David Cameron, Harold Wilson and Euro referendums

David Cameron has opened a new chapter in Britain’s troubled membership of what we now call the European Union. He says his party will hold a referendum to decide whether we should stay in the EU, should it win the 2015 general election. He will campaign for Britain to stay, provided he is happy with whatever new settlement he negotiates with Britain’s EU partners.

Any referendum will be the first on Europe since Harold Wilson’s Labour government’s 1975 poll settled the issue for a generation. At the time, it was seen as a clever fix for Labour’s internal war about Europe. (Typical Wilson…) But within five years the party was at war again, leading to the SDP breakaway. Time will tell if Cameron’s move will be any more successful.

I was 11 when Britain voted in 1975. We had a day off school as Cardiff High was being used as a polling station. I remember telling friends we should pull out – I even stuck a copy of the No campaign’s leaflet inside the lid of my school desk. (My friends were sensibly more concerned about whether Bay City Rollers would make number 1.)

In time, I became convinced that Britain should be a positive, active member of what we now call the EU. But I have always been concerned by the madder aspects of the EU: the stupidity of the Common Agricultural Policy, the bureaucracy and lack of democracy. I hate the way the Irish have been told to rerun referendums until they get the ‘right’ result. This is not an institution that inspires love or affection in sensible folk.

I happened to listen to David Cameron’s speech live on BBC Radio 5 Live on Wednesday. It struck me as a very cleverly constructed case for change. I particularly liked the way the prime minister accepted the role the EU played in ending Europe’s eternal wars. He was right to say Europe’s single market was its biggest strength. No sensible person can argue against the idea that the EU desperately needs to change if Europe is to flourish and compete against China, India and Brazil.

Yet Cameron’s move is so blatantly a bid to secure party unity that it’s hard to see it succeeding. Europe isn’t an issue that most people care about – except in the Westminster village. Cameron is unlikely to win an overall majority in 2015, which means he won’t be the one to hold a Euro poll. Unlike Harold Wilson, that wily politician who dominated British politics for over a decade in the 1960s and 1970s.

Leveson: David Cameron, the press barons’ friend

“What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, and power without responsibility — the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.”

So said Stanley Baldwin in 1931. (The phrase was provided by his cousin, Rudyard Kipling.) He could have been talking about today’s press barons, and their criminal behaviour.

His current day successor as Tory prime minister is made of different stuff. He sided with the press barons and rejected the central recommendation of the Leveson report: proper regulation of this unruly industry, backed by statute.

Cameron naturally cloaked in noble concepts his rejection of the recommendations of the inquiry he himself set up:

“The issue of principle is that for the first time we would have crossed the rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land. We should I believe be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press.”

A moment’s consideration shows this to be utter nonsense. Parliament has passed countless laws that infringe free speech and a free speech, in many cases for profoundly sensible reasons. (The obvious one is the contempt laws that try to prevent the judicial process being compromised by unfair reporting. Yet the odious tabloid press ignored those laws in its rush to destroy the reputation of Christopher Jefferies, the landlord of murdered Joanna Yeates.)

It’s no surprise that Cameron rushed to rubbish Leveson: like too many politicians, he was unhealthily close to the press barons who have behaved so appallingly. (He rushed to show that Leveson cleared him of any deal with News International, ignoring the fact that a deal was unnecessary: a nudge and a wink was enough, as it was with Tony Blair’s relationship with the Murdoch empire.)

Here are just a few examples of why the argument against statute-backed regulation is so weak:

