Reflections on my spell in the lions’ den

Over the years, I have undertaken quite a few speaking engagements, including addressing several political meetings. Last Thursday, however, was the first time I had spoken in a debate about the European Union. CIB was invited to send a speaker to represent the “leave” side by the Southampton University Debating Society and I ended up being the person thrown into the lion’s den.

Why do I say this? Because I knew right from the start I would be addressing a meeting where the vast majority of the audience would disagree with me about withdrawal. The student generation in general is predominantly pro-EU and the members of Southampton University Debating Society are overwhelmingly so – even more than I had anticipated. The usual straw poll taken at the start of the debate indicated that only a tiny minority of those in attendance supported withdrawal. Still, at least this meant that I was aware from the outset what I was up against.

The debate followed the usual format of two speakers for and two speakers against the motion. One speaker from either side was a student. I had Jonathan, a law student, as my fellow-supporter of independence and he acquitted himself well. The guest speaker for the opposition was Peter Wilding of British Influence. All four of us were given seven minutes to put across our respective points of view – quite a challenge. It seemed like barely had I begun to build up a head of steam before the chairman’s gavel warned me that I only had one minute left!

The initial presentations were followed by a lively question and answer session after which all four speakers were given three minutes to sum up. The outcome? I’d love to say that the “leave” side carried the day so convincingly that we had to restrain the newly-awakened audience from lynching the speakers who supported EU membership, but unfortunately, that is the stuff of pipe dreams. The pro-EU cause still carried the day overwhelmingly, but Jonathan and I had managed to shift opinion slightly in our favour, so I left with at least some crumbs of comfort.

I also left with plenty to mull over and I hope that my reflections on the evening’s events may be of help to anyone else finding themselves in a similar position. Countless debates and discussions are likely to be held on this subject over the next two years and if any of us find ourselves asked to take part, it is advisable to be as prepared as possible.

My first thought concerns the speakers put forward by the opposition. Pro-EU groups are well-funded and thus able to field experienced speakers used to the cut and thrust of debate. These people will look to exploit any mistakes made by our side, to seek to control the terms of the debate and even if they cannot refute some of the more damaging accusations made about the EU, they are very good at creating suitable “mood music” – playing to the emotions of the audience.

My most glaring mistake was to claim that Winston Churchill never back-tracked from his famous comment that “Each time Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, we shall always choose the open sea.” Apparently, in 1961 Churchill wrote a letter to his Constituency Chairman stating that “I think that the Government are right to apply to join the European Economic Community.” (and this claim is supported by at least one article  on the internet.) Oh well, we live and learn. At least Churchill was sufficiently cautious about the project to ensure we stayed out in those formative years, but I’ll be a lot more careful if I mention his name again. Still, I did have one chance to get my own back. Mr Wilding mentioned that the Norwegian Foreign Minister had strongly urged us not to go for the same relationship as his country enjoyed with the EU. Although he didn’t mention the famous “fax diplomacy” phrase, it was sufficient for me to be able to explain that the Norwegian government still wants to join the EU, even if most Norwegian voters don’t. I was able to say that other Norwegian politicians like Anne Tvinnereim paint a very different picture and that the reason Norwegian government ministers do not want to let us know how good their relationship is with Brussels is because if we take this on board and vote to leave, it will scupper their hopes of membership for ever. Touché!

In future, I will also do my best to avoid using the word “back” – for instance as in “we can go back to being a sovereign, independent country.” Mr Wilding was pretty merciless when I used this phrase. “He’s looking to the past, not the future” – or words to that effect. Thankfully, again in my closing summary, I was able to qualify my statement along the lines of “If you know you are heading down a blind alley, you have to go back first before you can truly move forward,” but I wouldn’t recommend using “back”, “revert”, “return” or similar. The opposition is well-trained to latch onto anything which will enable them to score points. It’s not good to let them put us on the defensive.

