We’ve barely stepped off the roller-coaster of the Scottish independence referendum, dizzy from the sudden swoops and dives but exhilarated to have survived as a country, before we’re plunged into another heated debate on how England is to win more control over its own internal affairs to match the increased powers for the Scottish parliament promised by the three UK party leaders as the price of Scotland’s vote to remain in the United Kingdom. Ever ready to take the low road of party political advantage at moments of historic importance for our country, David Cameron waited for hardly an hour after hearing the referendum result before announcing to the nation from No 10 Downing Street that he proposed to couple with the promised increase in devolved powers for Scotland arrangements to prevent Scottish MPs exercising their right to vote (or speak?) on legislation at Westminster affecting only England, representing this half-baked proposal as the answer to the West Lothian Question (which it certainly is not).
A slightly shortened version of my letter to the Guardian about this is published in today’s print edition of the newspaper while the full text of the letter as I submitted it appears on the Guardian’s website (here – scroll down to the third letter):
The referendum result is welcome and heartening. The prime minister’s instant reaction is neither. His false equation of the West Lothian question with “English votes on English laws” obviously foreshadows an attempt to fob us off with a clumsy constitutional fudge, pretending that MPs in English constituencies can be an acceptable substitute for an English parliament when they can provide no accountable English government, no English government departments or civil servants to staff them, no distinctive English elections, and no way of identifying draft legislation or other parliamentary business that will affect only England.
Increasing the powers of English local government bodies is similarly hopelessly inadequate. We English should refuse to accept anything short of our own parliament, with internal self-government at least equal to what is now promised to Scotland; and that inevitably requires, in turn, the extensive safeguards against English domination that only a full federal system can provide. Mr Cameron’s promise to solve these monumental constitutional issues, along with further devolution to Scotland, on the same timetable, within a few months, is frankly ludicrous.
Labour’s feeble and non-committal response to these great issues is terribly disappointing, especially after it was left to Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown to supply the intellectual and emotional case for preserving the United Kingdom. LibDem support for federalism is sound, but the LibDem voice is half-hearted and almost inaudible. We face the depressing prospect that the only political leader making the incontrovertible case for an English parliament and government is Nigel Farage. Labour needs to act urgently to prevent Ukip’s support for what plainly needs to be done becoming its kiss of death.
Since I wrote my letter and submitted it to the Guardian Ed Miliband and one or two other Labour spokespersons have announced Labour’s rejection of Mr Cameron’s attempt to bounce the country into swallowing his plan for tinkering with the voting arrangements in the House of Commons by linking it to the promised timetable for more devolution of powers to Scotland and fast-tracking it through parliament before the UK general election due in May 2015. This opposition to Cameron’s plan meets one of the points in my Guardian letter.
Even more encouragingly, Labour seems to have committed itself yesterday (also after my letter was written) to holding a national constitutional convention to consider and make recommendations for overall changes in the UK constitution, presumably including addressing the glaring anomaly whereby of the four UK nations only England, the biggest and richest of the four, still lacks its own parliament and government, the organs without which no nation can take responsibility for its own internal affairs in the way that Scotland is close to doing, with Wales and Northern Ireland not far behind. This meets another of the central points in my Guardian letter, although some Labour statements muddy the waters by suggesting that the first task of the constitutional convention will be to consider increased powers for the English cities and regions, no doubt a commendable ambition but no substitute for the central need to establish an English parliament and government — whose responsibilities would certainly need to include the much-needed devolution of powers to the English cities and regions away from the federal centre at Westminster and from the English centre of power at Manchester or York or wherever else the English parliament and government is to be established. That kind of internal decentralisation within England is however a quite separate issue from the key question: namely, England’s need for the constitutional organs with which to govern itself. Precisely how decentralisation within England is to work should be for decision by the English people through their own elected parliament and government, not to be dictated to us in a tearing hurry by Mr Cameron’s quasi-federal all-UK government at Westminster, whose main preoccupation is clearly to score points against Labour in the run-up to next May’s elections.
I have listed in my Guardian letter above some of the killer arguments against the Tory claim that “English votes for English laws” can ever be an acceptable substitute for the belated establishment of self-governing organs for England and the extensive devolution to them of powers over internal English affairs similar to those already enjoyed by Scotland and those about to be added. Some other misconceptions need to be, er, scotched, if that’s the right word in present circumstances:
1. With partial devolution to three of the four UK nations we are already more than half-way into a federal system, but one that still lacks the essential safeguards inherent in full federalism against domination of the whole federation, and of the smaller member nations, by the biggest and most powerful of them.
2. The disproportionate size and power of England compared with the other three nations are a fact of UK life that is badly aggravated by the UK (or English?) disease of gross over-centralisation. An article in today’s Financial Times points out the utter imbecility of having HM Treasury in Whitehall laying down, through its control of local government budgets, the frequency of garbage collections in Liverpool. When we finally have a written federal constitution, one of its main principles (in addition to an entrenched Bill of Rights) should be to make the four national governments responsible for putting into effect in each of the four jurisdictions the principle of subsidiarity — that all decisions should be taken by institutions as close as possible to the people who will be affected by them, right down to ward councils and village mayors.
3. The disproportionate size and power of England compared with the other three nations are the main reason why Britain needs a federal system, not an obstacle to federalism. A federal constitution is essential to protect the three smaller nations against interference in their internal affairs by England or by the federal government and parliament at Westminster by laying down a well defined division of powers between the federal and national levels, and by providing for a federal second chamber in which each of the four nations has an equal number of elected representatives.
