish Tory leader, Jackson Carlaw is an enthusiastic leader, albeit with a tough act to follow. He is also a one who – through no fault of his own – has had the early momentum of his leadership wiped out by a global pandemic. With the Holyrood elections just ten months away, fight like an underdog it must be.

Nick Cook: Watch Gove’s crucial role as a pro-Union strategist – with Scotland’s elections just ten months away

20 Jul

Nick Cook is a Conservative councillor in Edinburgh, where he holds responsibility for group policy and political strategy.

The first phases of lockdown saw me progressively tune out of the news. I’ve no doubt that juggling nursery-free parenting and arrival of a puppy both contributed.

However, the poll earlier this month putting support for Scottish separation at 54 per cent gave me the nudge I needed to again fire up my go-to news apps proper.

Yes, polls are but a snap shot in time. Yes, political pollsters worldwide have increasingly struggled to correctly predict results.

But despite damning failings on care home deaths, school reopening, comparably tight-fisted business support and a dog whistle border row that would make Donald Trump proud, Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP have been judged to have had a ‘good pandemic’.

By extension, support for a separate Scottish state seems to have risen too. I suspect temporarily, but in truth nobody is yet sure of the medium to longer term impact of Covid-19 – on politics or anything else.

Notably, the Indy uptick comes despite the fact it is the UK Conservative government – not the SNP – that has been directly paying the wages of Scotland’s 628,000 furloughed workers and 146,000 self-employed.

I firmly believe that seeing Sturgeon conduct a high budget daily press conference has boosted the SNP’s polling. The opposition simply haven’t been afforded similar exposure by broadcasters, as they would be required to at election time. As John Curtice has pointed out, it appears polling reflects two decades of relatively low public understanding of the devolved settlement has given way to a public better engaged with Holyrood’s responsibilities.

To follow this through logically, an increasing number of Scots will also be becoming better equated with what is – and crucially, is not – the UK Government’s responsibility in Scotland.

Perhaps this unprecedented pandemic will finally do what opposition parties at Holyrood have largely failed to do, which is to unambiguously pin blame for the Scottish Government’s failures at the SNP’s feet in the mind of the casual voter. Increased awareness presents risks and opportunity for unionists and nationalists alike.

However, if the recent summer statement from the Chancellor is anything to go by, the UK Government is – contrary to detractors – prepared and ready to take the fight to Scottish nationalism, based not on historical identity, but by delivering financially for Scots in the here and now. Austerity be gone.

The statement itself had Rishi Sunak’s fingerprints all over it: his predecessor, Sajid Javid, would have given it a Thatcherite rinse.

But the strategic decision to largely bypass Holyrood and spend the bulk of the £800 million directly in Scotland makes good on months-long UK Government murmurings and best the imprint of Michael Gove and his unassumingly monikered cabinet subcommittee for Union policy.

It also belatedly gives teeth to Cameron-era messaging that Scotland does indeed have two governments.

Fellow Conservatives can often be critical of Theresa May’s premiership. But she remains broadly well-regarded in Scotland by Remainers and Leavers alike, because she was rock solid on the Union and Scotland’s place within it. Lacking the Bullingdon baggage of her predecessor, Mrs May had no hesitation in tackling Nicola Sturgeon head-on. And she was modest enough to defer to Scotland’s Conservative leadership.

Some might suggest that May’s decision to put in motion the Dunlop review on devolution, when she had one foot out the door of Number Ten, was intended to put a marker down for her successor. She would know that any new government would be unlikely to be bound by its conclusions.

While Boris Johnson would declare himself ‘Minister for the Union’, his decision to heed Lord Dunlop’s call to task a senior minister with inter-UK relations betrays a good degree of self-awareness that critics – and allies – would question.

Either that or Dominic Cummings, Eddie Lister and company know full well that Johnson’s undeniable charisma and quintessential English charm quickly meet a brick all in Scotland, amongst Unionists across the political spectrum.

Gove’s influence penetrates right across government, but his pivotal role as Union tsar is probably as shrewd a decision as the current government has made. While many English MPs point to their Scottish heritage as a sort of tokenism, it is clear Gove’s Aberdonian upbringing is central to his politics. He has remained dialled in to Scottish politics across his career. Bluntly, he gets the nuances of Holyrood. Many others do not.

He is already known as a zealous reformer, but if the UK government is to succeed in more loudly stamping its mark across Scotland through direct investment, they will need to be bold and channel the sort of zeal usually reserved for an underdog. Even Kevin Pringle, Alex Salmond’s former spin doctor, recently suggested such an attitude could play well for Unionists.

Back at Holyrood, current the Scottish Tory leader, Jackson Carlaw is an enthusiastic leader, albeit with a tough act to follow. He is also a one who – through no fault of his own – has had the early momentum of his leadership wiped out by a global pandemic. With the Holyrood elections just ten months away, fight like an underdog it must be.

