Archive for the 'EU matters' Category


Trying to work out what is Britain’s European Strategy

Tuesday, January 8th, 2019

Other than, arguably, joining the US in the second Iraq war in 2003, the worst post-war strategic mistake made by any British government was the decision not to join what became the EU in 1958 at the start. Had it done so it would have played a leading role and would have helped shape it into an organisation with rules, aims and a culture with which it could have been much more comfortable. Rather than being seen as a foreign institution, it would have been seen as a British one it helped create, shape and govern. Ah well. All too late now. Does any of this really matter? Yes. Here’s why.

Britain has no European strategy

What’s Brexit, then? Well, whatever it is it is not a strategy. It is a reaction – to problems within the EU itself, globalisation, the faltering of the capitalist model since the financial crash, changed migratory patterns, an uncaring arrogant elite, snotty Londoners, take your pick. But what is the strategy? Why did Britain hold back in the 1950’s, rather reluctantly and sniffily sending a civil servant to Sicily to observe what the Continentals were up to?

Lots of reasons: a desire to retreat home and build Jerusalem (there is an echo in this of Labour’s wish now to concentrate on every day issues rather than Brexit), exhaustion, a mistrust of grand schemes, a political class still in thrall to Imperial and Atlanticist pretensions (another echo there, which even Trump’s evident uninterest in all matters British has done nothing to dispel).

But the overarching reason was that Britain still held onto the European strategy which had more or less served it well since the Middle Ages – ensuring no one power dominated the Continent to Britain’s detriment. With Germany defeated and divided and US forces on European soil to keep Communist Russia at bay, what need was there for Britain to give a moment’s thought to Europe?

Eventually, of course, it decided to join but nearly two decades too late, as a supplicant, from a position of humiliated economic weakness. So, having joined the new dominant European power, what did it think this meant? Was Britain now a European power? Should its focus be on this emerging new organisation? And, if so, what did this mean for Britain itself, for British domestic and foreign policy?

The history of opt outs, of being half in, half out, never really on board with the European destination, of seeing the EU as a foe to be battled with, of cultivating a relationship with the US which was “special” in the way that a besotted fan has a “special” relationship with a celebrity whose film they’ve watched 000’s of times, suggests that an answer to the question of what Britain’s European strategy should be has never been found.

In this it was beautifully mirrored by the EU itself which never properly realised that having a country such as Britain with its different history, political and legal culture and approach as a member required a step change in its approach and thinking, beyond simply shuffling up a bit to make room for a few more chairs round the table.

Why Britain didn’t want a dominant European power

To listen to some Brexiteers now you’d have thought that Britain’s sovereignty was some golden thread running through its history since Alfred the Great and that any diminution or sharing of it is an emasculation of some essential Britishness. But the reason why Britain was concerned about this was because it didn’t want any enemy interfering with its ability to trade, with its trade routes, its control of the seas, its colonies.

Sovereignty was a means to an end. Trade and commerce were what mattered above all.  And they still do matter.  So what happens now given that much of that trade is with Europe and much of Britain’s trade with the rest of the world is mediated through the EU?

The EU is not an enemy

The EU may – at its worst – be many infuriating things: arrogant, complacent, sometimes venal, often deaf to concerns, inflexible, insensitive, self-interested, defensive, obstructive, unimaginative, overly bureaucratic, with a tendency to overreach, sometimes undemocratic etc.  But it is not an enemy. This should not need saying but it does. It is dominant in Europe, likely to remain so for the foreseeable future and, essentially (despite all its faults) friendly and benign. It is certainly in Britain’s interests that it should be so.  How then should Britain interact with it?

A close relationship

Ah yes – the fabled close relationship. What Britain is now realising, very late in the day, is that if the relationship is close, Britain does what it is told by the EU and has no say in the rules it has to follow. If joining an organisation after the rules were written was humiliating and unworkable in the long run, how much more so will such an arrangement be. If it is not close, Britain will need to earn its living elsewhere.

