What if David Cameron had formed a minority Conservative Government in 2010?

by Stephen Tall on July 17, 2014

con home cartoonHere’s my latest The Other Side column for ConservativeHome, published here on Tuesday. “What would have happened if the Coalition hadn’t happened?” was my counter-factual starting question. My conclusions prompted one commenter to observe, “Oh, Mr Tall, so obvious your wind-up. I’m sure you think it clever to try and wind up the right on here”. I don’t know about clever, but it is fun (and, for the record, exactly what I think). My thanks as ever to the site’s editors, Paul Goodman and Mark Wallace, for giving a Lib Dem space to provoke – constructively, I hope.

Why did David Cameron do it? It’s a question that still puzzles Lib Dems. I’m talking about The Day After The Election The Night Before, 7th May 2010, when the Conservative leader made his “big open and comprehensive offer” to my party to join with his in forming a Coalition Government. Nick Clegg seized the opportunity with both hands and the rest is history.

What do we find so puzzling? Surely, Team Cameron would say, it’s all pretty obvious… The Conservatives had fallen just short of an overall majority. After 13 years of Labour mis-rule it was vital Gordon Brown & Co were ejected from government. The economy needed rescuing, our ‘broken society’ needed mending. This was no time for dallying: Britain needed a Conservative-led government and the Coalition was the means to this end.

All of which is reasonable enough. But it doesn’t answer the counter-factual: what would have happened if David Cameron hadn’t made his “big open and comprehensive offer”?

There were two other alternative histories waiting to be written. In one (the nightmare version with which Team Cameron scared Conservative backbenchers into submission in those five days in May) Labour and the Lib Dems cut a deal and thwarted the Conservatives’ quest for power. In the other (the nightmare version which still sends shivers down the spines of Lib Dems) the Conservatives struck out on their own and formed a minority government. What might have happened in either scenario?

Let’s imagine, then swiftly despatch, the notion Labour and the Lib Dems could have got it on together. Despite the attempted revisionism of Lord (Andrew) Adonis in his account, there was zero chance of this occurring. Between them, Labour and the Lib Dems could muster 315 seats, 11 short of a majority. Add to that the vocal opposition of Labour bigwigs like David Blunkett and John Reid and it’s a wonder the Lib Dems managed to maintain (for the sake of negotiating leverage) even a semblance of pretence a Lib/Lab pact was possible. Had by some miracle the deal been done, it would have unravelled as Alistair Darling’s prophesied “cuts worse than Thatcher’s” moved from tough-sounding rhetoric to rough reality. A coalition cobbled together on so flimsy a basis would quickly have collapsed.

A minority Conservative government, though: that would have been a different proposition. Here’s how David Cameron could have played it… He would still have made what he would have termed a “big open and comprehensive offer” to the Lib Dems. But it would have been such a limited offer – two cabinet posts, including the poisoned chalice of home secretary for Nick Clegg, and no movement on electoral reform – he would have known neither Clegg nor his party could possibly accept it. He would then have pinned the blame on the Lib Dems for the collapse of the talks: “The Lib Dems have, I’m sorry to say, shown they place party interest ahead of the national interest. We gave them a chance but it appears they are simply not ready to be a serious party of government. Their actions have confirmed what many of us have long suspected: a vote for the Lib Dems is a wasted vote. However, those voters who did place their trust in the Lib Dems can rest assured that I will lead a government of compassionate – and, yes, liberal – Conservatism.” His charge-sheet against Lib Dem triviality would have been cheerfully amplified by the media.

The Conservatives would have enjoyed a honeymoon, as most new governments do: the Coalition’s net approval rating stood at +13% when freshly minted (it’s currently -21%). The financial markets would have rallied behind Cameron and Osborne, offering a sheen of economic credibility. The Chancellor’s emergency budget would have laid responsibility for the “regrettable but necessary” austerity cuts squarely at the door of the previous Labour Government (notwithstanding the fact that Osborne had, just a couple of years earlier, pledged to follow its spending plans). Meanwhile, Labour – deprived of the unifying rallying-point of hating the Lib Dems – would have faced a much bloodier leadership election.

If Cameron were to be lucky in his enemies, the Lib Dems and Labour would have joined forces to vote down Osborne’s budget, thereby giving the Prime Minister exactly the pretext he needed to call a second election. “Only one party is prepared to face up to the task facing this nation,” Cameron would solemnly have intoned. “Labour and the Lib Dems believe they can wish away the economic crisis. A Conservative majority is now the only way we can provide the strong government so urgently needed.”

If, however, the Lib Dems had abstained on the budget then they would have proven Cameron’s charge they had nothing positive to offer. And if the Lib Dems had voted in favour of the Conservative budget they would have left the public scratching its head as to why the party had not joined the Conservatives in coalition and exerted far more influence on the government from within. A victory in the budget vote would, in any case, have deferred a second election only temporarily: Cameron would soon enough have found an alternative pretext (on welfare reform or immigration or Europe) for going to the polls in the autumn.

