New Statesman 260914

Labour faces the question of how credible voters think Ed Miliband’s story is

Nearly all media coverage of Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour party conference last Tuesday focused on what he missed. Miliband – certain wings of the media have argued – did not just miss out specific policies on immigration and deficit, but has also missed the opportunity to ‘rally the troops’ ahead of next May’s general election. Coverage has asked whether Miliband was convincing, who he wanted to speak to, and what policies he was proposing. But Tuesday’s speech was about more than this. It was, in effect, the culmination of four years of careful storytelling, of a narrative Miliband has been crafting since becoming leader of the opposition in 2010. The Labour party now faces the question of just how credible the electorate think that Miliband’s story is.

Read the full article here.

The Conversation 220914

France loves a hero, but Sarkozy must lay off the bling this time

Nicolas Sarkozy has returned to mainstream French politics by announcing his plan to run for the leadership of the main opposition party, the centre-right UMP. He faces tough opposition from within his own party, and he has yet to fully shake off the spectres of his past. But if he can show that things will be different this time around, his comeback might just work.

Read the full article here.

Lessons from Scotland’s Referendum for Britain in the EU

One down; and one to go. Scotland’s referendum is over and at this stage things are going reasonably well for the British state, provided that it makes a serious, determined and successful effort to reform itself. There are very solid grounds here for optimism.

What the Scotland referendum has shown is that we are just beginning what looks to be a much wider, and long overdue, process of constitutional reform, which encompasses not only the relationship of Scotland to the UK, but also the relationship of the other three home nations – England, Northern Ireland and Wales – to the UK; and, of course, the UK’s relationship to the EU. These separate debates are deeply intertwined; each one needs to be seen in the context of the others. Scotland’s referendum was ultimately about the shape, scope and powers of the British state; the same holds true for a UK-wide referendum on EU membership. Given these linkages, it is clear that the arguments for Scotland remaining in the United Kingdom have much in common with those in favour of the UK remaining in the EU.

Although the question of Scotland has been settled for the foreseeable future, what is far less certain, however, is the outcome of the possible 2017 referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. As has been the case for so many other national challenges in our long shared history, it’ll be of great help to have Scotland in the Union when the moment comes. In the case of the EU referendum this is because the Scots are more Europhile than the rest of the UK’s population. According to Professor Charlie Jeffery of the University of Edinburgh, the split between Scots who had a positive vs. negative view of the EU in 2013 was 43% to 27%, against 34% and 34% for England; similarly when it comes to an in–out vote, 48% of Scots would definitely vote to stay in vs. only 37% of the English. Although Scottish preferences are not a million miles away from those of the English, they are definitely more pro-EU, by at least 10 percentage points (and even more according to some polls), than their fellow Britons south of the River Tweed. This, in my opinion, is at least partly to do with the preferences of the Scottish elite (which is uniformly Europhile; probably because they are used to the notion of multi-level governance which is local, Scottish, British and European in that order), but it is also a function of the fact that for the man or woman in the street, Scotland is already well-catered for in terms of populist protest or nationalist parties in the Scottish National Party (SNP).

Scotland’s value to a UK-wide EU vote is important, but it should be borne in mind that Scottish electors totalled only 4,027,200 in 2013 out of the whole UK electorate of 46,139,900. Breaking this number down, 38,597,100 live in England and in aggregate are somewhat Eurosceptic; 2,297,300 live in Wales and tend to have similar attitudes towards the EU as the UK average; and, 1,218,400 live in Northern Ireland, which, incidentally, was found to be the most pro-EU of all of the components of the UK by a Gallup Poll in 2008.

Voters living in England will determine the outcome of any UK-wide EU referendum, but within England, of course, there are great differences in attitudes from locality to locality. In London, for example, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) took only 16% of the vote in the 2014 European Parliament Elections against 32% of the vote in the neighbouring South East of England. Here we see that not only is it too simplistic to view ‘England’ as in any way a uniform political object on any issue (incidentally, eastern England tends to be more Eurosceptic than western England), but one should also be wary of reading too much into the results of the European Parliament Election of 2014 in the UK for a European referendum vote, not least because turn-out was so low, at 34%. Thus even if UKIP did top the poll in May 2014, barely one in ten of the total electorate cast their votes for them. An EU referendum is likely to be a matter of greater salience to the British electorate as they come to realise its importance in providing and safeguarding many things they take for granted. The UKIP threat needs to be taken seriously, but it should also be seen in its appropriate context.

Campaigners for Britain to remain in the EU should take heart from the analysis of the British electorate’s attitude towards the European Union drawn by Tim Haughton and myself in a recent edition of the JCMS Annual Review of the EU. A first point is that UK opinion of the European Union has been hugely volatile over the long term (1973–2009), including periods when the electorate was broadly pro-European, and periods when it was broadly anti-European. The great mass of voters (two-thirds of the electorate) could be said to be floating on the issue, with no strongly fixed views one way or another and are open to persuasion by either camp. Yet, interestingly, when it comes to the diehards (those who will not change their views under any circumstances), supporters of the EU are twice as numerous as Eurosceptics. As in Scotland, this could point to the existence of a silent majority. Time – and hard campaigning – will tell.

Before that period of campaigning begins – and a Conservative defeat in 2015 will probably just postpone an eventual EU referendum, such is the clamour today – in the wake of the Scotland vote, there can be no better time to take stock and reflect on some lessons learnt on how to campaign – and how not to campaign – during a prospective EU referendum, not least because both fights share the characteristics of a counter-insurgency that needs to be fought tooth-and-nail against the forces of narrow nationalism. Scottish nationalism was defeated (just) in the 2014 referendum. The far more dangerous threat of English nationalism will have to be overcome in a potential 2017 EU referendum.

