Open to your ‘legitimate concerns’

openbritainOver the past few weeks, I’ve had a series of emails from Will Straw and others involved in the Stronger In campaign talking about many things and occasionally asking my opinion on what they should do next. (It’s interesting, if unsurprising, that none of those emails was an abject apology for so completely bollocking up the Remain campaign, coupled with a promise to never go anywhere near political campaigning again)

The culmination of all this has come today with the announcement that Britain Stronger In Europe has now completed its metamorphosis into Open Britain which follows in the footsteps of More United by declaring it will be strongly in favour of good things, while condemning (but not too harshly) bad things. The email comes from ‘Joe and James’ which only makes me wonder if Freddie and Fiona were too busy to write it.

Their list of things that they want Britain to be open to is the sort of pabulum that no one can object to, which means they’re not actually setting out a political stance, just asserting that nice things are nice. openbritainpledges It’s not hard to imagine Leave campaigners putting out the exact same list of things and claiming that’s why we need to be out of the EU ‘so we can be open to the world’.

As ever, the devil lies in the detail. The initial statement on their website (because with all the campaigning genius we came to expect from Stronger In, the actual website isn’t ready to go on the day they announce their launch) begins with talk about needing to make the case for an open Britain and how important it is to make that argument in the Brexit negotiations that David Davis will be beginning any year now. So far, so bland, but generally good. Until we get to this:

However, we must learn lessons. June 23 was a moment of change. The strength of feeling is clear. Free movement of people cannot continue as it has done. It has to be reformed. This was not an expression of prejudice but rather a desire for managed migration and concern that rapid immigration can put pressure on public services and local communities. Britain must be open to talent, but with more ability to act if excessive competition in labour markets hurts our economy.

For too long we have ducked an open debate over immigration. That was true in the referendum campaign but it is also true of all the major political parties in the past decade or more. As a result, untruths have been allowed to prosper and a balanced debate never materialised, leading many to feel that legitimate concerns were being dismissed. This must change. Calls for reform must sit with a positive argument about the benefits that immigration brings.

Yes, it turns out that ‘Open’ Britain doesn’t actually mean open in the way that you or I might understand it – fighting to retain the free movement of people within the EU that we now stand on the brink of losing – but a rather a more flexible definition of ‘open’ that needs some undefined ‘reform’, after we’ve had the ‘open debate about immigration’ that we clearly haven’t been having and I’ve been hallucinating for the past couple of decades. There’s even a mention of ‘legitimate concerns’ in there, just in case you weren’t sure that they’re planning to spend more of their time pandering and dogwhistling to racists instead of listening to people who might want a truly open Britain.

So no, I won’t be signing up to support Open Britain because we don’t need an organisation that concedes half the ground its meant to be fighting for before the battle’s even begun. We’ve now got the bizarre situation where an organisation that was campaigning to stay in the EU just a couple of months ago is now taking a position against freedom of movement that wouldn’t even allow us to be part of the EEA. That the people who were supposedly running the campaign can change their position so easily and quickly in order to tack to the prevailing political winds is a good illustration of just why the Remain campaign failed to engage voters with a positive vision.

To me, Open Britain feels like another exploratory moment towards the aim of facilitating a centrist split from the Labour Party, rather than the pro-EU campaigning body we need. When Owen Smith and others have floated the idea of supporting restrictions to freedom of movement, it’s not hard to see that the idea of a ‘we’re not Tories but we’ll listen to your legitimate concerns’ party would be attractive to some. If they want to do it, that’s fine, but don’t pretend you’re being open to the world when you just want to pull up (sorry, ‘reform the operation of the lifting mechanism’) of the drawbridge.

So what am I thinking about today?

I’m thinking back to 1987, when I got the chance to go to West Berlin on a school trip. I can remember seeing the Berlin Wall, one side of it covered in defiantly hopeful graffiti, the other flanked by a massive literal dead zone of concrete and search towers. The Cold War was something that was part of our lives, the threat of nuclear annihilation something that hung over our heads, the idea that this wall might come crumbling down in under three years faintly ridiculous.

I’m thinking about going back to Berlin in 2012, where the dead zone had been filled with towers, where we spent a day exploring a market that filled the space where that dead zone had been. A continent that I’d grown up in expecting its future to only be devastating war had chosen peace, openness and trade instead.

I’m thinking about how we spent a day in Guben (Gunther Von Hagens’ Plastinarium is a fascinating place) and were casually able to stroll over the bridge across the Neisse into Poland and back again. No passports, no papers, no visas were needed.

Mostly, I’m thinking about my brother. In 1990, when the walls were crumbling and the fences were being torn down, he chose to go and live in France. Through a combination of luck and dedication he found himself a job at Eurosport, rising from ‘the guy who occasionallydoes the English voiceover for the news’ to a full-time producer, travelling the world to cover various sports and bring them to a channel that covered a continent.