4. There’s bound to be some danger that the English government will tend to overshadow all the other federal and national governing organs by reason of England’s size, and the repercussions of what happens in England in the rest of the UK. But that’s a fact of geography and population which can’t be changed. The danger should not be exaggerated: the all-UK federal parliament and government at Westminster will have totally different powers and functions from those of the English national parliament and government at Manchester (or wherever), the latter dealing mostly with bread-and-butter issues such as health and education, the former principally with foreign affairs and defence — and with any additional subjects that the four nations agree are best handled on an all-UK basis and which they therefore devolve upwards to Westminster. Other subjects may be shared between the two levels. The two kinds of organ, federal and national, will attract different kinds of politician. The experience of existing successful federations such as Australia and the US should dispel any idea that even the biggest and most powerful second-tier governments, such as those of New York State or New South Wales, will overshadow their first-tier federal opposite numbers at Washington DC or Canberra.
Once we have parliaments and governments for all four nations, we shall in effect have a federal system. Much work will need to be done over several years to complete that process, including a written constitution and other safeguards. That will constitute the only definitive answer to the West Lothian Question. There will be no need to create categories of federal MP able to vote on this issue but not on that: matters affecting only the four nations, or some of them, simply won’t be within the competence of the federal organs, and vice versa. Other countries run successful federal systems and have solved most of the problems that federalism entails. Let’s not try to invent the wheel. We can learn from Australia and the US and many other models. All it needs is boldness — a commodity not much in evidence in our present polity.
There seem to be some dubious assumptions behind much of the current speculation from the commentariat south of the border:
(1) That there’ll be a in/out EU referendum in 2017 in the UK, whether or not it includes Scotland by then — which assumes a Tory overall majority at the next UK general election. Not a single opinion poll so far points to the likelihood of that happening. Of course it might, but as of now it’s extremely unlikely.
(2) That between a Scottish Yes vote next Thursday and whatever date is eventually set for Scotland to become independent, Scotland will be a foreign country and its MPs at Westminster will cease to take their seats: clearly wrong. Until the date of independence, which will depend on how long it takes to complete the separation negotiations, Scotland remains a part of the UK and its MPs remain UK citizens. At any UK election (such as that currently scheduled for May 2015) held before Scotland becomes formally independent, Scotland will continue to elect its MPs in the usual way. The UK parliament’s eventual legislation providing for Scotland to become independent on a specified date will need to include provision for MPs in Scottish constituencies to vacate their seats on that date. Presumably there will then need to be a fresh election in rUK (the rest of the UK).
(3) That the separation negotiations will be completed on the Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond’s timetable, i.e. within about two years from a Yes vote on 18 September. Highly unlikely, in my view. I can’t see the negotiations being completed in less than five years, given their complexity and the potential for strong disagreement on a long list of issues.
(4) That there’ll be no UK general election until May 2015: probably correct, but we shouldn’t rule out a scenario in which —
(a) David Cameron, the UK prime minister, resigns very soon after a Yes vote in Scotland, either of his own volition or with the LibDems and disaffected Tories voting with Labour for a No Confidence motion in the house of commons. (Many media commentators seem to have forgotten that the whole government resigns when a prime minister resigns);
(b) the Conservatives elect a new leader, presumably George Osborne;
(c) Mr Osborne (or whoever) tries but fails to form a government able to win a vote of confidence in the Commons, the LibDems refusing to join a new coalition with him; accordingly,
(d) there’s a UK general election before the end of 2014; and —
(e) Labour wins it with a very small overall majority, and takes control of the separation negotiations with Scotland. No EU in/out referendum.
So why are Labour’s leader, Ed Miliband, and his front bench colleagues not already emphasising publicly and on every possible occasion that in the event of a Yes vote by the Scots, the Cameron government will be totally discredited by the greatest failure since the loss of the American colonies in 1776? Why are they not promising that the moment a victory for Scottish independence is proclaimed, Labour will at once demand the government’s immediate resignation and the holding of a general election before the end of the year to decide which party is to lead the separation negotiations with Scotland? I have no idea why they are not. All I know is that they should be.
If you’re reading this, you’re entitled to a substantially discounted price if you order your copy of my new book, What Diplomats Do, using the order form on my website at http://www.barder.com/wp-content/uploads/Flyer-What-Diplomats-Do-June14.pdf (for buyers in the UK, discount 20 per cent) or using WDD-Flyer-and-Order-Form-for-US (for buyers in the United States, with a whopping discount of 30 per cent off the list price).
For UK buyers the discount applies only to the hardback version of What Diplomats Do but not the e-book version, whether from the publishers, Rowman & Littlefield or from Amazon for your Kindle. For buyers in the US, the even bigger discount applies to both the hardback and the e-book (but not to Amazon and Kindle).
Please note that these order forms and discounts are only for individual buyers. Libraries, university departments and other institutional buyers wanting to buy or ask for inspection copies, and journals or other papers wanting a complimentary review copy, need to contact the publishers, Rowman & Littlefield, using the relevant link in the left-hand panel of https://rowman.com/. Please also note the advice on the US order form: “Rowman & Littlefield offers special discounts for bulk purchases in the U.S. by corporations, institutions, and other organizations. For more information, please contact Nancy Hofmann in the Special Markets Department at  301-459-3366, ext. 5605.” I suggest that bulk buyers in the UK might use the contact addresses and other advice at http://www.nbninternational.com/Ordering/tabid/59/Default.aspx.
