A political flight of fancy perhaps, but could 2015 bring a British ‘Grand Coalition’?

As German voters gear up for federal elections this weekend, there is a distinct possibility that we will see a repeat of 2005 which brought no clear winner, and resulted in a so-called ‘Grand Coalition’ of the centre-right CDU and centre-left SPD. While coalition is the normal state of government affairs for German politicians, the fact that once again the two main protagonists may be forced together must feel like an exercise in political sadism visited upon them by a disgruntled and disenchanted electorate.

Across the North Sea to Glasgow, and today we have Nick Clegg’s pronouncement that it would be far better for Britain if neither of the two main parties won an outright victory in 2015 – and, by extension, that the Lib Dems should therefore continue in office as the junior coalition partner, there to temper the baser instincts of its larger partner.

My question, though, is whether British voters might inflict the same political pain on the Conservatives and Labour? Is it inconceivable that we could see either David Cameron or Ed Miliband go to the Queen in two years’ time saying he is forming a government with his arch rival? As a political earthquake, such an outcome would certainly dwarf the result of May 2010.

The likelihood is remote, of course.

If there is to be a coalition, it remains more plausible that it will be the Lib Dems plus Labour or the Conservatives. That said, recent trends in British politics suggest a gradual but significant shift in the tectonic plates. Party membership is falling as individual voters are increasingly concerned with a smaller range of issues about which they are passionate. Indeed, some are questioning the very utility of the mass membership political party. Were it not for the current first-past-the-post system, smaller more issue or agenda-driven parties such as UKIP or the Greens would surely have broken through domestically, and not just in European Parliamentary polls.

The dominance of the two parties remains because of our voting system. The consequence, though, is growing disenchantment with the parties as political institutions. Not only do they seem increasingly unrepresentative of the broader debates and trends within our polity, crucially they seem unable to react meaningfully to the challenges we face today.

In part this reflects an underlying consensus across ‘mainstream’ politics in favour of the free market, giving the impression that we no longer have ‘big ideas’ or ‘big debates’. But increasingly civil society is finding new ways to think about, debate and address political, economic and social challenges. New movements and new forms of activism, such as 38 Degrees or Occupy, are engaging energetically in these debates, simultaneously shining a light on the old political institutions. The failings of our parties are being thrown into sharp relief: they seem unable to talk about the problems and challenges in our economy, job market, education system etc in new, meaningful and – most importantly – engaging ways.

What does all this have to do with a possible British ‘Grand Coalition’? Well, bar the outliers on the edges of their respective parties, at the moment it feels as if there is little to choose between Labour and the Conservatives. An orthodoxy has set in in which Labour is so desperate to regain its economic credibility that it shies away from any meaningful challenge to the current government’s austerity agenda. Meanwhile, for the Conservatives cutting taxes and spending has always been a central plank of their political message. If the electorate choose to punish the Lib Dems in 2015, we could end up in a situation where the two larger parties have no choice but to work together.

This may seem a flight of political fancy, but there is a serious point to be made. Our current electoral and party system has been on borrowed time for a while. We need to embrace the idea of coalition politics. And we need to have more players in the electoral system if it is to retain its legitimacy in the longer term. This is the challenge we face as a ‘mature democracy’.

The alternative, in the short term at least, could be watching the excruciating discomfort on the faces of Messrs Cameron and Miliband at PMQs as they sit next to one another, being harangued by the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition…Rt Hon Vince Cable MP.

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Irrelevance, isolation and weakness: the real price of Tory Europhobia

Last week I visited Portsmouth for the first time in years. One of the historical homes of Britain’s sea power down the centuries, today it feels more like a quiet backwater with just the occasional continental ferry or hovercraft to the Isle of Wight to disturb the peace. On my last visit, which I am reliably informed was shortly after the Task Force had returned from liberating the Falkland Islands, the panorama was dominated by the unmistakeable sea-grey of the Royal Navy. Today, to underscore how much things have changed, only a couple of smokestacks are visible. Indeed, there is even a rumour going round in the local Portsmouth press that the Royal Navy’s dockyards face closure as the senior service faces up to the reality of Treasury cut-backs.

The symbolism of this seems even starker as it emerged over the weekend that the Prime Minister is now seriously mooting the possibility of holding a referendum on our membership of the EU, while his former Defence Secretary Liam Fox, the darling of the Tory Eurosceptic right, is today demanding a renegotiation of our membership or an out-and-out withdrawal from the EU if that fails. Perhaps the only thing to be said for Dr Fox’s arguments is that they are clear and offer no room for misunderstanding – unlike those of his former boss, whose pronouncements on what exactly we, the British electorate, would be asked in such a referendum are, to quote an old English teacher of mine, “clear as mud”.  

