Category Archives: Westminster

My referendum day memories from inside the campaign

I am today pondering two very powerful words. They are ‘what’ and ‘if’. What if, on this day one year ago, the British electorate had voted for their country to remain within the European Union? What if we had been on the losing end of a gruelling and hard-fought referendum campaign? What if the tides that had hardened British public opinion against EU membership been whisked away, only to be replaced by many more years of ever closer political union?

For somebody like me, it is a frightening thought. As I type I can recall the restlessness and agitation that characterised June 23rd 2016. I am reminded of the uncomfortable train journey I took to work (at Vote Leave HQ), at 5am a year ago, in which I sat slumped in the carriage, nerve-stricken and tired, trying simultaneously to envisage victory and suppress any useless over-confidence.

It was an overcast morning, I seem to recall, which grew cloudier and very windy as the day progressed, and was marred by incessant rail disruption, which started (luckily) after I got to work. Any London commuters on that day will remember the disaster of trying to get home. A quick Google reminded me that flooding and storms were the cause. One memory I have of June 23rd, that has remained etched into my mind, is of the packed concourse at Waterloo station, which at the time pleased me as I thought it possible that many Remain-supporting Londoners would not be able to get home in time to vote.

As I arrived at work on polling day, the office was typically quiet. Part of my job was to monitor all Vote Leave and referendum press coverage; hence the early starts and long shifts. This was the case every morning until about 7, when Press and Research would arrive. But on June 23rd, things were a little different. The morning beforehand, most of the team had taken the coach down to Dover, where a final campaign push had been planned.

I was asked to stay in the office on the final day and so did not get to go, but that I did not mind. Much of the day, until colleagues returned around 10pm, remained eerily quiet. It provided me with quite a lot of time to think about the campaign; to mull over my personal contribution, fret about the result and keep a beady eye on voter activity through social media channels.

I spent a good part of the morning examining the major newspapers, and was particularly happy with the Sun’s beautiful splash, which I’ll never forget for as long as I live. It read: ‘Independence Day’, with an image of sunrise over the United Kingdom, with the stars on the European Union flag retreating back towards the continent. One of the great reliefs of the campaign was the support we aroused amongst the country’s most-read newspapers. They may not carry the political weight that they used to, but they certainly help to influence public opinion.

As the day wore on, in surprisingly uneventful fashion, my emotions started to get the better of me a little bit. I suppose I was in part frustrated at the long waiting game ahead and in part angered by statuses written by friends on Facebook, with whom I should not have bothered to engage in argument. That day, I amassed three fallings out, which disappointed me as I am not usually the type to let political beliefs jeopardise personal relationships.

I spoke about this on BBC London News about two weeks after the referendum. The scale of the issue, I think, provided exactly the sort of fertile soil for arguments and family splits. In the video package presented by the BBC, my section was contrasted with a focus on three ethnic minority voters who had experienced racism post-result (which of course had everything to do with voting to Leave and nothing whatsoever to do with pre-existing personal bigotry). It was a characteristically Remain-heavy segment, but I was not so bothered.

I spent much of June 23rd clearing out my desk, tidying up my work and making final preparations for my last work duties, which made me a little emotional. I hated 12 hour shifts, but the immense privilege of being a part of it all is something I will always treasure. One of the many valuable things I learned at the job was the importance of teamwork and making everybody aware that we are all in something together, working towards the same goal.

Some colleagues also stayed in Westminster that day and did not follow the team down to Dover. I believe that Matthew Elliott and Gisela Stewart had journeyed to Manchester, though for reasons I was unaware of. The feeling amongst those who were in the office was quiet enthusiasm. We had been monitoring polling trends carefully and had produced rigorous data that gave us a reasonable impression of how different sorts of people and different constituencies would vote.

I chatted with colleagues and took part in some ‘thanks for everything’ campaign photos and videos, which were released a couple of weeks later. I spent much of the day reflecting on what it was I had been involved in, especially given I was just 20 years old and our youngest employee. I thanked our politicians who dropped by, like Douglas Carswell and Michael Gove, who were both very pleasant to me when we spoke and always gave up their time to thank those less senior in the campaign for their efforts.

As the evening drew in, the wind picked up, the clouds darkened and my nerves rattled with renewed vigour. My plan, initially, was to get the train home at 6pm and come back to headquarters at around midnight, either by train or the night bus. Rail disruption made this impossible, so I had dinner at a local pizza restaurant with a colleague and took a two-hour nap on the floor underneath my desk, taking advantage of the periodic silence.

By the time I had woken up, (which must have been around 9pm) other campaign figures had returned from their Dover escapades and were filing back into the office. I chose to make my way home, as something resembling normal train service had resumed, making sure to get a few winks as I knew that the early hours of the morning would be stressful and restless.

The night bus brought me back to Westminster at just gone 11pm, where I grabbed some food and headed straight for the office. I was happy to see it full and lively. Everybody associated with us was there, minus Gisela and Matthew Elliott, who were in Manchester, and Suzanne Evans, who arrived a little later on. I took my usual seat, next to Penny Mordaunt, whose phone charger I asked to borrow as I had killed my battery on the way keeping my eyes fixed on BBC News and the ‘Britain Elects’ Twitter feed (which has proved a life saver on the night of major political events).

Everybody sat facing the three large televisions as results continued to leak through. Then, something extraordinary happened: Sunderland declared. Before arriving at the office, the Newcastle result had come through, and we had lost there, but by a shockingly small margin, which had given me real hope. Sunderland, though, had opted to leave the European Union. Enormous cheers thundered around the seventh floor of Westminster Tower, perhaps slightly prematurely.

This particular result had suggested two things: that our polling was accurate and that the rural Labour vote had turned out for Leave. At around half past 12 in the morning, the champagne glasses were out. We were very confident. I don’t usually drink, or particularly like, champagne, but Tom Harwood (a friend and leader of the Leave student component) was already on it and sitting the other side of me so I thought: ‘fuck it, why not?’

The good news kept coming. BBC, Sky and ITV pundits, one by one, began to call the referendum in our favour. Every time a major seat (such as, for instance, Cardiff) announced its result we’d sit in collective silence and anticipation. It was almost like we were watching a Cup Final penalty shootout. Though of course this was much, much bigger.

