Column – We need a great escape from polls in festive season

We’ve finally made it to December. Normally we’d be thinking about Christmas: Christmas past – the nativity story; Christmas present – putting up the tree and decorations, preparing the turkey; and Christmas future – looking forward to exchanging gifts with our families.

This year, though, a Grinch threatens to steal our Christmas. I’ll leave it to your imagination which of the Party leaders I’m calling the Grinch, and who resembles a stodgy Christmas pudding. And if you think a General Election over the Christmas period is bad, get ready to become Scrooge for years to come. Under the appalling Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, every future election is now scheduled for December. Whoever gets into government needs to rip up that awful piece of legislation that’s left us in limbo for months on end. Hopefully the thought of making tinsel and elections a regular part of the run-up to the festive season will be enough to consign it to the dustbin where it belongs (and Bah, Humbug! to anyone who thinks otherwise).

We seem to be celebrating the ‘season of peace and goodwill to all’ with character assassinations and vicious internet memes. I wonder how many people realise it’s always been this way? I recently heard about a book entitled “How to Win an Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians”. It’s based on a very long letter written 64 years before the baby in the manger, the wise men or any of the other stories of Christmas, by Quintus (the brother of the famous Cicero) – to Cicero himself. Cicero was instructed not to trust even those closest to him, to flatter people in order to win votes, to learn the names of his supporters – and (surprise surprise) to expose all of his opponent’s scandals. Over 2,000 years ago politicians were already learning to pretend, obfuscate, and attack their opposition. The only difference is that they’ve had a couple of millennia to refine their techniques. And by anyone’s standards, the lies told in this campaign have been absolute crackers.

I’d much rather be getting into a Christmassy mood and watching some classic films like the Italian Job or The Great Escape or imagining crisp and even snow in the style of that good King Wenceslas. They’re all promising plenty of gifts from Santa for unwitting voters. Free broadband for all, and for all a good night! Terms and conditions apply. Free broadband may take 11 years to arrive. Phone companies may go out of business. Your phone bill may increase. Taxes may rise to pay for it. Dare to point all that out in public, and you’ll probably be accused of being elfish. 

I used to hear stories about children getting a lump of coal instead of presents for Christmas if they’d been naughty. The promised gifts won’t turn to coal (think of the carbon emissions!), but they’ll be full of hot air. We’re getting the typical empty promises from the major parties that we know – deep in our hearts – won’t be deliverable, they might as well promise a photo call with Santa himself, and charge us for the privilege.

What happens at the election? What happens after Christmas? I can’t say – I don’t have 2020 vision.

Merry Christmas!

The Leave case is stronger than back in 2016

MY friend showed me a photo and said: “Here’s a picture of me when I was younger”. I said: “Every picture of you is when you were younger”.

I can only apologise for beginning this article by shamelessly borrowing a joke from the late American comedian Mitch Hedberg.

The facts have changed since the referendum, cry Remainers. In three and a half years, things are different now.

That once-in-a-generation decision that all parties agreed we were being offered can no longer be valid (according to them) now that a fraction of a generation has passed.

If we take a decision at an election, it doesn’t get revisited until either five years have passed or until another election is called. We didn’t get to say in 1992 after Black Wednesday was caused by a catastrophic economic decision “John Major’s doing an appalling job, let’s get rid of him”. No, we had to wait another four and a half years.

Referendum results are re-examined after a generation.

When we had the wrong referendum on electoral reform in 2011 (to change to AV instead of a fair system), we didn’t get a rerun. No, we’ll have to wait at least a decade and maybe longer to look at that again. Scottish people voted to stay British in 2014. There’s something wrong with a Scottish government trying to repeat that vote within just six years.

For that reason, Brexiteers like myself have tried to avoid refighting the EU referendum campaign. We look to the future outside the EU. There’s no point arguing about the merits of whether or not we should leave, when we’ve already taken that decision.

The democratic decision has been made and must be respected.

Now we face yet another mini-referendum in the form of a general election. No matter that Brexiteers needed to ‘win’ every time in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2019 to get us to this point. Whether Brexiteers or Remainers succeed in December will determine our future. So, reluctantly, let’s go there. Let’s talk about the facts that have changed since 2016. Last week, while politicians

were busy calling a general election, the Pink Book dropped onto the Office for National Statistics website. The Pink Book is like a statement of the UK’s current account. It shows everything that the government has collected in taxes, and has spent on both good and pointless things. It tells us how money flows in and out.

For a statistician, it’s a dream. For a historian like myself, it’s a nightmare. This year, even political journalists – the people who are paid to keep an eye on things like this – barely noticed it. They were too busy covering the ‘will they, won’t they?’ Westminster soap opera about that election politicians kept demanding and then refusing to vote for.