Another observation is that trade, jobs and exit routes hardly featured in the question and answer session. I had anticipated this and had not said much about them in my opening presentation except to mention that there was an escape strategy which would preserve our trade with the EU and our jobs too. I had also come prepared to talk about the refugee issue, which I had expected to feature prominently, but it hardly got a mention. I did try to frame the debate in terms of building a new kind of politics – of my sympathy for people who voted for Jeremy Corbyn because they were fed up with managerial, top-down politicians, pointing out that the EU project was designed by – and is still run by – exactly these sort of people who are so contemptuous of the electorate and democracy in general. I also made sure that issues like associate membership and the location of the real top tables were given a mention. I reckon that with a more level playing field – in other words, if the audience had consisted of 100 assorted people from my village or the nearest town rather than 100 students – I would have given Mr Wilding a good run for his money and could have won the debate. Nonetheless, even though I know I would be most unlikely to carry the floor, I would be quite happy to debate the issue with students again.

The fact that the audience swayed slightly away from supporting the EU is very interesting and encouraging. This is how an unstoppable momentum for withdrawal will be achieved – little by little, a few at a time. External events may work in our favour, but for example, one must not place much, if any, importance on media reports that the migration crisis is shifting public opinion towards withdrawal. We must hope, both for the sake of these unfortunate people themselves as well as for the countries of Europe, that this will be a non-issue well before the referendum takes place. Rather, we must present a well-argued, balanced argument for the political advantages of independence and make clear our enthusiasm for it. After all, would we be working so hard to secure a “leave” vote if we didn’t believe life will be a lot better as a sovereign state?

One further thought which crossed my mind is that to speak to a lecture room full of students who are engaged with political issues is only to reach a tiny number of people. Debates enable us to reach some individuals but only a small minority. The “little by little” approach is a battle that must be fought on several fronts – debates, leaflets, the internet, social media, letters to newspapers and indeed, casual conversations with friends and acquaintances. Winning people over also requires repeated exposure to our arguments. I would love to know how many people who voted to stay in at the start at the meeting and voted the same way at the end were perhaps just a little less convinced of their position at the end of the debate, having heard what was (I hope) a passionate and well-argued case for independence for perhaps the first time. You can’t expect to change many strongly-held opinions in the space of just one brief exposure to an alternative position. To prove the point, eighteen months or so ago, I was distinctly unconvinced by arguments that the EEA/EFTA route was the only viable escape strategy from the EU. I am very grateful to Robert Oulds of the Bruges Group for clarifying my thinking here, but it took extensive perusal of both his writings and those of Dr. Richard North over a period of several months to change my mind on this subject. “Soft” supporters of EU membership and the undecided can likewise be won over to support withdrawal, but it won’t happen overnight. It will require persistence on our part.

My final word to anyone else contemplating the cut and thrust of debating our EU membership is simply this:- enjoy it! We may be dealing with the most important political decision our country will face in our lifetime and we all feel passionately about the subject, but let’s make the most of the experience. Mr. Wilding thanked me at the end for a lively debate and in spite of our profound differences on this key issue, yes, we would both agree that it was a good, fascinating, well-fought battle. I did enjoy it, even though I didn’t carry many of the audience with me and, somewhat wiser from my trip to the lions’ den, I’m looking forward to the next time.

Photo by David Paul Ohmer

Business as usual

During the four months since the General Election, the Liberal Democrat party seemed to have vanished from everyone’s radar following its drubbing at the polls. This week, however, the party has held its annual conference and so for the first time in ages, we were treated to the mellifluous tones of outgoing leader Nick Clegg on the BBC’s World at One.

It was really like putting the clock back. Here was Cleggie still on his high horse, full of the same old apocalyptic scare stories about leaving the EU – very much business as usual, in other words. We would be “isolated”, “cut off from the world”, “wholly irrelevant” and so on. Real vintage Clegg twaddle. If the UK was some tiny atoll populated by 200 inhabitants stuck out in the ocean three thousand miles from our nearest neighbour speaking a language incomprehensible to the rest of the world, there might be some truth in his remarks.

In reality, leaving the EU would give us more clout; we could regain our seat on the world’s top tables – the ones that really count like the WTO and UNECE. We would not be under the thumb of the European Court of Justice and, of course, we would still be an influential member of NATO, we would still have our seat at the UN, we would still be one of the world’s top 10 economies, Dover would still be only 21 miles from Calais and our native tongue, English, would remain the official language of more countries in the world than any other. Hardly an irrelevant country in most people’s books

This speech was in keeping with a Lib Dem tradition of giving recently departed leaders a platform at the party conference. Is it to be his swansong? Hard to say, but even if it is, his successor Tim Farron seems set to carry on the great Clegg tradition. In fact, he improved on it. We would become an “impoverished backwater” if we left the EU. Oh yes, Mr Farron, like those poor countries Norway and Switzerland. There would be massive unemployment, he went on to say. Well fine, let’s go the whole hog and join the Euro; maybe our unemployment figures might then end up like Greece’s instead of a mere 5.6% – the fourth lowest in the 28-nation bloc.