It will end up largely doing what it is told by other countries: China, the US, Asian nations, Pacific nations, even eventually emerging African nations. It will have a bit more say in other negotiations but the days of Britain bestriding the world imposing its rules, its language, its laws, its will on other countries are long gone.

Again, this should not need saying but it does. Britain dominated global trade in centuries past because it was able to dominate, militarily if need be, anyone who stood in its way and could outcompete others. It will be much more of a supplicant now and one without a once winning card, namely, easy entry into the EU market. All of this is doable but it is not an easy cost-free option and will involve trade-offs and sacrifices (ISDS tribunal jurisdiction, anyone?) at least as hard, if not harder, than those required by EU membership.

What now?

Currently Britain’s approach to the EU might best be summed up by Sybil Fawlty’s description of her permanently enraged husband: “You never get it right, do you? You’re either crawling all over them, licking their boots, or spitting poison at them like some Benzedrine puff adder.”

Let’s assume some form of Brexit goes through on 29 March.  A brilliant slogan – “Take Back Control” – will have achieved its aim – departure. What it won’t have achieved is any idea of where next nor what control Britain will be taking back and for what purpose.  What is still missing is a realistic strategy for Britain’s relationship with a dominant Continental power. Departure does not render this question moot. It makes it more urgent than ever. A little late you say?  I agree. Still, if not now, when?



BACK TO THE FUTURE – Part 2 The past is a foreign country – Remainers and Leavers are in for surprises

Sunday, December 9th, 2018

In the previous article I highlighted how UK politicians have become so entrenched in their  insular debate that they are effectively ignoring the significant changes sweeping Europe.

One can argue that our MPs primary focus has become to smash the other side rather than look at what is best for the country. So perhaps they should take some time to look beyond these shores and see how the politics are lining up.


Congratulations! We are staying in! Enjoy the champagne because tomorrow a decades long hangover begins.

The UK can expect few favours

After the initial euphoria of Remain the long slog begins. The EU will be happy with those individuals who fought for it but the UK as a whole can only even be viewed with suspicion, non U,  a country on the periphery.

Only the big jump to Schengen, currency and total integration can change this and perhaps not even then, we are gens non grata. Much as Remainers like to tell Leavers they own Brexit, Remainers will now own Bremain. That will not be a comfortable position especially as the rest of the EU will be telling you to be on best behaviour and not let the side down.

Someone will have to sell an unpopular  dish

For a start off the core countries and the Commission will continue to push for more integration irrespective of British sentiment.  It is inevitable that at some point the nation’s sacred cows will be ordered to the abattoir something a surly unbelieving electorate will baulk at. 

This will be worse if the EU follows its normal modus operandi of ignoring dissent or judicial sleight of hand.  The EU has few active advocates in our political classes and lots of foot dragging ones.  Remain will not stop the Europe headaches it will simply spread it across the political spectrum.

Europe has been made an issue

52% of the population voted to Leave. If the politicians reverse that choice British politics will change. This was one of the few times the have nots beat the haves. The establishment threw everything into its campaign and lost now they will have fixed the outcome. 

This is not healthy. UK politics will be faced with a discontented disengaged electorate which treats politicians with contempt and which like the Continent, finds itself increasingly attracted to non-traditional politics. UK politics may become more European but not in a good way

European politics is in flux

And that bad way might just be the future. Across Europe the voters are not happy; a much larger Eurosceptic bloc seems on the cards for the next EU parliament. Traditional parties are struggling to maintain support even in national elections, in a protest vote for Europe this could get much worse.

Ironically in remaining, a sceptical UK vote could make this problem even more acute. Already the ghosts of Nigels past are stirring and they have been presented with a rich new seam of discontent to mine.   

Summing up if Remainers get their wish they will need to work hard to keep the public on side this is an uphill and thankless task. They own all the problems and get little thanks for the successes.


Commiserations! You snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.  But cheer up there has never been a better time to be in Europe. You can party like it’s 1945.

British Eurosceptics are no longer alone

The days when the EU Parliament was filled with project zealots may soon be coming to an end. In just about every European country there is now a sizeable bloc of Eurosceptics.  The days when sceptical Brits were something of an oddity are behind us. To succeed however Leavers need to understand European Eurosceptics quite often like the EU.