This is an open cards exercise, so it’s worth stating at the outset that the lessons I have in mind are for those who want the UK to stay in the EU. I’m also assuming that a future Conservative government holding a referendum would be campaigning in favour of EU membership – this is a little bit uncertain, but it remains the most likely EU referendum scenario. If you want Britain to leave the EU, it’s fair to say you might as well stop reading now, unless you just want to annoy yourself. Here goes.

Lesson No. 1 – Don’t Hold a Referendum!

OK – this is perhaps not in line with the spirit of lessons learned, but it’ll do no harm to drive home the most important argument. Referendums are terribly divisive, pesky things that will inevitably leave one part of the electorate deeply disappointed and dissatisfied. The old British politics of winner-take-all no longer seems to match the public’s preferences, if indeed it ever did.

Voters have changed and expect their views to feed into the debate, somehow, whether or not they are on the winning side. In the Scotland referendum, one of the principal arguments advanced by the Yes side, its trump card you might say, was the notion that there would be ‘no more Tory governments’ in Scotland. There a number of things at which Alex Salmond cannot be beaten. One of those things would be smirking; and a second would be chutzpah: in the 2010 UK General Election 35.6% of Scottish voters cast their ballot for the Conservative–Liberal Coalition to only 19.9% for the SNP. In fact a mere 3.2 percentage points more of voters in Scotland voted for the SNP than the hated Tories who won 16.7% of the popular vote. Alistair Darling had a go at making another version of this point in the first televised debate, but he came across as irritated and shouty when set against Salmond’s customarily emollient manner, and I fear that his sound, lawyerly argument was lost. Elsewhere in the UK, I remember when I taught students at the University of Sussex that one of their main gripes in the Blair era was that none of the parties reflected their personal political preferences (revolutionary socialism, anarchism etc.). I gently tried to remind them that they had perhaps misunderstood the question being asked of them when they stand in front in a voting booth during a General Election. The question is not: what is your dream party? Rather, it is which of the following would you most like to form the next government? If voters don’t understand that this is how British politics works, then British politics itself has to change. Referendums don’t help that process of change.

Then there is the problem that referendums reduce incredibly nuanced and complex matters questions down to a yes–no dichotomy that doesn’t suit the most knotty political questions. Moreover, a glance at the history of the referendum will reveal its shady origins as a Bonapartist instrument designed to provide a measure of legitimacy to the ‘authority from above; confidence from below’ way of doing politics and government. In other words, the referendum was designed to produce overwhelming support for dictatorial powers; matters like membership of the EU or Scottish independence don’t fit this picture.

And lastly, the evidence of all EU referendums across the 28 Member States (France and the Netherlands in 2005; Ireland in 2001; Denmark in 1992 etc.) is that the question that most voters will really be asking themselves during a given referendum is ‘do I support the government that is asking me this question?’ And, almost anything could go wrong in the UK during run-up to an EU referendum which would ensure that the answer to this question would be a resounding ‘No’ (for example, a re-run of the 2009–10 UK parliamentary expenses scandal, which would for certain provoke a ‘plague o’ both your houses’ reaction from the public).

Referendums should have no place within a serious political culture. And yet we are stuck with them, so we might as well proceed to the second lesson.

Lesson No. 2 – Fighting Against Populists Necessitates Different Kinds of Weapons

A lesson from the Scottish referendum that is equally valid to a British EU referendum is that when battling against populists there is little point trying to reason with them or the hard core of their supporters. When it comes to the EU, the hard ‘antis’ form a group for whom the EU would not be acceptable even if every regulation were rewritten and ‘the other member states agreed to pay the Queen’s weight in gold in annual tribute’ as the Economist put it in 2013. What is needed therefore is a big tent appeal to the middle ground of British politics; this will require both a positive campaign portraying the pro-EU group as the reasonable person’s choice; and, a move to paint the UKIP lot as swivel-eyed loons, which should not be difficult, provided that the pro-EU group is not going to be squeamish. This, of course, is not terribly sporting, but dealing with UKIP is tantamount to a counter-insurgency action. Both the overall strategy for the campaign and the tactics needed deliver it must be different to politics-as-usual.

Since it is anticipated that the entire British establishment will be in favour of staying in the EU, it is worth taking advantage of this to put the kind of leading question on the ballot paper that that invites the desired result – there are rules on this sort of thing (and quite right, too) but the evidence of Scotland, where voters were asked ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ shows that there is a huge amount to be gained from sailing as close to the wind as possible. The rules will probably not allow for the question ‘do you agree that we should cooperate with our European friends and allies?’ but something along those lines will help. And since the precedent has been established in Scotland of allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote on pretty dodgy legal grounds, knowing that they are more likely to support the EU, they should get the vote in an EU referendum too.

And unless the entire establishment (I’m not counting here the 100 or so Tory MPs who are opposed to UK membership of the EU, only the sensible remaining 200 members of the Conservative parliamentary party plus the Labour, Liberal Democrat parties, and the Welsh, Northern Irish and Scottish parties) is united in favour of EU membership, we shouldn’t even begin to think about a referendum.