Then, at around 2pm, every major media organisation had officially called a Leave victory. I don’t recall ever feeling such impassioned and joyful relief in my entire life. We knew at this point that it was only a waiting game. Our messages had hit the country and our voters had turned out in droves. The office environment became more relaxed and those present began to discuss anecdotes and memories of the campaign. Things could still go wrong, but nothing could wipe the smiles off of our faces. We were within touching distance.

I began to guess what the confirmed result would be. My friend and Vote Leave Research Director Oliver Lewis had told me some weeks before that he suspected 52-48 in our favour, though his then-fiancé later informed me that at home he was not quite so confident. We discussed morale and the result a lot, and I took his thoughts seriously because he’s an extremely smart guy. One thing I knew was that it would not be a demolition job; the scale of the issue was far too big for an annhiliation either way.

As I think back now, I realise how quickly the time went that morning. 2pm, 3pm and 4pm all now seem like a blur. They seemed to congeal together in a haze of shock and glee. A part of me wishes I could go back and re-live those early hours. They were undoubtedly the most jubilant in my lifetime. I had personally devoted three months of twelve-hour shifts, amassing four days off, and many hundreds of miles travelling around the country beforehand in order to participate in localised activism.

But pass those hours did, and at 4pm, the result of the referendum was announced. I managed at this point to do something I had never done before: I cried genuine tears of joy. My head sank into my hands and I sobbed uncontrollably. I had, at one point, three female colleagues hovering around me, offering me hugs and kind words of congratulations. It certainly wasn’t my most masculine moment. But it was my happiest.

I weaved in and around the office, thanking every colleague I could hug, many of them multiple times. I regret the pictures of me from that day hugely; I had not washed or slept for almost two days and my hair was greasier than a large Doner, not that I had an ounce of care. Darren Grimes, who I had come to know reasonably well during the campaign, returned to the office from a television appearance he had made and joined the celebrations. Shockingly, he seemed to be able to hold it together better than I had.

Then Suzanne Evans made an appearance, which pleased me greatly as I had grown to like her as a person and thought of her as a great tower of strength and reliability throughout the referendum (I wish her well in her battle with cancer). We spoke about a number of things for a good twenty minutes and she offered me a little advice ahead of a potential career in politics. ‘Do something else before you hold office’, she told me. ‘You’ll be more respected that way’. I suspect she is correct.

Minutes later, emotions bubbled to the surface once more as a couple of very heartfelt speeches were made, first by Dan Hannan (who unfollowed me on Twitter the next day), and then, more importantly, by Dominic Cummings, who had directed the campaign beautifully. I have a good video of the post-result speech that Dom made, but have sought to keep it private as I believe he would prefer that. Indeed, many of these memories are extremely powerful and private.

But the morning wasn’t crowned off until I left the office, starving and exhausted, at around 6am. I had planned to stick around until McDonalds had begun serving breakfast, as there is no better way to spend a morning than with a double sausage and egg Mcmuffin in your mouth. I left McDonalds with two (‘you deserve it, I told myself’) and walked back to Albert Embankment, taking a seat on one of the benches next to the Thames.

I watched as the sun rose gloriously, and appropriately, over the Palace of Westminster. All was well.

 

 

 

 

 


First impressions of soldiers on our capital’s streets

I knew that at some point I would be referring to this blog to talk about the deployment of British soldiers in London. I wanted to wait until I had spent a reasonable amount of time in the capital in order to appropriately communicate my thoughts on their presence and what it means for public policy.

Yesterday (Sunday 28th May), I got my chance. I spent what was quite a lovely, if not rain-soaked, afternoon with a female friend in and around Westminster. Originally, we had planned to go on the London Eye, but since the weather made this a little implausible, we headed for the National Gallery and dinner instead.

Before meeting, I walked to Whitechapel via Buckingham Palace Road and The Mall, having been re-routed to London Victoria by limits on Southeastern train services. I got to examine our ‘Paras’ stationed in strategic locations, most notably either side of the front face of Buckingham Palace, at gated side entrances and exits, outside Downing Street and around Westminster Palace.

I was interested in taking a look at this intriguing new development because I wanted to gauge, firstly, whether the introduction of the British Armed Forces to the streets of London would make me, a Londoner, feel safer in the city that I love, and secondly, what kind of impression it would give of Britain’s security and counter-terrorism efforts.

The answer to my first question came very quickly. It did not make me feel safer (and that is not to say that I felt particularly unsafe to begin with). Terrorism is a distant, muted fear in the back of my mind when going about my business in busy commuter and tourist hotspots, but I am usually able to effectively repress any needless overthinking or stress.

I spent some time watching every soldier I spotted. Most appeared utterly bored by the whole ordeal, as I would imagine is the overriding emotion after standing in the same spot watching people for hours on end. Others were entertaining themselves through mild conversation with accompanying police officers (it might be worth asking why we didn’t just reverse cuts and invest in more officers to begin with).

Please don’t think I am attacking individual Paras, but what struck me most was how static and distracted they seemed. They are exceptionally well trained and will, I’m sure, give their utmost to protect citizens in the likely event of more jihadism. But they certainly didn’t make me feel any safer.

If anything, the presence of troops stands as evidence of the now blatant failure of deep cuts to police budgets. This has been made exponentially worse by a sizeable increase in the UK’s population and alterations to the national terror threat level.

French troops were deployed on the streets of Paris many moons ago and we can hardly assert that incidents of terrorism are less likely to take place, if we have been paying attention to anything over the last two years. Any reasonable betting man will also conclude that more attacks are on their way, whether London is cluttered with British Army regiments or not.

Furthermore, what of Manchester? Or Birmingham? Or other major British cities otherwise excluded from the nation’s Westminster-dominated political consensus? Will they be supplemented with soldiers that make them look as vulnerable, violent and incapable of civil defence as the more corrupt corners of Africa and Eastern Europe? I hope not. There are better solutions available to us.