What they don’t like is the commission and its incessant need to boss countries around. If Leavers understand that, then major reforms of the EU may at last be possible and the Commission and its desire for closer union brought closer to the will of European electorates. Even   in the core countries politicians are struggling to stay the pace with Macron’s France looking the weakest link. The inevitability of Union is no longer quite so inevitable.

Leavers will have a warmer welcome than Remainers

The European parliament will in all events get a meaningful opposition rather than the traditional stitch up between the EPP and the Socialists. Now oddly might just be the time to have the UK at the centre of those countries who wish to change direction. While Remainers from UK are beyond the pale to core countries, in scepticland Leavers have kudos from having upset the whole apple cart. 

One thing the sceptics can be certain of is that the commission will continue to feed them issue that upset the voter. Partly it is what comes with having to govern but it is also the style of an establishment that has been used to getting its own way. Time to buy a yellow jacket.

Leavers mount a credible threat to the EU

Finally the leavers may just be able to protect the UK national interest assuming our politicians don’t give it away. A large curmudgeonly member state  who has previous for leaving might just make European politicians think let the sleeping dog lie. This approach will never work with a Remainers PM but with a Leaver that’s a different call. In as much as the UK has been through mangle on Brexit, the EU is in poor shape to kick the problem off again, it has too much else on its plate.

So summing up Leavers may actually have an easier time in the EU than Remainers. The winds of change are blowing and suddenly there are more like minded people to work with. If Leavers combine with others Eurosceptics there may actually be a chance to reform the EU. No the same as leaving of course but perhaps more liveable nonetheless.

Whether Remain or Leave though the UK has yet to take full account of the changes of the last two years. Europe will remain a dividing issue more so as the political class has invested so much emotion in to the issue. Time to stop our insular spat and look at what the neighbours have been up to.



BACK TO THE FUTURE – Part 1  Europe has changed – We can’t put  Humpty together again.

Sunday, December 9th, 2018

In the first of a two part series, Alanbrooke looks at our relationship with the EU.

As the Brexit debate rolls on the recent ruling by the ECJ Advocate General that the UK can unilaterally revoke article 50 brings a new angle to proceedings. Suddenly it is a lot easier to stay in.

The uncertainty around how to stay in the EU and under which terms looks a lot clearer and in some ways simpler. So set aside the mechanics of how, what would remaining actually be like ? This is a two part post – the first looks at the changes in Europe since the leave vote and the second looks at how remaining will impact Remainers and leavers.

There is a certain irony to the UK remaining, in that events in the EU are largely being ignored, Europe is little more than a bit player in the UK debate.  Really only Ireland has had much coverage in the UK’s internal wrangle and that as a convenient pool of mud to fling at the other side. 

So first let’s refresh ourselves on the Europe we voted to leave. At the beginning of 2016 the advocates of international liberalism were in firm control of the West. David Cameron had just been re-elected; Mutti Merkel presided over a successful Germany and a recovering EU led by her placeman Jean Claude Juncker. In the USA Obama looked ready to hand over to America’s first female president while a twitter happy property developer showed just how out of touch the opposition were.

That world has all gone.

And by gone it’s not just the personalities, but the assumptions and policies which backed them. 2016 is in some ways as significant a year as 1989, a year when the mould broke.  And break it did, first with Brexit and Cameron’s departure and next with Trump; worse in the following year Frau Merkel became a casualty as her electorate tired of her. Suddenly all the old certainties were gone and the peasants were revolting across the Western World.

And that revolt was triggered by much the same factors in all countries.   Stagnation in standards of living for ordinary people, the impact of globalisation on jobs and on job security ; then add in immigration and  a political class which had lost touch with voters. In essence a system which worked well for those at the top of society was not working at all for those at the bottom and they made their discontent known.