Lesson No. 3 – A Positive Message of Change in the EU is Needed as Well as Negative Warnings about the Risks of Leaving

The Scottish ‘No’ campaign was run for much of the campaign solely on the basis of attempting to scare the electorate into voting against independence for fear of the consequences. Adverse consequences will also be important in the pro-EU campaign. What, for example, will happen to the 1.8 million Britons who work or just live in the rest of the EU? What will happen to the 2.34 million EU citizens living in Britain? It needs to be made clear that in the first instance they would all lose not only their right to work, but also their automatic right of residence. Economically, voters need to be explained fully the risks for foreign investment in Britain, including the threat that many foreign-owned manufacturers (for example, Nissan UK in Sunderland) will relocate to the single market. At the very least, Britain will lose its favoured position as the destination of choice for investors seeking opportunities in Europe. Risks to the predominance of the City need to be fully explained, but not over-emphasized, since the financial services industry remains unpopular amongst the public at large. And the danger of withdrawal from cooperation with Europe on organised crime and terrorism, where British lives may be needlessly placed in grave danger, also needs also to be underlined.

Yet whilst underscoring the risks and consequences of a possible EU departure will be an important element of the referendum campaign, focusing exclusively on this kind of ‘negative encouragement’ was a serious mistake on the part of the ‘No’ camp in 2014, which Alex Salmond quite rightly picked up on with his line that the Scottish electorate being bullied and patronised by a distant London elite.

Suffice to say that a pro-EU campaign must begin with a positive vision of a reformed Britain, in a reformed EU. Keep it vague, but very bright and cheerful.

Lesson No. 4 – Don’t Get Bogged Down in Endless Cost–Benefit Analyses

Scotland’s referendum shows that cost–benefit analyses are for civil servants and businesspeople, not for politicians and popular politics. Remember: the campaign is not pitched at the readership of the Financial Times. They are going to vote for EU membership anyway. Of course, the pros and cons are an important part of the debate but too many of the assertions made by one camp or another can be refuted or undermined. Witness here the endless toing and froing between the Yes and No camps on Sterling during the Scottish campaign. Bright and breezy captures the middle ground. And a final point is that a decision to stay in a constantly evolving organisation such as the EU cannot simply be reduced to a simple cost–benefit analysis: rather it is a choice about our country’s overall political orientation, and the campaign should reflect this. 

Lesson No. 5 – Emotional Messages and Mood Music Work

Scotland’s referendum has demonstrated that emotional messages work. Yet this will be harder with the EU than it was with Scotland’s 307-year old Union with England and Wales (with Northern Ireland, it’s 214 years, depending on when you start counting). Since the outbreak of the anti-EU insurgency in the UK, Britain’s pro-Europeans have tended to huddle in their bunkers, shaking their heads ruefully, and lamenting that pro-Europeanism is doomed because you can’t fall in love with a single market. They need to get out of their bunkers and take the offensive. Europe is much, much more than a single market.

It’s possible for the pro-Europeans to have an emotional message, but there is a need for some fresh thinking. Here the challenge is to make voters feel warm and a little sentimental about what the EU stands for, rather than about what it has done, or not done. And for goodness sake don’t use the EU’s own arguments and words – a British vernacular when speaking to a British electorate is essential (come to think of it, don’t let Euro geeks anywhere near the campaign – they will spoil the message). Towards the very end of the Scottish referendum credible efforts were made in this direction by Gordon Brown (a masterful performance), David Cameron (an honest and heartfelt appeal) and, perhaps, very, very discreetly, by the Queen (by reminding the Scots that they should ‘think very carefully’).

Pro-EU campaigners will have to tap into the politics of identity, where, with forethought as well as due care and attention, a hugely powerful emotional message can be brought to bear by connecting Britishness with Europeanness. Two points are important here. First, voters living in England (as is true elsewhere, of course, in the UK too) do not tend to have exclusively British or English identities. And second, Charlie Jeffery’s 2013 England and its Two Unions report for the IPPR showed that a strong sense of British identity equates (logically, when you think about it) to more pro-EU attitudes. Voters who feel themselves to be ‘English not British’ would vote to leave the EU by an overwhelming 72% to 17% – even those who are ‘more English than British’ also want to leave by 58% to 28%. Yet those who are ‘more British than English’ would vote to stay in by 45% to 37%. The goal here is to move voters from the second camp to the third, which should be possible given the fluid nature of the British identity.

Maximizing all efforts to make voters feel British and pitching the pro-EU campaign firmly on British values should help to get the pro-Europeans off to a strong start. As I noted in my previous blog post on Scotland, the list of British (yet not necessarily English) values that most would identify with provide ample material for the construction of a big tent: liberalism, magnanimity, decency, openness, resilience, representative democracy, respect for other peoples’ traditions, cooperation, fairness, justice, Habeas Corpus, an independent civil service, loyalty to our friends and allies, willingness to take up the cudgels for the underdog, voluntarism, freedom of speech and much else besides. The message needs to be that the best place Britain can embody and promote these values today is in the European Union.

Above all what is needed is a clear message that sets up the EU as something that good and decent British people vote for, and that – without necessarily saying it – leaves only mean-minded folk to vote against EU membership. The message of the pro-EU camp needs to be that this campaign is about the proud and tolerant traditions of Great Britain overcoming the boorish ignorance and xenophobia of Little England. 

Lesson No. 6 – Take credit for the EU both where it is due and where it is not

Scotland’s referendum demonstrates neatly what has been known already for a very long time: voters love the social safety net. Since voters across the whole UK are deeply attached to the welfare state, social protection and, especially, the NHS, it is worth trying to set up the debate as a campaign between, on the one hand, a group of anti-EU free-wheeling capitalists who seek to undermine treasured British social institutions (which we share with other EU member states), and on the other hand, the reasonable, pro-European voice of British decency striving – and succeeding – to hold onto community spirit, solidarity and togetherness, united with our European friends in an uncertain world.