I do think that most of the support their mobilisation this week received was down either to tribal, instinctive support for the country’s foremost line of defence, or to the fact that most people consider soldiers to be exotic and a rare spectacle, which I think explains the craving that many have to take pictures with them and attend various community events and displays.

As a patriot, I admit to sharing in the glamorous appeal that the British Armed Forces retain. I have huge admiration for their skill and bravery. Just not for the decision to station them in predictable and already robustly defended parts of the capital.

Military presence, despite the talent and authority of the individuals on guard, has the ironic effect of making the country look a little weak; frightened into action by jihadists the government isn’t strong enough to take care of by itself.

It violates the country’s most profound value: liberty. Historical accounts tell me that we were once a free, calm country and one not easily panicked at home, but increasingly we seem troubled and unfree. I think this is worth pondering.

Deportations are in order where legally possible, prisons and mosques are in need of thorough combings in the search for radicalising forces and the long, slow path back from the perils of multiculturalism must too be forged. Soldiers, though, could well prove to be a non-answer to a very complicated problem.

And when terrorism once again meets the streets of London, perhaps even Westminster, you’ll see what I mean.


This election is oh so depressing

I am profoundly jealous of anybody who found an excuse not to watch yesterday’s pitiful TV debate between five of the country’s most uninspiring party leaders. I didn’t watch it expecting to be anything other than dismayed at the growing pile of political deadwood we now have in Britain.

It is made infinitely worse by how similar they all look. Tim Farron, Nicola Sturgeon, Leanne Wood and Caroline Lucas are as irritating as they are indistinguishable from one another. They all, as far as I can see, have exactly the same beliefs.

They all sneer at the prospect of Britain being a self-governing, sovereign country once more. They all despise grammar schools whilst refusing to acknowledge the kinds of selection brought about by the massive and failed comprehensive experiment in education. They all support mass, uncontrolled immigration and the egalitarian wonders of multiculturalism.

But there is something else that unites them all so glaringly: none of them are even remotely electable. I am still surprised that broadcast time was allocated to them, given that the total number of MPs in England represented was 10 and neither of the two major parties took part.

Paul Nuttall, mediocre and paling in comparison to the charisma of Nigel Farage, stuck out, but that was to be expected from a UKIP candidate. It is time for their members to accept the now painfully obvious fact that they are no longer a purposeful or serious electoral force.

As always with these totally overhyped and underwhelming affairs, we were treated to two hours of spin from the Public Relations industry, whose agencies write the scripts and formulate the annoying slogans and soundbites that the live and televised audiences are showered with.

That, added to the fact that we already know which party will be victorious on June 8th, only helps to make this whole thing so utterly depressing. I now see the logic behind holding a snap General Election more clearly. The mobilisation of the non-blue parties was forced and feels so rushed and obligatory.

I wrote a few weeks ago that this election was a second referendum in disguise. I still hold that view, but I can’t describe myself as unsure about the result. Like readers, I know what will happen. The Conservative Party will expand on its majority, by perhaps 50 seats, the country will forget about the fraud it was proven to have committed during the 2015 General Election campaign and Theresa May will lead the country into its third post-war political era, whatever it hopes to look like.

(More on Theresa May very soon.)

The Tories, of course, don’t need to participate in meaningless debates, which I actually disagree with on the grounds that they reflect presidential systems and the UK’s localised, parliamentary format. I may not even feel it necessary to vote for them, since my constituency (Bexleyheath and Crayford) is both Leave-supporting and a relatively safe Conservative seat. After toying with this election for a few weeks, I now realise that there is simply no real need for me to vote.

For Labour, the principle target now ought to be to convince as many of its traditional voters as possible not to jump ship or abstain. Their defeat in June is inevitable, but a turnaround in the coming years (as we saw back in the 1990s) is more than possible. Much will depend upon who succeeds Mr Corbyn as leader later this year, provided of course, that he agrees to step down.

This election is a realisation of three things. Firstly, the neo-liberal consensus has been irrevocably altered. Secondly, the Conservative Party are embarking upon their second era of parliamentary dominance in the last forty years. And thirdly, that Brexit is now a Tory plaything; a policy they have total control over in Westminster and almost no yearning for in Brussels.

I left the party for a reason I am now sharply reminded of. I just can’t bring myself to trust them.


A moment of reflection on the eve of Article 50 day

Excuse me if I afford myself a moment of quiet celebration, for tomorrow is the day that Britain triggers Article 50 and embarks upon a process of withdrawal from the European Union. It was important to pen a few words this evening as I am unavailable to do so tomorrow.

In truth, I can’t quite believe it is here. I was sure there would be yet more twists and turns before we cemented our desire to leave, be it ping-pong between our Houses or a snap General Election.

As I write, I am flooded by campaigning memories of 2016 that will be forever etched into my mind. It began just over a year ago, in early spring, with a trip down to Bournemouth with their regional Vote Leave team to take part in a day’s leafleting and street stalls.

I decided to travel (from Kent) partly because I don’t leave London enough and partly because my National Express coachcard was becoming increasingly useless. Bournemouth is lovely, thriving town, too.

The day was fun. Since the referendum wasn’t in full swing, many were either unsure or appeared disinterested in how things would go, and this did not surprise me.

What I did find a little shocking, though, was the vast numbers of people expressing solidarity with our campaign. At that time, and like many others, I believed that Remain would win the referendum. I was about as sure of Leave victory as I was of the Tories gaining a majority at the 2015 General Election.

I am glad I chose to campaign with Vote Leave. Back then, my political acumen was weaker than it is today, but if I knew one thing it was that Nigel Farage and ‘GO’ would not be able to scoop up enough mainstream, middle class or swing support for an EU exit.

As I look back, I realise that I should have made more of activism. It was more enjoyable than I gave it credit for at the time, and I now miss it profoundly.

Standing at stalls in town centres, having elderly ladies coming up to me, thanking me for my support and spending hours expressing their desire for Britain to leave the European Union to me were conversations I now cherish.

I often got the impression that pensioners were particularly grateful for the youth who backed Brexit. They remember a time in which they lived in a country that controlled its own affairs; a country that did not wait for external approval before implementing policy; a country that could stand independently in the world without isolation.