It was in France that he fell ill, in France where his doctors diagnosed and treated a brain tumour, looking after him in exactly the same way as they did anyone else who lived there. It was in France where he got the all clear, then the news that it had returned, and it was in France that he died and was buried. But by then, France wasn’t the distant and exotic country it had seemed when I was growing up, it was a neighbour where I could travel from the North Station on my Colchester doorstep to the Gare du Nord in Paris with ease, where borders were just lines on a map.

I’m thinking that until this morning it never occurred to me to think that my brother’s resting place was in a foreign country, and that my right to go and visit it without restriction was something that could easily now disappear.

And I’m thinking: how will we explain this in the future? How will we explain how we went from a Europe divided by suspicion and paranoia to one of friendship, partnership and open borders in such a short time and then we decided ‘no, we don’t want that’? How will we explain that we were willing to give away so much because a bunch of demagogues let themselves believe that their political careers were more important than anything else? What are they going to think about us?

A question on Brexit and trade

s300_EiG_for_Gov.ukI’ve already explained why I’ll be voting Remain next Thursday, and nothing I’ve seen, heard or read over the last couple of months has changed my mind on that, but here’s a question about the arguments of the Leave side that I’ve not seen posed:

Which countries are you going to make better trade deals with, and why haven’t they spoken up?

It’s a recurrent mantra of the Leave campaign that if we were no longer members of the EU, we’d have the freedom to negotiate our own trade deals with other countries that would be better for Britain than our current ones. Surely, if this was to be the case, then other countries would be lining up to urge us to leave the EU and negotiate these deals with them?

Trade is a two-way process through which – if it’s conducted fairly – each side should benefit. So, if leaving the EU means we can negotiate better trade deals, then not only will Britain benefit but so will the countries we make these deals with. So, if we would benefit and they would benefit, why aren’t all these countries queuing up to urge us to vote to leave the EU? Why, instead, are the leaders of so many countries outside the EU urging us to remain in the EU?

Who are these countries that we’ll supposedly negotiate these better trade deals with, and why aren’t they speaking up now? Or do the Leave camapaign believe that we can get other countries to agree to deals that are worse for them but to the benefit of the UK? That might have worked a couple of hundred years ago, but I don’t think we can recreate the Empire, even if we were to leave the EU.

Why I’ll be voting to remain in the European Union

flag_yellow_lowThere’s still over sixteen weeks to go until June 23rd, but when the referendum finally rolls around I will be voting for the UK to remain a member of the European Union. This hasn’t been a hard decision for me, and I’ve been making many of the same arguments for Britain to stay a member of the EU since the 1990s. This post, though, is about explaining my reasoning as to why Britain is better off as a member of the EU, not an attempt at soaring polemic.

My starting point is that Britain is a European country. Geographically, culturally, historically, and economically, we are a part of Europe. Europe is not a homogeneous mass, but a place where multiple stories combine into a bigger whole. Being British and European isn’t a zero-sum game where one must reduce as the other increases, just as one can simultaneously be English and British, or a Brummie and English. We all juggle multiple political and cultural identities all the time, be they local, regional, national, or continental and to be one doesn’t diminish all the others. To say that we are a European country is not to forget that Britain exists, it’s a part of what makes Britain what it is.

What’s also key to my decision is the world we live in now. We’re no longer in a world where nation-states are the be-all and end-all of political, economic and social power. Nation-states may just about cling to their monopoly of force, but they are no longer monopolies of power for their people. Corporations have become vast behemoths far outside the control of individual states, the internet makes a mockery of national borders as a cultural boundary and forces from terrorism to climate change are truly global problems, not local ones.

For me, the idea that leaving the EU would somehow reclaim our ‘sovereignty’ as a nation is an argument that rests on facts that there were never really true. Just about every nation and state in human history has relied on some form of co-operation and mutual agreement with other states in order to function and provide a decent quality of life to its inhabitants. That’s even more the case now, in our world where power exists as much outside states as within it, as the Economist points out:

To live with globalisation is to acknowledge that many laws (both those devised by governments and those which bubble up at no one’s behest) are international beasts whether we like it or not. If sovereignty is the absence of mutual interference, the most sovereign country in the world is North Korea.

The question this referendum asks us gives us the choice of how we want the UK to interact with the rest of the world. Unless we want to follow the route of North Korea into autarky and refusing to interact with the rest of the world except on the most basic levels, we have to deal with the treaties, agreements and institutions that make up the formal world of international politics as well as the networks of power, influence and money that make up the informal part of it. One country on its own has very little chance of wielding influence on the global stage, unlike 28 countries working together in one of the planet’s largest blocs of political and economic power.

The UK is going to have to work together with other nations to achieve anything on the international stage, and the EU gives us the ability to work together with 27 other nations that we already have strong links with, on top of the economic benefits that have come from the last seven decades of bringing Europe closer together. Since 1945, we’ve seen the massive benefits to everyone that comes from the nations of Europe working together, and those benefits have included one of the longest periods without a pan-European war in history. That’s not solely because of the EU, but it’s one of the pillars on which that peace was built, binding together the economies of Europe to provide the mutual interest that drove the NATO alliance.