And it doesn’t matter that the EU has rather little to do with health (beyond public health), if the ground can be captured early on, it should be easier to hold it against the onslaught of the antis. When it comes to welfare, the EU plays a more significant role. There is room here to set up the debate effectively in such a way that voters can be scared by the prospect of losing cherished rights such as a fair deal for the disabled, minorities, clean and safe working conditions and so on. Given that the ideological preferences of UKIP for flat taxes, scrapping employment legislation and tearing up health and safety standards are at the opposite end of the preference spectrum from those of the general electorate, this should not be too hard.

Lesson No. 7 – Business and Trade Union Support Matters

Getting the voice of business out to endorse Scotland’s continued participation in the UK worked, even if it came very late in the day. Trade union voices in support of EU membership, and against a race for the lowest standards for employment rights and welfare, will also count for a great deal – such workers’ rights arguments need to come from them and to be expressed powerfully.

Lesson No. 8 – When it comes to Migration: Best Foot Forward!

Migration into the UK is potentially the Achilles heel of the pro-EU campaign. It’s not, on the face of things, popular with the electorate. Yet the paradox here has been that migration is generally more unpopular in areas with few migrants than elsewhere (the same appears to be true in other countries, such as France). According to the 2011 UK census, London, for example, then had a population in which was only 45% White British, but for the most part there does not seem to have been a political backlash within that city against migration; quite the reverse, it is popular and its Mayor, Boris Johnson, is probably the only senior Tory to be unambiguously pro-migration in a party that has tried – and failed – to cut migration into the UK to an arbitrary level of ‘tens of thousands’ before the next General Election in 2015. Something clearly is out of line here, and it appears likely that the metaphysical fear of migration looms larger as a source of discomfort to the electorate than the tangible reality of migration in Britons’ lived experiences.

Perhaps what is really happening is that the migration issue (for which the EU is conveniently held responsible) serves as a catch all proxy for voters’ legitimate underlying concerns and fears, which in turn stem from tangible instances of government-failure and market-failure. There is, it is clear, in many places, a lack of good-quality housing at a decent price, a shortage of school places, and, everywhere there is a lack of resources in healthcare. But these outcomes are really the result of a collective failure to plan for, and build, enough houses and schools – and the abdication by the British state of its responsibilities in this area. Our lack of adequate healthcare resources is the product of welcome increases in natural life expectancy and the problems of an ageing society. Populists tend to pick on immigrants because they can’t always speak up for themselves. True Britons stand up for the underdog – and this lesson must be at the heart of the pro-EU campaign.

Instead of letting UKIP catch out the pro-EU campaign on migration, here again it is best to be bold and capture the ground on which the migration debate will be held early on. Rebranding ‘migration’ as ‘freedom of movement’ will help too. The freedom of movement message is part of the much broader slogan that the pro- or anti-EU debate, just like the debate on the future of the United Kingdom, is about Great Britain vs. Little England. Beneath the surface and beyond the cameras, Britain’s anti-EU parties often turn out to be pretty nasty and racist. As Hugo Rifkind so pithily put it ‘if UKIP aren’t racist, how come so many racists seem to like them?’

Most British people like to be on the side of decency, fairness and kind-heartedness. British people also want to do what’s right – they won’t want to be branded or thought of as mean-minded or intolerant. It can be proved beyond a realm of doubt that our more recently arrived neighbours make a wonderful contribution to British life through volunteering, caring for the elderly and so on. Above all, a pro-EU campaign must tap into the British love of the welfare state by reminding the British public that there would be not enough nurses, doctors and – particularly – care home staff without migration from Europe. The personal insights of casual empiricism sometimes drive the point home most effectively. As one colleague put it, ‘my mother, who’s 94 and still lives “independently” at home is in fact supported by twice-daily visits by carers who are all Polish, and their manager is German. The only English carer my mother has had (for two weeks or so) failed to get her up one morning and was never heard of again!’ Pitching these real experiences against ‘UKIP myths’ would be a good start.

Of course, the economic case for migration in what has traditionally been a liberal political and business culture is self-evident, but it still needs to be brought home in all parts of Britain, and in all sectors of the economy. How many farmers, for example, can bring in the harvest without migrant workers? From hospitality to higher education, the entire British economy is heavily dependent on the work ethic of our more-recently-arrived friends and neighbours. And the message here must be that Britain’s world-leading industries need to employ the best talent – wherever it comes from – in order to grow and create more jobs and prosperity for the United Kingdom as a whole.

Lesson No. 9 – Celebrity Endorsement is Valueless

There is a serious campaign to fight in which the ballots will be cast by millions of our fellow citizens. And the collective judgement of the British public is usually wise. A British campaign to stay in the EU should not waste time on pursuing celebrity endorsement. No one voted ‘No’ in Scotland because of Eddie Izzard or JK Rowling, although their support for the campaign probably did no harm and their donations to the fighting fund were welcome. The Queen is an exception to this rule, but (1) she is the Head of State, not a celebrity; and (2) I don’t think she can be used in this campaign.

Lesson No. 10 – Bring Alex Salmond Onto the Pro-EU Team

If Salmond can turn 65–70% support for the UK and 30–35% support for independence into 55% for the UK and 45% for Scottish independence, he’s a good man to have on the team in a tight spot. The British state has traditionally dealt with its defeated enemies in one of two ways. The first was to hang them. Happily, we don’t do this any more. Apart from the fact that hanging was vicious and barbaric, it also won the British state few friends. The second, more liberal, magnanimous and sporting tradition has been to rehabilitate our enemies, to shower them with honours even – and then to find them a useful little job to do. Could Salmond be next in line?

