Archive for the ‘Thatcher’ Tag

‘Celebrity’ Britain: The Arrival of ‘New Labour’ & Diana’s Demise, 1994-99.   Leave a comment

The Advent of Brown & Blair:

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Tony Blair was far more of an establishment figure than his mentor John Smith, or his great political ‘friend’ and future rival, Gordon Brown. He was the son of a Tory lawyer and went to preparatory school in Durham and then to a fee-paying boarding school in Edinburgh. He then went ‘up’ to Oxford, becoming a barrister and joining the Labour Party before he fell in love with a young Liverpudlian socialist called Cherie Booth, who sharpened his left-wing credentials before he became an MP at the 1983 General Election, winning a safe Labour seat in the north-east of England. Once in the Commons, he quickly fell in with Gordon Brown, another new MP, who was much that Blair was not. He was a tribal Labour Party man from a family which was strongly political and had rarely glimpsed the English Establishment, even its middle ranks from which Blair sprung. Brown had been Scotland’s best-known student politician and player in Scottish Labour politics from the age of twenty-three, followed by a stint in television. Yet the two men had their Christian beliefs in common, Anglo-Catholic in Blair’s case and Presbyterian in Brown’s. Most importantly, they were both deeply impatient with the state of the Labour Party. For seven or eight years they had seemed inseparable, sharing a small office together. Brown tutored Blair in some of the darker arts of politics while Blair explained the thinking of the English metropolitan and suburban middle classes to Brown. Together they made friends with Westminster journalists, both maturing as performers in the Commons, and together they worked their way up the ranks of the shadow cabinet.

After the 1992 defeat, Blair made a bleak public judgement about why Labour had lost so badly. The reason was simple: Labour has not been trusted to fulfil the aspirations of the majority of people in a modern world. As shadow home secretary he began to put that right, promising to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. He was determined to return his party to the common-sense values of Christian Socialism, also influenced by the mixture of socially conservative and economically liberal messages used by Bill Clinton and his ‘New Democrats’. So too was Gordon Brown but as shadow chancellor, his job was to demolish the cherished spending plans of his colleagues. Also, his support for the ERM made him ineffective when Major and Lamont suffered their great defeat. By 1994, the Brown-Blair relationship was less strong than it had been, but they visited the States together to learn the new political style of the Democrats which, to the advantage of Blair, relied heavily on charismatic leadership. Back home, Blair pushed Smith to reform the party rulebook, falling out badly with him in the process. Media commentators began to tip Blair as the next leader, and slowly but surely, the Brown-Blair relationship was turning into a Blair-Brown one.

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In the days following the sudden death of the Labour leader, John Smith (pictured right), Tony Blair decided almost immediately to run as his replacement, while Gordon Brown hesitated, perhaps more grief-stricken. But he had assumed he would eventually inherit the leadership, and was aghast when he heard of Blair’s early declaration. There were at least ten face-to-face confrontations between the two men, in London and Edinburgh. In the opinion polls, Blair was shown to be more popular, and he had the backing of more MPs as well as that of the press. Crucial to Blair’s case was his use of received pronunciation which, after Neil Kinnock and John Smith’s heavily accented English, would reassure those more prejudiced parts of the Kingdom which were the main battlegrounds for Labour, and in which Celtic tones were not perhaps as appreciated as they might be nowadays. They were alright when heard from actors and BBC presenters, but they made politicians seem more ‘peripheral’. Brown had a deeper knowledge of the Labour movement and broader support among the trade unions, however, and had also thought through his policy agenda for change in greater detail. Given the vagaries of Labour’s electoral college system, it is impossible to judge, even now, what might have happened had the ‘young English hart’ locked horns with the ‘tough Scottish stag’, but they agreed at the time that it would be disastrous for them to fight each other as two ‘modernisers’ since Brown would have to attack Blair from the left and the unions would then demand their tribute from him if he won.

So the two men came to a deal, culminating in a dinner at a ‘chic’ Islington restaurant. The outcome is still a matter of some dispute, but we know that Blair acknowledged that Brown, as Chancellor in a Labour government, would have complete authority over a wide range of policy which he would direct through the Treasury, including the ‘social justice’ agenda. But it is unlikely that he would have been so arrogant as to agree, as some have suggested, that he would hand over the premiership to Brown after seven years. After all, at that time Labour was already still three years away from winning its first term and not even the sharpest crystal ball could have projected the second term at that juncture. The most significant result of their dinner-table deal was that, following all the battles between Tory premiers and chancellors of the then recent and current Conservative governments, Brown’s Treasury would become a bastion for British home affairs, while Blair was left to concentrate on foreign policy largely unimpeded, with all the tragic consequences with which we are now familiar, with the benefit of the hindsight of the last twenty years.

Team Tony & ‘Blair’s Babes’:

When it arrived, the 1997 General Election demonstrated just what a stunningly efficient and effective election-winning team Tony Blair led, comprising those deadly masters of spin, Alistair Campbell and Peter Mandelson. ‘New Labour’ as it was now officially known, won 419 seats, the largest number ever for the party and comparable only with the seats won by the National Government of 1935. Its Commons majority was also a modern record, 179 seats, and thirty-three more than Attlee’s landslide majority of 1945. The swing of ten per cent from the Conservatives was another post-war record, roughly double that which the 1979 Thatcher victory had produced in the opposite direction. But the turn-out was very low, at seventy-one per cent the lowest since 1935. Labour had won a famous victory but nothing like as many actual votes as John Major had won five years earlier. But Blair’s party also won heavily across the south and in London, in parts of Britain where it had previously been unable to reach or represent in recent times.