What Diplomats Do is not a memoir or autobiography. It aims to describe what working diplomats, not just ambassadors, actually do, day by day, in all the varied situations that they work in. It’s meant as a teaching tool for university (or school) teachers and students of international relations and diplomacy, but also as a guidebook for people contemplating a diplomatic career and above all as an entertaining and readable book for the general reader interested in current affairs. It has already won warm praise from eminent academic authorities in the field of diplomacy and also from equally eminent former ambassadors (see for example http://www.barder.com/wdd/reviews-of-what-diplomats-do). Although written from the viewpoint of a British diplomat (which I used to be), it’s equally valid as a description of the essence of what American and other European and indeed all diplomats do, although the terminologies and some of the procedures naturally vary.
If you want further information about the book, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me by using the contact form at http://www.barder.com/contact, or by clicking ‘Contact me’ at the top of almost every page of my website, or by private email if you have my address.
I hope you’ll enjoy reading What Diplomats Do.
Diplomacy is the art of giving all parties in a conflict what they need, if not what they want. Right now, the underpaid, mismanaged FCO staff are getting neither what they need nor what they want. Britain is weaker and less safe as a result.
So writes the Editor of The Independent, Amol Rajan, in Thursday’s London Evening Standard, in a stinging account of the marginalisation of a once great department of state (full disclosure: for which I worked for 30 years).
In her resignation letter of 5 August, Baroness Warsi, a former Co-Chair of the Conservative Party and Foreign Office minister, denounced the government’s policy on Gaza as —
[in]consistent with our values, specifically our commitment to the rule of law and our long history of support for International Justice. In many ways the absence of the experience and expertise of colleagues like Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve has over the last few weeks become very apparent… William Hague was probably one of the finest Foreign Secretaries this country has seen… He dismantled foreign policy making by sofa government and restored decision making and dignity to the Foreign Office. There is however great unease across the Foreign Office, amongst both Minister[s] and senior officials, in the way recent decisions are being made.
The two greatest disasters in British post-war foreign policy, Suez (1956) and UK participation in the illegal attack on Iraq (2003), were at least partly attributable to the failure, indeed deliberate refusal, of the responsible prime ministers, Sir Anthony Eden and Tony Blair, to listen to the advice and warnings of the professional foreign affairs experts, including the legal advisers, in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.
As Rajan’s article points out, one consequence of the steady devaluation of the FCO over many decades, as its resources have been mindlessly reduced while its responsibilities have been relentlessly increased, has been the absence of any coherent identifiable British foreign policy. Successive governments have constantly over-estimated British influence in world affairs, endlessly boasting about Britain’s ‘leadership role’, blind to the evidence of relative decline and indeed often explicitly denying it, while actually accelerating it by an extraordinary failure to play an active, constructive and cooperative role in Europe. Neither party has an identifiable policy on military intervention in the affairs of other states: in the weird muddle over the abortive proposal to join in air attacks on Syria, neither Labour nor the Conservatives felt able to declare unequivocally that such intervention without the prior authority of the UN Security Council (and other than in self-defence) would be in clear breach of the UN Charter and thus of international law — therefore an act of aggression and a war crime. No British government in recent times has laid down a coherent policy on the middle east, on China (threat? opportunity? who knows?), on reform of the Security Council (is Britain willing to give up or share its permanent seat and veto?) or on nuclear disarmament and the scandalous distortion of UK defence policy by the irrational refusal to scrap Trident, a so-called independent nuclear deterrent which is not independent and has no-one to deter, as crisply demonstrated by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian of 15 August. In a crisis, why do our prime ministers instinctively rush first across the Atlantic, not across the English Channel? It’s too late to reverse NATO’s reckless expansion eastwards or Putin’s reactive retrieval of Crimea, but why are we intent on punishing Russia instead of discussing a Ukraine settlement that will respect the interests of all parties to the conflict?
Amol Rajan tells us that —
Cameron’s close circle of foreign policy advisers in No. 10 and the Cabinet Office has explained in closed-door meetings to the diplomats in the FCO that the Prime Minister does not really think about strategy at all. Moreover, the feeling in King Charles Street and some of our missions is that many of these advisers owe their positions to old school ties rather than ability.
This persistent legacy of failure offers Ed Miliband and his colleagues an enormous opportunity to set out a coherent, rational and law-abiding foreign policy, rooted in and executed by the FCO, for an incoming Labour government. This will call for a degree of courage that has been conspicuously missing from our political leaders of all political colours in recent years: courage to take on the puerile sabre-rattling of the tabloids and the Murdoch press; courage to attack such shibboleths as Trident, the burned-out ‘two-state solution’ in the middle east, and the indefensible current composition of the Security Council; not least, courage to acknowledge the foreign affairs blunders of the Blair government, some of whose senior members still insist on defending their flawed records in parliament and the media. Labour’s motto in these and many other matters should be Danton’s: “il nous faut de l’audace, et encore de l’audace, et toujours de l’audace!” If Labour dared to adopt it, Mr Miliband’s fate might be happier than Danton’s: not the guillotine, but the keys to Downing Street.
