Archive for the 'Guest Contribution' Category


Topping, who served with the British Army in Northern Ireland during the troubles, on Ulster and Brexit

Monday, August 6th, 2018

Kenneth Allen / Bloody Sunday mural, Bogside

Why the border issue is so important to both sides

Why, when we’re busy trying to Brexit, is everyone hung up on Northern Ireland? Why should we let this small part of the UK, with a population just larger than Newcastle’s, dictate seemingly our entire Brexit settlement? Terrorism, people say. But we don’t give in to terrorists, so why does Northern Ireland and its terrorists get such special treatment?

For most people in the UK, terrorism means the odd bomb scare, suspicious package, or a thankfully rare terrorist incident. Whereas it once defined the island of Ireland.

Let’s imagine the scene: a long walk in the countryside on a beautiful summer’s day. You gaze out over the rolling hills and, amongst the trees swaying gently in the wind and the gambolling lambs, you see an army patrol dressed in camouflage kit, helmets and face paint, carrying machine guns. Is one of them pointing their gun at you? Shortly, a helicopter emerges from the distance, drops like a stone to land, and picks up the soldiers. Then, with its door gunner on alert, it rises steeply backwards, upwards and away. You continue your walk.

Or imagine you’re off to Tesco and pass fully armed soldiers either patrolling on foot, or in armoured vehicles with machine guns sticking out of the top. Perhaps they’ll stop and ask you who you are, where you’re going – questions you’d have to answer. Or they might take an hour to search your car. And all this because you know there is a threat of violence from the local communities.

How could such scenes exist in the United Kingdom? Well they did, in Northern Ireland, and that was the Troubles. Northern Ireland was at war, both with itself, and with the British Forces sent initially to protect the Catholic community in 1969. That military operation lasted 37 years and the internal conflict which brought it into being is what people fear when they talk about a return to the bad old days: complete disruption of the civic society that you and I take for granted.

There has been progress since, of course. The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement assured Unionists that until a majority wanted otherwise, NI would remain part of the UK, while the Nationalists for their part saw a raft of cross-border bodies established. And times have changed in other ways also. Gerry Adams is in parliament now and surely no more than a handful of hot-heads want a return to the armed struggle? Isn’t it all – wasn’t it always – gangsters and criminals?

While not as intense (3,500 people died during the Troubles), there has been continuous terrorist-related activity since the GFA was signed, including murders, shootings and weapons finds.

    To think that no dissident Republican groups are or would be willing to fight for a united Ireland today is wishful thinking; to dismiss them as gangsters or criminals is to misunderstand the history of Irish Republicanism.

Army patrols in NI would routinely visit the 208 Border Crossing Points (BCPs, more than the EU has with all points East) of which 20 were official; the remainder, located in streams, fields, forests or woods, were often used to smuggle various substances – diesel, livestock (“dizzy cows” were taken back and forth over the border to collect agricultural subsidies), or, of course, weaponry and terrorists. One of the consequences of the GFA, and the reduction in violence, is that there are no more “official” BCPs; you can cross the border anywhere you want.

And it is this last issue that represents the toughest Brexit nut to crack. All mooted options, whether Chequers, any of the backstop agreements (Joint Report or Withdrawal Agreement), or any other solution, must be seen through the prism of how it affects the border.

Again, why? There are customs posts throughout the world without accompanying violence.

A hard border between the RoI and NI would inflame the Nationalists as it would create a more tangible separation between Eire and the UK, representing a setback in their quest for a united Ireland. It would also violate the spirit of the GFA, and the many pronouncements made by Theresa May. A border in the Irish Sea, meanwhile, would inflame the Unionists as it would create a de facto separate state of the island of Ireland. It has also, of course, been outlawed by the UK Parliament.

And ludicrous as it sounds, the fact that all parties have stated they don’t want one, has not prevented the border being used as a negotiating tool in the Brexit negotiations.

During the Troubles, a hard border provided a call to arms for Republican paramilitary groups. In the absence of some kind of as yet non-existent technological solution, people fear that any kind of border infrastructure created now would have the same effect. Which would in turn bring reprisals from Unionist paramilitary groups. And pretty soon you are back to the Troubles. And that is why it all matters so much.