As the sun came up on a jubilant, celebrating Labour Party returning to power after an eighteen-year absence, there was a great deal of Bohemian rhapsodizing about a new dawn for Britain. Alistair Campbell had assembled crowds of party workers and supporters to stand along Downing Street waving union flags as the Blairs strode up to claim their victory spoils. Briefly, at least, it appeared that the whole country had turned out to cheer the champions. In deepest, Lib-Con ‘marginal’ Somerset, many of us had been up all night, secretly sipping our Cava in front of the incredible scenes unfolding before our disbelieving eyes, and when the results came in from Basildon and Birmingham Edgbaston (my first constituency at the age of eighteen when it had already been a safe seat for Tory matron Jill Knight for at least a decade), we were sure that this would indeed be a landslide victory, even if we had had to vote for the Liberal Democrats in the West Country just to make sure that there was no way back for the Tories. The victory was due to a small group of self-styled modernisers who had seized the Labour Party and made it a party of the ‘left and centre-left’, at least for the time being, though by the end of the following thirteen years, and after two more elections, they had taken it further to the right than anyone expected on that balmy early summer morning; there was no room for cynicism amid all the euphoria. Labour was rejuvenated, and that was all that mattered.

A record number of women were elected to Parliament, 119, of whom 101 were Labour MPs, the so-called ‘Blair’s babes’. Despite becoming one of the first countries in the world to have a female prime minister, in 1987 there were just 6.3% of women MPs in government in the UK, compared with 10% in Germany and about a third in Norway and Sweden. Only France came below the UK with 5.7%.

Official portrait of Dame Margaret Hodge crop 2.jpgBefore the large group of women MPs joined her in 1997, Margaret Hodge (pictured below, c.1992, and right, in c. 2015) had already become MP for Barking in a 1994 by-election, following the death of Labour MP Jo Richardson. While still a new MP, Hodge endorsed the candidature of Tony Blair, a former Islington neighbour, for the Labour Party leadership, and was appointed Junior Minister for Disabled People in 1998. Before entering the Commons, she had been Leader of Islington Council and had not been short of invitations from constituencies to stand in the 1992 General Election. Given that she is now referred to as a ‘veteran MP’ it is therefore interesting to note that she had turned these offers down, citing her family commitments:

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“It’s been a hard decision; the next logical step is from local to national politics and I would love to be part of a Labour government influencing change. But it’s simply inconsistent with family life, and I have four children who mean a lot to me. 

“It does make me angry that the only way up the political ladder is to work at it twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. That’s not just inappropriate for a woman who has to look after children or relatives, it’s inappropriate for any normal person.

“The way Parliament functions doesn’t attract me very much. MPs can seem terribly self-obsessed, more interested in their latest media appearance than in creating change.” 

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Patricia Hewitt (pictured above, in 1992, and more recently, right) had first begun looking for a seat in the 1970s when she was general secretary of the National Council of Civil Liberties (NCCL). She later commented that… looking for a seat takes an enormous amount of time, and money, too if you’re travelling a lot. Eventually, she was chosen to fight Leicester East in 1983, a contest which she lost by only nine hundred votes to the Conservative in what was then a relatively safe Tory seat. She later recalled driving up to Leicester on two evenings every week:

“I was planning to have a child after the elections – looking back I don’t know I imagined I was going to cope if Labour had won the seat… Even without children, I was leading such a pressured life – and my partner was doing the same as a Labour councillor – that it did put a strain on our relationship.”

She then became Neil Kinnock’s press and broadcasting secretary. In this role, she was a key player in the first stages of the ‘modernisation’ of the Labour Party, and along with Clive Hollick, helped set up the Institute for Public Policy Research and was its deputy director 1989–1994. By the time of the 1992 General Election she had two small children, so she decided not to look for a seat. Following Labour’s defeat in 1992, Hewitt was asked by the new Labour Leader, John Smith, to help establish the Commission on Social Justice, of which she became deputy chair. She then became head of research with Andersen Consulting, remaining in the post during the period 1994–1997. Hewitt was finally elected to Parliament to the House of Commons as the first female MP for Leicester West at the 1997 General Election, following the retirement of Greville Janner. She was elected with a majority of 12,864 and remained the constituency MP until stepping down in 2010.

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Mary Kaldor (pictured right in the 1980s, and below in 2000), by contrast, never became an MP, one of the ‘loves’ Labour lost. A British academic, currently Professor of Global Governance at the London School of Economics, where she is also the Director of the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit, she was the daughter of the economist Nicholas Kaldor, an exiled Hungarian economist who became an adviser to Harold Wilson in the 1960s. In the nineties, she was a senior research fellow at the Science Policy Research Unit of Sussex, and former foreign policy adviser to the Labour Party. She was shortlisted for Hackney and Dulwich in 1981, attending masses of meetings, many of which were boring at which she was endlessly having to be nice to people. Her youngest child was two years old at the time and was therefore ambivalent about the idea of becoming an MP:

“I was very well-equipped with baby minders and a nice understanding husband, but what on earth is the point of having children if you’re not going to see them?

