Letter to my employees about the Brexit referendum


The CBI think that bosses should inform employees about Brexit.

This patronising suggestion is typical of the Confederation of Big Business, and of a Remain campaign that will use every trick in the book to try to influence people through authority and intimidation, rather than through reason. You may suspect, when the bosses of our big corporations gang up with our political leaders to try to sell something, it may be more in the interests of the corporatist establishment than in the interests of the people they are selling it to.

Scotland - land of the unfree

Does anyone need more evidence of the need for England to devolve from the socialist Gaelic republic than the episode of Question Time from Dunfermline just now? I have nothing in common with most of the audience and the panel, and would rather they tried to run their affairs the way they seem to think fit, and leave us to take a little more concern over our freedoms.

Gordon's subtle corruption of our freedom

There are many things in Gordon Brown's statement of constitutional issues to be developed by his Government, The Governance of Britain, that are more dangerous than the flying of the Union Flag. For instance, take the statement that one of the ideas "at the heart of British citizenship" is "that there is an appropriate balance to be drawn between the individual’s right to freedom and the collective good of all" (para 204, p.60). At first glance, it doesn't sound controversial. Of course we do not have complete freedom to do what we like, and must constrain our behaviour to avoid harm to others. As Justice William O. Douglas put it: "My freedom to move my fist must be limited by the proximity of your chin."

But this statement subtly extends that consideration in a way that has significant ramifications. It is not harm to another that is the constraint in Gordon's scheme, but "the collective good of all". This offers much more scope for governments to decide that freedoms may be limited for the "general good". In fact, one would find that all authoritarian and totalitarian governments would argue that their measures had been justified because they were in the interests of the "collective good".

There is a long tradition of debate on this issue, and it will no doubt continue for a good deal longer. But Gordon is objectively wrong on one aspect - this is not an idea "at the heart of British citizenship". At the most, the question of whether the rights of the individual supersede those of the collective remains unresolved in Britain. I would argue further than that - that Gordon's approach is an (admittedly, well-established) European cuckoo in the British nest; an attempt to shoehorn continental, Rousseauian and Napoleonic collectivism, into British Lockean, common-law, Enlightenment individualism.

We should not conceed this starting-point to Gordon. If we do, it is just a question of the degree of state intervention that is justified in the collective interest, a subjectivity that will always be abused by governments wanting to inflict their views on us. We must argue over the principle, not the detail. Or we end up in the position of the attractive girl propositioned by George Bernard Shaw to sleep with him for a million pounds, who, upon indicating that she might, was asked if she would sleep with him for five pounds. Offended, she objected "Sir, what kind of woman do you think I am?" Shaw replied, "Madam, we have already established what kind of woman you are. Now all we have to do is haggle over the price."

Britannia is not that kind of woman, I hope.

Flagging a warning

Gordon Brown has played the jingoistic card, by promising to review the regulations governing the flying of the Union Flag on public buildings. The Sun's George Pascoe-Watson, not surprisingly, over-reacted with delight, proclaiming that Gordon wanted to see the flag "flutter in Whitehall and around the country every day", and offering free flags to readers who sent in a stamped, addressed envelope, or Union-Flag "screensavers" (actually background images, but we shouldn't expect accuracy from The Sun) to download. The document on which Mr Pascoe-Watson's reporting was based (The Governance of Britain, published by No.10 yesterday) says very much less than he claims, promising only to "consult on altering the current guidance that prohibits the flying of the Union Flag from Government buildings for more than 18 set days in the year".

Perhaps Mr Pascoe-Watson is projecting, or perhaps he was briefed. Whichever, the inflation of this modest proposal has ignited debate, for instance on BBC Radio 5Live today, about the merits of flying our national flag. People seem to focus on whether it is British to display our national pride in such a vulgar way, and whether they are inclined to fly the Union Flag, or the flag of their respective regions (England, Scotland, and Wales - the issue is altogether more tricky in Northern Ireland, as the Government's document notes). This seems to me to miss the point.