Topping is a regular poster on PB


How Britain should play the Trump card without folding or upping the ante

Friday, January 12th, 2018

A guest slot from Julian Glassford

The vertiginous rise of the new champion of the alt-right in 2016 prompted a palpable blend of bafflement and consternation among the political elite right around the globe. Few dared even imagine that Donald Trump would triumph over his wily, experienced, and altogether far more internationally acceptable rival in the US presidential election. Indeed, most appeared caught almost completely off-guard and, a year on, none have yet managed to figure out quite how to tame the beast (if such a thing is possible).

Before “the Donald” had even taken the oath analysts were mourning the end of the age of Atlanticism, and who can blame them? He has, after all, labelled NATO obsolete, characterised the EU a defunct vehicle for German hegemony, and now added an unedifying Twitter spat with the British Prime Minister to his growing collection of controversies. Other commentators speculated that the reality TV star turned statesman was just posturing during the presidential campaign and would reign in the headline-grabbing stunts once in office. If they were banking on 2017 being a year of relative tranquillity on that basis, well then they miscalculated, bigly.

Resurgent populism and the nationalistic upending of the Washington Consensus has left (neo)liberal internationalists the world over with their heads in a spin. “They that sow the wind, shall reap the whirlwind”, and boy has the global political climate become blustery on their watch! Enter brash Trumponomics, rash social policy, and decidedly undiplomatic rhetoric scarcely seen in the West since The War.

Major domestic and international protests sparked by the Trump travel ban saga, followed by calls for the man himself to be barred from visiting countries like the UK – which have only grown following his far-right retweets – place governments in an awkward position. Few leaders can risk appearing to accept socially divisive ‘alternative facts’ or to condone his incendiary politics. Fewer still can afford to turn their backs on the largest and most advanced economic and military power on earth, however. And, given our role as a bastion of ‘soft power’ and human dignity vs. the need to nail‘The Art of the Deal’ with the US ahead of post-Brexit trade talks, this tension applies to the UK in spades.

Public figures have every right to voice their discontent, and relevant politicians and diplomats are of course duty-bound to make appropriate representations to their stateside counterparts. But, at the end of the day, whilst we do not have to respect the views and policies that President Trump espouses we cannot deny anyone’s right to hold or state them. Instead, we must trust in modern democratic institutions, our values, and unity. If we cannot place our faith wholly in these things then surely this says more about the state of our society and fragility of our principles (e.g. free speech) than it does about the vulgarian at the centre of the storm.

Far from deterred, Donald – like many an ‘echo chamber’ dwelling ‘keyboard warrior’ – appears buoyed by his latest fracas, even if most Americans clearly disapprove of his Twitter antics. As it dawns on remonstrators that the egotistical and intransigent showman is, figuratively speaking at least, sat in the Oval Office with his fingers in his ears and his direct line unplugged, many governments will be tempted to disengage completely. The UK must not do so. “Keep Calm and Carry on”, as the saying goes.

Britain can ill afford to sacrifice the special relationship as a knee-jerk reaction to political incorrectness or, indeed, in the name of tokenistic ‘virtue signalling’. Whatever the likes of German Chancellor Angela Merkel may say about Europe going its own way, Western interests are not well served by marginalising the United States or its capricious commander in chief. The recent announcement regarding the relocation of the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem offers a timely reminder that, left to his own devices, the cocksure neophyte is liable to land us all in a world of trouble.

For all his characteristically provocative and bolshie behaviour on social media, the President is a self-confessed Anglophile with Scottish roots. He shares a close affinity with a number of British public figures, actively seeks their advice, and was of course keen to invite the PM to be the first foreign head of state to visit him in office. Slightly uncomfortable, and recently diminished, though this association has been, the spirit of such acts has value and should not be disregarded.

Rather than cancel the much maligned US state visit outright, as others have pointed out the government can just as well kick it into the long grass. With a little quintessentially British composure and savvy, it should be possible to sustain cordial relations and continue to productively engage with our friends across the pond without compromising on matters moral integrity or social stability.

Strong leadership entails embracing difficulty, acting with level-headed stoicism, and leading by example, and we are in the business of building bridges, not walls. To abandon the current US administration at this juncture would be no more flattering on the UK than the reverse proposition i.e. Blair-Bush style fawning. Instead, we must live up to the long tradition of being America’s faithful, if not uncritical, old friend and ally. This means underscoring shared pluralistic values and being the pragmatic voice of reason: ever ready to administer a helping hand and, where necessary, the odd slap on the wrist.


Brief Bio: Julian Glassford is a UK-based multidisciplinary researcher and social entrepreneur.


