Apologies for the lack of posts this week, owing to pressure of work. Here is a canter round current British politics, with reference to the municipal and European elections to be held here on 10 June.
In short: Labour will do badly; fringe parties will do well. For my part, I am supposed to be assisting the campaign of the Independent Martin Bell - who is standing in East Anglia for election to the European Parliament - by offering him advice on issues of European policy.
It is disturbing that an explicitly anti-European fringe party, the UK Independence Party, should be attracting apparently committed support from a significant minority of a generally uninterested electorate. The European Union’s economic achievements are admittedly overstated by its proponents, and the well-known market distortions in agriculture a continuing cost to European consumers and Third World producers. But the single market is an important achievement, and the political benefits of the EU are almost impossible to overstate. One of my particular interests in politics is post-war Germany, of which I am a great admirer (excepting the current Chancellor and government, for whom I have no respect at all). Germany’s transformation within a generation from a defeated and monstrous despotism to a thriving, tolerant, liberal democracy was eased and hastened by the supranational structures of the emerging union. The symbolism of the accession to membership of ten new states that formerly lived under Communist tyranny is of great significance. The EU is both a solvent for formerly intractable political disputes, and a symbolic welcoming of polities that have managed to free themselves from tyranny and become constitutional democracies governed by the rule of law.
It’s a shame that the principal message of the European elections in the UK may prove to be the extent of anti-European feeling. Johann Hari wrote a valuable piece in The Independent this week on the character of the UK Independence Party, which he rightly portrays as a xenophobic organisation with disturbing links to the extreme Right. (One piece of the evidence doesn’t stand up, though: the tiny UK Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, whose web site the UK Independence Party links to, is not the sectarian organisation that Hari supposes. Its opposition to the Northern Ireland ‘peace process’ derives from its integrationist position. Right or wrong - and I think it's wrong - this is a strictly constitutional argument: the former Irish Cabinet minister Conor Cruise O’Brien ran for the Northern Ireland Assembly on the UK Unionist ticket because the party was not sectarian in the way that unionism traditionally has been.)
For all that, I am not in favour of the proposed European constitutional treaty, and will vote against it in a referendum as it currently stands. As the economics columnist of the Financial Times, Sir Samuel Brittan, has shrewdly observed:
The treaty makes sense only on the assumption that there is already a will to create a superstate but that in some areas there is still a lingering need for unanimous decisions. The government is making a mistake in supposing that it is enough to require such unanimity just for tax, foreign policy and defence. The EU has been most intrusive in a dirigiste direction via so-called social policy, health and safety and similar areas; and the existing document lists no areas where power is returned to national governments, despite lip service to subsidiarity.
This argument isn’t a nationalist one; it’s an observation about the nature of government. A consistent liberal would argue that good government, especially in the economic sphere, consists in establishing a framework of rules rather than in discretionary intervention. Without those constraints, governments are responsive to the demands of sectional interests. Brittan’s point, as I understand it, is that a confederation is peculiarly liable to this problem:
The EU functions neither as a union of separate states nor yet a federation. It is a confederation in which different governments can obstruct each other but none has the authority to override sectional interests in the way the US president or UK cabinet can attempt.
The treaty as it stands doesn’t circumscribe discretionary intervention, but appears to envisage its extension. It is in that respect illiberal, and while I deeply dislike the notion of allying with some of the most unpleasant elements in British politics on this issue, I would not support a constitutional treaty that took that form.
I shall, however, be voting Labour in both sets of elections. My reasons are not especially to do with Europe, I just want to support the Prime Minister. As I foolishly said on a local Liberal Democrat questionnaire that asked my voting intentions (for I have since received visits from the local party seeking my support), my vote is determined by the issue of the Iraq war. The Conservative Party seems to me have behaved on that issue in a way that discredits the notion of honest opportunism, while its policy mix on economic and social issues is chaotically populist. A party that imagines opposing tuition fees (or to give the policy its proper name, supporting middle-class subsidies) is consistent with a pro-market approach is not to be taken seriously.
That exhausts the sensible voting options in the elections. On the same day, of course, the election for Mayor of London, also takes place. Having lately acquired a family and hence moved out of London, I do not have a vote this time; this is a great relief to me, as there is no candidate I could support, even for tactical reasons. The Labour candidate Ken Livingstone simply ought not to have been accepted back into membership by the Labour Party, let alone been given its candidature. His fiscal profligacy, philistine and dirigiste approach to urban planning, fascination with courting business interests, and outright-stupid political extremism render him a frivolous politician with a large budget. The Tory candidate Steve Norris has, with astonishing obtuseness, failed to realise that his business affairs represent a conflict of interest with mayoral responsibilities in public transport.
As for the Liberal Democrat candidate, Simon Hughes …. Well, I am thick-skinned and I am not a political naïf, but I am taken aback by the plain odiousness of the man’s campaign. This is a recurring problem with the Liberal Democrats. I recall the 1989 Vauxhall by-election, in which the Labour candidate, the estimable Kate Hoey (for whom I voted), was the target of a despicable Liberal campaign on the subject of the death of a child in care. I also recall the party’s campaign in the Brecon and Radnor by-election a few years earlier, which made sly insinuations about the sexuality of the Tory candidate. This sort of personal campaigning, alternating between the bigoted and the calumnious, has been characteristic of too many Liberal Democrat campaigns to be classed as aberrant in the party’s behaviour.