The United Kingdom, Scotland and British Identity: the politics of the personal – by Nat Copsey

Nat Copsey

Scotland’s referendum prompted much soul-searching (it’s not often, after all, that I find myself on the same side as the Orange Order and the Daily Mail), introspection and questioning of matters that I had taken to be established facts. Of course, I am not, self-evidently, a Scot, yet the issue has touched me more than other political question of the past 35 years. Scotland’s potential loss seemed personal in a way that few others at home in London, or at work in Birmingham, seemed to share with me. As a political scientist, I have asked myself why this should be the case. The answer, as best I can divine, is connected to the politics of identity, which at times can be very personal indeed. And what is personal is in the professional jargon of the political scientist, which hardly serves to describe adequately how I feel about the future of my country and myself, ‘salient’. My blog is both personal and normative. I reveal far more about myself, my family and my political views than I would usually consider prudent. Yet from time to time, it is necessary to speak out. And in my view, in the wake of the Scottish independence referendum, which constituted the most serious threat to the British state since the Battle of Britain in 1940, this was the time to do so.

If Scotland had left the rest of the United Kingdom, what remained: England, Wales and Northern Ireland, for as long as they would have remained, would have been greatly diminished. And I myself would have felt diminished, not from any great sense of personal grandiosity, but as the result of the simple fact that my own British identity would have been lost. Until the referendum I took this identity completely for granted. And until that identity came under sustained assault from the Scottish National Party (SNP), I hadn’t full realised how much I cherish it. I daresay that I would have been able to procure a passport from whoever the new authorities had turned out to be if Scotland had voted ‘yes’, but this does not change the fact that I am, neither by descent, nor by inclination, an Englishman.

My forebears – my family – spring from three corners of the United Kingdom: Ireland, England and Scotland. I am a Briton and I am a Unionist; I am not an Englishman. Being British is the only identity I have and the only one to which I will own. To be addressed as an Englishman anywhere – especially in Scotland or Ireland – has always grated on my ears. In France, I will gently correct what I have always felt to be an honest mistake: ‘Non – je ne suis pas anglais. Je suis britannique’. I am not English; I am British, which in my view has always been the better of the two possible identities with its connotations of inclusiveness, tolerance and civic values, as opposed to an identity based on ethnic origins. Witness how many our fellow citizens living in the UK not of Anglo-Saxon blood are happy to identify as British, but not as being English. I don’t care in the least for the flag of St George wherever it is flown, with all its nasty connotations of football hooliganism, racism, and small-minded Little Englanderism. And, yes, I have a sentimental attachment to seeing our Union Jack fluttering in the breeze in Whitehall, in Parliament Square – and for that matter on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh and elsewhere. Sentiment is the stuff on which nation-states are built, after all.

Identity is political. We know that it determines, for example, voting behaviour and much else besides, yet it is also personal. In this blog I would like, if I may, to share with you my own story, or rather the story of my own family, as one micro case that can help us to understand how the political can touch so deeply upon the personal. In part, this is a story of how politics can from time to time have the capacity to wound us and take away from us what we believe to be our birth right, from cradle to grave. But more than that, it is about the growing weakness of the United Kingdom’s own story – its historical narrative, if you will – and the way in which that self-same story now needs to be updated and modernised if the Union is to stand a chance of lasting another 300 years. My blog is, I hope, a timely reminder of all that historical narrative means for just one British family, and at the same time a pointer to the future of what is needed for our British family of 65 million to stay together.

A British Family Like Any Other

To begin with, there is my father, who is self-evidently an Englishman. And then, there is my mother, who is, rather less self-evidently, partly Irish and partly Scottish. But in sum we were a British family, like a great many others. Both of my parents grew up in London, which when they were born, was – just – still the capital of the British Commonwealth and Empire. The history of all my ancestors, maternal and paternal, was in one way or another bound up with the history of what our Queen in the early part of her long reign used to call our ‘Imperial Commonwealth’, which was, as we shall see in my own story, an enterprise shared between England, Scotland and, yes, Ireland. To begin with my mother’s Scottish father – just like his father and grandfather before him – left the family home in the seaside village of Ardersier where he had been born in the shadow of the massive Hanoverian Fort George in Inverness-shire for London one morning in 1928 to join the British army. His father and grandfather had served another long-reigning Queen and two Kings before him. As a career soldier, he served overseas in defence of what was – in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s – still a very considerable mass of the globe. His own service was spent first guarding the route to India in Suez and in the Sudan, before the outbreak of the Second World War. Subsequently he fought in the Western Desert. After the war’s end, and despite considerable illness sustained in the service of the British Crown, he served in the British Army of Occupation in our sector of western Germany. He remained a consummate and even-handed professional with a magnanimous respect and empathy for his vanquished German enemies. In other words, he manifested what I would describe as true liberal British values. Thus my Scottish grandfather was a Scottish Unionist who spent his career in the service of four British monarchs, including that of our own Queen, until his declining health from chronic complaints contracted in the service of the United Kingdom forced an early retirement, and sadly, an early death, upon him.

My maternal grandmother’s family were also Unionists, Catholic Unionists. In those days such an allegiance was far more common that might now be supposed. Even in the Irish General Election to the United Kingdom Parliament of 1918, Unionist parties (or parties in favour of the Union with Great Britain took 52% of the vote to the nationalists’ 48%; first past the post delivered the Unionists and moderates only a fraction of the seats in comparison to those won by Sinn Fein – and the rest is war, savagery, tragedy and history, but there you are). They were from Newbridge in County Kildare, now part of the Dublin commuter belt, which at that time lay in the shadow of the British Army’s Curragh Camp. And like my maternal grandfather, they were also soldiers. My grandmother’s father was an Irish soldier, even if he was born in Canada in 1867, where his father, who later served in the Zulu Wars in Natal in the 1870s, was then stationed. My great-grandfather followed family tradition into the British army and saw decorated service in South Africa, to which he contemplated emigrating, before moving to England to take up a post in the Woolwich Arsenal, where he would later drill and equip troops going to the aid of our gallant French, Russian, Serbian and Belgian allies on the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. Incredible as it may seem to us today, during the German bombardment of that conflict London my grandmother’s Irish father held his little girl up towards the sky to better observe the Zeppelins as they passed across south London.