But crucially, they were also lied to in the 1970s by Edward Heath, who insisted that despite immersing ourselves within the European Economic Community, there would be no loss of parliamentary sovereignty.

And sovereignty, above anything else, is the fundamental requirement for the sorts of people who favour Britain leaving the EU. It is understandable that so many feel so disillusioned and disenfranchised, given that over the past four decades, governance has increasingly drifted from the confines of Westminster to those of Brussels.

There is something inherently liberating about taking back control (to coin a legendary phrase) of important powers from the European parliament. Doing so increases democratic accountability, empowers local communities and the added responsibility burdened onto our politicians’ shoulders will tell us an awful lot more about the kinds of people who lead us.

So, tomorrow starts the alleged two-year period. I can almost guarantee that the endeavour of leaving will not take two years to complete. I have a sneaking suspicion that it will creep on some time after that. After all, the hurdles jumped between polling day and the triggering of Article 50 truly highlights the complexity of the task ahead.

I will breathe a short sigh of relief tomorrow at 12.30, when the UK officially commences the withdrawal process. I’ll be in Maidstone spending a few days with my older sister. I’m sure I’ll open a bottle of something in order to appropriately enjoy the occasion.

After the trials and tribulations of the last few months, the legal challenges and the calls for a second referendum (they mean third, but they don’t acknowledge the first as the result went their way, despite it also not being legally binding), Leave voters will soon sleep easy.

That is, of course, not to say that the period of negotiations ahead will be easy. I am still confident that the UK will snatch a satisfactory deal for itself, but from tomorrow onwards the pressure really kicks in.

I have no idea what to expect from negotiations, particularly as hundreds of civil service jobs are yet to be filled, but I do rather expect something like regaining control over our territorial waters to be an acid test for the kind of deal we reach.

I would also urge caution to those who claim that ‘no deal is better than our current deal’. I don’t think this is true. No deal would probably shatter the confidence of businesses and heighten the worries of EU nationals unsure of whether they will be able to stay in Britain or not.

But at least we are moving in the right direction. I will spend tomorrow thinking not just about Article 50, but about the tireless street campaigners and some of my brilliant former colleagues, many of whom are the real heroes of the referendum and will never know the credit that they deserve.

 

 

 

 


Don’t arm Britain’s police in the name of terror

After a terror atrocity, it usually takes at least a few days for rational thought to creep back into political discourse. Sometimes it can be much longer than that.

It was for this reason that I waited a little while before commenting on the horrific incident in Westminster on Wednesday afternoon. I wanted to distance myself from some of the hysteria that I feel unhelpfully attaches itself to events of this kind, especially on social media.

One of the most common post-attack and counter-terrorism suggestions from the public and members of the intelligentsia has been to arm all British police officers.

This is a policy that has been advocated for years, it doesn’t just come from the screams of statists after March 22nd. As the UK’s terror threat has heightened (somehow, a terror threat can be measured), so too have the calls for arming all officers intensified.

The trouble is that the proposal is a gimmick and not a silver bullet, is opposed by most British police officers and radically transforms the nature of the relationship between police and the public.

In 1829, Sir Robert Peel, who introduced the Metropolitan Police as Home Secretary, wrote his ‘9 principles of law enforcement’. Principle number seven will interest readers:

“The police at all times should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police are the only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the intent of the community welfare.”

Officers are citizens in uniform, not a militia that, in effect, provides the state with a monopoly of force. Policing must be carried out at the consent of the public, which it is, and not at the barrel of a gun.

I think that to arm all of Britain’s police officers is a fundamental betrayal of their purpose and the values that Robert Peel had in mind when he introduced them 187 years ago (which included a period of mass public armament, lasting until 1920).

It is no surprise to me that in a recent Metropolitan Police Federation poll[1], most officers opposed the compulsory arming of all British police officers, similar to the system that currently operates in Northern Ireland.

Of the near 11,000 police officers polled, only 26% said that they believed all Metropolitan police officers ought to be routinely armed on duty, though most reported that there should be more authorized firearms officers on the streets.

Given the trials and tribulations that follow police shootings, it is not hard to see why the majority oppose forced armament. Months of stress and lengthy investigations will take their toll on any police officer.

Difficult, too, must media coverage be to deal with. Often, a person knowingly and deliberately shot by a police officer is painted as a sympathetic figure after such an incident. Those who remember the London riots of 2011 will be fully aware of this.

Police officers do not want to have to shoot people. That is the job of soldiers or specialised units with years of training and experience. Investigations on officers who do use their firearms, no matter the circumstances, will come under incessant questioning.

This poses a huge problem for forces that increasingly have to deal with policemen and women (rightly) taking time off to ease any psychological issues that they may be having. Having relatives in the job, I have seen the physical and mental impact policing can have on those who do it.

The reality is that some officers will be far too trigger-happy and others unable to deal with the guilt and burden of having to end another person’s life. We love and idolise our police officers during times of crisis and terror, but seldom do we think about them when normality resumes.

Robert Peel visualised police officers as being men and women whom we can approach at any time, place our trust in, feel comforted by, equal to and yet at the same time revere as both a source of reasonable authority and a rallying point for the frightened and vulnerable.

Like the officers surveyed, I oppose the obligatory arming of all British police officers, and indeed oppose additional armed units, whether in busy, metropolitan areas or not. We have plenty of authorised firearms officers in Britain already.

The problem created by continually expanding upon armed units is that police forces will inevitably be sucking resources away from ordinary policing. That is to say that the more money, time and manpower diverted to armed officers, the less there will be for patrolling constables and the public will feel abandoned by a force already accused of withdrawing from the streets.

As any daily commuter into London now knows (and I reference London because it is both fertile soil for these sorts of atrocities and the jurisdiction for the officers who took part in the Met’s poll), armed officers roam the capital’s busiest regions on a daily basis.

Major train stations are crawling with them, as are landmarks and buildings of significance. Even suburban shopping centres, such as Bluewater and Lakeside, and town high streets have seen a notable increase in armed police presence in recent months.

As I walk around these sorts of places, I feel a distinct unease. This is not just thanks to the sight of assault rifles, which are designed to frighten others into obedience and drill holes in human flesh, killing mercilessly.