And at that election I have little doubt the Conservatives would have increased their tally of MPs enough to win an overall majority: they would have needed to win only 10 more seats from the ranks of the cash-strapped and demoralised Labour and Lib Dems. Who would have bet against them doing so? In which case, the Conservatives would probably have now been gearing up for an autumn 2014 election on the back of a recovering economy, proudly – and solely – able to claim the credit for it. A second term of Conservative majority rule would beckon.

So why didn’t David Cameron do it? There are two explanations, I think. First, we shouldn’t under-estimate quite how much in May 2010 Cameron wanted to be Prime Minister – he saw his chance, and didn’t want to risk Labour and the Lib Dems ganging up to rob him of the job he wanted “because I think I’ll be good at it”.

And secondly, there was Cameron’s wish to avoid a repeat of John Major’s torrid time as a small-majority Prime Minister held to ransom by his truculent right-wing backbenchers. At least in the 1990s the John Redwoods, Bill Cashes and Teresa Gormans were a minority: these days the Philip Hollobones, Douglas Carswells and Peter Bones are well and truly in the ascendant, having captured the Conservative Party. How much more attractive to Cameron must have been the thought of the 80-plus majority the Coalition can muster? It also gave him the opportunity to ditch some of the more eccentric Conservative policies (inheritance tax cuts for millionaires are less popular now than they were in 2007) and blame the pesky Lib Dems for it all.

Here, then, is the irony for David Cameron as he approaches the May 2015 election. On even his most optimistic days, he can imagine only the Conservatives narrowly edging an overall majority next time. For sure, he wants an election victory to burnish his leadership CV. But his best hope now is what four-and-a-bit years ago was the nightmare he tried so desperately to dodge – a second term as Prime Minister pretending to lead a party which has long since set its own independent and ever more rightward direction.

Michael Gove: The Case for the Defence. And also the Case for the Prosecution.

by Stephen Tall on July 16, 2014

Michael GoveUnlike most Lib Dems, I am not a Gove-hater. But nor do I share the adulation those one on the Right bestow upon him. The man we must now call the former Education secretary was more complex than his critics allowed and more flawed than his fans admitted.

No-one should doubt Michael Gove’s passion for schools reform, nor his sincerity. For him it is much more than political: it is also personal. Two men have shaped much of the education agenda in the last 15 years: Gove and Labour’s Andrew Adonis, the father of the academies programme. Both were adopted at birth; both feel education gave them everything they have; both are driven, restless individuals.

Here is my case in defence of Michael Gove, one I think Lib Dems should think twice about before jerking their knee to kick it into touch.

First, he was a passionate advocate for social mobility, believing there was nothing about a child’s background that meant it was impossible for them to achieve in life what they wanted – if they were given the right opportunities. To that end, he urged a relentless focus on standards and a more academic curriculum so that not only the brightest (who are disproportionately form wealthier backgrounds) would get the grades they need for whatever they want to achieve in later life, whether in work or further study. He was, in my view, right to do so (even if, like most Tories, he under-estimates the need to achieve broader social equality for those opportunities to become the norm). But equally he was wrong to urge the resuscitation of O-levels – dividing children aged 14 into the academic and non-academic – a reform which flew in the face of the educational equality he so often espoused. It’s just that kind of schizophrenic approach to policy-making which was leaped on by critics as proof of his baleful influence on schools.

Secondly, his was the government department which, above all others, has stressed the importance of evidence in formulating policy. It was Gove, after all, who (at the urging of his special adviser Dominic Cummings) brought in Bad Science writer and academic Ben Goldacre to head up a major report on how the Department for Education could help make teaching a truly evidence-based profession. Critics will say this evidence didn’t always inform the policies Gove pursued – true enough in some cases – but the legacy of the Goldacre report will live on and has already inspired grassroots teaching movements such as ResearchED to organise themselves as professionals, rather than rely on the Department for Education. That’s the kind of development liberals should welcome, and in doing so recognise Gove’s contribution to the environment in which it has happened.

Thirdly, Gove has, almost single-handedly, cured the Conservatives of their obsession with grammar schools (and to a lesser extent private schools), those enemies of educational equality. Let’s remember why he was appointed to the role of shadow education secretary in the first place in 2007 – David Cameron was forced to shuffle David Willetts out because Willetts (himself the product of a grammar school) had made a speech strongly defending the Conservative policy of not re-introducing grammar schools. The Tory grassroots exploded, roared on by the Telegraph and Mail. Yet when was the last time you heard a senior Conservative assert that more and new grammar schools are in any way an answer to social mobility? Whatever you think about his free schools – which have their Lib Dem champions such as David Boyle – Gove has rescued their Tories from their hopeless 1950s’ nostalgia. As the Labour-supporting teacher-blogger Andrew Old puts it:

The one place where Gove may have made permanent change is in the Conservative Party. There used to be little interest in state education there, beyond ideas about increasing selection, rooting out leftist influence and reducing the power of local authorities. Gove has made it possible for a Conservative politician to espouse the comprehensive principle and argue over the education of the worst off.

There rests the case for the defence.