The reaction to the referendum result in the UK was shock. Remain didn’t expect to lose nor Leave to win. Then all hell broke loose, the PM resigned, a snap election, a messy result : the body politic turned on itself and the UK settled down to two years of trench warfare with neither side conceding much bar  introspective wrangling over Brexit minutiae to the exclusion of everything else. And that’s the weakness of the UK’s position. A world has changed around us and we are not giving it much thought

The lie of the land in Brussels today is  of both the familiar and the new.  A UK staying with the EU will face several key factors

The will of the commission and the ”core” is for ever closer union

There still remains at the heart of the EU project the will to make a union with all the infrastructure of a state – currency, parliament, army, taxes – controlled by a central body. British politicians howl at this prospect and ridicule it, but the trend of the EU has only ever been in one direction, few powers are ever handed back. This will remain a constant feature of staying in the EU a steady creep of centralisation pushed by core countries.

Long Term the Euro is unsustainable in its present form

This might sound like a side issue to a country outside the Euro but the Euro is probably one of the largest risks in staying in the EU. The severe imbalances within the currency are creating the conditions for the Union to fall apart. Previously within the ERM there was an adjustment mechanism which allowed imbalances to be corrected. Now values are fixed which gives a huge advantage to the Germanic countries while impoverishing the Latin south. Something must give or the Union wort work and if it breaks the UK will be dragged in to the maelstrom.

Perfidious Albion

Staying in, leaves the UK in a slightly awkward position. A large and important member but one which can never quite be trusted. If things were a little terse before the vote they will be even more so when staying in. All talk of influence and soft power should be forgotten as someone once said can you imagine an EU with a British President?

The old problems are still there

The cocktail of issues which in the UK led to Brexit are still present in the EU and if anything greater. Immigration, the impact of globalisation, political alienation are all core issues across Europe. The UK  debate ignores that these are also the conditions  in Europe and this will lead to a very different political climate in the next decade. What if post the EU Parliament election in 2019 we are not returning to a government of Macron Merkel and  Juncker  but of Le Pen, Farage and Salvini ? Whatever way you look at it, it is hard to see how the next EU parliament  will not be a very different creature. We have given this very little thought,

These are the realities of the EU today. One side of the EU is desperately seeking to hold together a model it has pushed for years while the other is seeking a completely new model. In between there is a struggle for what Europe is about. But the hard fact remains we can’t go back in time and even a child could tell us it is too late to put Humpty back together. 



With or without EU, will anybody follow Le Royaume-Uni’s lead?

Sunday, September 23rd, 2018

This market on which countries will leave the EU by the end of 2025 from Paddy Power on first inspection seems like an excellent way to contribute to the Paddy Power bonus fund.

In terms of disasters for the United Kingdom a no deal Brexit is to picture the Hindenburg meets Chernobyl meets the fall of Singapore meets Solo: A Star Wars Story.

I’m not sure any country will be in a hurry to repeat Brexit, particularly those countries in the Eurozone. If you thought leaving just the Single Market and Customs Union was difficult just imagine leaving the Euro at the same time as well.

For example the 14/1 on France seems like an effective proxy on the Front National winning the 2022 French Presidential election, I’m not keen, ditto the 5/1 on Italy.

The one option I’m tempted to back is Hungary at 20/1. Following the contretemps in recent weeks involving the EU and Hungary it isn’t hard to see the situation escalating, particularly with Russia taking such a close interest in Hungarian affairs  and Hungary seeming intent to ignore all the norms that make a country a vibrant democracy.

With Brexit  delivered Hungary will lose Tory support inside the EU, Orban and Hungary will become even more isolated, but this is a market where I wish Paddy Power offered a no country, after the UK,  shall leave by 2025 option.



Sweden sours? Will the far right make further inroads in Scandinavian social democracy?

Sunday, September 9th, 2018

For the last 100 years, the Social Democrats have dominated Swedish politics.  They have been in government for all bar 22 of those years.  It used its hegemonic status to establish a social democratic culture that worked with the country’s Lutheran ethos and with business, and for a long time managed to preside over a successful and distinctive blend of high taxation supporting a strong social safety net and a dynamic economy.