I could care less how you choose to display your national pride - proudly with a Flag of the Union, St George, St Andrew, the Red Dragon or whatever outside your window, or quietly through deployment of the British characteristics of understatement, scepticism, humour, stoicism and so on. (Actually, that's not entirely true - I'd prefer the latter, but it really is up to you.)

But I do care about the conflation of the nation and the state. These are our national flags, not our governments' flags. The state (pace Rousseau) is not the embodiment of the nation, though one can see how Gordon might find much in common with that other Chancellor (of Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe):

The law is the true embodiment
Of everything that's excellent
It has no kind of fault or flaw
And I, my Lords, embody the law.

Too close association of nation and state has always been a mark of despotic government. If flying the Union Flag becomes an important symbol of patriotism, and a Union Flag waving by the front entrance becomes a hallmark of all government buildings, it is not a long step for some people to make the association that disrespect for and resistance to what is done within those buildings is unpatriotic. At the least, it gives spurious legitimacy to those activities.

Most people, being sceptical Brits, will not be that simple. But let's not give the idiots the excuse. Wrapping the state in nationalist garb is not very British.

And by the way, what happened to Gordon's incredible promise to put an end to spin?

Energy liberalization and the EU reform treaty

One of the things that made me laugh in the BBC's typically-rigorous reporting (I think in last night's Newsnight) of the proposed EU reform treaty was the claim that the extension of Qualified Majority Voting would bring benefits such as the opportunity to force the break-up of national energy monopolies. Isn't that already required under existing agreements on deregulation of European energy markets? QMV is more likely to enable the majority of our partners who would rather protect their "national champions" at all cost to backtrack on this sort of requirement.

Campaign for a referendum?

I don't like referenda. But it is perfectly obvious that the majority in the country does not believe that the "Reform Treaty" is not the Constitutional Treaty dressed up, and that they want a referendum on the subject as promised. And yet Tony and Gordon seem inclined to push on with ratification without allowing the public to have a say. The question is, what are people going to do about it?

If we leave it to the parliamentary process, Gordon will be able to ram it through despite opposition. People need to demonstrate their strength of feeling on this issue, to force him and his MPs to consider the electoral consequences.

The Telegraph has the right idea, but is botching the implementation. They have launched an online "petition" for a referendum on the subject. Except, it's not a petition, it's a poll (and as such will be accused, rightly, of not being based on a representative sample). And you have to register with their site in order to vote. Currently, 58 people have voted. I wonder how many clicked on the "Yes" button, but then, like me, gave up when they were asked to register with the site before their vote could be registered? This isn't going to work, and will be used by the Government to argue that opposition is negligible.

Even without these obstacles, the Telegraph website is the wrong place to do this. The Times, Mail, Express and Sun have all called for the Government to honour its commitment to a referendum. In this age of modern media, we ought also to consider the readership of the various blogs, and those who get their news from the TV, radio, or from one of the pro-Treaty papers (The Mirror, Guardian, and, to some extent, The Independent) but disagree with their stance on this issue. Most of these people are not going to go to the Telegraph website to register and vote.

What is needed is neutral territory, where all the papers, bloggers etc can point their readership to register their call for a referendum. There is one obvious location. The road-pricing protest showed its power. It is the No.10 petition site.

There are already a number of petitions on there on this subject, but none of them expresses the issue clearly and in a way that is likely to find the greatest common ground amongst the public. And the existence of several alternatives dilutes the message if people don't know which one to vote for.

We need a new petition, carefully worded to attract a range of opinion, from those who want a complete withdrawal, to those who support the European project but feel that there is a point of principle at stake here - for the Government to honour its commitment. Once we have a good form of words, a new petition should be created, and all the papers, pundits and other members of the media and the blogosphere (is the blogosphere part of the media? I'm never quite sure) who support the call for a referendum should run campaigns to point their readers, listeners or viewers to the petition to vote.