We’ve heard this rubbish time after time and rebuttal isn’t really that difficult. The only new string to the Lib Dem bow is they are now claiming that the UK would split up if we left as Scotland would want to remain in the EU. This scare story will doubtless be repeated ad infinitum as the older ones are beginning to sound a bit hollow – almost laughably so. Can it too be knocked on the head?

First of all, it has to be admitted that a higher percentage of Scots are in favour of remaining in the EU than Englishmen and the SNP leadership is particularly keen. On the other hand, a contact within Scotland has informed us that many rank-and-file supporters of Scottish independence also favour independence from the EU.

In other words, the clamour for Scottish independence may not be affected by a “leave” vote in the forthcoming referendum. Furthermore, the prospect of a weak and divided Labour party being trounced by the Conservatives at the 2020 General Election would lead to a call for another independence referendum even if the UK voted to stay in. The Scots, it seems, have become incurably allergic to Conservatives and if they are likely to be in power for a further decade in Westminster, this will further strengthen the SNP’s hand come what may.

Another factor to consider is that we are a long way from the formal referendum campaign. We do not know how Cameron is going to play it, nor what his “renegotiation” will claim to have achieved, although some form of associate membership – permanent second class status within the EU – is a distinct possibility. Opinion polls, whose credibility has taken a further knock recently after getting the results of Sunday’s Greek election wrong, are no guide to how people will vote in two years’ time when the landscape could be very different.

Ironically, a “leave” vote may actually benefit the Union. If we vote out in 2017 and our Article 50 period expires in 2019, it is most likely going to be a further two years at least before a further referendum will be held in Scotland. With the EEA/EFTA independence route likely to be economically neutral at first and with only two years to have begun the massive process of reviewing the laws on our statute books and repealing or revising those not in our national interest, there will be no economic bonanza in this period, but it will be long enough for everyone both sides of the border to realise that the sky hasn’t fallen in and that the fears stoked up by Clegg, Farron and co were groundless.

Independence will give us all a spring in our step, just like the nations of Eastern Europe in the period after 1989. The joy in the “leave” camp will be infectious. Add to this a few hints that one of the top policy priorities for the newly-independent UK will be the replacement of the Common Fisheries Policy and who knows, the Scots, who are fiercely proud of their fishing industry, may come to realise where their bread is really buttered.

Meanwhile in their parallel universe, Messrs Clegg and Farron will continue to warn of the forthcoming armageddon………

The sting in the EU renegotiation tail

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.’ ― Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

Would we be in a worse situation within the European Union if Mr Cameron secures an apparently impressive renegotiation result in terms of our EU membership than if he hadn’t bothered? Obviously, whatever the outcome of the renegotiation, it will be hailed as a great success, but from time immemorial we have been warned to be cautious, for example, by Shakespeare when he wrote ‘All that glitters is not gold’ or by the saying ‘too good to be true’. Alas, such warnings too often go unheeded and disasters occur, especially where subterfuge is employed. Could renegotiation be in reality a modern day Trojan horse with the means of our longer term loss hidden within? Beware of politicians bearing gifts!

Mr Cameron and his acolytes would need exceptional ability to rise above the usual ‘horse trading’ (give and take) or ‘I scratch your back, you scratch mine’ of EU negotiation. Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People isn’t much help either as it suggests doing something similar so that you can lever your munificence into gaining influence. Of course, diplomats and politicians are adept at obfuscation and concealing the true nature of any cave-in or appeasement. Thus there are secret deals, agreements, nods and winks between the politicians, ambiguities and wriggle room, faux arguments, ‘being economical with the truth’, moving the goalposts or nature of the debate and outright deceit until their real intentions become irreversible. The EU project of ever closer political union has form right from the beginning, as Chris Booker and Richard North show in considerable detail in The Great Deception. Our political class also has its own long and ignoble history as, for example, Winston Churchill who observed of a PPC (prospective Parliamentary Candidate) ‘He’s asked to stand, he wants to sit and he is expected to lie’. Ian Smith noted something similar in Bitter Harvest – The Great Betrayal, ‘It was their policy (the British Foreign Office) whenever making an agreement to try to ensure that it could subsequently be interpreted in two, or preferably three different ways in order to ensure that they would be able to talk their way out of any agreement which they wished to evade.’