Their grip has been loosening for a generation.  For over fifty years the Social Democrats tallied more than 40% at successive general elections (a mighty achievement under a system of proportional representation), but they have not hit that mark since 1994 and they have barely scraped 30% at the last two elections.

Sweden goes to the polls again today and that decline looks set to continue.  No poll has shown the Social Democrats getting anything like 30%: they are averaging just under the 25% mark.  The Europe-wide crisis on the centre left looks set to intensify.

This is not the tale that most outside observers are telling of the Swedish election.  All the journalism has focussed on the rise in the polls of the Sweden Democrats, a socially conservative party whose USP is an opposition to multiculturalism and immigration.  Certainly the Sweden Democrats are performing considerably better than at the last election in 2014, scoring in the high teens with most pollsters (and higher with YouGov and Sentio).  This seems, however, to be part of a wider fragmentation of the Swedish vote. 

The Left party looks set to almost double its share from 5.7%.  The Centre Party, the Liberals and the Christian Democrats all look set to see an uptick in their support too.  At the last election the Social Democrats and the Moderates took over 54% of the vote between them (in 1994 they got a combined share of over two thirds of the vote).  This time they look set to get between 40% and 45% combined.  The Social Democrats got a larger vote share on their own in 1994.

This fragmentation, of course, is not unique to Sweden.  Germany, Spain, Ireland and the Netherlands have all seen the same phenomenon.  This has led to a string of fragile governments, unable to take strong action because they lack the stable majorities to do so.  Sweden looks set to join them.

Sweden’s electoral system is essentially one of proportional representation.  There are 349 seats.  Voting takes place in 29 constituencies and 310 seats are allocated internally within those constituencies on a proportionate basis (the constituencies do not have equal numbers of MPs). 

The threshold within a constituency for eligibility for a seat is a 12% vote share.  The remaining 39 seats are allocated to correct deviations from the national vote share that have arisen: the threshold for eligibility for a seat on this basis is a 4% national vote share.  The end result has historically been highly proportional. 

A month ago, when I last looked at this contest, the Sweden Democrats were odds-on favourites to take most seats.  This was surprising, given they had been ahead in few polls.  Since then, the Sweden Democrats have drifted in most polls and so has their price on Betfair.  However, they still hold a slender lead with the same two pollsters who had found them to be in the lead a month ago (though they are well adrift with other pollsters and sometimes in third behind the Moderates).  It is not impossible that they finish top.

Impossible is not the same as likely.  Chris Hanretty has nailed his colours to the mast and estimated their chance of finishing top as being between 0.1% and 12.5%, depending on how you approach the problem.  (I think he was unaware of YouGov finding the Sweden Democrats in the lead, which would up the second figure to 25%.) 

At the time of writing, they were last traded on Betfair for most seats at 3, giving in implied probability of 1/3 that they will finish top. There is therefore still substantial value in laying them, and, conversely, still value in backing the Social Democrats to finish top at the 1.4 mark where they currently sit.

Whatever happens, is almost certain that all the headlines afterwards will be about the Sweden Democrats. The bigger story of fragmentation and the consequent enfeebling of government is likely to be missed. Sweden looks set to join the lengthening list of European countries consumed by introspection.

Alastair Meeks


The limits of populism. Will the hard right disappoint its fans’ most ardent hopes again in Sweden?

Friday, August 3rd, 2018

Sweden has a general election on 9 September 2018.  You might have picked up on it because the newspapers have been drawing attention to the prospects of the Sweden Democrats as they are apparently rising in the polls.  For those that aren’t familiar with them, the Sweden Democrats are the descendant of the fascist movement but now looks like a fairly standard nationalist anti-immigration party.  Could such a party top the polls in a country famed for its social democratic inclusiveness?

Stop me if you think you’ve heard this story before.  Geert Wilders’ party was poised to become the largest party in the Dutch elections (it didn’t).  Marine Le Pen was poised to top the French presidential poll in the first round (she didn’t).  The undoubted improvements by the hard right are regularly over-egged in advance.