  • Our criminal and civil justice systems are even more important defences of freedom than the press. Has anyone ever suggested they are weaker for being statute-based?
  • Politicians and journalists claim to fear politicians getting involved in the press. Haven’t they noticed that three out of four chairmen of the useless Press Complaints Commission were Tory peers? And that two of them are lobbying on behalf of the press proprietors against statutory regulation, regardless of the public interest?
  • The press has had countless opportunities to put its own house in order. As long ago as 1991, Tory minister David Mellor said the press was supping in last chance saloon. Twenty years on, it’s still at the bar. If there’s a regulator in the last chance saloon, it might as well be called Ofpiss.
  • Tory and Labour politicians have rightly demanded stronger regulation of industries and professions that have proved inadequate, corrupt and self serving. They have passed laws to enforce that regulation. Yet David Cameron thinks the press should escape scot-free. This is simply not on.
  • Press barons cannot be allowed to choose to be regulated, as Express owner Richard Desmond has exercised to stay out of the Press Complaints Commission. (His titles acted despicably in libelling Madeleine McCann’s parents.) We need legislation to ensure that the likes of Desmond never have this choice again.
  • Legislation and international agreements provide a strong defence of freedom of the press and freedom of expression. Britain was a powerful influence in the creation of the European Convention of Human Rights over 60 years ago. Labour incorporated the ECHR into British law in the Human Rights Act. Yet many Tories opposed both. So much for their concern for freedom of expression.
  • Opponents of the idea of statutory press regulation argue that it’s unnecessary as phone hacking and other press outrages were infringements of existing laws. Yet the point is pointless: the press ignored the law. It needs greater enforcement controls.

The bigger question about Leveson is what it didn’t consider. Ignoring the influence of the online world was a big failure. (Understandable in 1999; inexplicable in 2012.) As the admirable Emily Bell pointed out in the Guardian (before Leveson’s publication), “to put “the internet” within the scope of Leveson would be as daft as it would be futile, and to regulate the press further, without having a broader definition of who “the press” might be, is a recipe for irrelevance.”

Yet I sense that we will soon see the end of the wild west era of the internet, at least in major countries. (We got a hint of that in Lord McAlpine’s actions against Twitter users who libelled him over the false BBC Newsnight allegations.)

Leveson didn’t get everything right. In the first few pages of his report, he called the Mail on Sunday the Sunday Mail (a very different title). More seriously, he misunderstands the importance of protecting sources. Yet overall, he offers a historic new settlement between the press and the people. Politicians and the media should seize the chance.

Britain moves left: Labour wins as voters punish coalition

Labour was the clear winner in yesterday’s local elections in England and Wales – and shared the spoils with the SNP in Scotland. Voters punished the coalition, whose performance this year has been abject. (Economy back in recession; a budget that took money from pensioners and gave it to the rich; three hour queues at Heathrow; the list goes on…)

It’s easy to explain away Labour’s good showing as the classic opposition gain from a government’s mid-term blues. But the Conservatives and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats would be unwise to assume they’ll bounce back in the polls as the next general election nears. Spending cuts and state job costs have barely started.

The Liberal Democrats are in the bleakest position. As I wrote on the original Ertblog early in 2011, they have played their hand disastrously in government:

Above all, the Lib Dem leaders seem far too comfortable in their ministerial limos and offices, and far too little concerned about the catastrophic rush to slash and burn public services.

The happiest man in British politics tonight must be Ed Milliband (with Alex Salmond a close second). He’s faced constant criticism and sniping since beating his brother David in 2010’s leadership election. Praise for his stand against the Murdoch empire last year faded. But in recent months his fortunes are reviving. David Cameron is looking more like John Major at his most beleaguered than Tony Blair in his pomp. There’s no guarantee chat Milliband will be Britain’s next prime minister. But the idea no longer seems outlandish.

Hunt, Cameron and Murdoch: guilt and government by association

This week’s storm about culture, media and sports secretary Jeremy Hunt’s handling of News Corporation’s bid for complete control of BSkyB shows how Britain’s culture of government is horribly flawed.

A decade ago, Tony Blair’s sofa government style was condemned by the way Blair took Britain to war against Iraq without proper process or control. Now it seems that Hunt’s department side-stepped the rules on judicial impartiality in judging the News Corp takeover by allowing special adviser Adam Smith (oh the irony of that name…) to conduct back-channel discussions with News Corp.

The curiosity is that as ministers become professional politicians (in that they’ve never held a job in the real world), their performance as politicians becomes less ‘professional’ by the day. And that’s to put it kindly…