“Building links with eastern Europe through the peace movement was more exciting than anything I could ever have done as an MP … (which seemed) entirely about competitiveness and being in the limelight, giving you no time to think honestly about your political views.”

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In 1999, Kaldor supported international military intervention over Kosovo on humanitarian grounds, calling for NATO ground forces to follow aerial bombardment in an article for The Guardian. I have written about the war in Kosovo in a separate article in this series. Significantly, however, by the end of the next decade Kaldor lost faith in the principle and practice of humanitarian intervention, telling the same paper:

The international community makes a terrible mess wherever it goes…

It is hard to find a single example of humanitarian intervention during the 1990s that can be unequivocally declared a success. Especially after Kosovo, the debate about whether human rights can be enforced through military means is ever more intense.

Moreover, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have been justified in humanitarian terms, have further called into question the case for intervention.

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Blair needed the support and encouragement of admirers and friends who would coax and goad him. There was Mandelson, the brilliant but temperamental former media boss, who had now become an MP. Although adored by Blair, he was so mistrusted by other members of the team that Blair’s inner circle gave him the codename ‘Bobby’ (as in Bobby Kennedy). Alistair Campbell, Blair’s press officer and attack-dog is pictured above, in a characteristic ‘pose’. A former journalist and natural propagandist, he had helped orchestrate the campaign of mockery against Major. Then there was Anji Hunter, the contralto charmer who had known Blair as a young rock-singer and was his best hotline to middle England. Derry Irvine was a brilliant Highlands lawyer who had first found a place in his chambers for Blair and Booth. He advised on constitutional change and became Lord Chancellor in due course. These people, with the Brown team working in parallel, formed the inner core. The young David Miliband, son of a well-known Marxist philosopher, provided research support. Among the MPs who were initially close were Marjorie ‘Mo’ Mowlem and Jack Straw, but the most striking aspect about ‘Tony’s team’ was how few elected politicians it included.

The small group of people who put together the New Labour ‘project’ wanted to find a way of governing which helped the worse off, particularly by giving them better chances in education and to find jobs, while not alienating the mass of middle-class voters. They were extraordinarily worried by the press and media, bruised by what had happened to Kinnock, whom they had all worked with, and ruthlessly focused on winning over anyone who could be won. But they were ignorant of what governing would be like. They were able to take power at a golden moment when it would have been possible to fulfil all the pledges they had made. Blair had the wind at his back as the Conservatives would pose no serious threat to him for many years to come. Far from inheriting a weak or crisis-ridden economy, he was actually taking over at the best possible time when the country was recovering strongly but had not yet quite noticed that this was the case. Blair had won by being ruthless, and never forgot it, but he also seemed not to realise quite what an opportunity ‘providence’ had handed him.

Cool Britannia and the Celebrity Princess:

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Above: a page from a recent school text.

Tony Blair arrived in power in a country with a revived fashion for celebrity, offering a few politicians new opportunities but at a high cost. It was not until 1988 that the full shape of modern celebrity culture had become apparent. That year had seen the publication of the truly modern glossy glamour magazines when Hello! was launched. Its successful formula was soon copied by OK! from 1993 and many other magazines soon followed suit, to the point where the yards of coloured ‘glossies’ filled the newsagents’ shelves in every town and village in the country. Celebrities were paid handsomely for being interviewed and photographed in return for coverage which was always fawningly respectful and never hostile. The rich and famous, no matter how flawed in real life, were able to shun the mean-minded sniping of the ‘gutter press’, the tabloid newspapers. In the real world, the sunny, airbrushed world of Hello! was inevitably followed by divorces, drunken rows, accidents and ordinary scandals. But people were happy to read good news about these beautiful people even if they knew that there was more to their personalities and relationships than met the eye. In the same year that Hello! went into publication, ITV also launched its the most successful of the daytime television shows, This Morning, hosted from Liverpool by Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan, providing television’s celebrity breakthrough moment.

This celebrity fantasy world, which continued to open up in all directions throughout the nineties, served to re-emphasise to alert politicians, broadcasting executives and advertisers the considerable power of optimism. The mainstream media in the nineties was giving the British an unending stream of bleakness and disaster, so millions tuned in and turned over to celebrity. That they did so in huge numbers did not mean that they thought that celebrities had universally happy lives. And in the eighties and nineties, no celebrity gleamed more brightly than the beautiful yet troubled Princess Diana. For fifteen years she was an ever-present presence: as an aristocratic girl, whose childhood had been blighted by her parents’ divorce, her fairytale marriage in 1981 found her pledging her life to a much older man who shared few of her interests and did not even seem to be truly in love with her. Just as the monarchy had gained from its marriages, especially the filmed-for-television romance, engagement and wedding of Charles and Diana, the latter attracting a worldwide audience of at least eight hundred million, so it lost commensurately from the failure of those unions.