One fact’s been completely missed. Remember the Boris bus, the much-derided £350m-per-week EU membership fee paid by the UK (terms and conditions apply)? It’s now £395m per week. The ‘terms and conditions’ are that we get some cashback in the form of a rebate, and the EU gives us some of our own money back in regional aid, farming subsidies and so on. All told, we get about half of our own money back – just like we did. So long as you point out the terms and conditions, it’s perfectly reasonable to point out that the EU membership fee is now a gross £395m per week. The gross figure is an overestimate; the net figure is an unfair underestimate because it assumes that every penny of EU funding has been spent properly and got value for money. It hasn’t.

Things haven’t stood still. We’re paying more and more to be members of the EU club. However bad EU legislation was in 2016, it’s worse in 2019.

We voted in 2016, before (for example) the pernicious Copyright Directive was passed, which will – once it fully takes effect – change the way the internet works. We voted in 2016, being promised that the EU army was a fiction. We now know better.

Time at last to deliver Brexit for the people

BACK in 1789, Benjamin Franklin famously said that there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes.

If we’ve learned anything in recent days, it’s that Benjamin Franklin was a wise man. The Supreme Court ruling, Parliament being recalled, Left and Right berating each other for their respective choices of language, and the perennial desire to delay Brexit again and again, leave us in unpredictable, muddy waters reminiscent of that ancient Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times.

Most Journal readers probably have one thing in common with the average business: they’re fed up with the uncertainty surrounding Brexit. No wonder 60% of people, in their frustration, told ComRes that “Parliament has had plenty of time to debate Brexit and we should just get on with leaving the EU”; just 25% disagreed.

Certainty must be the watchword for business postBrexit. It’s what businesses demand when it comes to the date we actually leave.

Last week I met with Oil and Gas UK to discuss the future of the industry. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that, far from the scare stories, they’ve done a phenomenal amount of work already to prepare for a ‘no deal’ scenario; likewise, the SMEs in their supply chain providing specialist equipment are not generally concerned about trade post-Brexit. For all the fearmongering over a clean-break Brexit, business – like the public – cries out for certainty over future trade.

Certainty doesn’t mean revoking Article 50 and overturning the referendum result. How could it? Sooner or later, such an act would usher in a Brexiteer government.

Nor can it mean simply rehashing Theresa May’s new European Treaty minus the backstop: after all, this merely pushes the ‘future relationship’ discussion into another phase of negotiations and prolongs the uncertainty. Certainty must mean setting a date we leave and actually sticking to it!

A clean-break Brexit would give businesses the clearest of certainties. It would permit us free trade with whomsoever we wish (memo to the government: ramp up negotiations with third countries) and a chance to sit down with the European Council to agree a future relationship: as friends, neighbours and trading partners – firmly outside the realms of European government. We no longer require the EU to negotiate trade deals on our behalf (with only one28th of a say in our own negotiating position, no wonder we get bad deals) and we can agree our own terms.

It won’t be ideal, or plain sailing, but at least we’ll be the captain of our own ship.

I argue that only a real clean break from our membership of the EU can enable us to negotiate clearly and unencumbered with both the EU and the dozens of other countries queueing up to negotiate with us.

That’s where May’s deal falls down. For the UK, most trade deals will be ‘we sell you our services, you sell us your goods’. But May’s deal would constrain our ability to negotiate deals for goods – and then we’d have little to offer other countries in return.

A recent report from the Swedish Central Bank looked into the ‘Project Fear’ arguments during the referendum in 2016, finding that at least 50% of the errors made by Remain-supporting economic projections were the result of institutionalised bias. In their own words:“The propaganda bias is estimated in proximity to the referendum, while forecasts released by different institutions converge within few months after the vote, ruling out the presence of alternative mechanisms related to behavioural biases.”

They hypothesised that without this bias, Leave would likely have won the referendum by a larger margin: “voters did not face any welfare loss compared to a world of unbiased forecasters, although the race was closer because of the bias”.

It is testament to their diligence and independence that they have released a report that most remain campaign groups would rather we didn’t know about.

We accepted the result of the Scottish independence referendum, the Welsh devolution referendums, the AV referendum, and the 1975 referendum on the Common Market.

Democracy demands acceptance of referendum results: the fact that we’re still discussing this, more than three years after the referendum, encapsulates the problem.

Franklin said there are only two certainties in life.

Column – After three years of debate, we are ready for Brexit

Parliament returns to Westminster to whisper and rumour; plot but not gunpowder, accusations of treason thrown from one side to the other. Westminster isn’t worried because it can’t agree on Brexit. It’s worried because it doesn’t understand – can’t understand – what’s going on in the minds of people across the country. The Brexit vote didn’t cause division in our nation. It exposed the divisions that already existed; divisions between people and politicians.