The inter-generational gap: The Pinch and the Punch

Sunday, October 1st, 2017


Picture credit – The Resolution Foundation

The Pinch

David Willetts’ 2011 book ‘The Pinch’ came complete with the provocative subtitle “How the baby boomers took their children’s future – and why they should give it back”. His central charge was that this supersized demographic cohort had managed to concentrate much of the nation’s wealth in their own hands, especially in terms of property ownership and vocational pension entitlements.

On top of this, their political power elected governments that ran deficits in good times, introduced tuition fees for students, and oversaw rapid asset price inflation whilst making sure that general inflation (acting as a tax on wealth) was kept firmly under control.

None of this was an act of deliberate selfishness. It was simply a consequence of the way democracy works, and also a collective – and very human – inability to appreciate how much they ought to be investing for their own retirement.

State pension age remained static as life expectancy rose, and companies got away with funding their defined-benefit schemes on the never-never, assuming future compound returns would cover the grand promises those schemes made. This kept profits up whilst the boomers were in work, since a good proportion of pay was deferred. But it has now left many of our biggest companies dwarfed by the size of their own pension schemes, which are now sucking out corporate profits that could otherwise be used for reinvestment.

The Punch

At GE2017 both major parties proposed measures that would start to address this intergenerational unfairness. The Conservatives downgraded their pensions triple lock to a double lock, and proposed reforming the funding of social care so that those with more private wealth would contribute more, in some circumstances. Labour offered to abolish tuition fees and proposed rent controls. The irony of course is that the hung Parliament has meant neither set of proposals have yet been adopted.

In the context of our deficit still being £52bn, I think proposing what amounts to additional tax is more intellectually honest than additional spending. Furthermore, the Conservatives’ proposals were more progressive – tuition fee abolition in particular being a policy aimed squarely at the middle class. But there is no denying that Labour hit the electoral jackpot with their pitch to the young. Turning out in unexpected numbers, they delivered an uppercut to Mrs May’s hopes of a majority (and a knockout blow to my own more distant hopes in Don Valley!)

Youth turnout soared by 16% among 18-24 year-olds and 8% among those aged 25-34, according to MORI. But given the very close result, the more modest decline in turnout among the over-55s was equally crucial.

Not only did the age turnout differential reduce dramatically (scuppering most models), MORI reported the biggest age gap in voting intention since their estimates began in 1979. Conversely, the class gap in British politics has never been smaller, with the Conservatives doing their best ever among C2DEs and Labour their best among ABC1s. Age is now the big dividing line in our politics, which would seem to bode well for Labour.

The Crunch

Given the size of the boomer cohort, I actually think it would be possible for the Conservatives to restore their majority without specifically addressing the concerns of the younger generations. After all, we were only 9 seats short of an overall majority despite being generally outcampaigned by Labour, not least because of the enthusiasm of Corbyn’s youthful supporters.

However there is an intergenerational unfairness and my party needs to address it. But I agree with Stephen Bush that tuition fees are a red herring. Though there are definitely a few things that need adjusting within the present system, I think the principles behind it are sound – even whilst acknowledging my own good fortune to have got in just in time. In any case, it is difficult to outflank an offer of “free”.

It is housing that is at the core of this issue, so we have to find a way to make housing more affordable for the young – whether renting or owning. Willetts’ Resolution Foundation finds that the average family spent just 6 per cent of their income on housing costs in the early 1960s: this has trebled to 18 per cent.

On ownership, today’s families headed by 30-year-olds are only half as likely to own their home as the baby boomer generation was at the same age. New towns could be one way of delivering more supply. And on social housing, it is good to see that Sajid Javid has launched a Green Paper. Right to Buy was a fantastic engine of social mobility but our housing stock was not sufficiently replenished. I would also like to see stamp duty reformed to encourage baby boomers to downsize in their retirements.

One-Nation Conservatism is most often associated with the class divide, but the lessons surely apply across the generations as well: we owe obligations to those less privileged within our society.

Disraeli himself claimed, “A politician thinks of the next election. A statesman thinks of the next generation.” Our challenge is to do both.

Aaron Bell

Aaron works in the betting industry and is a long-standing contributor to, posting under the username Tissue_Price. He stood for the Conservatives in Don Valley at the General Election.