On the balance of probabilities, the extent of the giveaways (by Mr Cameron and Co) in renegotiations will in reality turn a ‘victory’ into a Pyrrhic victory and sham, with the longer term losses to us overwhelming when weighed against any apparent gains. Based on past performance. the EU élite, assisted by a europhile establishment, is likely to seize the opportunity to drive forward the EU’s longer term objectives of territorial expansion, ever closer political integration into a European Superstate, more taxation, and increasing the bureaucratic control or regulation of our individual lives and country. The truth, inevitably, will be concealed from us, the public.

There appears to be no reason why Adam Smith’s quotation above, with the slight change from ‘prices’ to ‘taxes and impositions’, should not also apply these days for politicians, the establishment and bureaucrats (in Westminster and Brussels). Like practitioners of any other trade, they would be more interested in pursuing their own careers and self-preservation, rather than acting with responsibility and integrity towards us, the British electorate. However, Adam Smith went further and suggested that we should thwart this behaviour rather than facilitate or incentivise it, and in this country we have a long tradition – dating from at least the signing of Magna Carta  – of trying to limit abuses by rulers; our forebears developed a keen wariness that found expression in practical legal restraints.

Part of our wariness today of being tricked over EU renegotiations could be to guess at its nature and extent, in the hope that such exposure will encourage leaks of the truth and the emergence of hard evidence to confirm the hypothesis and complete the picture. If you don’t look you don’t find, and this helps us to find where to look, connect apparently disconnected statements and facts, and otherwise build up reliable circumstantial evidence. The actual truth of what has been perfidiously given away could indeed turn out much worse than our suspicions unless we can actively forestall it.

This form of exposure – including naming and shaming – may not work; silence about secret deals and giveaways can be bought, but it ensures that at some stage those responsible will be held accountable and their names will live on in ignominy. And denials by those who cannot be trusted will hardly conceal the fire where there is some smoke. Mr Cameron’s and others’ denials of metaphorical jumping into bed with the masters and mistresses of the EU, when it looks highly probable, could also solicit Mandy Rice Davies’ quote, “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?”

Caveat emptor (let the buyer beware)! Old habits of burnishing Europhile credentials die hard; the bonds between the EU and UK élites are stronger than between them and us; the EU leopard does not easily change its spots. It would be very risky to remain within the EU, trusting our future to those with a track record of sophisticated duplicity and self-interested motivation, those who are covertly following their longer term pro-EU agenda. The alternative of leaving the EU is actually the safer option, especially when renegotiation is, unbeknown to us, actually part of the machinations of bringing us into submission.

Photo by myhsu

Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader

What does Jeremy Corbyn’s success in the Labour leadership election tell us about increasing or decreasing the chances of a “leave” vote in the forthcoming referendum on our EU membership? The answer is potentially quite a lot but perhaps in some new and unexpected ways. Events in the Labour Party over the last few weeks, leading up to the stunning margin by which Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership, show that the political firmament is unstable and rapidly changing,

The Corbyn team are clearly going to be pulled in two ways. On the one hand, we have already had Tom Watson, on the Andrew Marr show, and Hilary Benn elsewhere, telling us that the Corbyn opposition will be campaigning for the UK staying in the EU, whatever the outcome of the current renegotiation process. No doubt this reflects the very widespread view among the former Labour leadership about which way the vote should go. On the other hand, significant elements of the Corbyn programme could not be undertaken within EU constraints and there are substantial concerns among trade unionist in particular about TTIP and losing some of the key benefits from the Social Chapter as a result of the current Conservative-led negotiations.

The result is that the new Labour leadership is much more ambivalent about our EU membership than it would have been if either Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper or Liz Kendall had been elected. John MacDonnell, the new Shadow Chancellor, has said, for example, that Labour should wait to see what David Cameron and George Osborne bring back from their negotiations before making up its mind what line to take. This is an encouraging sign of flexibility and pragmatism at least on this issue.

