GE 2017 #7: The Scottish Conservatives’ Shameless Campaign

The Scottish Conservatives have made their pitch to voters that they will oppose an IndyRef#2 and fight for the Union. That’s pretty jaw-dropping given that it is the Conservatives who have been (and who, with their Hard Brexit, probably still are) the greatest threat to the Union.

Alex Salmond had said that IndyRef#1 would settle the issue of independence for a generation. And so it might well have done, had the political settlement in the UK not have changed out of all recognition as a result of Brexit. Now the SNP can credibly argue that the Scottish people are facing a future significantly different from the possible futures they reasonably had in mind at the time of IndyRef#1. Further, the SNP makes the unanswerable point that Scotland is being dragged out of the EU contrary to the wishes of the majority of (voting) Scots. Once more the question of independence dominates Scottish politics (and should dominate UK politics). Again, the Union is seriously threatened.

And, of course, it is the Conservatives that are to blame for all this. We needn’t have had an EU referendum; it was, after all, held by David Cameron for reasons of internal Conservative party management and for a perceived political advantage at the 2015 general election. Further, the threat to the Union might have been avoided by organising the EU referendum so that Brexit would only have proceeded if each country in the UK voted in favour. That idea was rejected by the David Cameron. And then there were bungled negotiations in Europe and an inept Remain campaign. The charges against the Conservatives are both grave and legion. It is a bitter irony that the Conservative and Unionist Party has brought the UK to the brink of disintegration.

There is something shameless and offensive in the Scottish Conservatives seeking to obtain political advantage from a parlous state of affairs that their party created. But I suppose we are where we are. The Conservatives may have put the Union at risk but conceivably the Conservatives might still be the best party to save the Union. Clearly, the only thing that would pretty much take independence and an IndyRef#2 off the agenda would be a decision to stay in the EU after all. That would probably require an EURef#2. The Liberal Democrats support a second referendum when the terms of departure from the EU become clear. The SNP’s position is unclear. Labour and Conservative currently reject the idea of a second EU Ref. There are strong arguments for a second referendum: no one has voted for any particular Brexit. Pressure for a further referendum may build as the demerits of Brexit become clear. Labour MPs might be swayed; but Conservatives probably won’t. More Conservative MPs will make EURef#2 less likely, will make Brexit all the more certain and independence more likely. Let’s assume, though, that Brexit will happen come what may. When it does, the important point is that the harder the Brexit, the stronger the SNP’s argument for IndyRef#2 and for independence. If the UK stayed in the single market and the customs union, the SNP’s case would be significantly weakened. The critical question then is will additional Scottish Conservative MPs make a Hard Brexit more or less likely. And here we hit a large number of imponderables. Where do possible winning Scottish Tory candidates stand on Brexit, the single market and the Hard/Soft Brexit continuum? Does it make any difference? Would a Conservative majority in Westminster swollen with Scottish Conservatives encourage Mrs May towards the most destructive of Brexits or would it strengthen her hand to rein in her Hard Brexit colleagues (if that’s what she wants to do)? What, indeed, is Mrs May’s preferred outcome? Does she want to compromise with the EU to achieve a softer Brexit or is she content that her apparently uncompromising attitude towards the EU will lead to a rock-hard, car-crash, Brexit?

The problem for Scottish voters (and for that matter other UK voters) is that we just don’t know the answers to these questions and we are highly unlikely to find out before 8 June. The PM’s idea of an election campaign seems to be to avoid voters, shut down meaningful political debate as far as possible and communicate in trite and vacuous sound-bites. On Brexit negotiations, she won’t tell us what her goals are; we are simply to trust her; that “Brexit means Brexit” ought to be enough for us ingrates.

What we do know is that the PM is unreliable. She was against a third runway at Heathrow and then she wasn’t. She said she would not call a general election before 2020 but she did. She was pro-Remain but since becoming leader of the Conservative Party has ostensibly embraced a Hard no-deal-is-better-than-a bad-deal Brexit. But the Scottish Conservatives do not deserve the benefit of the doubt. We can’t be certain but more Scottish Conservative MPs probably increases the chances of a harder Brexit. The better bet for Unionists is to vote to try to maximise the number of non-Conservative Unionists, either Liberal Democrats or Labour. But what if you live in a SNP/Conservative marginal where a vote for Labour or Liberal would be a wasted vote? In those seats, it’s far from obvious that Unionists should vote for the Unionist candidate. On the one hand, the SNP will argue that each additional SNP MP strengthens the case for IndyRef#2 but, on the other, every non-Tory MP weakens Mrs May’s hand, strengthens parliamentary opposition against a Hard Brexit and makes a Hard Brexit less likely, undermining the case for reopening the independence question and for IndyRef#2.

But there is a further argument for voting for anyone other than the Conservatives. Political theorists often discuss the expressive value of a vote. Even if it make no difference to the outcome of an election (or, by extension, to wider outcomes in society), an election is an opportunity to express an opinion. In this election, the Conservative and Unionist Party deserves a collective raspberry from Unionists for having got us into the mess and for its casual disregard of the importance of the Union.