My father’s family are ethnically English and their history reflects the other side of the coin of British history: the liberal world of industrialisation, trade, commerce and finance. If my mother’s family supplied the muscle for Britain’s growing overseas obligations, my father’s family’s businesses represented the commercial imperative on which the foundations of Britain and indeed the western world’s contemporary prosperity are based. In the late 17th century, the Copsey family were Suffolk yeoman – solid yet modest folk that is; farmers who owned their own land – and over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, they migrated to London in search of the opportunities brought by the Act of Union between England and Scotland of 1707, as well as the growth of the British Empire. Between the mid-nineteenth century and the Great War the Copseys were successful art dealers in the Euston Road (the Wellcome Trust building now stands on the site of Charles Edward Copsey’s showrooms at 126 Euston Road; you can also find examples of the work he sold in the catalogue of the National Galley) supplying the increasingly prosperous middle classes of London with furniture, paintings and other symbols of gentility and growing prosperity. The Copseys did so well in fact that they married into a City family of Huguenot extraction – the Beaumonts (incidentally not the only Hugenots in the family, another marker of the absurdity of Salmond’s narrow nationalism) – and the profits of ‘trade’ (which the Snobbish Victorian and Edwardian ruling classes looked down upon) were sufficient to take them first to a comfortable villa in Belsize Park near the then newly-constructed underground station, and thence to a house in Hampstead Garden Suburb, near another new underground station, where a spinster daughter (there were few men to go around in the aftermath of the Great War) lived, in her final years with my own parents, until 1975.

These two worlds of Britain mixed extensively. In the bloody first half 20th century, even the sons of commerce were obliged to join the Colours, drawing upon the training they had received in parading with what was then known as the Volunteer Force, or more quaintly the ‘Yeomanry’ (with its echoes of Shakespeare’s Henry V), to defend Britain’s interests: first against Napoleon III; then against the German Empire. My paternal great-grandfather was a pioneer during the Great War in the then newly-created Royal Flying Corps (later the RAF), and my own paternal grandfather (still living) passed out of Sandhurst at the end of the Second World War from what was still very much an Imperial military academy. Britain’s soldiers were badly trained, not always fully equipped and often poorly led in comparison to their enemies. Yet they were brave and, in comparison to the standards of the time, civilised, magnanimous and chivalrous; moreover, they all bore witness to the aphorism that the British Army loses every battle – except the last.

Britishness Today

What does all this mean to me? My own ancestors’ stories are not my own. I was born in the straightened circumstances of a post-Imperial, yet pre-Thatcher, Britain in the late 20th century in the seaside resort of Margate and spent the very early years of my own life in neighbouring Ramsgate – where, incidentally, the news of Britain’s great victory in the Battle of Waterloo first came ashore in 1815, as commemorated in a fine Georgian obelisk on the quayside. We then moved to a village in Sussex outside the town of Battle, where in 1066 the Battle of Hastings took place – the last time that England, and Britain, were successfully invaded, by the French from whom we take some 50 per cent of the words in our language, a point which needs to be brought home to eurosceptics. I have always been fascinated by history – my first degree was in this subject – and have always subscribed to the opinion that those who know no history, to put it bluntly, know nothing. I have also subscribed to the old-fashioned view that history is – literally – ‘our story’. And in Britain’s case, that means our island’s, or our islands’, story.

And as a child and young adult, we visited, when time and funds would permit, all of our kin living around the British Isles. In Ireland, at Newbridge, County Kildare, lived my late grandmother’s cousin who worked for a trainer next to the racecourse outside what had been the place of work of her father, grandfather and great-grandfather: the Curragh Camp. In Scotland, there was my grandfather’s sister, and brother-in-law, living outside Fort George (not far incidentally from Culloden – the scene of the last battle between Scottish and forces from the rest of Great Britain and Hanover). Such visits to relatives wherever they might have been were punctuated by the ever-present British stalwarts: strong black tea, scones and in Scotland, shortbread, and in Ireland, soda bread. So much for the narcissism of small differences in my British childhood: the points of commonality were much more important. In all places there were remembrances of our shared past: at home in Ireland captured assegais from the Zulu Wars, medals, shell cases and (to the delight of a small boy) unexploded bombs, cavalry sabres and much else. In all towns across Ireland, Scotland and England, our shared war memorials from Britain’s many conflicts in which my family had participated were visible. It is now modish to dismiss the Great War as one fought, pointlessly, between equally degenerate imperial powers. Those of this opinion would do well to remember that the war aims of Germany in 1914 were remarkably similar to those of Adolf Hitler 25 years later. The government of Éamon de Valera and, sadly, too many of those that followed (with the honourable exception of Garrett FitzGerald and many of the balanced, intelligent voices within Fine Gael) in the Irish Republic stigmatised those who had fought with Britain for British values in the Great War and the Second World War in a fashion which is both understandable from the perspective of their founding myths – and despicable from the perspective of both the sacrifices made and the memories of those sacrifices amongst their comrades. We are lucky that Scotland has been spared the forced rewriting of history that would certainly have followed a vote for independence.