The robots are coming

Tuesday, November 15th, 2016

A guest slot from CycleFree on globalisation

In her Mansion House speech, May said this about those who viewed the forces of globalization (“this agenda as the answer to all our ills””) in a different light to those who promoted it – “These people – often those on modest to low incomes living in rich countries like our own – see their jobs being outsourced and wages undercut.”  She went on: “When you refuse to accept that globalization in its current form has left too many people behind, you‘re not sowing the seeds for its growth but for its ruin.” 

Callaghan said much the same thing in 1979 when the last political/economic consensus started being torn up – “You know there are times, perhaps once every thirty years, when there is a sea-change in politics.  It then does not matter what you say or what you do.  There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of.”

 It has been implicit in the acres of comments on Brexit and Trump’s election that there is some divide between urban and rural, between the rich middle classes and the working classes, between professionals and others, between those educated to graduate and post-graduate level and others and that, depending on which side of the divide a person falls, this will to a large extent determine their views on whether Brexit and/or Trump are or are not a good thing.

More widely, globalization is seen as having benefited some groups and not others and that the former are learning that they are not – for the time being – the majority.  It is also assumed that if only those who benefit from globalization share their riches with those who don’t then all will be well again or, at least, better than now.

But is this latter point true?  Will the rich middle class professionals continue to benefit from globalization and other changes that are as likely as anything the politicians do to determine our futures?  Outsourcing, robotics and artificial intelligence are happening and are going to affect middle class professionals at least as much as the working classes have been hit by the transfer of industrial jobs to lower wage economies.

Take two sectors I know something about: law and banking.  Both will be profoundly affected by these developments.  We have seen the start of this in banking.  We are seeing the start in law.  Many of the jobs done by junior lawyers – the review and analysis of vast amounts of material to extract the relevant documents, the preparation of and changes to contracts and other standard documents, the changes needed as a result of legal/regulatory changes, for instance, are ripe for replacement by clever programmes which can do these jobs far more quickly, probably more accurately and certainly much cheaper than even the cheapest lawyer.

The pressure on lawyers (whether external or in-house) to make the necessary cost savings will force lawyers to adapt.  And not just them: all professionals will be asked what value do they add to what can be provided by non-human providers.  This is likely to be as seismic a change for these groups as the abandonment of industrial production has been for the rust belts of the West.

What are the likely social, economic and political consequences of these changes?  Well, for one, people will need to revisit the cosy middle class assumption that if you only get the right degree from the right university, the right internship, the right job, you will be able to earn well and, in some cases, very well indeed and, to a significant extent, be shielded from the forces which have affected others.

These changes bring opportunities, certainly.  But they will require a change in mindset in those who are doing this work already (and some of the proposed changes will make work easier or more interesting, removing much of the drudgery).  They will also likely mean that fewer lawyers or bankers or auditors or consultants or whatever are needed.  And for those starting out in such careers: how will they learn the skills and get the experience to gain the judgment needed to provide the added value?

The opportunities for the middle classes may be fewer and they are likely to face far more competition than previously.  They too may start feeling left behind, facing unfair competition, jobs outsourced or vanished, salaries undercut.  They too may start thinking of the forces of globalization and automation in a different light.

What the economic and political consequences of these changes are likely to be is uncertain.  What will they do to tax revenues?  And without the necessary tax revenues – think how much harder it is to tax companies based abroad providing automated services to companies and people here – how will May help those struggling and barely making do.

Can one tax robots?  An EU functionary recently made just this suggestion.  What will this do to our attitudes to the welfare state?  Will it make more people more protectionist or more willing to take the opportunities which change brings?  Will it make the country feel the need to be part of something bigger – even if this seems unlikely now?

May’s speech may have been good at diagnosing the cry of pain of those who were behind the Brexit vote.  But we may all (or rather more of us than we’d like to think) find ourselves uttering cries of pain in the future.  It is not at all clear that May has any sort of cure for the pain or any real idea how best to position Britain to take advantages of the opportunities that undoubtedly exist.

But working out a way of making the changes that are happening work for Britain is at least as important a task and, arguably, a more important task in the long run than negotiating Brexit.  The last time Britain’s economy and society went through significant structural changes was in the 1980’s shortly after Callaghan said the quote above.  We had three advantages then: oil revenues, a feeling that change needed to happen and a leader with a clear idea of where she wanted to go and the determination to stick at it.  

What advantages do we have now?  Over to you.