There is also, of course, a strong case to be made for the prosecution. I’ll make it briefly here; others will, I have no doubt, add to it in the comments below-the-line.

The academisation of schools has torn asunder local education authorities – some of which were very good, some not, and many inbetween – with nothing to put in their place. No local accountability, nothing standing between thousands of schools and the Men in the Ministry. Mass centralisation combined with 24,000 atomised schools are not strong foundations on which to build a successful system.

Add to that the skewed funding arrangements for free schools at a time when the education budget is under strain; the odd belief that teachers shouldn’t be professionally qualified; his mis-judged over-reaction (and worrying politicisation of Ofsted) over the so-called Trojan Horse affair; his tendency to lump together and rub up the wrong way even his constructive critics; and the charge-sheet starts to add up.

Michael Gove’s record is a mixed one: some genuine achievements mixed with some major errors. His fans see only the former, his critics only the latter. There should be space to acknowledge both.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

Reshuffle: One Nation Toryism has gone to meet its maker

by Stephen Tall on July 15, 2014

David Cameron - Some rights reserved by The Prime Minister's OfficeDavid Cameron’s extensive reshuffle of the Tory ministerial ranks will continue today. Last night we learned of the casualties; today will be dedicated to the winners. But there’s no doubt at all about the biggest casualty: moderate, One Nation Toryism.

Ken Clarke, famously dubbed the sixth Lib Dem cabinet member, has gone. Too sensible to be left in charge of the Justice ministry he was exiled to the Cabinet’s fringes in 2012; now he has been retired completely. William Hague – transformed from a right-wing Tory leader who scaremongered about Britain becoming a ‘foreign land’ into a pragmatic Foreign Secretary willing to champion causes such as war rape ahead of EU renegotiation – has taken voluntary redundancy.

Clarke and Hague are the household names. At least as missed will be those few have heard of, such as Dominic Grieve, the Attorney General. He’s no-one’s idea of a pinko-liberal, but he did appreciate and understand the importance of international law and human rights. Science and Universities minister David Willetts – the original Tory moderniser and one of the most intellectually curious politicians around – has been despatched. So, too, have moderate Tories such as Greg Barker (a Tory who believes in climate change) and Damian Green (a Tory whose pro-immigration sympathies has already seen Cameron sideline him).

True, Cameron has also shunted Environment Secretary Owen Paterson – once tipped as a likely future leader by Tory right-wingers – out of the cabinet; though the IQ gain from his departure will be offset by the call-back for fellow right-winger Liam Fox, forced to resign in 2011 for allowing an advisor to abuse his access to the then defence secretary. (I think, though, Tim Montgomerie is right to suggest Cameron may come to regret Paterson’s despatch: a potent right-wing rival, lacking until now, has the freedom of the backbenches to make his pitch.)

And yes, there will be newer, fresher Tory moderates who today are favoured by Cameron – perhaps Anna Soubry or Gavin Barwell or Robert Buckland or Jane Ellison. It won’t all be one-way traffic in the right’s favour.

But the direction of travel is clear. And despite the claims of some like Lord Ashcroft that this reshuffle is about the optics not the politics, I’m afraid I just don’t buy it. Hague’s replacement as Foreign Secretary looks set to be Philip Hammond, who last year said he would vote for the UK to leave the European Union if a vote were held now. And Grieve’s exit is a clear signal – you might call it a dog-whistle – that the Tories will make withdrawal from the European Court of Human Rights a manifesto pledge. This is a rightward tilt for the Tories, a statement of intent from Cameron that liberal Conservatism is dead.

Nick Clegg has wisely eschewed the chance of combining his reshuffle of the Lib Dem ranks with that of Cameron’s: any changes made, such as the promotion of Jo Swinson, would have disappeared without trace given the scale of the Tory overhaul.

In one sense the reshuffle is helpful for the Lib Dems – Cameron’s done more to differentiate us from the Tories than we could have hoped.

In another sense, it’s less hopeful. My view remains that the Tories will emerge from the next election the single largest party. If that happens, it’s hard to see any possible Lib Dem accommodation with Cameron’s party in which case the Lib Dems will have to do what we can to thwart the Tories from the opposition benches. While that my keep our liberal hands cleaner, it’s likely to mean more authoritarian government policy enacted.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

UPDATED: Sarah Yong stands down as Lib Dem candidate for marginal seat of Somerton and Frome

by Stephen Tall on July 14, 2014

20140201-202125.jpg Sarah YongIt’s six months since Sarah Yong was selected as the Lib Dem candidate for Somerton and Frome, held by David Heath since 1997. Today she’s announced her decision to stand down. Here’s the letter she’s sent to her local paper, announcing the news:

Dear Editor,

I just wanted to let you know that it is with great regret that I’ve decided to stand down from my role as Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Somerton and Frome. I have made this decision for personal reasons and as a result of changes in personal circumstances.

It’s a decision I’ve not taken lightly, and it’s one I take with a heavy heart. I would have loved to have followed in David Heath’s footsteps as the MP for Somerton and Frome.