The restive Europhobes on the Tory backbenches have a high-profile champion in Liam Fox – a heavy-weight whose sound-bites attract the attention they crave in their zealous pursuit of “an escape from Europe”. If the Republican right in the States is dominated by the fanatically anti-Washington Tea Party, Britain’s Conservatives are equally in thrall to “anti-Europeanism”. Indeed, so fiercely focused are they on the purported evils of Brussels and the EU, they seem blissfully unaware of the logical conclusion of their policy. This would be to lead us over the precipice into a very unsplendid isolation, rendering us increasingly irrelevant on the international stage, unable to defend our interests or fight our corner in what has the potential to be the most turbulent period in international relations for nearly a century.

For let us be clear on what is being suggested here. Siren words about re-negotiation are just that. If we honestly believe that as just one of 27, we can turn to our EU partners and demand to renegotiate the terms of our membership on the basis of some “à la carte” policy pick’n’mix, we will be politely but firmly refused. If we then suggest that we will leave if we do not get what we want, there may well be regrets but little more. In essence, we are asking our partner states to let us have our cake and eat it – to participate, but only on our own terms. If we do that, why should France or Germany, or Italy or Poland, or any of the others not do likewise? Every member state has things it likes and things it dislikes about the EU – but it comes as a package, otherwise the whole entity unravels. I have been told repeatedly by British diplomats involved in representing our interests in Brussels in recent years that the point is to be inside the room seeking to influence the argument. On the outside, you can do nothing.

Of course, most anti-European Tories understand this: they know that the choice between re-negotiation and departure is really no choice at all. They are itching to be able to withdraw from the EU, convinced that by doing so Britain will somehow regain all its apparently lost influence. But in this they are sadly – and dangerously – mistaken. In relative decline for at least the last half-century, Britain’s power and influence today rests on its many multilateral commitments. But in particular, it is our memberships of the UN (and especially the Security Council), NATO and the EU which form the basis of our power and influence on the international stage today. Together they form the three essential pillars of our foreign policy. Remove one and you weaken them all.

We are able to fight our corner – punch above our weight, in fact – because of our place in the EU, not in spite of it.  Our close relationship with the US relies on our being a key decision-maker in Brussels – how much attention would Washington pay us if we chose to retreat to the periphery? And while politicians and officials do their best to deny any link between the two, departure from the EU would surely call into question our ability to maintain our place on the UN Security Council. Reform of this body deserves more attention than I can give it here, but part of the argument we make for our continuing membership is based around a sense of legitimacy arising from our commitment to multilateralism. Outside the EU, how long could we withstand calls to give up our seat in the face of serious and concerted efforts to achieve Security Council reform?

This, then, is the price we would pay for what the Tory Right likes to present as the reclaiming of Britain’s sovereignty. In a world where a growing number of states are seeking to exercise the kind of influence they feel their economic power merits, it is depressing to see our politicians behaving in such a blinkered and insular manner.

Departure from the EU would make no real difference to the impact Brussels has on the UK. If we want to continue trading with our continental partners, as all politicians profess they do, we would still have to abide by the regulations governing the Single Market. We would merely have ensured that we would be able to play no part in shaping them. The impact internationally would be far worse. At a time when we face ever increasing austerity at home, Dr Fox and his allies would now like us to face isolation, irrelevance and weakness abroad. The Prime Minister’s response? Prevarication.

So much for the national interest.

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David Cameron’s bulldog stupidity

The news that David Cameron was cheered to the rafters by Tory backbenchers at a dinner on Friday evening for his wielding of the British veto at the EU summit the previous night is one of the more depressing things I have heard recently.  Many decades ago, the Israeli politician Abba Eban said of the Arabs, “they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”. Today, such an accusation can be levelled at the Prime Minister and his party in their whole approach to the EU.  Whilst it may take some time for the full ramifications of Cameron’s decision to be understood, the reality is that by this action he has not only weakened Britain its relations with our European partners; he has also damaged our position internationally.   