Cyclefree on the perils of hubris

Thursday, August 18th, 2016

Dave Quit

“It’s the economy, stupid” has been the default position for electoral campaigns for seemingly forever. It was fundamentally the basis on which Remain campaigned. It appears to be the reason why the Tories are confident that a Corbyn-led Labour party cannot win, not just because of Corbyn himself but because it will be easy to point at how Labour will ruin the economy. But is this truism always true? During our post-referendum summer languor, it may be worth looking at what the Remain campaign did or did not do to see if there are some lessons for future electoral campaigns.

My list of five things which went wrong with the Remain case.

1. Show. Don’t Tell.

That the EU and Britain’s membership of it was a good thing was taken as a given. But if you want to win an argument you can’t simply assert what you need to prove. In its understandable desire to set out the possible/likely negative consequences of departure, the Remain side never really appeared to argue confidently for a pro-EU case. It moved between saying that the EU wasn’t working and needed reform (the Bloomberg speech) to saying that all depended on the renegotiation (but not involving anyone outside a very small group into what such a renegotiation should seek to achieve) to overselling the result to ignoring it completely to arguing that the EU as is was better than the alternative but only by focusing on the ghastliness of the alternatives. This incoherence fatally undermined the Remain case. No wonder London was the only part of England and Wales to vote convincingly for Remain. It already knew the case. It was the rest of the country which needed convincing. But you can’t convince if you don’t really know or believe your own case.

2. Know your weaknesses. Address them.

It was obvious that immigration was going to be a concern for a significant group of voters. Remain should have thought long and hard long before the campaign started about how they were going to answer their critics and make a positive case for free movement (and there is one – beyond saying that it is necessary for membership of the single market). They didn’t. And when they did accept that free movement was necessary, it was presented as a bitter pill which had to be swallowed. Not an obviously winning argument. Describing free movement as “a price to be paid” without considering who paid the price, who got the benefits and whether both costs and benefits were fairly distributed is an odd position for politicians, particularly Labour politicians, to be in. If the fairness of a policy’s outcome is not Labour’s raison d’être then, what, really is Labour for? Remain were blind-sided by immigration. They should not have been.

3. Treat your voters as intelligent adults.

Basic stuff really in a democracy. But too often forgotten. People may be ignorant, stupid, perverse, chippy, bitter, deluded, selfish, self-interested, smug, silly or as wise as Solomon. But they can tell when they’re being patronised or ignored. Too many on the Remain side said that each vote – and, therefore, each voter – counted and then proceeded to treat too many of them as morons. The gap between the two was where the Leave vote came from.

4. Tone is everything.

How you say something matters as much as what you say. You can make people listen to and even accept a difficult decision or an unpleasant truth if you do so honestly and intelligently, if you treat your audience as adults. The tone of the Remain campaign seemed to show a tin ear for Britain. Hectoring voters rarely works.

5. The “pull” factor needs to be more attractive than the “push” one.

The result was a vote against the EU, against the elite which it seemed to represent, against the apparent consequences of globalisation, against an internationalism which, despite its good intentions, seemed to ignore the ordinary person (and much else besides). The fact that the alternative may be unclear – what does Brexit mean? – or incoherent or that it may/will make things worse for voters, including the most ardent Leavers, is not necessarily enough. Anger and resentment can be powerful drivers for action, more powerful even than fear.

Does any of this matter? After all, Remain lost. Yes, it does.

All of the above criticisms can be made in reverse and, in some cases, with even more force, of the Leave side. And since the government is now in favour of Brexit, it will need to think intelligently about and explain to us:
(1) what Britain’s future strategy for the EU and the rest of the world is to be – something which has not really been done in the last few decades;
(2) how we get from here to there;
(3) how the government is going to address the gap between the overall desire of the majority and the needs and desires of the Remain minority, who – though this should not need saying – are a key part of the country and its future;
(4) how to present all of this and the trade-offs which will be needed (not least between being open for business and people and having a sensible immigration policy) honestly and intelligently to the voters; and,
(5) finally and most importantly, that they will do so in a tone and style which shows a Britain outside the EU at its best, both to all of those in Britain, whether citizens or not, and to the world. This is something which has not – shamefully – always been done on the Leave side. Dishonest scapegoating of the other needs to stop. The manner of one’s departure – and how one behaves after it – matter just as much as the fact of it, something which has too often been forgotten by some.

More importantly, the Tories should not assume that the next election is in the bag, whatever the polls may now say.