Feel free to quote any of this email in a news story you may wish to write.

With very best wishes,

Sarah

In an email to LibDemVoice, Sarah added:

I’m sure you’ll all know how difficult a decision this has been for me. But sometimes things don’t always work out in the way you planned.

I would like to thank everyone for their support over the past 6 months, and in particular David Heath with whom it has been a privilege to work and who is an outstanding public servant and MP for the people of Somerton and Frome.

It is difficult single out individuals for the kindness and support that they have shown me, but I would also like to thank Paddy Ashdown for his personal encouragement and the faith he has shown in me.

I wish the new PPC for Somerton and Frome well.

That goes for us as well – and in return may we wish Sarah the very best for whatever comes next. Being a candidate, especially for the Lib Dems, is a tough task — as my 2008 series, ‘The PPC Files’, made all too clear.

Somerton and Frome has remained a Lib Dem seat these past 17 years in large measure thanks to David Heath’s unstinting dedication. Holding it will be a tough battle. Holding it with a candidate with just months to bed into the constituency before the next election tougher still. Good luck to the local party and whoever they select.

UPDATE Tuesday 8:40 am

Paddy Ashdown has commented on Sarah’s decision:

Sarah is a considerable political talent, and I’m sure we’ll see her in Westminster in the future. She is a close personal friend and I’m sad she hasn’t been able to stand on this occasion. I have no doubt, this isn’t the last we’ve heard of her.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

Laws: “99% of schools now have a plan in place to deliver universal free school meals in September”

by Stephen Tall on July 14, 2014

school mealsI’ll be honest. If I had the choice over where to direct £500 million a year of taxpayers’ money, universal free school meals for infants would not be top of my priority list.

That said, the sheer desperation of right-wing newspapers like the Daily Mail for the policy to fail just to spite Nick Clegg strikes me as far more mean-spirited. It’s a policy which is highly popular with headteachers, and will be with parents too. Perhaps more surprisingly, it’s possibly the only Lib Dem policy ever to attract the support of Paul Staines (aka blogger Guido Fawkes):

I have been worried about the messaging coming from the Lib Dems, though. Under-promise and over-deliver is usually the best plan in politics. I remember Ken Livingstone being interviewed on the morning the congestion charge system kicked in admitting to an interviewer, “I’m just waiting for something to go wrong.” That struck the right note, especially when it all went off without a hitch.

So I was mostly reassured this week by a speech from Lib Dem schools minister David Laws that “based on evidence from local authorities, schools and the support service, over 99% of schools now have a plan in place to deliver universal free school meals in September”.

This won’t always be a hot school meal cooked on the premises, it’s true (the original Clegg aim). To begin with at least, many schools will rely either on delivered hot meals or cold packed lunches. However, the meal will still be a nutritious one — currently, fewer than 1% of packed lunches meet the school food standards.

But there will of course be complaints: in the schools which haven’t managed to meet the Government’s timetable and doubtless from parents unhappy about some aspect of their child’s lunch. Lib Dems should be fully prepared for the media to focus on those exceptions: negativity is what most news reporters are paid to engage in.

David Laws speaking at Lib Dem Spring conference, Liverpool 2008And here, for those wanting to be reminded of the reasons why the Lib Dems have pushed this policy, is an excerpt from David Laws’ speech this week

Take up of free and paid for meals increased dramatically during the Second World War – from just 3% at its outset, to over 30% at its conclusion.

Come 1946, the day of our now much loved ‘dinner lady’ dawned: popularity of school meals had grown so much that paid assistants were introduced to supervise children as they ate their lunch.

And in June 1949, the number of school dinners reached nearly 3 million, over half of the total school population.

Take up reached a high water mark in 1974, when 70% of pupils ate school meals.

But one thing is clear: since that peak in the 1970s, the number of children receiving school meals has been in steady decline.

In the 1980s, the then government cut back on free school meal entitlement, and removed some of the standards designed to ensure healthy meals.

Take up of meals, and the quality of much food, went into steep decline – with a fall in the proportion of children taking school meals from roughly 7 in 10 to just 4 in 10.

That has been bad for attainment in schools. It has been bad for children’s health and concentration. It has undermined the socialisation which comes from children sitting down together each day and eating together.

And the removal of free meals has been an extra pressure on family budgets which has particularly hit low income families who take the initiative to get into work, but who then find that they lose their entitlement to free meals which can be worth almost £1,500 per year for a family with 3 children.

Free school meals are sometimes regarded as an aspiration and idea from the political left.

But I regard this as a common sense policy for the mainstream majority.

I happen to have the old-fashioned view that given that these children are the responsibility of the school and the state for around 7 hours a day, the least we can do is ensure that they eat healthily.

Many of our minds are now on this September, when infants will have a new entitlement to a healthy meal at school.

This policy is the latest milestone in the long history of school meals.

And it is one of the most important.

It is the biggest expansion of free school meals in over 65 years.

1.5 million additional pupils will become entitled to a free meal.

Now every step forward in the last 100 years has had its critics.