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Above: Hello! looks back on the 1981 Royal Wedding from that of 2011.

Diana quickly learned how to work the crowds and to seduce the cameras like Marilyn Monroe. By the end of the eighties, she had become a living fashion icon. Her eating disorder, bulimia, was one suffered by a growing number of young women and teenage girls from less privileged homes. When AIDS was in the news, she hugged its victims to show that it was safe, and she went on to campaign for a ban on the use of land-mines. The slow disintegration of this marriage transfixed Britain, as Diana moved from a china-doll debutante to painfully thin young mother, to an increasingly charismatic and confident public figure, surprising her husband who had always assumed she would be in his shadow. After the birth of their second son Harry in 1987, Charles and Diana’s marriage was visibly failing.

When rumours spread of her affairs, they no longer had the moral impact that they might have had in previous decades. By the nineties, Britain was now a divorce-prone country, in which ‘what’s best for the kids’ and ‘I deserve to be happy’ were phrases which were regularly heard in suburban kitchen-diners. Diana was not simply a pretty woman married to a king-in-waiting but someone people felt, largely erroneously, would understand them. There was an obsessive aspect to the admiration of her, something that the Royal Family had not seen before, and its leading members found it very uncomfortable and even, at times, alarming. They were being challenged as living symbols of Britain’s ‘family values’ and found wanting, just as John Major’s government would also be hoisted by its own petard as its ‘Back to Basics’ campaign was overwhelmed by an avalanche of sexual and financial scandals.

By the mid-1990s, the monarchy was looking shaky, perhaps even mortal. The strain of being at once a ceremonial and a familial institution was proving a bit much. The year 1992, referred to as the Queen as her ‘annus horribilis’ in her Christmas speech, first saw the separation of the other royal couple, Andrew and Sarah, followed by a major fire at Windsor Castle in November. The journalist Andrew Morton claimed to tell Diana’s True Story in a book which described suicide attempts, blazing rows, her bulimia and her growing certainty that Prince Charles had resumed an affair with his old love Camilla Parker-Bowles, something he later confirmed in a television interview with Jonathan Dimbleby. In December, John Major announced the separation of Charles and Diana to the House of Commons. There was a further blow to the Royal Family’s prestige in 1994 when the royal yacht Britannia, the floating emblem of the monarch’s global presence, was decommissioned.

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 Above: Prince William with his mother, c. 1994.

Then came the revelatory 1995 interview on BBC TV’s Panorama programme between Diana and Martin Bashir. Breaking every taboo left in Royal circles, she freely discussed the breakup of her marriage, claiming that there were ‘three of us’ in it, attacked the Windsors for their cruelty and promised to be ‘a queen of people’s hearts’. Finally divorced in 1996, she continued her charity work around the world and began a relationship with Dodi al-Fayed, the son of the owner of Harrods, Mohammed al-Fayed. To many in the establishment, she was a selfish, unhinged woman who was endangering the monarchy. To many millions more, however, she was more valuable than the formal monarchy, her readiness to share her pain in public making her even more fashionable. She was followed all around the world, her face and name selling many papers and magazines. By the late summer of 1997, Britain had two super-celebrities, Tony Blair and Princess Diana.

It was therefore grimly fitting that Tony Blair’s most resonant words as Prime Minister which brought him to the height of his popularity came on the morning when Diana was killed in a car-crash, together with Dodi, in a Paris underpass. Blair was woken from a deep sleep at his constituency home, first to be told about the accident, and then to be told that Diana had died. Deeply shocked and worried about what his proper role should be, Blair spoke first to Campbell and then to the Queen, who told him that neither she nor any other senior member of the Royal Family would be making a statement. He decided, therefore, that he had to say something. Later that Sunday morning, standing in front of his local parish church, he spoke words which were transmitted live around the world:

“I feel, like everyone else in this country today, utterly devastated. Our thoughts and prayers are with Princess Diana’s family, in particular her two sons, her two boys – our hearts go out to them. We are today a nation in a state of shock…

“Her own life was often sadly touched the lives of so many others in Britain and throughout the world with joy and with comfort. How many times shall we remember her in how many different ways, with the sick, the dying, with children, with the needy? With just a look or a gesture that spoke so much more than words, she would reveal to all of us the depth of her compassion and her humanity.

“People everywhere, not just here in Britain, kept faith with Princess Diana. They liked her, they loved her, they regarded her as one of the people. She was – the People’s Princess and that is how she will stay, how she will remain in our hearts and our memories for ever.”

Although these words seem, more than twenty years on, to be reminiscent of past tributes paid to religious leaders, at the time they were much welcomed and assented to. They were the sentiments of one natural charismatic public figure to another. Blair regarded himself as the people’s Prime Minister, leading the people’s party, beyond left and right, beyond faction or ideology, with a direct line to the people’s instincts. After his impromptu eulogy, his approval rating rose to over ninety per cent, a figure not normally witnessed in democracies. Blair and Campbell then paid their greatest service to the ancient institution of the monarchy itself. The Queen, still angry and upset about Diana’s conduct and concerned for the welfare of her grandchildren, wanted a quiet funeral and to remain at Balmoral, away from the scenes of public mourning in London. However, this was potentially disastrous for her public image. There was a strange mood in the country deriving from Diana’s charisma, which Blair had referenced in his words at Trimdon. If those words had seemed to suggest that Diana was a saint, a sub-religious hysteria responded to the thought. People queued to sign a book of condolence at St James’ Palace, rather than signing it online on the website of the Prince of Wales. Those queuing even reported supernatural appearances of the dead Princess’ image. By contrast, the lack of any act of public mourning by the Windsors and the suggestion of a quiet funeral seemed to confirm Diana’s television criticisms of the Royal Family as being cold if not cruel towards her.