If voters feel that the status quo in 2020 (whatever that status turns out to be) is still working against them or not for them, if voters see a Tory party which is not presenting a positive case for election, if voters see a party which is not addressing its concerns, if they do not see a party explaining honestly why the voters cannot have their cake and eat it, then the anger and resentment (whether at the terms of Brexit or at how the ordinary people are still ignored) may be enough to propel voters to vote against the Tories, no matter how competent they may be on the economy and no matter how useless Corbyn/Labour may be.

All the aspects of Corbyn which repel some may be irrelevant to voters if they hear someone talking about a country where the ordinary person is ignored or patronised by Westminster, ripped off by privatised railway companies putting up fares and providing no trains, or by banks still gouging customers, by those at the top claiming to be worth sums beyond the dreams of avarice, by property prices in the stratosphere, by long waits for operations etc.

Maybe the most important lesson of the referendum is this: if enough people are annoyed with the status quo, they will vote against it even if that means voting for something pretty rubbish. The “push” factor can overwhelm any consideration of the “pull” factor. Having done it once in the referendum, it would be wise to assume that voters might get a taste for it. Just because the official Opposition appears to be missing in action doesn’t mean that voters won’t make their own minds up. If Project Fear did not work in the referendum, why assume that it will work in an election campaign against Labour? Something for the Tories to ponder as they look at the polls.



What are Remain doing wrong, part. II.

Monday, June 6th, 2016

Guest slot by Mortimer

A few weeks ago I asserted here that focusing on the economy was a strategy that might not be working for Remain because a doubtful public no longer trust economic forecasts, and even amongst those who do, some – especially better off pensioners – might decide that a small economic correction was a price worth paying for greater sovereignty and reduced immigration.

The supplementary questions published alongside polls published last week showing Leave leading or at least matching Remain suggest there might be something in both of those arguments. So, for this week’s hostage to fortune, I’m going to suggest another reason why Remain are not walking this referendum: the fragmented political state of the UK, and especially the two major parties, has led to a level of beggar thy leaders and beggar the establishment sentiment not seen in the UK since the 1920s.

Much has been made of the fragmentation of the Labour GE vote since the giddy heights of electoral landslides in 1997 and 2001. Evidence from the Scottish elections suggest it has further to fall in Scotland, switching those more local and pro-independence parties (the SNP) and, on the other side, to the more fervently unionist Conservatives. From the Welsh assembly results I’m seeing a similar pattern; with Plaid replacing the SNP and UKIP replacing the Conservatives.

Add to this the increasing levels of detachment witnessed between the Islingtonite leadership and the historically Labour voting northern/midland working class who, I suggest, would be happier if the party was talking more like Gisella Stuart and Frank Field than Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn over Europe, and one might wonder what election-winning coalition the Labour party are looking to form in the short- and medium term.

Perhaps more pertinently for this referendum, it is little wonder that so few Labour voters know the party line is for Remain when the leader has spent most of his career positioning against the EU and now seems to be spending a good deal of his leadership shying away from the subject.

The Conservative party have never returned to the heights of electoral support lent to John Major in 1992. Yes, a shaky and often comprising coalition government in 2010-15 led to our first majority victory for 23 years last May, but mostly through remarkably accurate targeted campaigning in just a few dozen seats. The mainstream Conservative party membership recognise, I hope, that we are not a popular party and have not been since the early 90s.

The leadership, however, seems not to have realised – or perhaps does not want to realise – that the slim majority which has replaced a stronger governing party vote in the coalition actually leaves the Conservative party far more exposed to failure in the Commons and Lords, but also much more likely to lose popular support in the country.

Messrs Cameron and Osborne have also apparently failed to understand the impact of the last year on the Tory brand, and especially the Prime Minister’s personal reputation. Strategic mistakes, tactical missteps (the last budget, NHS strikes) and u-turns (academisation) have not helped. Ministerial displays of overwhelming strength are best demonstrated with overwhelming margins of parliamentary votes, not slender majorities and defeats. Would so many backbench MPs and party members be so vehemently against the current leadership if the Conservative party was stronger in the commons and the country? I’d say no. How would Conservative party leadership be looking presently if Mr Cameron had done a Harold Wilson in this campaign? I’d so almost certainly in a far stronger position.

With electoral weakness, divided parties and ‘interesting’ or ‘brave’ leadership decisions blighting both parties, is it any wonder that the public’s investment in both is ebbing away? When the people begin to feel underrepresented by even those they have recently voted for, it is little surprise that the people begin to question the judgement of our political leaders and look for ways to bring about change.