As of now (6 August 2014) the best guess must be that Scotland will vote to reject independence in the referendum on the 18th of next month. But there are still many undecided voters and most pundits predict a closer result than the opinion polls currently suggest. The possibility of a narrow majority for independence can’t be ruled out, and politicians and media analysts alike should be doing much more contingency planning and discussion against that possibility than seems to be happening. Among the major issues in the event of a majority Yes vote that ought to be actively considered by all the UK parties between now and the referendum is whether the coalition government should resign at once if defeated in the referendum, with fresh elections before the end of this year to elect a new government with a mandate to conduct the independence negotiations with Scotland. In my view it would be a constitutional outrage if Cameron and his coalition government refused to resign in such circumstances, for the reasons (among others) set out in my letter published in today’s Guardian:
A vote for Scottish independence is a vote for a pig in a poke
• The Guardian, Wednesday 6 August 2014
Martin Kettle’s dystopian and all too credible prediction of the disastrous consequences of a majority for independence in the Scottish referendum in September (Remember 2014, the last summer of the old Britain, 31 July) suggests two possible variants of his scenario. First, David Cameron’s coalition government would surely have to resign immediately following such a catastrophic defeat. The incumbent government that had presided over the disintegration of our country as a direct result of its failure to offer Scotland a credible alternative to independence could hardly carry on as if nothing terrible had happened; and anyway there would be a pressing need for a new government with an electoral mandate to open and lead the negotiations with Edinburgh on the detailed terms of Scotland’s secession.
Second, the negotiations between Scotland and the rest of the UK (rUK) on the terms of secession would be quite likely to get bogged down in failure to agree on some key issues. If the best terms that the government at Holyrood was able to extract fell significantly short of the SNP’s demands, there might well be justified pressure from the Scottish people for a fresh referendum to establish whether those who had voted in 2014 for independence still favoured it on the only terms on offer following the negotiations. Come September, Scots will have to decide whether to buy a pig in a poke. They may well find that they don’t like the pig when it eventually emerges. However, it would be risky for Scots considering a yes vote in September to assume that they will have an opportunity later to change their minds if they don’t like whatever may emerge from negotiations with rUK.
On the second point in my Guardian letter, there seems to be some doubt about whether ministers have allowed Whitehall to start planning for the consequences of a possible vote for independence on 18 September. Such an outcome would launch several years of intricate and often deeply divisive negotiations between a Scottish team, led by or perhaps comprising the SNP, on the one hand, and a team representing the rest of the UK (rUK), probably representing all the mainstream UK parties, on the other. Does the main steering brief for the rUK team in the negotiations already exist in Whitehall, setting out the rUK’s main aims in the negotiations, including its red lines on an independent Scotland’s currency; the future of rUK naval and military bases in Scotland (including HM Naval Base Clyde); and the allocation as between Scotland and rUK of North Sea oil revenues, the national debt, the armed forces, and a host of other assets and liabilities? Have the three main UK parties worked out agreed or differing policies on each of these vital issues? If they differ, how are the differences to be reconciled in conducting the negotiations if not by a mandate from the rUK electorate — which would mean publicly disclosing the rUK’s negotiating positions in advance? Perhaps most important of all: what will happen if, after perhaps several years of difficult and stormy negotiations, the two sides simply fail to reach agreement? In the last resort the rUK side can lay down the terms on which the UK parliament will be prepared to grant independence to Scotland, whether or not the Scottish side — almost certainly after fresh elections in Scotland — has agreed to them. What if the majority of Scots who will have voted Yes in 2014 don’t wish to become independent on the terms laid down by rUK following a breakdown or deadlock in the negotiations? In that perfectly plausible situation, is rUK prepared to force independence on Scotland even if a majority of Scots don’t want it on the rUK’s terms?
All these issues urgently need to be publicly aired and debated in the next six weeks if Scottish voters are to have even a hazy understanding of the likely consequences of their votes on 18 September. Have ministers and their officials, and the Labour leadership separately, thought them through and arrived at firm decisions on how to handle them in the negotiations with the Scots if the Yes vote wins? Are any of the three main UK parties ready for an October or November general election fought on the issue of the terms of separation to be offered to Scotland after a Yes vote on 18 September? I rather doubt it.
This information is for university teachers of diplomacy or international affairs, and for editors and book reviewers. It supplements the information about What Diplomats Do, Brian Barder’s new book, now available at the publishers’ (Rowman & Littlefield) website, at https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781442226357; on my previous blog post at http://www.barder.com/4229; and in a new section on my website, starting at http://www.barder.com/wdd/.
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This blogger is the author of a book published by Rowman & Littlefield last week, What Diplomats Do: the life and work of diplomats. This is precisely what it says on the tin; it’s not another ex-diplomat’s thinly disguised, self-published memoirs. After writing millions of words in blog posts, articles, emails and letters, I have at last got round to writing a book. I shan’t do it again, so buy it now before the 20% discount offer lapses.
There’s more information about the book at http://www.barder.com/wdd/ (and pages to which it links — hat-tip: my IT guru, Owen), including: the full texts of two sample chapters (one of them the explanatory Introduction); extracts from some flattering pre-publication reviews by eminent academic teachers of diplomacy and international affairs and by some equally eminent former ambassadors; and an order form that you can download, fill in and send off if you want to get that 20% discount while it lasts.
What do diplomats actually do, not according to academic theory but as a matter of day-to-day reality? That is the question that this book seeks to answer by describing the various stages of a typical diplomat’s career. The book follows a genuinely fictional diplomat — no, he’s not me thinly disguised — from his application to join the national diplomatic service, through varied postings at home and overseas, culminating in his appointment as an ambassador, and eventually his retirement. Each chapter contains illustrative factual anecdotes, some more serious than others, drawn from the author’s 30 years’ experience as a diplomat, ending with postings in four countries in three continents as an ambassador and high commissioner.
What Diplomats Do examines various aspects of the life of a diplomat, contrasting his or her work in an affluent, friendly country with that in a developing country and one with a hostile government, describing the impact on personal and family life and personal security, as well as the privileges and drawbacks of serving as an ambassador. The writer discusses the potential influence of the individual diplomat in helping to formulate and carry out his government’s foreign policy decisions.