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In particular, the Queen was criticised for following protocol, which prohibited the flying of flags at Buckingham Palace when she was not in residence, rather than fulfilling the deep need of a grief-stricken public to see the Union flag flying there at half-mast. According to another protocol, flags were only flown at half-mast on the deaths of the monarch or their immediate blood relatives. But the crown lives or dies by such symbolic moments, and the Queen relented. Also, with Prince Charles’ full agreement, Blair and his aides put pressure on the Palace first into accepting that there would have to be a huge public funeral so that the public could express their grief, and second into accepting that the Queen should return to London. She did, just in time to quieten the genuine and growing anger about her perceived attitude towards Diana. This was a generational problem as well as a class one. The Queen had been brought up in a land of buttoned lips, stoicism and private grieving. She now reigned over a country which expected and almost required exhibitionism. For some years, the deaths of children, or the scenes of fatal accidents had been marked by little shrines of cellophane-wrapped flowers, soft toys and cards. In the run-up to Diana’s funeral parts of central London seemed almost Mediterranean in their public grieving. There were vast mounds of flowers, people sleeping out, holding up placards and weeping in the streets, strangers hugging each other.

The immense outpouring of public emotion in the weeks that followed seemed both to overwhelm and distinguish itself from the more traditional devotion to the Queen herself and to her immediate family. The crisis was rescued by a live, televised speech she made from the Palace which was striking in its informality and obviously sincere expression of personal sorrow. As Simon Schama has put it,

The tidal wave of feeling that swept over the country testified to the sustained need of the public to come together in a recognizable community of sentiment, and to do so as the people of a democratic monarchy.

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The funeral itself was like no other before, bringing the capital to a standstill. In Westminster Abbey, campaigners stood alongside aristocrats, entertainers with politicians and rock musicians with charity workers. Elton John performed a hastily rewritten version of ‘Candle in the Wind’, originally his lament for Marilyn Monroe, now dedicated to ‘England’s Rose’, and Princess Diana’s brother Earl Spencer made a half-coded attack from the pulpit on the Windsors’ treatment of his sister. This was applauded when it was relayed outside and clapping was heard in the Abbey itself. Diana’s body was driven to her last resting place at the Spencers’ ancestral home of Althorp in Northamptonshire. Nearly a decade later, and following many wild theories circulated through cyberspace which reappeared regularly in the press, an inquiry headed by a former Metropolitan Police commissioner concluded that she had died because the driver of her car was drunk and was speeding in order to throw off pursuing ‘paparazzi’ photographers. The Queen recovered her standing after her live broadcast about her wayward former daughter-in-law. She would later rise again in public esteem to be seen to be one of the most successful monarchs for centuries and the longest-serving ever. A popular film about her, including a sympathetic portrayal of these events, sealed this verdict.

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HM Queen Elizabeth II in 2001.

Tony Blair never again quite captured the mood of the country as he did in those sad late summer days. It may be that his advice and assistance to the Queen in 1997 was as vital to her as it was, in the view of Palace officials, thoroughly impertinent. His instinct for popular culture when he arrived in power was certainly uncanny. The New Age spiritualism which came out into the open when Diana died was echoed among Blair’s Downing Street circle. What other politicians failed to grasp and what he did grasp, was the power of optimism expressed in the glossy world of celebrity, and the willingness of people to forgive their favourites not just once, but again and again. One of the negative longer-term consequences of all this was that charismatic celebrities discovered that, if they apologised and bared a little of their souls in public, they could get away with most things short of murder. For politicians, even charismatic ones like Blair, life would prove a little tougher, and the electorate would be less forgiving of oft-repeated mistakes.

(to be continued).

Posted October 22, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Agriculture, BBC, Belfast Agreement, Belgium, Birmingham, Britain, Brussels, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Conquest, Conservative Party, devolution, Europe, European Economic Community, European Union, France, History, Integration, Ireland, Irish history & folklore, Journalism, Labour Party, Margaret Thatcher, Migration, Millenarianism, Monarchy, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, New Labour, Population, Respectability, Scotland, Uncategorized, West Midlands

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Six of the best British reasons to keep saying ‘Yes!’ to Europe…   1 comment

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I have already voted in the Referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. Tuesday 7 June was the last day for registering to vote in the EU referendum. However, if you are a Brit living abroad and you voted in the 2015 General Election, you will almost certainly still be registered to vote in your former constituency (only). Or if you’re away from the UK/ unable to get to the polling station on 23 June, you still have time to request a postal vote from your local authority, via http://www.gov.uk.