Let’s be clear, first of all: the German proposals were very far from perfect, and Britain was certainly not alone in being unhappy with some of the ideas that had been put on the table. But Chancellor Merkel was not offering some amazing economic or fiscal panacea. Rather, this was a very long overdue attempt to finally get to grips with the sovereign debt crisis that has threatened to consume several European economies and has left many doubting the future viability of the Eurozone.

But it was not an end-point. It was the opening of a process in which the 26 states who have chosen to participate will hammer out an agreement between themselves that will involve compromises and give-and-take by all. We don’t know the final shape or details of the deal. But we do know that as things stand we will be left on the sidelines, essentially irrelevant while it is being negotiated.

The tragedy of this situation for us is that it was entirely avoidable.

We should be in these talks, and we could have had a great deal of influence over the outcome. We have a very clear and significant national interest in ensuring that Europe’s economy recovers and that the Eurozone finally has the kind of fiscal governance and discipline necessary to make it function properly. We also have a huge interest in ensuring that the openness and flexibility of the Single Market is not limited by whatever is agreed in pursuit of that. Finally, although not members of the Eurozone, Britain’s voice in Europe is respected, and its officials and representatives admired for their efficiency and effectiveness in negotiations. As champions of economic openness and still a significant economic power, we therefore should have been able to contribute a great deal to achieving a lasting solution that would benefit both ourselves and our partners.

In short, this was an opportunity to put ourselves front and centre, not only working for Britain’s interest in the here and now, but in achieving the kind of influence in Europe our leaders always claim a country of our size should have. In doing so we could have played the kind of role that many of our natural EU allies, particularly the northern and Nordic states, have pleaded with us to play. We could have built a solid coalition of like-minded states who share our concerns about creating unnecessary bureaucracy, and ensuring budgetary discipline and sustainable growth.

But to achieve this requires careful diplomacy and discussion conducted over months rather than in the highly-charged and high-profile atmosphere of a European Council meeting. Thus, while British Eurosceptics may cheer the Prime Minister for his wielding of Britain’s veto, this was not an act of power and defiance. It was the final and perhaps inevitable act of failed a European strategy characterised by British hectoring and lecturing of our European partners. Instead of working with Angela Merkel who again should have been a natural ally, Mr Cameron alienated the most powerful politician in Europe. This ensured that when we needed Germany and our other partners to be flexible and open to compromise, they weren’t prepared to listen.

And the explanation for this failure?

Well, Mr Cameron made great play of his determination to protect “Britain’s national interest”. But I fear his definition of that interest is somewhat narrow – and indeed is confined to protecting the City of London and shoring up his support within a ferociously Eurosceptic Conservative Party.

Ironically, he will not have achieved either. The City of London remains vulnerable, except now, as things stand, there will be no British representatives to defend its interests in the meetings that count. Meanwhile, for many in his party, this “no” is not enough. They want nothing short of a re-negotiation of Britain’s relationship with the EU, and if that means the end of Britain’s membership, then so much the better. Having given in once, Cameron will find it very difficult not to do so again. And again, and again, and again.

So where does this leave the UK? The reality of our situation today is that we are in relative decline when compared to emerging powers such as Brazil, India, China, etc. Ensuring we have a strong economy is essential to maintaining our place in the world. But just as important is the leadership position we currently have in the network of international organisations such as the EU, UN, NATO, IMF, etc that mediate the world’s affairs. Like it or not, they are interlinked and interdependent. So when we damage our position in one, we weaken the whole structure upon which our international influence rests – and thus our real ability to defend our national interests.

David Cameron’s actions on Thursday night have left Britain marginalised in Europe and potentially weaker internationally. I fear we will have to pay a heavy price for his bulldog stupidity.

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Strikes, Embassies and the Failure to Listen

On the face of it there may not seem to be a great deal to connect the widespread industrial action that took place across Britain yesterday, and the closure of Britain’s embassy in Iran. The first was a reaction by many public sector workers angry at what they consider to be the Government’s assault on their pensions. The second was the Government’s response to the occupation and ransacking of its diplomatic post in Tehran by students whose actions may well have been sanctioned by elements of Iran’s ruling establishment. One important feature shared by both events, though, is what they symbolise: a dramatic failure to listen.

Taking Iran first, relations between Tehran and London have long been combustible, based on a widely held belief that Britain’s only desire is to interfere in Iranian affairs and undermine Iranian governments. Indeed, so prevalent is this belief that at times popular opinion in Iran seems to have invested Britain with an almost mythical level of malign influence.  With the exception of the United States, there are few other countries that can raise official Iranian ire so quickly or dramatically.