If you support the Union, the last party to vote for (and that includes the SNP in the available options!) is the Conservative Party.

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GE 2015: #12: An EU Referendum: Just What I’ve Always Wanted – Not.

So, one of Mr Cameron’s “red lines” in coalition negotiations is an in/out EU referendum.  Putting aside that such a vote will throw open the question of Scottish independence once more, putting the Union at risk, it is a shameless tactic that cuts across the Conservatives’s claim to be the party of business and enterprise.

The Conservatives present their support for an in/out referendum – giving the electorate the democratic choice whether we stay or leave the EU – as something of unquestionable value, something we should all be delighted about.  But forgive me, I am underwhelmed.

There is much to be said about the negative aspects of choice.  Choice can be debilitating as well as empowering:  is my life really significantly improved by having the choice of 30 different brands of shampoo?  And when it comes to having an operation, I just want my local hospital and surgeons to be competent.  Why should I be thrilled at having the choice between 4 different hospitals with little sense of which might do the best job?

There is much to be said about choice per se … but I don’t want to say it here.  The point I want to make is about the questionable value of an EU referendum.  The Conservatives are asking us to value the act of choosing distinct from what is being chosen.  And that’s bizarre.  It’s like buying a car and then telling everyone what a fantastic time one had going to car dealers without mention of the car itself:  the salesmen were fantastic and I just loved the ambience of all those showrooms.

Am I really supposed to get excited about the opportunity of contributing my one vote in an in/out referendum?  Should I be thrilled at having another opportunity to visit the church hall polling station at the end of the street?

The only reason to be excited about an in/out referendum is because one wants to leave the EU and the referendum offers that possibility.  If you don’t want to leave the EU, then the referendum is hardly something to value, quite the opposite:  it puts continued membership at risk.

So however the Conservatives speak of the referendum, what they are doing is trying to attract anti-EU voters.  And to do that they are prepared to put at risk the link with Europe which “business” says is vital to UK prosperity.

GE 2015: #6: Immigration. An Impoverished Debate

The discussion about immigration in last night’s leaders’ (minus Messrs Cameron and Clegg) debate felt like a dialogue of the deaf.  Nigel Farage spelt out his position that the UK is “full” and that further immigration adds to the housing crisis and places additional burdens (and costs) on public services.  I’m far from convinced that any of the other four leaders rose to the challenge.

Arguably, Natalie Bennett (for the Green Party) came closest to providing a coherent response.  She came closest to offering a positive case for immigration and may have been implying that there really is no problem at all:  immigration is an unalloyed good.

As for the other three (Leanne Wood, Nicola Sturgeon and Ed Miliband), there was a palpable failure to engage with Mr Farage’s argument.  They were clearly not prepared to say out loud that there was a problem that needed to be addressed.  The suggestion seemed to be that if there were any deleterious symptoms of immigration (and there would be no explicit admission of any such problems) these would be addressed by the (better) management and funding of public services – better management that would follow if they were in power.  But having failed to acknowledge that there was any problem, they did not (and could not) say whether their solution was in any way commensurate with the scale of Mr Farage’s problem.  Their response would have been more credible had they challenged Mr Farage’s account of the scale of the problem and/or explained that their solutions were sufficient to address the problem.  But that they could not do, given that they would not admit that there was any problem.

Clearly the political managers of Labour, SNP and Plaid consider that they should not acknowledge that immigration causes any problems.  If they acknowledge there is a problem, they would be forced to talk about solutions and the relative merits of those solutions.  It appears that they are not convinced that articulating their answers would be to their advantage.

Given that they are not prepared to set out a rejoinder to Mr Farage, let me set out what I think they would say if they were not too afraid to say it.

Yes, immigration causes difficulties.  To fail to acknowledge that an increasing population does not place additional demands on health and education and other public services would be crass.  One way of addressing that problem is to curtail immigration.  The main source of immigration is the EU.  The only way to significantly restrict immigration is to halt the free movement of EU workers.  That would involve the renegotiation or breaking of EU treaty/legal obligations.  It is quite likely that the only viable way of achieving the ending of the free movement of workers would be to leave the EU.  But being in the EU is a good thing.  The EU has cemented peace in Europe for 70 years.  A great deal of our economic prosperity hinges upon the EU.  In deciding upon policy on immigration we have to balance positives and negatives.  All other things being equal, it might be preferable if we could exercise greater control over immigration (and curtail it) but all other things are not equal.  There would be a downside.  We cannot curtail immigration without risking our membership of the EU.  There’s no perfect answer.  And, we need to remember that immigration is not wholly problematic in any event:  there are many benefits from immigration that we need to factor in.  The truth is we can’t have everything we want.  On balance, we should remain in the EU with its obligation to allow EU immigration.  On balance, it is better to manage the consequences of immigration than prevent it.