But remember that the work you do has a proud and long-standing heritage. You are part of a progressive movement that has always had one overriding priority: to improve school food. …

The plan also recommended that the government should offer free school meals for all children in primary schools.

This was a big and radical idea; but it wasn’t a new one.

Durham and Newham and other parts of the country had already piloted universal free school meals.

The results were clear.

Good, healthy school food, combined with universal provision, had a positive effect on all pupils, but particularly on those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

Universal provision increased take-up among the disadvantaged who are eligible for meals, but don’t always take them up.

They removed the stigma of ‘being a free meals kid’.

They meant that the 1 in 4 children from working families, but who nevertheless live in poverty, got a meal for the first time.

When I visited a school recently in south London, I was moved when the headteacher told me about 1 parent who currently just misses out on free school meals, because she is in a low income job, being in tears after being told of the new entitlement, because of the positive impact it would have on her family’s budget.

Some people in the media seem to think our country is made up of very poor people on benefits who are the only ones needing financial help, and then the so called ‘middle classes’, who they view as all earning £100,000 or more each year.

But most people aren’t very poor or very rich. They are getting by. On £15,000, or £20,000, or £25,000. As a teacher in that London school said to me last week, ‘If you are a parent in London on £18,000 with 3 children, you don’t feel rich.’

This policy will make a huge difference to family budgets in these hard times. And do not worry about whether we are wasting money on families who can afford the meals – we are not paying for free meals in Eton, Westminster or Rugby private schools.

The pilots also showed that when universal free school meals were implemented, children were less likely to eat crisps and unhealthy packed lunches during the school day, and more likely to eat healthy food instead.

And, most importantly, there was a positive impact on children’s levels of literacy and numeracy.

Crucially, the pilots showed that to achieve the benefits of the policy it has to be a universal offer – to all children.

The pilots in which entitlement was only extended modestly to low income working families did not see the attainment and other benefits which we want to secure.

So this is a universal entitlement which we’re introducing not just because it’s popular with parents, though it most certainly is, but because the evidence shows that this is the right thing to do – the only way to secure the improved outcomes we want to see.

There are some who are against this policy as a point of principle. They don’t think it is the job of government to make sure all children get a healthy lunch.

Like those who blocked the first moves to provide healthy meals to school children 100 years ago, they argue it is too expensive; too radical; too difficult.

Government does not share that position.

We cannot allow some siren voices to undermine a policy that will save ordinary parents money and improve children’s education and health.

Left to their own devices, those who want to undermine this policy would take us back in time, unwinding over 100 years of progress on school food.

Government will not allow that to happen.

And that is why it is so important that we work together to make this policy a stunning success in September.

If we get this right, no one will be able to take it away – because it will be so popular with parents that no politician would dare.

That is the prize we are all working for.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

My recommended reading for today July 13, 2014

by Stephen Tall on July 13, 2014

Here’s some of the articles that have caught my attention in the past couple of days…

A longer read for the weekend… Edward Lucas on the threat posed to peace by Russia and what the West should do about it

by Stephen Tall on July 13, 2014

edward lucasEdward Lucas worked for Paddy Ashdown, has helped at by-elections, and was active in the National League of Young Liberals (NLYL) and the Union of Liberal Students (ULS). He’s better known, though, for being a senior editor at The Economist and an expert on energy, cyber-security, espionage, Russian foreign and security policy and the politics and economics of Eastern Europe. In 2008 he wrote The New Cold War, a prescient account of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In 2011 he wrote Deception, an investigative account of east-west espionage. And earlier this year, he published The Snowden Operation, in which he argues that any benefits to the public debate about issues such as meta-data and encryption achieved by Edward Snowden’s leaks are far outweighed by the damage done to the West’s security, diplomacy and economic interests.

This week, he delivered a speech to the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee (pictured), from which he’s kindly allowed us to publish excerpts below. However, I think it’s well worth reading the whole speech, which is available here.

Many people in Washington, Brussels, London and Berlin believe that Vladimir Putin’s Russia can be accommodated diplomatically. Money doesn’t smell. Energy is just a business. There is no need to take radical measures in response to the latest crisis in Ukraine. The danger is of a provocative over-reaction, not of appeasement.

I disagree profoundly. My views are based on my experiences over many years in in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Russia and other countries in the region. People there have been warning us for years of the dangerous direction of events. We have not listened to them. Instead, we have systematically patronised, belittled and ignored those who know the problem better than we do. Now they have been proved right. I hope that my voice may be heard, where theirs, still, is not.

My first point is that Russia is a revisionist power. The Kremlin not only regards the existing European security order as unfair but actively seeks to change it. It wants to weaken the Atlantic alliance, to divide NATO and to undermine the European Union’s role as a rule-setter, especially in energy policy. On issues such as the South Stream pipeline, access to gas storage, reverse flow and other issues the unsung bureaucrats of the EU Commission represent an existential threat to the Kremlin’s business model.