When your envelope arrives, inside you will find a ‘postal voting statement’ which you complete with your date of birth and signature. You don’t need a witness for this. You then fill in your ballot paper by putting a cross next to one of the two statements, based on ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’. You then put this into an envelope, marked A, seal it and place it, together with your completed postal voting statement, into the pre-paid postage envelope (B). You then simply post this (you don’t need to pay postage whether in the UK or abroad, neither do you need to register it or  ask for recorded delivery) or you can deliver it by hand at any time before polling day to the local electoral services office, or on the day, 23 June, at any polling station within your electoral area, up until 10 p.m. Given that a small number of problems have arisen with the German Post Office (wrongly) not accepting pre-paid IBRS envelopes, it may be an idea to pass it over the counter, rather than putting it in the box, if you are posting from abroad.

Voting by post is as simple as A, B, C, and it’s important that everybody eligible to vote within the EU does so. Unlike in a General Election, expatriates from the UK have even greater reason to vote in the Referendum than residents. Apart from the EU citizens from other countries living in the UK who don’t have a vote (unlike in the Scottish Referendum), UK subjects in the EU are the group of Brits most directly affected by the result, especially if it goes in favour of the UK leaving the EU. The decision to restrict voting rights to those who have been resident abroad for fifteen years makes it even more necessary for those of us who do have a vote to use it both for ourselves and our children, but also on behalf of people who may have been disenfranchised.

Deciding how to vote may not be so simple, just as it wasn’t in the 1975 Referendum (see the picture below). This came just before my eighteenth birthday, so I didn’t have a vote, but many of my school mates did, and I well remember the debates and discussions which led up to polling day, even though I was doing my A Level exams at the time.

The result is as important now as it was in 1975, perhaps more so, especially for today’s young Britons. Then we were joining an Economic Community, now we are considering leaving a Union which offers them major cultural and educational opportunities as well. While the economic reasons for remaining in are as clear as they were in 1975, my reasons for voting to remain are far broader and deeper, as they were back in the mid-seventies. I’ve set them out below.

 

Yes girls: Pro-EEC campaigners back Brussels at the 1975 referendum

1. Integration is not assimilation:

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‘‘Visit the great churches and cathedrals of Britain, read our literature and listen to our language: all bear witness to the cultural riches which we have drawn from Europe and other Europeans from us.”
– Margaret Thatcher 1988 in Bruges –

When Mrs Thatcher made this speech, she also spoke very determinedly of the need to reunite all the countries of Europe, at a time when the Berlin Wall was still standing and Warsaw, Prague, Budapest and all the old capitals of central-eastern Europe, still lay behind the ‘iron curtain’. Two years later, the dictatorships in those countries had fallen, along with the walls and fences dividing them from their western European ‘siblings’ and cousins. Mrs Thatcher had departed from office too, following the fallout from the Maastricht Treaty debácle in the Tory Party. It was this departure which came as the greatest surprise to many in central Europe, where the ‘Iron Lady’ was regarded with great affection for her steadfast support for their peoples’ bringing down of the old Soviet-style regimes.

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Above: Margaret Thatcher with G7 Heads of State at Paris in 1989

Although it’s true that the Maastricht Treaty marked a period of deeper integration in western Europe and a transition from an economic community into a more political union, it is easy to forget that it also came just before the end of the Cold War and the beginning of a period of transition in central-eastern Europe which led to the political reintegration of the European continent as envisaged by Margaret Thatcher had envisioned in her Bruges speech. Over the following quarter century, the two processes have worked in tandem, so that the broadening of the Union to 27 countries has been rooted in institutions which have evolved, not always easily, to accommodate more divergent needs.

This process has been one of integration, not assimilation. The EU is not some giant Leviathan trying to swallow up all countries great and small. Countries seeking accession have had their terms of entry negotiated on an individual basis, and existing countries like France have been able to opt out of the arrangements for freedom of movement from these new member states. Since 2004, their intake of migrant workers from Poland, Hungary and (more recently) Romania has thus been far less than that of the United Kingdom. The UK is now able to apply an ’emergency brake’ on these migration streams itself, and to add conditions to the entry of future migrants, while still remaining at liberty to withdraw from any arrangements involving new accessor states like Croatia or Serbia.  The fact that David Cameron has been able to maintain and extend the very different terms of the UK’s membership shows that sovereignty and self-government can be maintained as well as, in chosen circumstances, pooled by individual member states.

2. Freedom of Movement can be managed for everyone’s benefit:

The voluntary movement of Labour within an internal market has long been a feature of successful economies, including Britain’s. A hundred years ago, the majority of the working population was concentrated in the industrial areas of Scotland, the North of England and South Wales. Some of these areas in 1911-1921 were continuing to attract labour from impoverished rural areas at a net in-migration rate second only to that of the United States. When the older industries which attracted these workers then went into decline, many of them moved to the light engineering centres of the Midlands and South-East of England. This included a mass migration of half a million coal-miners and their families from South Wales alone in the twenty years between the wars. Most of these workers fulfilled a need for their skills and capacity for hard manual work, adapted to their new environment and integrated into their new neighbourhoods. From the 1950s, they were added to by streams of migrants from the Empire and Commonwealth, again bringing their own cultural traditions to integrate themselves into their new environment. Again, these were, economically, ‘internal migrants’ from within Britain’s traditional trading areas overseas who were actively invited and recruited to come to Britain. Now that trading area is determined largely by  the decision taken by the British people in 1975, when the UK decided by 2:1 to remain within the European Economic Community.