Rowman & Littlefield, the book’s publishers, say of What Diplomats Do:
Rigorously academic in its coverage yet extremely lively and engaging, this unique work will serve as a primer to any students and junior diplomats wishing to grasp what the practice of diplomacy is actually like.
Sir Ivor Roberts, a distinguished former British ambassador and currently President (Master) of Trinity College, Oxford University, contributed a generous foreword to the book, writing —
With that [diplomatic] experience and as the editor of the new edition of the classic diplomatic textbook Satow’s Diplomatic Practice, I hope that I can be considered capable of distinguishing a diplomatic hawk from a handsaw. So while books on diplomacy and diplomatic life are not a rarity, Brian’s offering fills a real gap in the market. It is neither a manual, though it offers excellent practical advice, nor is it a memoir though the text is interspersed with often entertaining and illuminating anecdotes. It does instead what it promises: it tells you exactly what it’s like to be a diplomat and what sort of challenges you face on an every-day basis.
The Lee E. Dirks Professor of the History of Diplomacy at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, wrote about the book:
Barder’s account is informative, humanly sympathetic, distinctly British, and thoroughly engaging. I found reading its chapters irresistible, like eating peanuts.
I know of no other book on diplomacy which is so instructive as to procedure, entertaining in its examples, vivid and engaging in its style, massively authoritative, and original in its structure. A few passages dealing with real events are also gripping, notably that describing Sir Brian Barder’s recommendation – in the event momentous in its significance – to recommend a green light for RAF relief flights to Addis Ababa during the great Ethiopian famine in 1984. I think it is a brilliant book…
More information about What Diplomats Do is on the website of the publishers, Rowman & Littlefield, at https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781442226357.
University and college teachers of diplomacy and international affairs can request an inspection or exam copy of the book from the publishers by clicking the relevant tab in the left-hand panel of the relevant web-page. Editors or reviewers at learned — or indeed unlearned — journals and newspapers can similarly ask Rowman & Littlefield for a review copy in the same way. Academic teachers in the field who have already read the book are unanimous — so far! — in saying that they will use What Diplomats Do as a teaching tool and will include it in their students’ recommended or required reading lists.
But What Diplomats Do is not formally a text-book, although it can serve as one; it is written just as much for the general reader with an interest in current affairs, who knows about diplomacy in general terms but who may be curious to know the kinds of things that individual diplomats — junior as well as senior, third secretaries as well as ambassadors — actually do between getting up in the morning, and slumping back into bed early the following morning, after a long day’s unglamorous work and (probably) a spectacularly tedious diplomatic dinner party that has dragged on into the small hours. What Diplomats Do fills in the gaps and aims to be an enjoyable as well as an informative read.
Britain has belonged to the European Union and its predecessors for the past 42 years. Yet some of our leaders, Conservative and Labour, apparently have little idea about the way it works. Iain Duncan-Smith, the Tory Work and Pensions Secretary, and Douglas Alexander, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, have both complained, in terms that suggest a surprising ignorance of EU realities, about the possibility of Jean-Claude Juncker, the former prime minister of Luxembourg, becoming President of the European Commission in the face of David Cameron’s ferocious opposition to him.
According to Nicholas Watt in today’s (23 June 2014) Guardian, Mr Duncan-Smith, a former leader of the Conservative party, said yesterday:
If they give Jean-Claude Juncker a job this is like literally [sic] flicking two fingers at the rest of Europe and saying to all the people out there, ‘We know that you voted the way you did but you are wrong and we are just going to show you how wrong you are by carrying on as though nothing happened.’
And Mr Alexander, for Labour, who according to Mr Watt “has instructed Labour MEPs not to support Juncker” [what, even if he's unanimously nominated for the job by all the EU governments?], spoke in equally revealing terms:
There can be no excuses. David Cameron has a clear mandate from political parties here in the UK – including Labour – to build consensus across Europe for an alternative candidate for president of the commission.
Mr Duncan-Smith seems to think that the majority of the EU electorate has just voted to reject Mr Juncker for the post of Commission President. In fact, Mr Juncker was the preferred candidate of the EPP, the main centre-right group in the EU parliament, which won the most seats in last month’s election. So if the EU elections are any guide (which is debatable), Mr Juncker has a better claim on the job than anyone else.
It’s also meaningless to suggest, as Mr Alexander seems to have done, that at least the UK voters voted at the European elections in support of Mr Cameron’s opposition to Mr Juncker. Because of Mr Cameron’s eccentric and ill-judged decision, before becoming UK prime minister, to pull the UK Conservative party out of the EPP group to which its main natural allies in Europe belong, and to form a new group which he thought could be made more Euro-sceptic, there is now no UK party that belongs to the EPP group, and it was therefore impossible for any UK voter to vote either for or against Mr Juncker for the Commission Presidency. Where Mr Alexander’s “clear mandate” for Mr Cameron’s opposition to Mr Juncker comes from remains a mystery. If all he means is that he, Ed Miliband and Clegg have all agreed to oppose Juncker and to support Cameron’s reckless campaign against him, that hardly amounts to a ‘mandate': it’s more of a joint misjudgement.