This has proved profitable for cool-headed bettors in the past.  I wrote about this in advance of the Dutch elections.  Betting against Marine Le Pen also proved a winning strategy.  In both cases the odds on the hard right were far too short.

Are we looking at the same story this time?  Perhaps.  Unlike the Dutch elections, there are recent polls showing the Sweden Democrats in the lead.  The Chris Hanretty tweet at the top of the thread sums up the position.  So the Sweden Democrats are in with a shout of doing this.  Favouring the Sweden Democrats in this contest at this stage would mean favouring the methods of two of the regular pollsters in opposition to the results of the majority of pollsters.

Would that be justified?  As always, we need to look at the odds.  As I write, you can back Sweden Democrats to finish with most seats at 1.83 on Betfair and lay them at 1.84.  That is eyebrow-raising, given that they have only been ahead in four out of the last 50 polls (and tied in a fifth).  You’d have to have strong views about a quality gap in the methods of polling companies to justify that price.  There’s no particular reason to assume that the Sweden Democrats’ support is being systematically underrecorded; that wasn’t the experience in the Netherlands or France.

Are there any indications as to which pollsters to back?  Picking winners is a mug’s game (polls are snapshots not predictions and demographic changes may alter the reliability of polls in ways which are impossible to predict in advance).  Nevertheless, we have a small clue.

In the wake of the last general election in 2014, all the current pollsters took their usual polls.  Sentio and YouGov immediately found an upsurge in support for the Sweden Democrats from the general election that none of the other pollsters picked up at that time.  That perhaps suggests that Sentio and YouGov might be overstating Sweden Democrat support.

This isn’t anything like a sure thing.  But at 1.84 (or indeed at anything close to evens) the Sweden Democrats look like a clear lay for most seats.  At least till new information makes me rethink, I’m betting accordingly.

Alastair Meeks


The long tail. Looking at the rise of populism

Tuesday, July 24th, 2018

A spectre is haunting Europe: the spectre of populism. All the powers of old Europe has entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: the EU and the House of Lords, Angela Merkel and big business, George Soros and Leo Varadkar.  Or so some political scientists would have you believe.

Let’s take a cool look at the evidence.  When we talk of populists, a lot of different ideas get mixed together: nativism, authoritarianism and outsider status.  This allows those building a thesis of populists on the march to point to phenomena that have no obvious link other than their unexpectedness.  There is not much that connects Five Star Movement and Fidesz, yet both are used as examples of populism.

Let’s be a bit more precise.  For a party to be treated as populist, it must claim to be representing the people’s will against the elite and be willing to use authoritarian means to enforce that.  There is a heavy overlap with nativism but they are not the same thing: neither Fidesz nor the Conservative party are really populist (both lay claim to being natural parties of government) but both in their present incarnation are nativist, with a heavy emphasis on anti-immigration rhetoric and hostility to perceived foreign influences.

The James Dennison tweet at the top of the thread sets out the polling of populist right parties in 15 western European countries.  The picture is decidedly mixed. 

In any case, the emphasis on populism and nativism overlooks the rise of a whole different set of new parties.  Many of these new parties are found in the centre that so often has its last rite pronounced.  In France, Emmanuel Macron and En Marche have come from the invisible centre to take full power.  In Italy, Five Star Movement were the largest party at the recent general election, a confounding mixture of outsider centrism and conspiracy theories.  In Spain, Ciudadanos have emerged as a new liberal voice. 

This uptick in liberalism has not been confined to new parties.  The FDP got a double figure vote share in the German 2017 election.  D66, a Dutch liberal party, was one of the big winners in the Dutch 2017 election.

Meanwhile, outsider parties on the left have also had success.  In Germany, Die Linke and the Greens took one sixth of the votes between them last year.  The Greens also were big gainers in the Netherlands last year.

If there is a theme, it seems to be less one of an inexorable rise of populism and more one of fragmentation, as voters look to explore new options. At the last German and Irish elections, the two main parties took around 50% of the vote where at the turn of the millennium that total had been just shy of 70%. In the Netherlands, the two largest parties at the 2017 election took just over a third of the vote. In the previous election the top two parties had taken over half the vote. No candidate in the French presidential election got a quarter of the vote in the first round.