Russia begrudges the former captive nations of the Soviet empire their freedom, their prosperity, and particularly their independence. It maintains an old-fashioned idea of “legitimate interests” and “spheres of influence” in which the future geopolitical orientation of countries such as Ukraine and Georgia is not a matter of sovereign choice for the peoples of those nations, but a question in which Russia has, by right, a veto.

My second point is that Russia, a leading petrostate, now has the means to pursue its revisionist approach:

    • it ruthlessly uses its energy weapon against European countries, particularly in pipeline-delivered gas, where it has a substantial monopoly in the eastern half of the continent.
    • it uses money. It bolsters a self-interested commercial and financial lobby which profits from doing business with Russia and fears any cooling in political relations. Austrian banks, German industrial exporters, French defence contractors, and a slew of companies, banks and law firms in my own country, the United Kingdom, exemplify this. These energy and financial ties constrain the Western response to Russian revisionism.
    • it practises information warfare (propaganda) with a level of sophistication and intensity not seen even during the Cold War. This confuses and corrodes Western decision-making abilities.
    • it is prepared to threaten and use force.

My third point is that Russia is winning. Too much attention is paid to the ebb and flow of events in Ukraine. The big picture is bleak: Russia has successfully challenged the European security order. It has seized another country’s territory, fomented insurrection, and engaged in repeated acts of military saber-rattling, subversion and economic coercion. The response from the West has been weak and disunited. The United States is distracted by multiple urgent problems elsewhere. You rightly wonder why you should be bearing the cost of increasing European security. For their part many European countries have no appetite for confrontation with Russia.

My fourth point is that greater dangers lie ahead. Russia has mounted a bold defence of its market-abusing South Stream pipeline, signing up Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Greece in support of a direct challenge to the EU’s rules on pipeline construction and third party access. The Ukrainian adventure has given a big boost to the Putin regime in Russia, which had previously shown some signs of declining popularity, amid economic failure and growing discontent about corruption and poor public services. The big danger is that as the effect of seizing Crimea wears off (and as the costs of doing so bear more heavily on Russia’s sagging finances), the regime is tempted to try something else.

Our weakness over Ukraine makes that more likely. We have set the stage for another, probably more serious challenge to European security, most likely in the Baltic states. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are loyal American allies and NATO members. If any one of them is successfully attacked or humiliated, NATO will lose its credibility overnight, permanently and irreversibly. These are our frontline states: the safety and security that we have taken for granted since the end of the Cold War now hangs on their fate.

But geography is against them: the Baltic states form a thin, flat strip of land, lightly populated and with no natural frontier and little strategic depth. Russia knows that. NATO has only a token presence in the region. We have no hardened infrastructure, no pre-positioned military forces, weapons or munitions. Russia knows that too. Their economies are liable to Russian pressure (especially in natural gas, where they are 100% dependent on Russian supplies). Estonia and Latvia are also vulnerable to Russian interference because of their ethnic make-up (between a quarter and a third of their populations self-identify as “Russian” in some sense).

What can we do?

The first task is to see clearly what has happened. European security will not be fixed with a few deft diplomatic touches. To cope with a revisionist Russia it needs a fundamental overhaul. American and European policymakers need to explain to the public that the war in Ukraine was a game-changer.

We need to rebut the phoney Realpolitik arguments, which advise us to make the best of a bad job. We should accept the loss of Crimea, so the argument goes, do a deal with Russia over the future of Ukraine, and get used to the new realities, of a Russian droit de regard in neighbouring countries.

Such an approach would be morally wrong and strategically stupid.

Securing a Europe whole and free after 1991 has been a magnificent achievement in which the United States has played a huge part. True: we made mistakes. We declared “job done” in 2004, when 10 ex-communist countries joined NATO. That was far too early. We overlooked Russian resentment at the way Europe was evolving, and our vulnerability to Russian pushback. We neglected Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and the countries of the Caucasus. But having made these mistakes is no reason to compound them now, by retreating into a grubby defeatism. To go back
to business as usual would send a message that the kleptocratic regime in the Kremlin would understand all too well: crime pays. .. Instead, we should make it clear that we will boost our allies and weaken our opponents. We do not want to be enemies with Russia. But if the Putin regime treats us as an enemy, we help nobody by pretending otherwise.

The most immediate priority is military. A security crisis in the Baltic region is the single most
dangerous threat facing the Atlantic alliance. Reckless behaviour by Russia could face us with a choice between a full-scale military confrontation (including the potential use of nuclear weapons) or surrender, with the collapse of our most fundamental security arrangements. We must make every effort to ensure that this does not happen.

That means American and other allies prepositioning military equipment and supplies in the Baltic states. It means NATO creating a standing defence plan—one which assumes that there is a real and present danger of attack. We need to put a major NATO base in Poland, to reassure that country that it can safely deploy its forces to the Baltics as reinforcements in the event of a crisis. We need to boost the NATO presence in the Baltic states with rotating visits by naval vessels, extended air-policing, and ground forces—initially on persistent rotation, but as soon as possible on permanent deployment.