It’s just as bizarre for Duncan-Smith and Alexander to speak as if the elections to the European parliament effectively equated to elections to the Presidency of the European Commission. The parallel with elections to the UK parliament, where the leader of the party winning the most seats in the House of Commons will normally become prime minister, is seriously misleading. In the case of the EU, it’s the European Council of Ministers – i.e. the EU heads of government – who have the duty and right to ‘nominate’ their preferred candidate for the Presidency of the Commission, who is then ‘elected’ – or rejected – by the European parliament. Of course in deciding whom to nominate to the EU parliament for the Commission Presidency, the EU governments will take account of opinion in the elected EU parliament, the biggest group in which campaigned last month for Mr Juncker as Commission President. If Mr Cameron somehow persuades his fellow members of the Council of Ministers to nominate a candidate other than Mr Juncker, the EU parliament might well refuse to elect him or her, and go on rejecting the EU governments’ nominees until they consent to nominate Mr Juncker. But the idea that in electing Tory, LibDem, Labour or UKIP MEPs to Brussels and Strasberg, British voters were expressing an opinion about Mr Juncker’s – or anyone else’s – suitability for the Commission Presidency is frankly fatuous. I doubt if as many as 1 percent of UK voters had ever heard of Mr Juncker.
Iain Duncan-Smith and Douglas Alexander might usefully be reminded of two further points.
First, last month’s EU elections in the UK can’t by any stretch of the imagination be regarded as an indication of the British people’s views on the best candidate for the Commission Presidency. No UK party campaigned at those elections for any particular candidate for that post, no UK party putting up candidates for the European parliament belonged to the EPP group which, elsewhere in Europe, was championing Mr Juncker for the job, and since the UK is unrepresented in the EPP group which won the elections, the UK’s MEPs will have little or no influence in the decision of the EU parliament on whether to elect or reject whoever is eventually nominated by the EU governments. This sorry situation results directly from David Cameron’s decision to pull his party out of the EPP group, ignoring the pleas of a bewildered Mrs Merkel and other European leaders who might otherwise have had some sympathy with Mr Cameron’s problems.
Secondly, our party leaders might be reminded that there is no consensus in Britain about the kind of EU reforms that Mr Cameron and his Euro-sceptic party are demanding. Just because all three of the main political parties in Britain, and indeed in many other European countries, recognise the need for “reform” of the EU, it doesn’t mean that they agree on which reforms they want. The UK Tories, for example, want to weaken the power of the EU to regulate safeguards for employees’ work conditions throughout the Union. They resent this EU power in the name of what they euphemistically refer to as “flexible labour laws”. Our UK Tories want to be relieved of EU constraints on their right to make our workers work longer hours, for lower rates of pay, with fewer rights to maternity, paternity and other holidays, and generally in worse conditions, than those in our more enlightened EU partner countries. We need a promise that this is one of many Cameron ‘reforms’ that Labour will never support.
Nor should Labour support the Tories’ demand for limits to be imposed on the free movement of people within the EU, or for abandonment of the principle that all EU citizens, in whichever EU country they live, work or visit, are equally entitled to health and other social benefits. We all favour ‘reform’, as we all favour motherhood, but one party’s reforms are another’s erosion of the basic principles underlying the EU. The Union, that institution to which we belong, and from which we derive such enormous benefits, is one which many people all over our continent still, despite all the disappointments and disillusionments, find genuinely inspiring. Labour should never compromise its European credentials in order to try to appease the Euro-sceptics of the Murdoch press and the wilder reaches of the Conservative back benches. We can leave that doomed attempt at appeasing ignorance and reaction to Mr Cameron and Mr Duncan-Smith.
Our prime minister has embarked on another of his wild gambles. If he pulls it off and our partner governments are blackmailed into dispensing with Mr Juncker’s services, David Cameron’s and other Tories’ triumphalist gloating will be hard to endure, and Britain will incur the odium of widespread opinion throughout the EU for depriving them of their favourite candidate. If he fails, Britain will have to cope for five years or more with a powerful President of the Commission who’ll bear an entirely understandable grudge against all three of the UK’s political parties for having tried so hard, for so little reason, to prevent his selection for the job. It’s a lose-lose situation, as usual.
Footnote (27 June 2014): An abbreviated version of this post has been published by LabourList: please see http://labourlist.org/2014/06/on-foolishly-trying-to-junk-mr-juncker/. It has attracted some very interesting comments there, to some of which I have tried to respond with a number of additional points on various aspects of the issue.
I lay no claim to expertise on the subject of opera, although there are several operas that I very much enjoy, notably those of Mozart and Richard Strauss, and of the latter Der Rosenkavalier most of all. I can’t afford to go and see, or hear, the current production of Rosenkavalier at Glyndbourne, but I’ve been fascinated by the fracas over the reviews in some of the UK broadsheet newspapers which have made unpleasantly personal remarks about the young Irish mezzo soprano Tara Erraught, playing Octavian in Strauss’s masterpiece. All the critics have been full of praise for Ms Erraught’s beautiful voice and brilliant singing, but the praise has been marginalised by several distinguished critics’ ungentlemanly allusions to the her figure and stature (or lack of it), calling her “unbelievable, unsightly and unappealing” (The [London] Times) “dumpy” (The Independent) and with an “intractable physique” (The Daily Telegraph). Andrew Clark in the Financial Times wrote: “Tara Erraught’s Octavian is a chubby bundle of puppy-fat.” The Guardian described her as “stocky”.
For the sake of the operatically challenged who are not familiar with Rosenkavalier, Octavian, the character being played by Tara Erraught at Glyndbourne, is a handsome youth (written for and played by a woman) who’s having an affair with an older woman — and who at a certain point in the action has to be disguised as (guess what) a girl. (The McGuffin of a girl playing the part of a boy who gets dressed up as a girl is of course familiar from Shakespeare through many other operas down to pantomime.) In modern times Octavian is generally played by a tall and athletic young woman singer who can reasonably plausibly pass herself off as a teen-age boy.