Roderick Crawford: Brexit is the beginning of a journey to transform Britain

20 Jul

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.

Brexit means Brexit, said Theresa May.    She was right – but only in part. Under Boris Johnson, Brexit means much more than ‘getting it done’; it offers the opportunity as well as the necessity for the economic and social transformation of the UK itself, and thus of government too.

So much of what makes the UK tick was caught up in and by the EU – whether that was booming, coasting along or withering on the vine – that to simply ‘do Brexit’ is not enough. To make a success of Brexit requires the transformation of the UK: there can be no more business as normal: that was the case even before Covid-19 came along.   For that, success is needed right across economic and social policy, not just trade policy.

Post-Brexit, the UK needs to address the problem in the housing market, because it’s a key contributor to economic prosperity, social stability and individual and family wellbeing.  The house-building industry and the housing market need radical reshaping; the industry needs new entrants, new building opportunities, innovative building that delivers significant productivity gains – and all on a scale not seen for generations.

For that, we need a government that will change the current closed market into an open one – and make land available to new entrants and for new projects.  It needs to create new incentives for landlords to move from short-term tenancy agreements to three or five year leases for existing and future tenants thus changing insecure accommodation into secure homes at the stroke of a pen.

It has been suggested that York should become the seat of the Lords or Parliament while the Palace of Westminster is refurbished and long term a government hub.  For this, York needs tens of thousands of new houses and flats, along with offices and conference centres, improved infrastructure, including its own airport and better regional road and train links.

York as a permanent government hub in the North makes good sense, but it could also pull financiers and more creative and service businesses north to add value to the regional economy – including manufacturing.  That would be a serious boost to the North – and a defining moment in the remaking of the UK, not just England.

New technologies, new processes, new designs, new businesses, partnerships – and new regulatory frameworks – are key to economic transformation.  This formed the basis of the UK’s first industrial revolution and the subsequent industry-sector revolutions since then.  Whatever keeps new entrants and innovations out of business sectors ought in principle to be removed, subject to legal and moral considerations.

Government tends to consult with the same old bodies about changes to market regulation, but most of those it consults are beneficiaries of the system as it exists or are so immersed in it that they can only see the possibility of reform of the present system, they cannot see a totally new one.

Where you need new entrants, consult with those outside the sector wanting to get in or expand, not those established firms trying to keep competition out and act accordingly.  Tinkering with the regulatory frameworks isn’t enough anymore –  extensive deregulation and re-regulation are both required, and in heavy doses for some sectors.  That was a key element of Franklin D.Roosevelt’s New Deal.

The United Kingdom needs a foreign policy that both supports UK interests and which the public supports – one that brings the UK together; the current review needs to put these aims to the fore.  We should seek to play a leading global leadership role, but with limited resources that means – at the least — focus, innovation and partnership.

As a general set of principles for the UK global aims, post-Brexit, we would do well to turn for inspiration and leadership to the Atlantic Charter, drawn up in August 1941 between Roosevelt and Winston Churchill on the warships Augusta and Prince of Wales, off Argentia, Newfoundland.  Its sets out eight common principles on which they sought to base their hopes for the post-war world; it remains highly relevant today, not least because due to wartime events, the war aims of the Soviet Union and the Cold War, its full hopes were not realised.

In summary, the two nations:

  • Seek no aggrandisement, territorial or other;
  • Have no desire to see territorial changes not in accord with the freely expressed will of the peoples concerned;
  • Respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they live and to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those forcibly deprived of them;
  • Endeavour to further the enjoyment of all states, great or small, of access, on equal terms, to the trade and the raw materials of the world which are needed for their economic prosperity;
  • To bring about the fullest co-operation between all nations in the economic field with the object of securing, for all, improved labour standards, economic advancement and social security;
  • They hope to see established a peace which will afford to all nations the means of dwelling in safety within their own boundaries, and which will afford assurance that all may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want;
  • Such a peace should enable all men and women to traverse the high seas and oceans without hindrance;
  • They believe that all the nations of the world, for realistic as well as spiritual reasons must come to the abandonment of the use of force.

Today we would want to add in a few more key principles — addressing climate change would of course be amongst them.

These principles could serve the UK well as a foundation for what it hopes for the world and its role in it; it could form the basis for future partnerships across the globe and guide its work through international bodies like the WTO or as it seeks to bring stability to the global order in a time marked by great change and challenges.

As we enter the next rounds of negotiations with the EU, it is as well to remember that any agreement we reach should support and not restrain the broader aims of national and state renewal for the UK and its freedom of action in foreign policy.  An equitable agreement at this stage would make a positive contribution to realising UK ambitions