Where is this likely to take us? Eurosceptics from different parts of the political spectrum have always had varying reasons for wanting to achieve either radical changes to our EU terms of membership or for the UK to leave the EU altogether. One key outcome is that the advent of a strongly left of centre Labour leadership is likely to accentuate this tendency. As a result, there may be more difficulty in getting Eurosceptics all to campaign under the same banner once the forthcoming referendum campaign gets under way. Europhiles from different parties have always found it easier to co-operate than those who are more sceptical but this may not be a match for the enthusiasm which the wave of support for Jeremy Corbyn is potentially now capable of mobilising.

In particular, the result of the Labour leadership election clearly shows how disenchanted a significant proportion of the electorate is with conventional political views, and this may increasingly include scepticism about the establishment opinions on the merits of our EU membership. The new leadership of the Labour Party may, therefore, signify an anti-conventional Westminster politics view which may not be too difficult to mobilise into “leave” votes.

On balance, therefore, the election of Labour’s new Leader looks like a potentially quite substantial plus for the “leave” campaign. It is early days and we will have to see how Labour policies shake down as events move ahead, but the result of Labour’s leadership election does seem to give grounds for optimism on the Eurosceptic front.

Photo by David Holt London

EU NO Campaigners to launch Coventry campaign

Members from the main four political parties  planning on supporting the ‘OUT’ campaign in the forthcoming referendum on the UKs Continued membership of the EU; will launch their local Referendum Planning Group in Coventry on the 19th of August in a bid to persuade local Coventry residents to vote NO. The meeting’s theme “A Referendum is not an Election – How to win it and How to lose it”  will be addressed by Edward Spalton Chairman of the national cross party Campaign for an Independent Britain and the group’s local organiser Derek Bennett(contact [email protected]) followed by a short video and Q&A from attendees.
Speaking ahead of the meeting Edward Spalton said ‘’let’s be honest. The truth is that there is no point complaining about many of the issues facing Britain today unless we first address the real problem – Britain’s disastrous membership of the European Union.  We’d all be better off out.  Contrary to many statements by business leaders, we do not need to be part of the EU’s political structure to have access to the Single Market. Much of the regulation which comes to us via the EU is actually made by global bodies, like the United Nations, World Trade Organisation etc. Britain’s membership of the EU actually keeps us off the “top table” and without a voice at these bodies which really shape world trade. It is in the wider world where trade is expanding, not in the declining, inward-looking EU. The economies of Eastern EU countries are being massively weakened by the large scale emigration of their skilled workers”
He added that, following the Conservatives’ election victory in May 2015, various Euro sceptic groups had been getting their act together and that his own CIB was stepping up its activities locally in preparation for the referendum on EU membership which David Cameron has promised to hold before the end of 2017. Pronouncing that the CIB organisation is fully committed to playing a role in the “no” (i.e., the “Out”) campaign in the West Midlands.
Local organiser Derek Bennett, who is co-ordinating  the upcoming meeting, commented that in the Coventry and surrounding area his new group would be working flat out right up to polling day. ’’We will have leaflets to deliver, street stalls to man, dinners, public meetings, and door to door canvassing to arrange – in fact everything you would expect of an election campaign’’ and pleaded with interested members of the public or those wishing to learn more about how Britain would be better off out the European Union to attend its inaugurak meeting , which will be held at
7.00 pm on Wednesday 19th August at Coundon Social Club, Shorncliffe Road, Coventry CV6 1GT.

Photo by Nigel’s Europe & beyond

Article 50 – debunking some myths

One reason why some people are uncomfortable with the idea of the UK withdrawing from the EU by invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and taking the EEA/EFTA route is because they believe that an EU member state might announce a veto in advance, thus completely discrediting and  nullifying the proposal.

This, however, isn’t true. Negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty do not require unanimity
from the EU side, as they are subject to Qualified Majority Voting.  So a veto is not available to any member state.

The Commission is in no position to veto anything of this sort either, as these Article 50 negotiations are outside its remit, being reserved to the European Council.

So any pretended advance “veto” would be even more  bogus than  the one Mr.Cameron announced a while ago. In that case, treaty change whilst within EU membership does require unanimity by the Inter Governmental Conference but affairs had not reached the stage where a veto was possible.

Of course, the British press and media were largely taken in but, in the heightened degree of scrutiny during a referendum campaign, it is more likely (one hopes) that they would take the trouble to inform themselves.