This must be concerted action. A half-cocked campaign that did not garner substantial support would be thrown back at opponents of the Treaty as evidence that the country does not feel strongly on the issue. But if the five papers mentioned, the blogosphere and independent TV and radio (e.g. TalkSport) threw their weight behind a petition, I am confident that they could comfortably beat the number of signatures garnered for the road-pricing petition.

So what should the precise wording be? Something along the lines of:

That Her Majesty's Government should not ratify the so-called Reform Treaty without putting it to a referendum of the people of the United Kingdom.

How would you change/improve this? Drop the "so-called"? I put it in, because I didn't want to imply acceptance that this was a fundamentally different treaty to the Constitutional Treaty by appearing to accept the alternative designation, but it is probably unnecessary. Will everyone know what is being referred to by the "Reform Treaty" or does it need more clarification? Should it refer to "honouring their promise to put it to a referendum", rather than simply "putting it to a referendum"? I kept it simple, because it offers less wiggle room for the Government to cavil about whether this Treaty is sufficiently similar to the Constitutional Treaty for their promise to be relevant.

Does this offer the option for the Government to hold a referendum and then ignore the outcome, and still be able to say that they complied with the terms of the petition? I reckon that would be a sophism too far, even for this Government, and that they would be destroyed at the next election if they tried it on. But if you think it needs tightening up, how would you clarify that the results of the referendum should be binding? Have I just answered my own question? If I make that "...putting it to a binding referendum...", does that do the trick?

Or is this whole suggestion barking up the wrong tree?

Sarkozy, The Constitution and Free Markets

Some people claim that Nicolas Sarkozy is France's Margaret Thatcher. Yeah, right.

To quote from the BBC report:

"A reference to 'free and undistorted competition' was pulled from the draft [Treaty that isn't the Constitutional Treaty] after French pressure late on Thursday. Instead, the treaty refers to 'social cohesion' and 'full employment'."

Sarkozy did not hide his contempt for free trade during the election. This is consistent with his position. But those who thought they were getting an economic liberal, simply because they heard someone who talked tough on immigration and liked to swing a handbag, were fools.

Anyway, two good things stem from this.

Firstly, it is clear that this is not just a tidying-up exercise, and that this goes to the heart of what Europe is about. The Government has absolutely no excuse to deny the British public a referendum, given their promises that one would be held for any significant changes.

Secondly, Jose Manual Barroso, Angela Merkel and the rest of the con-merchants can no longer argue that certain aspects, such as voting rights, ought not to be opened up again, as they have already been settled. If something as fundamental as this is still subject to change, then nothing should be off-limits. We should support the Poles in demanding that the German stitch-up on voting rights be re-examined. They were right anyway, but now there is no excuse for trying to railroad them.

Blears puts the case for a snap election

With only days to go before Tony Blair steps down as our leader after 10 years, the debate over democracy is likely to hot up. Watching Hazel Blears bumble her way through five minutes of complete illogical nonsense whilst being grilled be the ever rude and slightly (unintentionally) amusing Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight last night made me begin to think about the issue slightly more than I had previosuly. There were two clear issues raised in this interview that summed up new Labour (and probably the Tories as well).

State-funded Nazis

This is what happens when you fund political parties using taxpayers' money:

The excellent Open Europe think-tank reports in its Daily Press Summary that the British National Party (BNP) are to receive a share of the £130,000 of funding that the EU has been obliged to provide to a grouping of extreme nationalist political parties. The entry of Bulgaria and Romania has given such parties sufficient representation in the European parliament to entitle them to the funding that is automatically provided by the EU to pan-European political groups.

A party-politicised House of Lords

While we are stuck with big government, an important check on the power of the executive is an independent second chamber. Although the undemocratic nature of the House of Lords is much derided, it is noticeable that their Lordships have provided much more substantial and well-reasoned opposition to the worst excesses of the current government than has been provided by the Commons. This is quite significantly related to the fact that many of their Lordships do not owe their positions to conformity with party policy.