I previously tipped a 2016 election as a potentially good value proxy bet on Leave winning. In the short term, I’m now backing Remain to achieve less than 45% of the vote on June 23rd. Looking ahead, positioning my book to cope with this current political fragmentation – let alone the fallout of a Leave vote – is far, far more difficult.



Mortimer with a tip for the more adventurous gamblers

Monday, May 16th, 2016

2016 General Election Betting

A few days ago during the inevitable Political Betting dissection of the too-ings and fro-ings of another day in the EU referendum campaign the fact that this race really might be a close one began to sink in.

I am a moderate Leaver – the sort who accepts that there are weaknesses in some of the arguments put forward by the Leave campaign, but for various reasons sees that our future and Europe’s might be better apart. I can therefore also be realistic over problems that having several competing Leave camps has created – not least the apparent fall-out between Vote Leave and Nigel Farage this week over TV debates. And realistic too about the prospect of asking people to vote on what often amounts to a hunch, a gut instinct, a pride, a hope and a trust in the ingenuity of an independent British future.

Remain, meanwhile, are not arguing amongst themselves, they have the Prime Minister and HM Government on their side, with the vast supplies of resources and patronage that has brought in the run up to the campaign proper. The leaderships of many supranational bodies, respected captains of industry and well thought of celebrities are also for In. Even the President of the United States visited to suggest we should stay. They also have the benefit of trying to sell the status quo, which is generally seen in the UK as the easiest position to explain in a referendum. And yet the polling averages suggest that the two campaigns are almost tied. Stepping back from the daily bunfights, the name calling and the last media cycle, one has to wonder: why are Remain not walking this referendum?

The Remain campaign are leading with what they think is the strongest message, but one which might prove to be the wrong message for the referendum. Economics, the pounds in people’s pockets and in their pay packets, might trump almost everything else in general elections, when increasingly we’re choosing the people who will be deciding often difficult tax and spending plans. All the more so when the country is struggling to fund it’s commitments – winning 2015 was therefore about framing Conservative economic competence and ‘finishing the job’.

But, for two reasons it might not work this time; firstly, figures can be disputed, and Leave, for all their faults, have done a great job of casting doubt on the figures released in the past 3 weeks. Economics is no science, and the inclusion of longer-term forecasts is also dangerous when the public are a little bit too used to a Chancellor not meeting his deficit reduction targets. Economic forecasts two or three years ahead can rarely be relied upon for important decisions, and the public, probably quite rightly, seem to consider estimates for 2030 with a healthy degree of scepticism.

Secondly, leading so strongly with an economics-based argument almost looks like Remain are avoiding discussions of sovereignty and immigration. Again, to give credit where it is due, the Leave campaign have very successfully focused their campaign on these issues. And for many people, especially the C1, D and E demographic groups, the daily reality of immigration is more likely to be witnessed as a form of real or (sometimes media driven) perceived economic competition in the job market and real or perceived competition for access to public services.

Remain might struggle to win over voters if they are overplay economics not only because people don’t believe the economic arguments and figures, but also because some of us might consider from experience that the gains of improved sovereignty or a reduction in the immigration figures could be more personally significant.

Perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, the relative positioning and lead messages of the two campaigns also allows for an entirely divergent group of people to tend towards Leave: those willing to accept there might be an economic cost, and even buy into the figures and forecasts provided by the Treasury, Bank of England and IMF, but consider this to be a “price worth paying”. When Arron Banks suggests similar he is laughed at, but as easy as it might seem to dismiss this argument out of hand when it comes from a wealthy individual and prominent donor to UKIP, personal experience suggests that this concept might resonate with a group who will worry the Remain campaign far, far more: pensioners. Many of whom will remember a Britain before EU membership.

So if long-term economic forecasts are not trusted by a large proportion of the public, if some consider the economic implications of immigration and sovereignty more personally significant to their pocket, and if some groups, like pensioners, are even happy to accept that there might be a real economic cost but that it is worth leaving the EU anyway, how is the savvy punter to get the best odds?

The obvious position to take is an outright bet on Leave – which is still only a little over an implied 30% likelihood on Betfair. The 9/4 odds offered by Ladbrokes on Leave are matched by their odds for David Cameron ceasing to be Prime Minister in 2016; and as I hazard that a Leave vote would be followed by a resignation, this makes sense. The 16/1 odds from Ladbrokes on a UK general election in 2016, surely a possibility in the event of a Leave vote, might however be attractive to those of us willing to take a bit more of a risk.