It is also because the very visual of watching your local neighbourhood patrolled in such a sinister manner is a telling sign that we are gradually becoming a less free society.

Take a quick look outside of Britain, and focus on what is happening in mainland Europe. France, Germany and Turkey, current experiencing problems far worse than our own, all have very heavy armed police presences.

I might argue that increasing the visibility of armed officers has perhaps encouraged terrorists. It has sent out the signal that people are afraid and need protecting, and that by engaging in these dreadful acts of violence, terrorist actions are influencing public policy, leaving a legacy of their own and appealing to the vanity of other potential attackers.

Admittedly, there are structural differences between Britain and other European countries in response to terror. Strict gun laws and the English Channel make gun smuggling and possession much more difficult for criminals in the UK.

And so I think the current Islamist threat, which I believe exists but is not anywhere near as pertinent as is often suggested by politicians who will never let a good crisis go to waste, is not comparable to problems faced in, for instance, Northern Ireland prior to police being routinely armed.

For one, and unlike problems caused by the IRA, the Islamist threat can be largely countered online, through bans and monitoring, and secondly, the nature of the radical Islamic threat is changing rapidly. I also think that Islamism is more discreet and covert than the IRA-sponsored threat faced by the UK some time ago.

But when attacks do happen, increasingly we see that vehicles are the designated weapon of choice. Cars and lorries are not easily stopped by even the most highly skilled of armed police officers.

So the latest wave of support for Britain’s unarmed police to carry anything more than tasers, which I believe (as the incident at Leytonstone tube station showed) are effective enough tools for modern police, strikes me as yet another encroachment on our liberties.

Western governments are renowned for offering us the fig leaf of security in exchange for our most prized personal freedoms. I am shocked they haven’t already started hiring the many thousands of instructors (which we don’t have and can’t afford) that will be needed in order to arm all of Britain’s police.

And as I write, I am reminded by an infamous Benjamin Franklin quote, as relevant as it has ever been.

 

 

 Notes

[1] http://metfed.org.uk/news?id=7185

 


Nicola Sturgeon needs a legacy-defining moment, but won’t find one in independence

Realising that she has become the only major British politician without a legacy-defining moment, Nicola Sturgeon’s demands for a second Scottish Independence referendum are once again doing the rounds. This recognition must be especially difficult for her to stomach, since she came very close in 2014 to causing the biggest constitutional disruption to the United Kingdom in its history, only to be defeated two years later by an equally significant referendum result on our membership of the European Union.

In my view, Mrs Sturgeon has been hypocritical in her approach to both referenda. If independence was her goal, then an important step towards achieving that would have been securing a Leave vote back in June. The unfortunate contradiction in The SNP’s position on sovereignty is that, for it to reach the jurisdiction of Holyrood, it must first filter through Brussels, which, of course, isn’t sovereignty at all. This is perhaps one of the reasons for Ruth Davidson’s surge in popularity over the last twelve months. She is at least more believable than Scotland’s current First Minister, who doesn’t seem to be able to tell the difference between countries ‘working together’ and the ceding of parliamentary sovereignty.

Her rehashed insistence upon Scotland becoming independent is at least partly down to a feeling that she has been left behind, ostracised from considerable political change taking place around her. It is well known that politicians are vain, and there are good reasons for this. They must have the belief and self-assurance that they can enact important change and steer the country on a new course. It is not a job for the light-hearted. Mrs Sturgeon, coming off the back of two, humiliating referendum defeats, is desperate to reclaim some of the spotlight, and for her to have any truly meaningful political legacy, she simply must be able to persuade Scots to vote to leave British union.

Without seismic victory (and no, The SNP claiming a vast majority of Scottish seats at the last General Election is not enough), she will go down as a noisy loser, who talked the talk but who was, in the end, unable to walk the walk. I should say that in principle I understand the desire for independence. As somebody who considers himself a prominent and fairly central Leave campaigner last year, anybody should be intrigued by the opportunity for their country to govern itself. The question, though, is on what terms independence will be delivered.

Even after the country’s historic EU vote, I do not think that Scottish people will vote for a cessation of Britain’s union. The economic case for doing so will have been immensely weakened by a shocking fall (only partially recovered) in the value of oil in the 18 months following 2014’s initial Scottish Independence vote, and by a weakened pound, cited by Remain voters incessantly as evidence that the Brexit vote was a mistake.

I also think that Scottish people have been made aware of The SNP’s rather cynical obsession with membership of the European Union, which, unlike Westminster, seeks to further integrate legislative power and remains opposed to any real devolution. This should act as a warning to Scots who are told that upon leaving the United Kingdom, Scotland will seek to re-establish itself as merely another EU province, only this time, lacking the presence that it had as part of the UK and faced with enormous pressure to abandon its currency and adopt the Euro.

So I think that Mrs Sturgeon should be careful what she wishes for. She is undoubtedly a talented politician, catching eyes during the televised leadership debates in the lead up to the 2015 General Election. But what she is not is a figure that has made an impressionable mark upon British politics. Yes, she has provided Scottish nationalists with an avenue through which they can pursue their patriotic utopia, but her insistence that she can change the political weather (almost Trumpian in nature) and take advantage of Brexit will not inspire like she may think it will. She can rustle feathers in Westminster all she likes, and between now and the next Scottish Independence referendum she will, but inevitably her vision for a Scotland detached from the United Kingdom will not be realised. And I think her desperation suggests that she knows this.

 


What to do with the House of Lords

The following blog post is a plea to journalists, activists and politicians. The country has entered a period of intensifying debate over the future of its Upper House, and this proposal (not solely forwarded by me) must feature in the argument. If readers support the idea, then please email a link to this piece to your local MP.

I am getting tired with repeatedly seeing fresh calls for the abolition of the House of Lords, or with demands for the second chamber to be an elected one, so I want to use this blog to help push forward a proposal for real Upper House reform; the kind not being discussed by the very people who would appreciate and support it most. I will present a case against abolition of Westminster’s Upper House entirely (with particular emphasis on the dangers of a possible referendum), a case against electing the House and a case for a system of citizen juries, known more formally as sortition.