Russia will complain vigorously about this. But the fact that the Kremlin is unhappy when its neighbours are secure is telling. We should explain to the Russian authorities that when NATO expanded in 2004, we did not even draw up contingency plans for the military defence of the new members, because we assumed that Russia was a friend, not a threat. It is Russia’s behaviour which has changed that. Russia attacked Georgia in 2008. It rehearsed the invasion
and occupation of the Baltic states a year later, in the Zapad-09 exercise (which concluded with a dummy nuclear strike on Warsaw). It has continued to menace the Baltic states ever since, with air-space violations, propaganda and economic warfare, and state-sponsored subversion. We take the step of securing our most vulnerable allies belatedly and reluctantly, and solely as a result of Russian policy directed towards them. …

Having shored up our most vulnerable allies, the next task is stabilising Ukraine. It is hard to
overstate how parlous the situation is. How much more Ukrainian territory ends up under direct or indirect Russian control is of secondary importance. Ukraine is going to be in the political and economic emergency room for years to come. That is Russia’s doing. Ukraine is suffering a world-class economic and financial crisis, which even in a stable and secure country would be far worse than anything experienced elsewhere in Europe. The economy is fundamentally uncompetitive. The main export market, Russia, is at risk of closure at any moment. Public finances are in ruins. The government subsists on a hand-to-mouth basis, relying on ad-hoc donations from wealthy oligarchs for even core spending requirements such as national defence. Even if everything else goes well, simply fixing Ukraine’s economy will take five years.

The outside world must respond generously and imaginatively. A new Marshall Plan for Ukraine should involve not only direct financial support, but the widest possible relaxation of tariffs and quotas on Ukrainian products such as steel, grain, textiles and agricultural products. The European Union has led the way with the newly signed deep and comprehensive free trade agreement, but much more remains to be done. In particular, European countries should accelerate efforts to supply Ukraine with natural gas by reversing the flow of existing pipelines. Russia has already threatened unspecified sanctions against countries which re-export Russian gas – a sign of how seriously the Kremlin treats the issue. …

Deterring Russia, not only in Ukraine but elsewhere, is the hardest part of the task ahead. Russia is an integrated part of the world economy and of world decision-making on everything from space to sub-sea minerals. It cannot be simply isolated and ignored. But that does not mean that we cannot raise the cost of doing business for the Putin regime. In particular, we should greatly extend the use of sanctions against individuals. … This would send a direct and powerful message to the Russian elite that their own personal business in the West – where they and their families shop, study, save and socialise – will not continue as usual. …

Europe can do much more. It can build more gas storage, and liberalise the rules governing it, so that all parties have access to the facilities. It can complete the north-south gas grid, making it impossible for Russia to use supply interruptions on its four east-west export pipelines as a political weapon. Most of all, the European Commission should proceed with its complaint against Gazprom for systematic market-abuse and law-breaking. This move – in effect a prosecution – is based on the seizure of huge numbers of documents following raids on Gazprom
offices and affiliates. The Commission had expected to release this complaint — in effect a charge sheet –in March. Then it was postponed until June. Many now wonder if it has been We also need to improve the West’s resilience and solidarity in the face of Russian pressure. …

Next, we need to revive our information-warfare capability. We won the Cold War partly because Soviet media lied as a matter of course, and ours did not. They tried to close off their societies from the free flow of information. We did not. In the end, their tactics backfired. Just as we have underestimated the potential effect of Russian energy, money and military firepower, so too have we neglected the information front. Russian propaganda channels such as the multilingual RT channel are well-financed and have made powerful inroads into our media space. They create a subtle and effective parallel narrative of world events, in which the West are the villains, mainstream thinking is inherently untrustworthy, and Russia is a victim of injustice and aggression, not its perpetrator.

Combatting this will require a major effort of time, money and willpower, involving existing media outlets, government, non-profit organisations and campaigning groups. We need to play both defense and offense. We need to begin to rebut Russian myths, lies and slanders, highlighting the factual inconsistences and elisions of the Kremlin narrative, and its dependence on fringe commentators and conspiracy theorists. We also need to start rebuilding the trust and attention we once enjoyed inside Russia. The collapse of respect and affection for the West inside Russia over the past 25 years has been a catastrophic strategic reverse, all but unnoticed in Western capitals. After the fall of communism, Russians believed we stood for freedom, justice, honesty and prosperity. Now they believe that we are hypocritical, greedy, aggressive custodians of a failing economic system.

Finally, we need to reboot the Atlantic Alliance. As memories fade of the Normandy beaches, of the Berlin Wall’s rise and fall, and the sacrifice and loyalty of past generations, we are running on empty. Without a shared sense of economic, political and cultural commonality, the Kremlin’s games of divide and rule will succeed. This will require renewed and extraordinary efforts on both sides of the Atlantic. The revelations surrounding the secret material stolen by Edward Snowden have stoked fears in Europe that America is an unaccountable and intrusive global hegemon. This year I wrote a book – ‘The Snowden Operation’ attacking the “Snowdenistas” as I termed the NSA renegade’s unthinking defenders. I believe that our intelligence agencies as a rule function well, within the law, and to the great benefit of our nations. But much damage has been done. At a time when we need to be restoring transatlantic ties, they are withering before our eyes, especially in the vital strategic relationship with Germany. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) offers a rare chance of a big-picture, positive project which could help revive what sometimes looks like a failing marriage.