Having widely condemned the attack on the British Embassy, EU Member States are meeting today to discuss the current sanctions regime and whether it should be strengthened. William Hague has sought to emphasise that any EU agreement to do this is entirely separate to the UK’s response to the attack on its embassy, but such nuances are likely to be lost on the majority of Iranians – and they are certainly unlikely to be reported in the Iranian media. Instead, Britain’s decision to expel Iran’s diplomats has been characterised by Tehran as a “hasty” over-reaction, and its desire to increase EU pressure merely evidence of its long-standing ambition to weaken Iran.  

The problem Britain faces is that Iran’s ruling establishment is far from monolithic or united. Different centres of power compete for influence, with some adopting a more hard line stance and welcoming Iran’s further potential isolation and the “freedom” this would allow them to pursue nuclear weapons development. Others, meanwhile, take a more pragmatic stance, wanting a settlement with the West that would allow them to concentrate on maintaining the regime in the longer term. When you add elections into the mix, any external party is faced with navigating a political environment of nightmarish complexity. Thus, whilst Mark Malloch-Brown’s assertion that William Hague “had little choice” but to close Britain’s embassy and expel Iran’s diplomats from London might seem the logical reaction, it does great damage to our ability to exercise any kind of influence in Tehran.

For a country that has seen devastating Western military intervention in one of its neighbours, but no such intervention in a nuclear-armed North Korea, a fellow member of the so-called “axis of evil”, the obvious conclusion has been that nuclear weapons equal safety from military intervention. The extent to which this is understood by our political leaders is not clear. Indeed, it seems that the only Iranian messages we are currently listening to are the more bellicose ones, something that will only become more pronounced now we have cut entirely our contacts with the Iranian government – including with those in the Iranian establishment with whom a political deal remains feasible. 

So, whilst the safety of diplomatic staff is paramount, surely it would have been feasible to maintain some kind of presence, however small, rather than limiting our ability to communicate to megaphone diplomacy? While some elements of the Iranian establishment no longer wish to listen to us, how responsible or safe is it for us to follow suit?

Closer to home, the strike yesterday by public sector workers represents another failure to listen. A strike is the final resort of any union, and in that sense it is rather like a nuclear deterrent: if you have to use it, you have failed.  Equally, however, for the Government to have created a situation where so many unions felt that strike action was the only option indicates a massive failure on their part.  In recent months, ministers have sought to vilify union leaders, presenting them as entirely unreasonable and interested only in fomenting a new era of industrial unrest. The fact that among those on strike yesterday were members of the headteachers’ union, the NAHT, who were taking industrial action for the first time in 114 years, demonstrates the essential dishonesty of this claim.

I have huge sympathy for all those doctors, nurses, teachers, civil servants etc who took industrial action yesterday. I don’t subscribe to the view expressed in many discussion fora yesterday that somehow because public sector pensions are “so much better” than those in the private sector, this negates their right to oppose what the Government is doing – that they should simply be grateful for what they have. Public sector pensions are only generous by comparison to the appalling state of their private sector equivalents. The fact that private sector pensions are in such a shambolic state does not, to paraphrase Lord Hutton, justify a race to the bottom.

It is a fact that we are living longer. We are generally healthier and many of us will be able to work for longer. It is not unreasonable, therefore, to re-examine the nature of state provision for our retirement and consider ways of ensuring the system is financially viable in the long-term. Nor, therefore, is it outlandish to expect the Government to also take action to put the private pension sector on an equally sound footing. Public and private sector are essential elements of a greater whole – and pensions should be an issue of common cause rather than division.

Such an effort seems beyond this Government, however. Its huge – and entirely avoidable – failure has been to persuade public sector workers such as the members of the NAHT that even as it seeks to reform the pensions system, it has their interests at heart. Thus, instead of negotiating with those who have legitimate concerns and grievances it has decided to use opposition to its pensions plans as an opportunity to seek confrontation with the unions and apparently fight the battles of the 1980s all over again. In doing so it has given the lie to the notion that we are “all in this together”.

The strikes and our relationship with Iran are just two examples in an ever-increasing list of how David Cameron and his government are just not listening. Whether it is in our negotiations with our EU partners over how to fix the Eurozone, concerns about reforms to the NHS, the need to bring genuine and far-reaching reform to the banking sector or how to tackle the growing inequality in incomes in the UK that the Institute for Fiscal Studies highlighted just this morning, this failure to listen is doing lasting damage both to our reputation abroad and our ability to manage our affairs at home.