The first thing that needs to be said about this new wave of anti-Lords sentiment is that, were it not triggered by Britain’s EU withdrawal, it would not exist in such vitriolic form. Politics, as I feared post-referendum, has become a battleground entirely transformed by the Brexit vote. The public is now viewing issues from the perspective of its referendum camp, which has resulted in a skewing of objectivity. The Lords debate is not the only evidence of this, either. By-elections, too, such as that of Richmond, are being manipulated according to how voters voted in last summer’s poll, and results are being translated in the same fashion. I hope, therefore, by writing this and avoiding EU-related tribalism, I will present a reasonable case (though likely untenable at the present time) for radical reform of the Upper House.

 

Why we shouldn’t abolish the Upper House

Without meaning to condescend, I believe that much of the anger of the abolitionists is down to short delays to the Brexit process and not principled opposition to the House itself. The public were told many months ago that March 31st would be the deadline by which Article 50 was triggered. I don’t think anybody remotely sensible ever thought that this would be over quickly, given its obvious constitutional magnitude.

I also think the reactionary behaviour of Leave voters is dangerous because they fail to present us with a viable alternative or safety mechanism. They simply say: ‘Abolish the Lords!’, without proposing any legislative reform or telling us either what will come in its place, or how the Commons and its operations will adjust to being the sole source of law-making in the UK. Overzealous reformers can sometimes, as problems in our education system show, be the obstacle to positive progress. 

Those calling for the abolition of the second chamber should remember, firstly, that due to timetabling restrictions, the House of Commons often has to rely on the Lords to introduce smaller bills. Commons ‘sessions’ do not manage to get through all proposed legislation, so the second chamber plays a useful role in introducing Bills which would otherwise be forgotten about. In the 1983-87 parliament, for which we have easily accessible data, the House of Lords introduced 88 Bills[1] out of the 209 tabled in total. It may be argued, therefore, that the Upper House often speeds up the legislative process, despite popular allegations to the contrary. Readers may like to give the current table of Bills a glance. Please pay particular attention to those with [HL] in their titles. This means that the relevant Bill was introduced in the second chamber. I would put it to those calling for the Lords’ heads that, if they got their way, legislation beneficial to their interests may be slowed, ignored or not introduced to parliament at all.

Unicameralism, for good reason, is not anywhere near as common as bicameralism across international legislature[2]. Another reason why this is so could be down to harbouring appropriate scrutiny of government. Those who take a look at the map provided will quickly note that some of the most authoritarian countries in the world, such as Iran and China, opt for systems that do not allow for the executive to be held to account. I acknowledge, also, that many civilised and democratic countries appear in the list of unicameral legislatures, but thorough examination tells me that most are either rife with corruption or authoritarian in nature. Part of the reason for this could be a lack of monitoring of government operations, and so I think that Britain benefits from having strong measures of scrutiny throughout its parliamentary process. The Lords have also shown unity with public opinion on many occasions, proving their worth when voting on major changes to the law. Halting George Osborne’s tax credits plan, showing their support for same-sex marriage and voting against Blair’s anti-terrorism legislation are three such examples. As James Forsyth wrote in ‘The Spectator’ recently, “the House of Lords has a strong self-preservation instinct: it knows its limits.”

 

The absurdity of a referendum

If readers recall, the last time we held a referendum on substantial change to Britain’s constitution, we found ourselves stuck in the position we are currently in. Delays, anger and confusion have become the three pillars of British politics. Referendums require Bills, and Bills require filtration and inspection, so I doubt that those sitting in the Upper House would be convinced that a simple national poll is provision enough for major constitutional change.

Referendums are a fun exercise of direct democracy (not because people vote, but because they get to decide themselves on an issue rather than hoping somebody else will), but they aren’t usually congruent with the constitution, as the incessant delays and stoppages attached to Britain’s departure from the European Union illustrate. Referendums are, by their very nature, simplistic and often binary. In their make-up, they ignore the nuances that become apparent after votes for change are cast.

 

Why we shouldn’t elect the Upper House, either

I hear constantly the term ‘unelected’ being used pejoratively. This is primarily because the public has been conditioned, after many years of propaganda by politicians and parties, to conflate ‘democracy’ with ‘elections’. I will delve further into this at some point in the future, but democracy, firstly, predates elections, and secondly, most democratisation has absolutely nothing to do with government (see, for instance, the introduction of the daily newspaper in the early to mid 19th century).

There are three main reasons why electing members of the Upper House is a bad idea. The first concerns general voting patterns, marginalisation and plummeting turnouts. I would at this point ask the reader to consider, hypothetically, that the UK is about to hold a national Upper House election. What do you think voter turnout would be? European elections in Britain have historically produced very poor turnouts[3]. Turnouts at General Elections have for very many decades been on the decline[4]. What makes anybody think that voter turnouts would be anything other than miserable? I don’t, myself, see a scenario in which voter turnout for Upper House elections reaches even 30%. Low turnout is important because we are told that the purpose of elections is to provide those in power with a mandate.

My suspicion is that, given immense electoral fatigue – thanks largely to the digital age and the information saturation that comes with it – and widespread public disengagement from politics (that voter turnouts highlight), most British people would not care enough to venture to their nearest polling station and vote for members of the second chamber. Increasingly, we don’t bother to vote at General Elections, so electing a senate would prove no less purposeless.

Secondly, electing the Upper House would transform it into a mirror-image of the Commons. One of the great features of the House of Peers was that it was supposed to act as an objective, politically-unaligned chamber more able to provide the executive with appropriate scrutiny and amendments. In a scenario where members are elected, they are more easily forced to think along party lines, as they are constrained by campaign promises, manifesto commitments and may view legislation more tribally and ideologically, perhaps reducing space for independent thought and concern for others. I also think it could be the case that Peers may see their democratic mandate (however small) as not subservient to the Commons, but as equal in its validity. This could create a situation in which there is unnecessary competition between chambers, and long periods of ‘ping-pong’.