A final footnote: whereas Russia once regarded the collapse of the Soviet Union as a liberation from communism, the regime there now pushes the line, with increasing success, that it was a humiliating geopolitical defeat. That is not only factually false; it is also a tragedy for the Russian people. They overthrew the Soviet Union, under which they had suffered more than anyone else. But they have had the fruits of victory snatched away by the kleptocratic ex-KGB regime. The bread and circuses it offers are little consolation for the prize that Russians have lost: a country governed by law, freed from the shadows of empire and totalitarianism, and at peace with itself and its neighbours.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

Liberal Hero of the Week #72: Vince Cable

by Stephen Tall on July 12, 2014

Liberal Hero of the Week (and occasional Villains) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum

cf hero vince cable

Vince Cable

Lib Dem Business Secretary
Reason: For sticking up for the right of workers to go on strike.

There are many reasons over the couple of years the Liberal Heroes series has been running that Vince Cable could have been nominated – most notably, his battle against Conservative cabinet colleagues’ panicky attempts to cut immigration even at the cost of damaging the British economy.

But he gets the nod this week for a completely different issue, though one on which (coincidentally, I’m sure) he’s also at odds with the Conservative party: defending the right of workers to go on strike.

On Thursday this week, between half-a-million (Government estimate) and more than a million (trade union estimate) public sector workers went on strike in protest against the Coalition’s policies on pay, pensions and spending cuts. This triggered calls by David Cameron to make it harder for the unions to call strikes, perhaps by imposing a minimum turnout threshold in any strike ballot. Vince, rightly, was having none of it:

“We disagree with the Tories’ assertion that a small turnout in strike-action ballots undermines the basic legitimacy of the strike. If they want to look at minimum turnout, this would have major implications for other democratic turnouts and elections. Many MPs have been elected by well under 50% of their electorate, let alone police commissioners or MEPs. Why have a threshold in a ballot but not make our elected politicians or shareholders face the same hurdle?”

He’s quite right. And as Steven Toft (AKA blogger ‘Flip Chart Rick’) pointed out:

There is one other way in which parliamentary, mayoral and council elections are different from strike ballots, though, and it’s a much more important one than the argument about majorities.

Political elections are binding on everyone. Unless you decide to emigrate, you have to abide by the laws the new government makes, regardless of how small its percentage of the vote was.

Strike ballots, on the other hand, are binding on absolutely nobody. If your union votes to strike, you are perfectly free to ignore it, as lots of public sector workers did on Thursday. There is nothing the union or anyone else can do about it. Unions are prevented by law from disciplining members who refuse to go on strike. Yes, there may be some peer pressure but if that extends to intimidation, the perpetrators could find themselves facing criminal charges.

All a strike ballot does is make it legal for those that want to go on strike to do so. That’s all. Everyone else can ignore it.

Putting the threshold up to 50 percent would mean that all abstentions would be counted as no votes. An apathetic majority could therefore stop a committed minority from exercising their right to strike.

Liberals believe in freedom. The free movement of people, freedom of association, and the freedom of workers to withdraw their labour. For sticking up for those freedoms of the individual against the state, Vince Cable is this week’s Liberal Hero.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) series showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

Dear Daily Telegraph, Enough already. It’s actually okay for MPs to claim 11p for a ruler.

by Stephen Tall on July 12, 2014

The_Daily_TelegraphSo the Telegraph is back to its old tricks on expenses. Five years ago, the paper uncovered some serious abuses by MPs at the taxpayers’ expense – along the way, the paper was also (as I wrote at the time) “guilty of flaky fact-checking, unfair distortions and disgraceful smears”.

Yesterday the paper attempted, rather desperately, to re-live past glories by running the story, ‘MPs’ expenses: Ken Clarke bills taxpayer for 11p ruler’. It wasn’t just Ken who attracted the Telegraph’s ire though: ‘Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, was found to have claimed 43p for scissors. David Cameron, the Prime Minister, claimed the cost of a £4.68 glue stick and 8p for a box of clips.’

Yes, that’s right, folks, it’s a new scandal — apparently taxpayers are footing the bill for MPs’ office supplies. How very dare they? They should pay it all themselves out of their own salaries. Actually, scratch that: they shouldn’t even have salaries. In fact, they should pay us for the privilege of being an MP. Yes, much better they have a private income – that’s the only way we’ll get MPs who are in touch with ordinary people.

But seriously, though… Can we all maybe agree that office supplies are legitimate items of expenditure for MPs in their everyday business? And that, in the great scheme of things for which we should hold our elected representatives to account, spending 8p on a box of paperclips really isn’t worth a single column inch ever again?

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

My recommended reading for today July 11, 2014

by Stephen Tall on July 11, 2014

Here’s some of the articles that have caught my attention in the past couple of days…



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