Other opera singers, mostly female, have sprung to Ms Erraught’s defence, denouncing her critics’ references to her physique as sexist, offensive, irrelevant to what they say should have been their sole concern (the quality of her singing), and on all these gounds illegitimate. One of the offending critics has apologised; others have rejected the charges against them on the grounds that the unsuitabilty of an actor (whether male or female, singer or not) for his or her role represents poor casting and thus a proper subject of discussion by professional critics.
Rarely without an opinion on current controversies, I expressed mine in my usual manner, namely a letter to the Guardian, which published it on 24 May:
Cruel aspersions cast by music critics on the physical appearance of an opera singer are contemptible, like any other cruelty (Disgust in opera world at ‘sexist’ criticisms of soprano star, 21 May). But some singers who have denounced the critics overstate their case, claiming for example that opera’s magic “is not about lights, it is not about costumes, it’s not about sets, it’s not even about sex or stature … It is all about the human voice … opera is all about the voice” (open letter by Alice Coote).
If that were so, there would be no point in training opera singers to act as well as sing, or in mounting productions in which not only the music and singing but also the acting, sets, costumes, lighting, and the audience’s ability to identify the performers with the characters they play, all contribute to the impact of the event. If those other ingredients really counted for nothing, an audio CD or a concert performance would be just as satisfying as a staged production, which they obviously are not.
All these ingredients are legitimate subjects of comment and criticism by music critics, provided that they express themselves in civil language not calculated to leave lasting scars on the object of their remarks. If the (fictitious) one-legged Dudley Moore had been successful in his famous audition for the part of Tarzan, his physical unsuitability for that part would surely have been a legitimate subject of comment, regardless of the film’s merits.
The controversy rages on. I wonder whether it is causing a spike or a slump in demand for tickets to Glyndbourne?
The Sunday Times magazine of 27 April 2014 carries a wonderfully illuminating interview with Nick Clegg, the leader of the LibDems and deputy prime minister in the Tory-led coalition government which no-one intentionally elected in 2010. The interview, by Anne McElvoy, public policy editor of The Economist, perhaps inadvertently makes a powerful case for Labour, if it wins more seats than anyone else in a hung parliament, to govern without a coalition with the LibDems or anyone else, ideally under a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement in which the LibDems, or any other party holding the balance of power in another hung parliament, would support the minority government in its budget legislation and in votes of confidence, but would be free to help to defeat it in the House of Commons on individual issues without such defeats requiring the government to resign. (This is a more accurate description of ‘confidence and supply’ than Ms McElvoy’s definition in her article.)
Because of the difficulty of reading this revealing article online, and because it includes such charmingly naive declarations of Mr Clegg’s earnest desire to go on being deputy prime minister, election after election, regardless of which of the bigger parties wins the most seats in the election, I am reproducing below extensive passages from Ms McElvoy’s pitiless deconstruction of Mr Clegg:
On the way up to [Nick Clegg's] Sheffield seat, he wants to get something off his chest, which could well play a decisive role in the aftermath of the 2015 election, should no party emerge with a clear majority. In the event of a hung parliament ,which many pollsters consider likely, he says: “My party would not be interested in propping up a minority government without coalition. It isn’t a role I would see as right for myself or the Liberal Democrats.” …. In other words, the deputy PM will only settle for full coalition – which means he intends to remain in the job, if no party wins an overall majority in next May’s general election.
For the first time, Clegg is explicitly ruling out any kind of loose pact arrangement, like the short-lived Lib-Lab one in the 1970s or variants on “confidence and supply” arrangements, a political anoraks’ phrase., whereby a smaller party provides support in parliamentary votes for one of the main parties, but without any official deal on ministerial jobs or influence. No, says Clegg: if they want his party, they need to put up with coalition influence – and, by implication, him in a big role. “I want to remain in government. We’ve only just got started and a 10-year period for us in government means we could make a major contribution. The last thing I want to do is give up this job .”
It’s the kind of chutzpah that plays straight to his detractors’ view of Clegg as a self-aggrandising type. He says he objects to Labour and the Tories assuming that they have “a monopoly on power”. Lib Dems should be “a political force in the life of this county – not just a think-tank”. The charge that he is “power-hungry”, he adds, “tends to come from people with no qualms about seeking it for their own side”.
Ten years of Deputy Clegg is not a prospect that will gladden the hearts of Tories, who blame him for watering down Conservative rule. Meanwhile, seasoned Labour figures mutter that having seen Clegg hold his coalition partner hostage in some areas, a minority Labour government would be a better option than an alliance with Clegg if they fall just short of outright victory next May. Clegg snorts derisively that this is “swashbuckling stuff, but when it comes down to it a minority government would be unstable”. This may be true—but, unsurprisingly, the Tories and Labour deem it presumptuous that he assumes they can only make it work with him in tow.
…One of [Michael] Gove’s main advisers until his departure at the end of last year was the combative Dominic Cummings. He told the BBC’s World at One last month that Clegg’s plan to extend free school meals had been a chaotic policy, announced on the hoof, solely for political gain with his left-leaning base…. When I contact Cummings, he unleashes a far more personal attack. “Nick Clegg is the worst kind of modern MP,” he says via email. “He is self-obsessed, sanctimonious and so dishonest he finds the words truth and lies have ceased to have any objective meaning, and he treats taxpayers’ money with contempt. He won’t do the hard work to get policy right – all he cares about is his image. He is a revolting character. And I say that after spending 15 years at Westminster.”
As putdowns go, this must be a contender for the Malcolm Tucker memorial prize. “Whenever Clegg gave a speech, he’d demand that we spend hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ money for his latest absurd gimmick,” Cummings continues. … “We thwarted Clegg as much as we could,” Cummings says cheerfully. “We ignored his appalling Home Affairs Committee which he abuses for his own personal ends. We kept the Free Schools process and exam reform out of his hands, so he couldn’t subvert them too.”