A third issue with Upper House elections is that they will consume unnecessary resources and eat into time and budgets. The legislative process is long, drawn out and requires a lot of thorough examination and re-examination. Taking a couple of months out of a parliamentary session to focus on being re-elected would seem to me to hamper the ability of Peers to carry out their primary function: scrutiny of government. Election campaigns are expensive and have a noticeable draining effect on both the public and those involved in them. They also, crucially, subvert attention away from getting on with the job. We begin to focus more on people and less on issues.

 

Proposal: Replace the Lords with citizen juries

Most people are not familiar with the meaning of the word ‘sortition’. It is a political structure that has proven successful in British life, most notably in our courts, where juries of randomly selected citizens come together to decide upon the fate of another person. Juries were first constructed shortly after the Norman Conquest more than 1,000 years ago, but have undergone several reformations since. Sortition is the process of allocating to office or duty a jury of citizens selected at random. I mention our courts because, before we proceed, it is important that we respect both the liberty the system has given us and its use in Britain’s criminal justice system. Most people report high levels of trust in criminal juries, despite the lack of legal experience of those sitting on them, and consider taking part an ‘important civic duty’[5].

It is my belief that an Upper House comprised of a jury of citizens, cycled on periods lasting a few weeks, with those from afar allowed to expense either travel or accommodation expenses, would be a much more democratic and fairer alternative to its current formation. By bringing together randomly-selected, representative members of the public (on a scale closer much closer to 600 than 800) to scrutinise Bills presented by the House of Commons, vote on legislation and contribute to committees and initiatives that they care about, Westminster will be enriched by more cognitive diversity, democracy will be enhanced through the introduction of more people into the legislative sphere and we will have an excuse to end the slow, painful suffering of the peerage.

I mentioned earlier that scrutiny is perhaps best provided by a chamber that is objective and non-partisan. It is also true that most people think in terms of issues and not in terms of ideology. To propose, therefore, an Upper House comprising of randomly-drafted members of the public is to join together these two premises. And I think ordinary people will jump at the chance, too. The House of Lords is an exotic place, especially for those living in distant, forgotten parts of the UK. Introducing jury service may also act as a way for Westminster to reach out to forgotten communities and perhaps ease some of the discontent and mistrust that has grown substantially in the modern political climate.

There is also no technocratic argument against this proposal. Members of the public have skills, knowledge, expertise and common sense, and are able to think rationally about the effects that Bills will have upon individuals. They will also, upon initiation, be aided by secretaries, parliamentary assistants and researchers with experience of the inner workings of the Upper House and legislative procedure. We trust our fellow man to make important decisions over matters of justice, so we can do the same in other aspects of public life. I am not saying that jury service in court is logistically identical to service in the Upper House, but as research shows[6], people approach civic duty in a conscientious and serious manner. I do not think this would change under this proposal. 

 

The suffering of the peerage

Back in November, Jacob Rees-Mogg instructed the Prime Minister to create 1,000 new sunset peers in order to help speed up the Brexit process. This may sound like a good idea for those who support Britain’s departure from the EU, but this sort of political puppeteering has profound consequences for the legitimacy and value of the peerage; one of the oldest – and now most devalued – honours anywhere in the world. One of the main causes of the suffering of the peerage has been the temptation displayed by governments (often acted upon) to give peerages to party representatives, usually donors or political advisers behind the scenes, purely for the purpose of aiding legislative efforts in the Upper House.  Tactical posturing on the part of parties is cynical and undermines the importance law-making. It is, after all, about what is best for the country, not what is best for preserving electability.

 

Final comments

I invite readers (whom I thank sincerely for reading what has turned out to be a necessarily long post) to leave their feedback in the comments below. As I said in my opening remarks, this idea is not unique to me. In 2008, The Athenian Option: radical reform for the House of Lords was published by Anthony Barnett and Peter Carty. The argument about the future of the Lords cannot be a binary one. If a perfectly reasonable suggestion such as this exists, we must not frame this debate merely in terms of abolition or election. The political potential of sortition has been an interest of mine ever since I became familiar with the pitfalls of electoral representative democracy. I think it should interest you too.

 

Notes:

[1] See third table (section 3): http://www.leeds.ac.uk/law/teaching/law6cw/hc-3.htm

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unicameralism#/media/File:Unibicameral_Map.svg

[3] http://www.ukpolitical.info/european-parliament-election-turnout.htm

[4] http://www.ukpolitical.info/Turnout45.htm

[5] See table 3.1: http://www.icpr.org.uk/media/10381/Juries%20MOJ%20report.pdf

[6] See page 2: http://www.britsoccrim.org/volume4/004.pdf

 


Brexit: the House of Lords has not let anybody down tonight

And still we are yet to trigger Article 50. This time thanks to what is actually quite a reasonable intervention from the House of Lords, who have attracted the wrath of Leave voters now agitated to get the exit process under way. Being one of them, I understand their frustrations, but tonight’s government defeat was actually an example of the Upper House at its most useful, not at its most destructive or contemptuous of democratic procedure.

The amendment, which proposed that the government commits to protecting the rights of EU citizens living in Britain within three months of triggering Article 50, defeated Mrs May’s Brexit bill by 358 votes to 256 earlier this evening. At first I sighed at what I thought would be yet another bump in the road to leaving the European Union, but then I took the time to consider a couple of things.

Firstly, the amendment (despite its lack of concern for British citizens living within the EU) is a sensible one. Being the leaving party, it is down to Britain to set the negotiating standard and settle the nerves of other member states who are concerned about damage to diplomatic ties. By enshrining in law protection for the rights of those who came to the UK legally throughout our membership, we lay the groundwork for productive talks and calm EU-born immigrants living in Britain, who in many cases will be uneasy about committing to long-term projects, like finding a mortgage or setting up a business.

Certainty, after all, was exactly what was promised in the government’s White Paper a few weeks ago. It seems to me to be reasonable, as the responsibility for this entire process lies first and foremost with us, that we take the moral high ground on this particular issue. If EU departure is organised poorly and in slapdash fashion, then Britain is the party most liable to political and economic damage. Even Nigel Farage, not known for his humility towards Brussels, agreed with me on his LBC radio show a few moments ago (or, rather, I agree with him).