Why is this happening? In all the countries I have mentioned so far, MPs are elected with some measure of proportionality. This enables new parties to come to the fore relatively easily since support that is scattered geographically can be converted into seats. But that doesn’t explain why votes are fragmenting now.

It is hard to look past the internet for the cause of that. The phenomenon was noted in relation to consumer goods by Chris Anderson in his book The Long Tail. He noted how the internet allowed retailers to stock a far greater range of goods, particularly virtual goods, than was possible in a bricks-and-mortar shop. This allowed those goods which had previously been uneconomic to stock to build a much greater market share.

Similarly, like-minded souls can cluster together on the internet, however niche their interests.  Goat-fanciers, quidditch-players and political bettors can find each other and share ideas and plans. Those who share political views can do the same. So the environmentally conscious, libertarian geeks, change-hating pensioners and metropolitan elitists can each find their respective online niches. If they don’t feel that existing parties are meeting their needs, they can easily set up new ones online. In a system that rewards proportional shares, grass roots presence is not as important as elsewhere.

So far I haven’t mentioned Britain. It’s the exception that proves the rule: at the last election the two main parties both greatly increased their vote share. Britain does not have a proportional electoral system so breaking through is so much harder (though not impossible as the SNP showed in 2015). 

In practice, however, the same forces are apparent just beneath the surface.  Both main party leaders represent just one faction of their party and neither has the political capital to enforce their will effectively.  Labour currently runs the gamut from those who gleefully proclaim that they are communists to those who see themselves as centrist dads, with every flavour of social democrat and socialist in between, with a heavy sprinkling of belligerent Remainers and right-on avocado-eating consumerists.  The Conservatives, consumed in flames as they are by Brexit, include factions seeking to stop Brexit, those seeking to pursue the Mayite deal, those seeking to obtain a deal that leaves Britain still more detached from the EU and those who are currently making preparations to invade Belgium.  All of these groups have their strength replenished Antaeus-like from the public support they now have ready access to.

In these circumstances, party control is tenuous and the ability of the leader to exert authority is still more tenuous.  Jeremy Corbyn’s lack of control over the parliamentary Labour party doesn’t matter much now but a Labour government would be chaotic.  Theresa May’s administration already shows what a fragmented government looks like.  Each faction in each party has leaders who will look strong only until they seek to impose their will on other factions rather than just the leader, at which point the limits of their power would become awkwardly clear.  Jacob Rees-Mogg can snarl, but the chain round his collar wouldn’t let him get many bites in.

Meanwhile, voters in the UK still feel alienated.  As noted in the second tweet, fewer than half of all voters, even after ignoring don’t knows, now feel that a political party represents their views.  There’s a large potential market out there for new political parties.  Perhaps one day Britain, like other European countries, will have a system that allows the public to have a meaningful choice.

Alastair Meeks


Right turn ahead. The Hungarian general election

Friday, March 30th, 2018

Hungary is the holding pen of Europe. Sat on the Great Hungarian Plain, which is effectively the most westward of the steppes, it is no coincidence that successive invasions over many eras have come through Hungary and stopped at Vienna, from the Mongols to the Turks to the waves of migrants in 2015 – it is the line of least resistance.

The last hundred years have not been good for Hungary. It lost two thirds of its territory at the Treaty of Trianon and it has seen a Communist government, an authoritarian right wing dictatorship, a fascist puppet state and USSR-dominated Communist government. In that time, Budapest has been occupied by three different armies in that time, those of Romania, Germany and the USSR.

Its democratic history effectively started in 1989. One man, Viktor Orbán, has been prominent in public life throughout that time. He has been Prime Minister for the last eight years and he is looking for re-election on 8 April. The election does not look like a cliffhanger. His ruling party Fidesz is set for a landslide if the polls are to be believed. Nevertheless, the election is likely to be of significance for Europe as a whole.