The logic of joining a ‘free trade’ union has always been that it would lead on to ‘free movement’ not simply of goods, but of services and therefore of people as well. This basic economic ‘mechanism’ of free markets cannot be denied by economists and economic historians, but it can be managed by politicians. There is nothing to stop British politicians doing what the French ones did in 2004. All they have to say is that they want to be able to channel the migration streams from both EU and non-EU countries to match demand, given that, like France, they have strong ties to the latter. The idea that the EU does not allow us to control our own borders and our own immigration policy is a myth (convenient for many), but belonging to a single trading market does mean, in principle, that the British government accepts and upholds both the rights of people from elsewhere in that market to work in the UK and of British people to work abroad. At the moment there are 1.2 million EU migrants who have moved to Britain since 2010, compared with 600,000 moving out, a rate of 2:1. This gives an average of a hundred thousand per year. Last year, this number increased but was still less than the number of those longer-distance migrants coming to the UK to settle permanently from non-EU countries, out of total net in-migration of 330,000.

The rights of EU migrants have nothing to do with the rights of illegal immigrants to the EU from the Balkans and the Middle East, or with the very distinct rights of the Syrian Refugees. We don’t know yet how many of the EU migrants are intending to settle in the UK permanently, but anecdotal evidence both from the UK and from Hungary tells me that, for home-loving Hungarians at least, they will be in a small minority. The majority of EU migrants, by contrast with those from further afield, are on temporary contracts and are intending to return when their contracts expire, many having done so already, to be replaced by others.  They arrive in the UK often with jobs already to go to, or with clear intentions in finding employment. They rarely claim unemployment benefit, at least not until they have paid into the National Insurance system, and then only for short periods. Nearly all make a net contribution in taxation as soon as they start working. In the future, they will not be able to claim either unemployment benefits or in-work tax relief for four years, as a result of David Cameron’s renegotiation. The Poles who are fruit-picking in Kent, the Hungarians in restaurants in London, and the doctors and nurses working in Bristol are all making up for shortages in local labour.

In terms of their impact on local services, evidence also suggests that, while language problems have a temporary implication for schools, most EU children settle quickly into a fairly familiar system, and learn/ acquire English very quickly, so that they are not as ‘high impact’ as students from other continents and cultures. Once they have learnt the medium of their education, these ‘bright’ children, from traditional European school backgrounds, more often than not go on to gain better GCSE results than their British peers. Health services are funded differently in the UK than in other EU countries, where workers pay into a National Insurance scheme, but since most migrant workers in the UK are young and single, it is unlikely that they are making disproportionate demands compared with the ageing native population.

Far from being a drain on resources, EU migrants are major contributors to maintaining and extending economic growth in Britain. Indeed, politicians in their home countries frequently express their fears that the temporary loss of these young workers means, for them, a loss of skills, talents and revenues which are much in need back home. English teachers from Hungary are washing-up in London restaurants because, even at minimum wage rates, they can earn more in a forty-hour week in the kitchens than they can in their schools. It is the UK which is benefiting from EU migration, whereas the ‘donor’ countries are dealing with the negative impact, but progressive politicians seem unwilling to make this case in the face of populist scare-mongers in UKIP and elsewhere.

John Michael Sharples logo

 

Freedom of movement also includes many things that we take for granted, like freedom from work permits and work visas, intrusive medical tests, transit visas, unfair phone tariffs, border checks, currency exchange charges, etc. It also encourages cheaper and cleaner travel options.

3. Peace and Security are continuous processes which have to be worked on:

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John F Kennedy once remarked that ‘peace is a process’ which requires the daily, weekly, monthly breaking down of barriers and the building up of new bridges. That image has much to commend it, but too often people regard peace as ‘a period of cheating between battles’ (at worst) and as an ‘absence of war’ (at best). Yet all the world’s truly great peacemakers have seen it as ‘the presence of justice’. If this is so, why do the Brexiteers bear so much antipathy towards European Courts in general (some of which, like the European Court of Human Rights, are not part of the EU’s institutions) and to the European Court of Justice in particular? Can you think of any organisation or club which allows individual members to set its own their own rules, or which doesn’t try to apply some standard code of conduct for all its members to follow?

Even if we simply take the definition of peace as ‘the absence of war’ we can see that the EU has been instrumental in keeping the peace in Europe over the last sixty years. Of course, NATO, founded a decade earlier, has been more important in overall strategic terms, due mainly to its nuclear capabilities, and despite the fact that on at least two occasions it has led us to the brink of Armageddon. The EU has itself made important strategic contributions in Europe, in the wars of the Former Yugoslav territories in the 1990s and most recently in sending a clear signal through sanctions in response to Putin’s aggression in the Ukraine. This latter situation, together with that in the Baltic states is being watched very carefully by both the EU and NATO. I hear people saying, ‘but why should Britain be concerned about what is happening in far-away European countries?’ I would want to remind them that this was precisely the position of those who appeased Mussolini and Hitler in the 1930s. First they went to war in Africa, and Britain and France took part in a carve-up. Then they went to war in Spain, and Britain actually aided Franco’s troops. Then Czechoslovakia was considered a ‘far-away country’, even though Prague is far closer to London and Paris than Berlin and Vienna. The warning is clear. Appeasement of dictators is not peacemaking.

