Monday, 16 November 2009


Several years ago I was covering a tennis tournament in Germany for BBC Radio when I was asked to escort a German MEP to the commentary box. He was taking part in a discussion on Radio 4, and as he was having a day at the tennis, they wanted him to be on the quality broadcast line rather than a crackly phone line.

Chatting to this corpulent gentleman as I escorted him breathlessly up three flights of stairs, I was struck by how little we had in common. He represented the conservative CDU party, and while I’m a great believer that there’s much that unites people of different parties, his view of the world seemed very different to mine.

So I was somewhat taken aback when I saw his face on page 2 of The Independent last week, writing a comment column about David Cameron’s pledge to renegotiate the Lisbon Treaty. What struck me as he laid into Cameron’s pledge was that I totally agreed with him.

To quote from the piece, the MEP (Elmar Brök) said, “The Conservative leader’s new warning that he will seek to ‘repatriate’ powers from Brussels to London is no more realistic than the referendum he has just given up on ... I do not see any chance of passing even the very first step of such a process.”

And he added, “The EU will, as a result [of the Lisbon treaty], be more democratic, more capable of acting and more transparent, because the treaty will strengthen the principle of subsidiarity as well as the role of national parliaments. This is the biggest paradox of Mr Cameron’s stance: the Lisbon treaty will actually massively strengthen the role of Westminster.”

Quite apart from showing how isolated David Cameron is across Europe, even from conservative opinion, this shows how the Conservatives in this country are using Europe to play a game, not to offer a vision of good governance. There are many things we don’t like, but those we cannot change we have to accept and work within the defined limits, not duck out of as if throwing our toys out of the pram is somehow OK.

The fact is that the Conservative leadership is as pro-Europe as we Liberal Democrats are, but it doesn’t dare say this in public for fear of alienating dyed-in-the-wood Tories who hanker after a bygone age of an isolated but powerful England. If the Conservatives want to represent business interests, they have to be largely pro-Europe, but if they come clean about this, they risk hacking off the traditionalists.

To be brutally honest, there is very little difference between the three mainstream parties on Europe. All three are in favour of the EU, but keeping a watchful eye over the development of the UK’s right of influence. They just sell this same policy to different ‘voter markets’. While we are enthusiastic but with reservations, the Tories are sceptical but with reluctant involvement, and express their scepticism by teaming up with neo-Nazis in the European Parliament.

If people really don’t want Britain to be in the EU, they should be voting Ukip. Ukip’s arguments are fatuously simplistic and have little basis in fact, but at least the party is clear that it would take Britain out of the EU. Therefore, any voter for whom Europe is a big issue should go either for the Lib Dems or Ukip – not the Conservatives, for whom Europe is one big and dangerous fudge.

Monday, 2 November 2009


This is a truly terrible time for sensible decisions to be made – and you only have to watch the current series of Strictly Come Dancing to see why.

Twice in the last couple of weeks we have had the government ignoring advice from experts and doing the opposite of what they recommend. First, the education secretary Ed Balls dismissed the Cambridge Academic Review’s recommendation that formal learning in primary schools shouldn’t begin until children are at least six, and then the health secretary Alan Johnson’s sacked Professor David Nutt after rejecting his advice on criminalisation of cannabis and ecstasy.

The common factor in both decisions is that the government wanted to look tough, and was willing to ignore advice on what would work best. With a general election no more than seven months away, it figured there were more votes to be won in making it look like it was getting kids doing ‘proper work’ earlier rather than playing, and in making it look like it was tackling drug abuse.

The reason for this is that many voters – especially many floating voters in the constituencies that will decide the next election – judge the issues emotionally rather than on the basis of information. And if you doubt this, look no further than the current series of Strictly Come Dancing.

For the benefit of those with lives on Saturday nights, the ‘Strictly’ format is simple. A group of ‘celebrities’ (the quote marks are obligatory this series) are paired up with a professional dancer and have to prepare short dances which are judged by a panel of specialist adjudicators.

Then the public is allowed to vote by phone. That’s when all reason goes out of the window, because the public clearly votes on the basis of emotion which has nothing to do with the issue at hand: the ability – or lack of it – to dance.

How else can one explain the survival of Craig Kelly, the Coronation Street actor who is utterly wooden in his body movements and thinks he’s smiling when he clearly isn’t? He has been pilloried by the judges, but he has survived at the expense of other contestants who have done much better on the dance floor. Why? Because Craig has an immense following among Coronation Street viewers.

That’s why Ed Balls dismissed the Cambridge paper on primary school learning before he or his staff had even read it, and why Alan Johnson fired Professor Nutt. The emotions of the voters were more important than what might be best for society. No wonder politics has a bad name!

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not opposing the principle that when you ask for advice you have the right to reject it. In all walks of life, we need to take responsibility for our own decisions, even if that means saying to a friend ‘Thanks for your advice, but I’ve weighed it up and on this occasion am doing the opposite.’

But if you’re a government minister who has spent thousands of pounds of public money on specialist advice, and you then reject it because it doesn’t fit with what your focus groups say voters will go for, then you must expect the kind of backlash Johnson is facing this week. It’s another version of bringing politics into disrepute, and I hope voters will see it as that, come the general election.