Since immigration was a major factor in helping to determine the outcome of last year’s referendum, I think foreign-born citizens living in the UK will appreciate a vote of confidence in their worth to the country and support for their stay, especially given the noted rise in levels of hate crime and lingering anti-migrant sentiment after almost two decades of mass immigration from the continent. I also think that other EU member states will be more willing to engage constructively with the UK during negotiations, knowing that their citizens’ rights are to be respected.

Another cause for concern tonight has been the emotional outrage from Leave voters who have emerged in their droves to try to undermine Westminster’s second chamber in calling for its abolition. This is odd, given that most Brexit supporters self-identify as political conservatives (that’s small ‘c’). I can only deduce that they are not thinking rationally whilst their unjustifiable anger consumes them. They only tend to make noise when our Peers behave in ways that they do not personally approve of, and not usually at any other time.

The main problem with a unicameral legislature is that, due to timetabling constraints, the House of Commons simply isn’t able to oversee all legislation put before it. It must, from to time, rely on the Upper House to vote on and scrutinise bills; perhaps one of its more crucial and underappreciated functions. My suspicion is that a unicameral legislature would struggle to get to grips with the sheer wealth of legislation it would have to deal with. And to simply say: “Well, let’s pass fewer laws” seems on the face of things a little naive. It is not possible to predict the country’s future political challenges – especially after substantial constitutional change.

Secondly, as we have seen this evening, the House of Lords has consistently proved itself able to scrutinise government intelligently, reminding them of where they are going wrong and proposing amendments where necessary. This process cannot be understated. It is likely the main reason why the Upper House has remained a fixture at Westminster for such a long time, and while I disagree with the composition of Peers and the manner of their selection, I acknowledge the importance of holding the executive to account.

Those who voted for Brexit may, therefore, want to save their strength. This is not a battle worth fighting, and given the circumstances, it is hard to tell what challenges lie just around the corner.

 


Some thoughts on UKIP’s struggles, purpose and future

First, a little personal history about my involvement with the UK Independence Party:

I joined UKIP around the time of the 2015 General Election, knowing at the time very little about British politics but for the fact that the European Union wasn’t particularly democratic and that crucial powers had left the jurisdiction of Westminster for the jurisdiction of Brussels. Nigel Farage was primarily responsible for igniting my interest in Britain’s EU membership. My reasoning for joining was always to help pursue Brexit. I never really had all that much interest in the rest of the party’s manifesto. I left almost a year later, upon gaining employment with the Vote Leave campaign. To clarify, I was not asked to leave and did not feel compelled to, rather I chose to in order to focus on one campaigning avenue and set of messages.

Unlike most of UKIP’s detractors, I have actually been inside the party. This means that I know where faults lie (especially at local level) and I know where to draw the line between fair and unfair criticism. UKIP is not a party of racists and homophobes. In fact, it mostly comprises of former Labour and Tory voters, disillusioned with their former party’s messages around issues like EU membership and immigration. The oddity was that as UKIP drew more scorn from their rivals, they became more popular, as other parties began to reek of sneering, establishmentarian arrogance.

It took the main parties quite a long time to realise this, which has always surprised me. The Labour Party still makes the mistake of referring to UKIP’s message as the politics of hatred and division, despite its ongoing battle to overcome lingering internal anti-Semitism. The Conservatives, who had the most to lose from a strong Independence force, reacted a little more proactively, and ceased labelling UKIP figures and voters in uncomplimentary terms because they knew that it would backfire on them. What is even more interesting is the number of Tory youth members – of which I know many – who like UKIP and credit them for giving their party a kick up the backside across various policy areas.

It is correctly argued that UKIP does best as a radical party, but it is also worth remembering that the sheer scale of immigration for the past two decades, and the party’s ability to link it to a referendum, shaped their success. UKIP will still portray itself as a radical party, but it will not be aided in the same way going forward. Michael Heaver, Nigel Farage’s former spin doctor, believes that his party needs to get back on the offence and take the lead in policy proposals. He mentioned on the Daily Politics today that House of Lords reform or proportional representation could be areas of policy that UKIP may try to influence – but these things simply do not have the same value for them. They are not issues that unite or rally their voter base, and they are not big enough issues to attract very many swing voters. This is especially true of the country’s Remain supporters, who would sooner barbecue their own children than be pulled in by even a sentence of any UKIP manifesto.

The in-fighting quite clearly isn’t helping things either. UKIP squabbles aren’t new and they most certainly aren’t surprising. But, in previous years, hostile sections of the party could put their differences aside much more easily as they knew that on the horizon lay an issue not worth dividing over. Even Farage and Douglas Carswell, who I got to meet several times during the referendum campaign and rather liked, simply ignored one another in the weeks leading to polling day, knowing full well that it was better to enter battle united that it was to entertain pointless feuding.

For the record, I believe Douglas Carswell was a little petulant in not backing a proposed Nigel Farage knighthood. I think it was quite clear why he did it. Just as it became clear that his defection from the Tories softened UKIP’s jagged voice as the referendum debate was under way. For anybody who has not yet read it and is interested, my blog on the case for knighting Mr Farage can be read at the following link:

https://norgroveblog.com/2017/02/25/why-nigel-farage-deserves-a-knighthood/

I am therefore unsurprised to learn that Arron Banks, who I’ve often thought will prove to be more useful behind the scenes in political life, is preparing to challenge Mr Carswell for his seat in Clacton. I don’t believe the UKIP donor will win the seat – in fact, come the next election, I believe it is highly likely that the Conservative Party may reclaim it…even if Douglas Carswell does re-stand for election. Between the by-election of 2014 and the General Election a year later, the Tories gained seven and a half thousand votes, and with the Leave vote now under the country’s belt, it is entirely possible that this increase will continue in 2020 (provided that another election is not called sooner).

I will always defend UKIP from unwarranted attack, and I greatly appreciate their efforts in fighting for an ‘in/out’ referendum on the question of EU membership. It was at least sincere, unlike the false promises made by former party leaders over the years (Tony Blair in 2005, David Cameron on the Lisbon Treaty in 2009). But their time as a credible political force, radical or not, has come to end in Britain. The Conservatives will soon be able to sleep easily.