Little less than a century ago, both the PM, Lloyd George, and the economist John Maynard Keynes pointed out what they predicted The Economic Consequences of the Peace of Paris would be, especially the crippling reparations it placed on Germany, and to some extent Austria and Hungary. By placing such a huge financial burden on these ‘losing’ governments, together with the additional losses of land and resources, the Allies prevented these countries, especially Germany, from becoming a strong trading partner, helping to contribute to the conditions for ‘economic nationalism’ and another war. The peacemakers after the Second World War were determined not to make the same mistake, and the reason that our present-day EU began life as an Iron and Steel Community, followed by the EEC, was precisely because of the recognition that peace cannot be ‘decreed’, but has to be worked at through establishing trading agreements and arrangements. Trading relationships make the antidote to war.   

4. Educational, Language and Cultural Exchanges are essential for all our futures:

The reintegration of Europe has not happened by chance, but by exchanges of goods, services and people. At first, ‘people’ exchanged were instigated by people themselves, run on a shoestring with the help of local councils and charities. These exchanges began in the early 1990s with the help of the EU through its TEMPUS programmes which helped fund universities and colleges from both western and central-eastern Europe who were looking to establish relationships for mutual training and study. More recently, permanent programmes like Erasmus and Comenius have enabled students of all ages to develop their language skills through extended placements in each other’s countries.

I have written about the personal benefits of this to my own family elsewhere, but, again, people have suggested that Britain, through the British Council and other organisations, could easily set up alternative programmes if the UK votes to leave. This ignores the fact that multilateral, if not bilateral cultural exchanges would be much harder to establish from scratch, and would not be as effective as centrally funded networks, whether at student level or among academic researchers. The impact on schools, colleges, universities and young people in general of these programmes is impossible to measure simply in financial terms. There is a huge multiplier effect in the pooling of linguistic skills alone, apart from the inter-cultural benefits which exchanges  can bring to the creation of long-term, peaceful cooperation.

5. The European route is the way to a broader internationalism:

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One of the long-standing criticisms of the EU, heard since at least 1975, is that it is a ‘rich man’s club’. Having experienced the re-integration of the poorer, ex-Communist countries of Eastern Europe at first hand over the last 25 years, this is easier for me to dismiss as an argument than it was in 1975. However, the current Migration Crisis in south-eastern Europe reveals that the EU is on the cusp of an almost ‘tectonic’ shift in human resources and relations. Just as the twentieth century has moved Europe on from a patchwork of nation states and land empires to a continent-wide confederation of inter-dependent states, the twenty-first century will be one in which our common identity as Europeans – whether we are Christian Democrats, Social Democrats or Liberal Democrats – must serve as the basis for reaching out to create fuller and fairer trading relationships with other continents, and especially with our neighbours in Africa and the Middle East. Britain has its own historic responsibilities in the world, through its Commonwealth, but it can do far more to address the major inter-continental issues in the twenty-first century by working ‘in concert’ with its European allies to produce joint, caring foreign policies.

6. Britain is at its best when leading, not when leaving:

Printed the day after France requested armistice terms from Germany, a celebration of Britain's 'lonely' wartime defiance.  Evening Standard (18 June 1940).

Much has been made in this campaign of Britain’s ability to stand alone in Europe, as it did from the Fall of France to Operation Barbarossa. However, even then, it could not have stood for as long as it did without American supplies of food, yes, but also of key military equipment, not to mention the help forthcoming from its Empire and Dominions. By December 1941, Britain was fighting a in global war, the first shots of which were fired in the Far East in 1937. The first American troops arrived in Britain at the beginning of 1942, and when the ‘Second Front’ was finally opened in May 1944, the British Army, composed in large part of Indian troops, fought its way back across the continent with our friends. Despite the wartime propaganda which metamorphosed into popular mythology, Britain never really stood alone, neither before nor during the Second World War.

Even in the Blitz propaganda of 1940-41, Coventry was thinking not just of its own suffering, but of that of other cities around the world, many of which became twin cities after the war. The Cross of Nails has become an international symbol of peace and reconciliation, present even when we feel most separated from the Light. I believe in this version of national mythology, that Britain has a destiny among nations, proven down the ages. Its vocation is to lead where the Light takes it, to extend its peaceful influence through language, trade and culture.  True Britons don’t leave. In Churchill’s words, they ‘never, never, never give up!’ They are sometimes called upon to ‘give way’ voluntarily, however, to make compromises. The European Union is, in part, a product of this other, much-admired facet of British character. It is also a work in progress, with many unresolved conflicts, and the UK is an integral element in this joint endeavour.

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If you believe, like me, that ‘Endeavour and Endurance’ are good English words which contain true British values, join me in voting for the UK to remain in the European Union after 23 June. Help keep the ugly word ‘Brexit’ out of the English language for good!

Andrew James

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