What of the electoral system? The Hungarian Parliament is elected using a method that’s a bit like the Italian system. It has 199 MPs. 106 are to be elected by first past the post. The other 93 MPs are elected by proportional representation, with a threshold of 5%. In 2014 Fidesz just managed a two thirds majority on 43% of the vote.

The election will be free but not fair. The votes will be counted correctly and parties are freely able to organise: if anything Hungary’s opposition parties are too numerous rather than too few. But Fidesz’s dominance of the media is unlike anything seen in western Europe. The cards are stacked in their favour. They are on track to take something like half the vote if the admittedly volatile Hungarian polls are to be believed.

Who are the other runners and riders? The socialists split into three after their 2010 defeat and remain divided. The far right Jobbik continue to thrive. A greeny-liberal party called LMP have some popularity among young leftish urban professionals. Young rightish urban professionals have the option of Momentum. Few are taking it.

Hungary’s economy is doing well. Its economy, admiittedly fuelled by a pre-election loosening of the purse strings, is growing at just under 4% a year at the moment. Unemployment has halved in the last five years. Those who have visited Budapest in the last few years will be aware that it is a modern European city.

Just as London is not Britain, however, Budapest is not Hungary. The east of the country remains poorer than the west. The jobs and wealth are largely created in the big cities and large parts of the countryside are being left behind. Outside the tourist areas and the wine-growing regions, opportunities in rural areas are few. Unsurprisingly, the young are leaving. It’s routine for smart young Hungarians to head for Germany, Britain, Canada or the USA. The rural decline in many areas is stark. You can rent or buy whole villages.

Viktor Orbán’s support is derived primarily not from Budapest but from the countryside. He has launched a succession of initiatives designed to appeal to older, less educated, culturally conservative voters. In Britain, earnest academics would be urging us to listen to the concerns of these Somewheres. At 1000 miles distance, it’s easier for outsiders to label their concerns as racist and backward. There are probably at least two lessons to be learned from that differential treatment.

So the current government introduced a Sunday trading ban – now repealed, campaigned against external influences personified in George Soros (who not coincidentally is a key figure in the Central European University which is one of the few Hungarian institutions outside Fidesz’s control and which the government also sought to dismantle, before holding fire in the face of international pressure) and has launched a national consultation about the EU (you will not be surprised to learn that the Hungarian government is unenthusiastic).

Meanwhile, the highest levels of government have become notable for their unexplained wealth. Hungarians do not live to Scandinavian standards of probity – locals will negotiate with the traffic police and it is socially compulsory to tip the doctor even though it is officially illegal. So a certain amount of feathering the nest is expected from all governments, if not exactly approved of.

The current government is perceived to have been taking this to a whole new level. An English word “strawman” has entered the Hungarian dictionary under the spelling “stroman” to refer to the front men who have been enabling the Orbán family to acquire businesses and land. Public cynicism about this spans the political spectrum.

The opportunity has been seized by Jobbik. For some time they have been campaigning with posters like the one at the top of the thread (which translates “You work. They steal.”). These are sentiments that hit home right across the political spectrum, with which impeccable liberals would firmly agree.

Jobbik clearly now have big money behind them because Budapest is festooned with Jobbik posters in a similar style that can be translated “We grow. You win.” with various simple campaign promises such as “European wages”. In my view, these latest posters miss the mark a little, drawing an implicit contrast between “We” and “You” (the point is rather stronger in Hungarian, where personal pronouns are used mainly for emphasis – verb endings normally do the work unassisted). Nevertheless, Jobbik are making all the running in opposition to Fidesz. They might well outperform their average polling and finish a clear second.

It is against this background that Viktor Orbán has been campaigning almost exclusively against migration. He is evidently determined not to be outflanked on the right and his rhetoric about George Soros would make even a Telegraph journalist blush. The Hungarian public, many of whom outside Budapest have next to no experience of immigration, lap it up. But Hungary’s population has been in decline for a generation, with no end in sight. It appears that immigration is unpopular, regardless of the fundamentals. That’s one lesson that one does not need to travel 1000 miles from Britain to learn.

Alastair Meeks