… It’s not a world [Nick Clegg] wants to give up. ”I’d very much like to continue in government,” he says emphatically, comparing coalition to a “fascinating laboratory” of mixed ideas. Ultimately, the random forces of the electorate will determine whether Clegg is a one-term deputy PM or a fixture in British politics: grumbled about, but tolerated.
Perhaps the men in grey sandals will get him first. If Clegg has one combination of assets that could save his skin, it is a mixture of self-belief and a stubborn refusal to give way. Coalition, he muses, “is full of bumps and scrapes”. He’s had more than a few of those – the Third Man of British politics, who wants to stick around. [Emphasis added.]
In the course of the article, Anne McElvoy usefully reminds us of the democratic credentials of this claimant to a permanent place in government for his party and permanent occupation of the post of deputy prime minister for himself:
[In the 2010 general election] the Lib Dems won 57 seats with 23% of the vote… Clegg’s poll ratings in mid-April  were between 9 and 11%, un-boosted by the publicity of two televised LBC debate clashes with Ukip’s Farage.
Mr Clegg is not by a long chalk the only UK politician who enjoys being a government minister and who would like to remain one for a long time, without the inconvenience of his party first needing to win a majority or plurality in the House of Commons at a general election. But his claim to be able to force whichever of the main parties wins the most seats in a hung parliament next year into a coalition with the LibDems under his leadership is a transparent bluff. First, there’s no guarantee that the LibDems, led by a deeply unpopular Nick Clegg and tarnished by five years propping up the most reactionary and incompetent Tory or Tory-led administration for a generation, will win enough seats in the new House of Commons to hold the balance of power and thus to be able to decide whether Ed Miliband or David Cameron gets the keys to Number 10 Downing Street. Secondly, if the LibDems do hold the balance of power in the 2015 election, the only sanction available to Mr Clegg against a refusal by a minority Labour or Tory government to include the LibDems in a new coalition will be to threaten to defeat the minority government on the floor of the House of Commons and to demand fresh elections. But there is no constitutional requirement that the Queen should agree to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections just because Mr Clegg wants her to. There might be another combination of parties able to command the confidence of a majority in the House of Commons without the cost and annoyance of another election soon after the first. Or, even if a dissolution and fresh elections are granted, there is every likelihood that the electorate, cross with the LibDems and (probably) the Tories for defeating Labour before it had had a chance to show how its manifesto promises would work, would desert them in droves and vote to give Labour an overall majority in the new parliament, in which the LibDems would at once revert to well deserved obscurity. Would Nick Clegg really be prepared to hold this gun to his own head and bravely pull the trigger?
Whatever Mr Clegg’s preference in the matter, much the best option for Labour as the biggest party in another hung parliament will be to carry out as much as it can of its election manifesto programme as a minority government, accepting defeat where necessary on some measures but pressing on regardless with the rest. A coalition with the LibDems, assuming that they had enough seats to make up a majority in the House, would be constantly paralysed by LibDem refusal to accept the reversal of the reactionary and counter-productive coalition policies and laws of which they have been joint sponsors during the years of the present Conservative-led coalition government. Progressive Labour policies would have to be repeatedly watered down to satisfy LibDem objections in a string of unsatisfactory horse trades. A Labour minority government would be well placed to dare the opposition parties to frustrate a progressive and potentially popular programme: if they did, they could expect to pay a heavy electoral price when it became clear that the business of government could not be effectively carried out and that the only escape from deadlock would be a dissolution and an early second election. In such an election the electorate might, with luck, be relied on to punish the opposition parties for frustrating necessary Labour measures and for wishing on it another wearisome and unnecessary election, from which Labour could reasonably hope to emerge this time with an overall majority.
So a Labour minority government and resistance to demands for another coalition are clearly Labour’s least bad option if Labour wins the most seats in another hung parliament. Mr Clegg would miss his ministerial car and driver, his red boxes and his seat on the government front bench. If so, tough.
 Footnote: I assume for the sake of argument that David Cameron will still be leader of the Conservative party in May 2015 when the next general election is due to take place. However, if Scotland votes for independence in September 2014, it’s difficult to see how a prime minister who will have presided over the dissolution of the United Kingdom as a direct result of his personal complacency, ignorance, failure of judgement and incompetence could remain in office for another eight fraught post-referendum months. In such circumstances Mr Cameron’s resignation would seem inevitable. When the prime minister resigns, the rest of the government automatically resigns with him, although it doesn’t necessarily follow that there is a new general election for a new government. In that case would George Osborne or Boris Johnson have replaced Mr Cameron as prime minister by May of next year? Or would Ed Miliband have moved into Number 10 following the resignation of the Cameron-Clegg coalition and a fresh general election in October or November of 2014? That question goes well beyond the scope of this post, and is not directly relevant to its argument. But it certainly deserves to be discussed and debated nevertheless, and with some urgency — elsewhere.
I hasten to make it clear that I would emphatically not regard the loss of Scotland as a price worth paying for the collapse of the Cameron-Clegg coalition eight months earlier than scheduled, much as I would welcome the latter. Scottish secession would be a catastrophe for Britain (and probably, although not necessarily, for Scotland). Another eight months of the Tory-led coalition after the referendum would be a heavy burden, but Britain would survive it, and even recover from it eventually.
Uopdate (8 May 2014): A lively debate on the main issues discussed here is going on in comments on a shortened version of this post on LabourList: see http://bit.ly/1jkkfTT.