Yet as a child I could barely conceive that either my Irish family were truly foreign (although they technically were, if not legally so, pace the United Kingdom’s Republic of Ireland Act 1949); for what it is worth my maternal grandmother, and, for that matter, W.B. Yeats never thought so, let alone my Scots family. Of course, there were rumblings of discontent. The adults talked of the deplorable situation in Northern Ireland in the 1980s and early 1990s (which no one from England or what we anachronistically called “Southern Ireland” visited) and, given our joint instinct towards a shared political culture shuddered at the idea of policeman carrying machine guns (to this day I can never understand when and why British policeman starting carrying arms in Parliament Square as a matter of course – it seems an impertinent, if not intolerable, assault on British liberties). To my astonishment, in 1993, some of my Scottish family spoke of acquaintances (notably those who had never left the Highlands) who expressed sympathy for the SNP. Yet they were dismissed as ‘dafties’. How far we have come in only 20 years.

Although the British Union was associated with the Protestant church, my own family were neither nationalistic nor sectarian. The Unionists in my Scottish family belonged to the austere Church of Scotland. My father’s ancestors belonged to the Church of England (and later the break-away Methodist Church). My Irish Unionist family were Roman Catholics. Thus my family were a mix of Christian sects – but it didn’t matter for their national identity. There was no question that any one of them was any less British than the other, although, it is true, the Protestants probably felt themselves a little bit superior to everyone else – but this is a separate point. When it came to our identity, there was far more in common between than what divided us.

Our ancestors can – do – exercise some influence on our own lives. It is not by co-incidence, I think, that my partner and I have made our life next to Hampstead Heath in north London. Indeed I feel the presence of my forebears – as friendly ghosts – around me. I like to imagine my stuffy, Pooterish Victorian ancestors with their crinolines, straw hats and walking sticks enjoying the Heath as we do today, pointing perhaps towards the frontage of Kenwood, swishing at the long grass with a treasured 18-shilling Malacca cane, worrying over Bulgarian atrocities, prospects for the relief of Mafeking or Russian imperialism just as we today worry about ISIS, cyber-terrorism or, come to think of it … Russian imperialism. And just as I seek the metaphysical company of my ancestors in London, I do not wish to be separate from the rest of my ancestors across the British Isles.

Britishness Tomorrow

This micro-case or story of my own family, just like the story of Britain, is, at the same time, both rather old-fashioned and yet very modern. Much of it has focused on our shared imperial past, yet this may be less démodé than meets the eye.

To begin with the waves of economic, political and cultural globalisation on which Imperial Britain prospered have returned. Then as now, all the habitants of these two islands need a strong voice in the world. The case for unity is all the stronger given our given our relative weakness vis-à-vis the rest of the world in comparison with the Britain of my (our) Victorian ancestors buttressed by a commercial, industrial and naval supremacy which has long past. Disunity is a luxury we cannot afford.

SNP leader Alex Salmond and others pretend that foreign policy doesn’t matter. In truth, the world is more dangerous today that at any time since at least the end of the Second World War. And the best guarantee of safety for us is the same as it always has been: skilful British diplomacy backed up by the combined might of the British Army, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, reenforced, of course, by our NATO allies. That Britain remains a nuclear power is not a mere relic of the Cold War; the bottom line is that no one can bully or force our small islands into submission. Although we live in a European continent that has been largely peaceful since 1989, the Russian annexation of Crimea shows us that the threat of Great Power confrontation has not fully receded. Or perhaps Salmond and others were counting on what is a self-evident yet never articulated truth: that all the countries of the British Isles would always benefit from an (implicit) defence guarantee from not only the UK but also the United States and our NATO allies. Irish liberty and safety from external aggression is underpinned by this knowledge. Sceptics should note that Britain participated in the bailout of the Irish (but not other European) banks during the Financial Crisis after 2007 – it is inconceivable to me that we would ever let the Irish go hang.

For better or for worse, British-style institutions and British values have spread and taken root around the world. At an individual level, as Britons we may feel a sense of familiarity and commonality in cities as diverse as Cork, Delhi, Singapore, Melbourne or Ottawa. This is not 21st century imperial nostalgia so much as a simple human desire to connect with other people around the world and to celebrate what we common heritage we all share – precious as it is. The British Empire was a creature of its time. And the values of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries are certainly not our own today. Yet the British Empire was certainly far less wicked than Imperial Germany, Austria, Russia – or even colonial Belgium for that matter. We may not be proud of all of our imperial past today – and some episodes, such as slavery and the racism that underpinned it were downright despicable – but we can’t escape its legacies, so we might as well appreciate them for what they are. Whatever fashionable commentators may argue, British history – our history – is the only history we have; we might as well take pride in it. British legacies extend beyond the ever-adaptable English language to Common Law legal systems, the independence of the civil service, British-style schooling, the importance above all of decency and fair play – and much else besides.

For all of the narcissism of small differences on these two home islands, we were and are, very similar indeed in our social, cultural and political viewpoints. Alex Salmond is right that Scotland has different socio-economic preferences to the rest of the UK (although I think he really means liberal England), and that it is in this sense, another country. It is also correct to state that the country that Scottish preferences are by far most similar to is England. There are differences between us, but these are exaggerated – usually for political gain.

The greatest menace to Britain’s continued prosperity is not Alex Salmond’s SNP (nor for that matter Sinn Féin or Plaid Cymru), rather it is the shameful face of English nationalism. The politics of political parties like UKIP or the English Nationalists (like other nationalisms) are based on everything that Britishness is not: ethnicity, narrow-mindedness, blind prejudice, populism and a perspective that is closed to the world.