The European Union is a long way from perfect, and needs a whole host of reforms to make it work better and for the benefit of the citizens, not the governments. But I think the same things about the government of the UK as well, which needs just as many reforms as the EU, if not more, and yet I’d much rather see that reformed than leave it. However, if we want to reform the EU to make it better, we need to be a willing participant in it, not sitting on the edge of the room deciding whether to leave or not, or even outside it all together, shouting instructions to a meeting we’ve just stormed out of.

I want the UK to be influential in the world, and I want us to use that influence to tackle the unaccountable power that affects all of us. Because I think our influence is maximised by being part of something bigger and because I think the European ideal can still be wielded to bring power to all the people of Europe, I want the UK to remain part of the European Union and that’s why I’ll be voting to remain on June 23rd.

Predictions for 2011

I’m reliably informed that if I want to be taken seriously as a blogger again, then I must post some predictions for things that will happen in the next year. So, here goes:

1) Wolves will be relegated for the Premiership. Even when relegation is mathematically certain, Mick McCarthy will insist that things can still be salvaged, and will still be sticking to this line when the team are playing in the Championship and being managed by someone else.

2) England will get to the final of the Cricket World Cup and lose. Yes, we’re good at cricket again, but if there’s one thing history shows us it’s that even good England teams lose World Cup finals. Probably to India this time.

3) The coalition won’t collapse and will still be there at the end of the year. As Anthony Wells says, ‘I think we all overestimate the chances of exciting and interesting things happening’ and the imminent collapse of the coalition has replaced the imminent split of the Tory Party and the imminent resignation of Tony Blair as the focus of fevered yet inaccurate political speculation.

4) David Cameron will carry out his first unforced Cabinet reshuffle. Probably a proper reshuffle, in that no Cabinet minister will actually be sacked (no matter how many pins get stuck into Eric Pickles voodoo dolls) but a few may be switched into lower-profile roles or have their departments shrunk beneath them.

5) Sarah Palin will announce she’s running for the Presidency of the US. And, oh my, it’s going to be fun…unless she looks like she has a chance of winning, and then it’ll just be scary.

6) The British media will continue to devote considerably more column inches to American politics than they will to anything happening in Europe. A critical Irish general election? Italy in continuing political crisis? The build up to a French Presidential election? Political fallout from the Eurozone bailout? Pah, who cares about that when there’s a crazy woman from Alaska to talk about!

7) The music media will hype a band up to the skies, who will turn out to be rubbish. This is pretty much a banker – and no, it’s not me showing my age, they’ve been doing this for years (remember Huggy Bear? Romo?) and then sneering at supposedly manufactured pop acts.

8) At least one TV series I like will be cancelled. Another given, just please don’t let it be Being Human.

9) Colin Firth will win the Oscar for Best Actor for The King’s Speech. Pure guesswork, as I haven’t seen the film yet but the combination of British royalty plus triumph over disability should be powerfully irresistible Oscar bait.

10 The last Space Shuttle flight won’t take place next year. The Shuttle programme is scheduled to fly its last mission next year, but I think it’ll get a last-minute reprieve as American politicians suddenly realise their national virility is under threat if they don’t have an operating space launch – after all, the last time that happened, Jimmy Carter was President!

So there we go – I look forward to not reviewing these next year when we discover that the Mayans were great at predicting a coming apocalypse, but were absolutely useless at making accurate calendars.

Petitions to #stopblair

Want to stop Tony Blair becoming President of the Council of the European Union? Well, if you’re not one of the 27 leaders in the Council who’ll make the decision (and if you are, please leave a comment) you don’t get a say in the process, so tough.

However, you can sign a petition here that already has over 30,000 people from across the EU opposing his appointment. There’s also one here on the Number 10 website, asking Gordon Brown to stop him though expecting that to happen seems an exercise in futility, though it might get some press interest if it could rise up the list of popular petitions.

And if you’re on Twitter, it looks like the hashtag of choice for this is either #stopblair, #no2blair or my suggestion of #noblair.

And for the record, I think there are good points to the creation of a permanent President and Foreign Minister, though there are flaws in the process by which they’re appointed. However, given the attitude Blair showed to international co-operation over Iraq, I think he’s spectacularly unsuited to the role and appointing him would cause great damage to the EU.


One detail that’s amused me in the aftermath of the French Presidential election is that Sarkozy, after telling the people of France they need to work harder and follow the pattern of the UK and the US more, has decided to spend the week between the election and his inauguration… on holiday with his family.

While there’s a certain sense behind the decision – it’s likely to be the last chance he has for a break for the next five years – it’s hard to imagine Gordon Brown telling the Queen she’ll have to wait because he’s off to the Algarve to topup his tan, or President-Elect McCain/Obama/Clinton/Giuliani ending their victory speech with ‘I’m going to Disneyland!’ next year.