We all deserve better.

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Ending the culture of impunity at the heart of Britain’s media

Whichever way you look at it, there is something very wrong with a media culture that enables one national newspaper to profit from the illegal hacking of the voicemails of private citizens, and two others to tarnish at will the reputation of a man arrested but then subsequently released without charge during a murder investigation. And this is just two incidents out of many. 

If the allegations being made against Glenn Mulcaire, the “private investigator” at the centre of this scandal, are true and he really did both hack into and delete messages from Milly Dowler’s voicemail even as police were searching for her, then he should be prosecuted and (I hope) sent back to prison.  (And you do have to wonder what has happened to an individual to make his moral compass go so completely AWOL that he would seek to profit from hacking into other people’s phones in the first place.) More importantly, the newspaper executives who either sanctioned, or through sin of omission or lack of proper oversight, failed to prevent these activities taking place in the first place should lose their jobs, starting with Rebekah Brooks.

But it does not stop there.  The stories printed by The Sun and The Mirror last year after Christopher Jeffries was arrested in connection with the murder of Jo Yeates in Bristol could have seriously prejudiced any subsequent trial had he gone on to be prosecuted. As it was, he was hung out to dry by publications who like to talk up personal responsibility but show precious little of it themselves. Once again, editorial judgement seems to be driven first and foremost by the commercial imperative of shifting as many newspapers as possible.

And to ensure that this does not simply come across as an attack on the UK’s print media, our 24-hour rolling TV news culture must also bear its fair share of responsibility.

While they may ostensibly be more nuanced and editorially balanced than many of their Fleet Street colleagues (although that is debatable), the sheer level of intrusiveness and insensitivity the TV news channels regularly show in the name of providing the most up-to-date coverage of whatever the breaking news story of the day happens to be is quite breath-taking. Some examples that immediately spring to mind: the rolling coverage of the Cumbrian shootings and the Raoul Moat siege last year; and the hounding of Kate and Gerry McCann in the aftermath of their daughter’s disappearance. Newspapers and TV feed off each other in an increasingly vicious circle that has seen ratings and sales become the real measures of the state of our public discourse.  

What we have today is a culture of impunity within important and influential parts of the media, dressed up in the language of freedom of speech and the public’s right to know. At the same time, we have a political class that is terrified of what they might reap should they dare to challenge the Fourth Estate, and particularly the tabloid newspapers that claim such influence come election time. Their inaction is matched by a toothless Press Complaints Commission (PCC) that is notable predominantly for its absence in providing any meaningful response to this situation. And we wonder why levels of respect for journalists and politicians in this country are among the lowest anywhere in the world?

Not surprisingly, our political leaders have been cautious in their responses thus far. David Cameron declared today that Mulcaire’s actions, if true, are “a truly dreadful act” while Ed Miliband called for a public inquiry, the knee-jerk political response when one is in opposition. This is simply not good enough, and it’s time for Cameron and Co to show some collective mettle, not least because it might improve their ability to demonstrate some much-needed leadership on the really big issues of the day.

To begin with, the government needs to fire the clearest of warning shots across News Corporation’s bows by immediately placing on hold its acquisition of BSkyB until a full public inquiry has established the facts about what went on at The News of the World, and those responsible have been suitably held to account. This is no longer just a commercial transaction (if it ever was). Serious questions must now be asked about the wisdom of allowing the company that has ultimately profited from the NoW’s actions from increasing its stake in Britain’s media industry.

At the same time, the PCC needs to be reconstituted and given greater powers to level punitive fines on publications found to be profiting from illegal intrusion into people’s private lives where no clear public interest can be established – and what exactly is meant by “the public interest” must be properly defined and set out for all to see. And the Attorney-General must make clear that where the actions of newspapers threaten to prejudice potential criminal cases, they will be vigorously and swiftly held to account.

But if this particular Augean Stable is ultimately to be cleaned out, it requires us as members of our society to end the “plague on both your houses” attitude and recognise that we have responsibility in all this as well. Every time we buy a newspaper and repeat as fact the uncorroborated stories we read, or rush to judgement in deciding that people like Christopher Jeffries or Kate and Gerry McCann must in some way be guilty for the crimes they find themselves caught up in simply because the media insinuate as much, we give credibility to stories that do not deserve it, and respectability to the institutions that produce them.

It is up to us as individuals to question and challenge what we are told if we ever want to end this culture of impunity.

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