Cyclefree’s analysis of the Remain campaign

Sunday, March 6th, 2016


Picture credit: Britain Stronger In Facebook page

While there has rightly been analysis of an often incoherent Leave campaign, perhaps some scrutiny is needed of some common Remain tropes – those focusing on why we should stay rather than why we should not Leave – and what they might mean for the referendum result and the UK’s longer term relationship with its European neighbours.

1. We will be in a reformed EU and can continue with further reform.

This is the Remain campaign’s equivalent of whistling to keep one’s spirits up, even when there’s no reason to. No-one believes you’re really happy but they admire your determination. The EU is not reformed in any sense the UK would understand and, to the extent that it has made some changes to accommodate the UK, it has no real desire to do any more, will do so only unwillingly and certainly sees no need to reform itself into something the UK might feel comfortable with. Any change in the EU will be towards further integration, a more centralized EU, a more political EU not the a la carte EU principally concerned with trade the UK might prefer.

2. We will have influence.

Setting aside the initial and unworthy thought that this is no more than politicians and FCO-wallahs wanting a stage to strut on, there are two types of influence being confused here: (a) how much actual power we can wield – through votes, reliable alliances or groupings; and (b) “soft power” influence which comes from being thought of as worth listening to, moral authority, someone whose views cannot be ignored. The UK has relatively little of the former, partly because of QMV and partly because it has failed over the years to build effective and long-lasting alliances (and may never have succeeded even if it had really tried). It also has relatively little of the latter. Much of its approach to both the political and legal issues arising within the EU is so at variance with how the majority of other countries approach matters that is hard to see how such influence could succeed or, indeed, where it has succeeded in the past. Ironically, the one basis on which it could claim “influence” – the level of its contributions – is not deployed. Remain are deluding themselves if they think the UK will have any meaningful influence while it remains determined to stay out of the EU’s primary purpose of political and economic union. This is in the EU’s DNA; it is not in the UK’s.

3. The “Javid” argument – or “I wouldn’t have joined but now we’re in we’d better stay”.

Why this should be so is never really explained. It is not so much an argument for staying but rather a justification for why it would be too much effort to leave. Likely to be effective since laziness is much more widespread than courage. But an essentially fearful and passive argument.

4. A new deal for Britain.

Not now heard much of since the announcement of the deal. While this may have been the best that could be obtained (arguable but let’s given Remain the benefit of the doubt on that) overselling a package which amounted to not very much has harmed the PM’s credibility with his party, may have done so with the public and has wasted such credit as the UK has within the EU for very little. Not so much Paris being worth a Mass as London being worth, well, what? The right to pay Bulgarian children a bit less benefit. Perfidious Albion indeed.

5. We would be turning our backs on Europe.

Possibly the most dishonest trope of all. Europe is not the EU. Conflating the two is to assume that a particular statist, centralist, bureaucratic and essentially French political model is what Europe is and should be about. France has given much to European civilization but stable, democratic, liberal and long-standing polities are not among French strengths. Many who love Europe and the idea of a free, liberal, democratic, peaceful Europe are aghast at how the EU has sought to appropriate that idea to itself, to leave no space for any other idea of Europe, any better idea of Europe. They are even more aghast at how doing so has woken some of the nastier dragons which are also part of European history. Turning our back on the EU is not the same as turning away from Europe, any more than not voting Tory is not the same as turning away from Britain.

There are many other tropes which other PB’ers will doubtless be quick to identify. Underlying all of the above is an assumption that a vote for Remain is a vote for the status quo, a mistaken assumption as far as the EU is concerned and even more so for the UK, given that it will become even more marginal as the EU integrates further.

Will this work? The likely answer is yes. Those who are infuriated by such arguments are likely to be Leavers in any case. Many others may discount these arguments and vote Remain out of concern about the alternatives.

What will this do for the longer-term relationship between Britain and the rest of the EU, if Remain wins? This merits a whole thread of its own. But, in essence the failure over the last 40 years of membership to set out clearly what the EU project is about and what this means for Britain has been at the heart of the disconnect between the establishment and voters about EU matters and the disconnect between Britain and the rest of the EU. Nothing in the way the Remain campaign is being run has addressed these issues and may indeed exacerbate them.


CycleFree is a long standing poster on PB