To overcome all of these threats, which are more serious than any of us would have imagined a few months ago, we need to update the constitution of the United Kingdom in such a way that power is redistributed away from London towards not only Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but also to provincial England. There can on no account be an English Parliament in a Union where more than 55 million out of 65 million people live in England. Rather what we should implement are perhaps half a dozen provincial assemblies with the real economic and political power that provincial England has been lacking for so long. This will be awkward for Westminster to stomach; but it is probably the only way of ensuring that Britishness lasts into the 21st century and triumphs over narrow nationalism. For that reason, it should be embraced.

So what I say is this: let us hang together; that way we stand a chance of counting for something in the world and promulgating our British values: liberalism, magnanimity, decency, openness, resilience, representative democracy, respect for other peoples’ traditions, cooperation, fairness, justice, Habeas Corpus, an independent civil service, loyalty to our friends and allies, willingness to take up the cudgels for the underdog, voluntarism, freedom of speech and much else besides. Indeed we have been living by, and promoting, these values for longer than just about anyone else. Britain still has something worthwhile to offer the world and the forum in which we can all do this best do this today, as Britons, is the European Union. The arguments for Europe are remarkably similar to those in favour of the United Kingdom, which will be the subject of another blog.

But for now there is time for a moment of quiet reflection and, above all, thankfulness for what has been saved after yesterday’s Scottish referendum. For me this is a moment of deliverance – deliverance, yes, since this was a vote in which I had much at stake, but no voice – and deep appreciation of what I had previously taken for granted.

Thank you, Scotland. I love you too. Change is coming – and not just for Scotland but to all of the United Kingdom.

Advance Britannia!


How can Miliband convince us that he has what it takes to run the country?

A new week, a new bevy of stories questioning Ed Miliband’s leadership credentials. With silly season upon us and the General Election looming, barely a day goes by without a comment article or opinion poll questioning whether Miliband has it in him to be Prime Minister.

This week, it has been fears of Alistair Darling upstaging him at next month’s party conference; criticism of Miliband’s decision to attend a football game after announcing he was too ill to attend a rally against government health reforms – and a vote that saw Miliband named the politician the British public would least like to turn up on their holidays. Stories of this type are near constant in the media. All of which begs the question: what can Miliband actually do to convince people he has what it takes to run the country?

Read the full article here.

Marine le Pen and the Royal Road to 2017

In France, since the European elections of May 2014, and Marine le Pen’s breath-taking 25% of the vote – to the ruling Socialists’ paltry 13% – she has said very little. She does not need to; between them, the left and the right are opening up a royal road for her to go through to the second round of the presidential elections in 2017. The sitting President went down recently to an unheard of 18% in the opinion polls. It is difficult to imagine what you have to do to fall so low. Since his election in 2012, he has achieved this unpopularity, which verges, even more ominously, on national indifference, through a whole series of miscalculations, unpreparedness for power, inaction – near inertia at times – government incompetence, inadequate policies or no policies, and a presidential style that is inappropriate to the office. He is, in turns, like a headmaster at school assembly or else a jolly high street butcher, depending on the gravity of the occasion. His party and parliamentary majority are in danger of rebellion, against both him and his new (100 days in office) Prime Minister, Manuel Valls.

Read the full article here.


Ed Miliband and the bacon sandwich: Exploring the relationship between the serious and the frivolous

In the aftermath of local and European elections, Labour party introspection began immediately: in particular, criticism of the party’s direction, its attitude to UKIP in both sets of elections, the coherence of its message, its policies and their presentation, and, last and most, criticism of Ed Miliband. From the moment he was elected leader in 2010, there has been a lot of this at regular intervals, usually by individuals rather than by organised groups.

Read the full article here.

Plein Soleil Premiere - 66th Cannes Film Festival

French presidency in crisis and a neurotic need for heroes means DSK won’t go away

Dominique Strauss-Kahn is back. On Thursday May 16 he took a major part in a prime-time documentary about the Euro – where he criticised Nicolas Sarkozy’s response to the 2008-9 economic crisis.

The following day, Welcome to New York, a film about his arrest after allegations of sexual assault in the city’s Sofitel hotel, was shown at Cannes at the festival fringe. The film, starring Gérard Depardieu and Jacqueline Bisset, which was made available online on a pay-per-view basis, gathered 48,000 views in its first 24 hours.

Anne Sinclair, his ex-wife, is furious and DSK is suing. Meanwhile no one has asked Nafissatou Diallo, the maid in the New York hotel, what her views are.

Read the full article here.

French Prime Minister change

Hollande Will Regret Calling in New Prime Minister Valls to Save French Government

Rarely do local elections anywhere have such profound national resonance. In municipal elections on 30 March, France’s governing Socialist Party (PS) lost more than 150 towns and cities. The centre-right UMP made huge gains, much more than expected.

Members of president François Hollande’s party thought they might limit the damage, given that local politics is often very different from national politics, and France has a long and deep tradition of a “municipal socialism” largely insulated from national concerns. Well, not any more.

Read the full article here.


Both Sarkozy and Hollande are victims of the French culture of scandal, but the real loser is democracy

In late February 2014, it was discovered that Nicolas Sarkozy’s close aide during his presidency, Patrick Buisson, had secretly recorded hundreds of hours of conversations with the then-president and others. Some of the recordings were posted online by the right-wing website Atlantico, which was duly ordered to remove them on 14 March. There was little incriminating evidence in the tapes that have been heard, but only a tiny fraction of what Buisson recorded has made it into the public domain (so far). Buisson’s tapes, however, are only the tip of the iceberg. Sarkozy is also under investigation over a plethora of other matters; his phones have been tapped for a year on the order of examining judges, and the scandals keep piling up…

Read the full article here.