May 2012

Too many false dawns
Since changing parties, I’ve been hugely surprised and gratified (and grateful) for the very positive and sympathetic reactions I’ve had from many Conservatives. In most cases, it seems that years of collaboration and friendship count for more than party labels.

But inevitably, there have been one or two critical letters and e-mails, with questions like “Why couldn’t you keep up the fight from inside the Party?”, or “Why after years with the Conservative Party did you decide to give up?”. I published a reply to one such letter on my blog, but it’s worth developing the theme.

I used to quote the Good Book — “If the salt hath lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted?”. If all the sceptics leave the Tory Party, what do we have left? And I used to argue that I should indeed keep up the pressure from inside the Party. But bear in mind that I’d been a Party member since 1965, and an MEP since 1999. There comes a time when you have to accept that your strategy just isn’t working, and you have to rethink it. I have the highest regard for Conservative MPs who keep up the fight — John Redwood, Douglas Carswell, Philip Davies, Philip Hollobone, Peter Bone. But they’re not taking the Party with them — indeed the BOO-ers are denied promotion, and left on the margins of the Party.

My views on the EU, and on climate and energy, were an embarrassment to the Conservative Party (though shared by so many Party members), and they were keen to keep me quiet. In UKIP, by contrast, I’m exactly on-message, and the Party is keen for me to spread the word. (The down-side is, I’ve never been so busy!).

Not alone: A recent press report, based on opinion polling, put UKIP on 10% (we’ve been level-pegging with the Lib-Dems, or ahead of them, in several recent polls). The same study showed 1.4 million former Conservative supporters now plan to vote for UKIP. And the reasons aren’t hard to find.

Policy on the EU: Remember “In Europe not run by Europe?” Brilliant slogan at the time, but totally lacking in substance. We are more ruled by Europe now than ever before, and this government is handing powers to Brussels faster than the previous Labour administration did. Promises, promises. Repatriation of powers. Bring back fisheries. Stop the drift to integration. And above all, Cameron’s “Cast Iron Guarantee” of a Lisbon referendum. All so much smoke and mirrors and hot air.

It didn’t matter too much when voters on the doorstep were saying “Europe is a long way away and it doesn’t affect me“. But that’s all changed. For years now we’ve had the €uro crisis running like some perverse, demented soap-opera on our TV screens every night. We have George Osborne blaming the €uro crisis (with some justification) for Britain’s poor economic showing. Europe is no longer “a long way away”, and it does affect us. Like so many others across Europe, we’ve had enough and we want out.

Climate and energy: It’s not just Europe. The whole question of climate and energy has been a burning question for me (sorry about that!) for the last five years. I’ve written about it so much that I won’t go into detail here. But even if you accept the global warming scenario (and I find that very few do any more — global warming is so last century), then the policies we are adopting are perverse. We are taking the most expensive and damaging approach imaginable to emissions reduction — an approach guaranteed to drive jobs and industry and investment out of Europe altogether. It will undermine our economy and our prosperity.

Worst of all, it threatens our energy security. There will be serious electricity shortages by the end of the decade, unless we change course. Black-outs. Three-days weeks. Back to the future.

Then there is the desecration of our countryside. People in the East Midlands (and up and down the land) are incensed as they see wind-farm planning applications breaking our like a rash across England’s green and pleasant land, frequently close to historic and “protected” landscapes. They’re incensed again when they see the hikes in their electricity bills. And they’ve realised that subsidies for renewables are profoundly regressive. They take money from poor pensioners who can ill afford it, and give it to rich landowners and corporations who don’t need it.

Education: While Michael Gove is doing great things with schools, the Coalition’s plans for university access (pushed by Nick Clegg) are like the worst excesses of Labour’s social engineering. Pursuing some ersatz notion of equality, they undermine quality and aspiration and achievement. They are profoundly unfair to middle-class high achievers, and they may well damage the students who “benefit” from positive discrimination, only to find that they can’t hack it. Drop-out rates will rise, performance will suffer, scarce resources will be wasted, the economy will be damaged. What a legacy.

Grammar schools: The Conservative Party’s hostility to grammar schools is perverse and inexplicable, and flies in the face of the views of its members (but credit to Graham Brady MP, who’s fought a lonely battle for grammar schools). Presumably they do it to “decontaminate the brand”. We now have the bizarre situation that you can open any kind of school you want, except a grammar school (unless you can pretend it’s an extension to an existing campus). We talk about localism — let’s do it! Let’s just back off and allow academy schools to implement whatever admissions policy they choose.

Immigration: This is one of the hot issues on the doorstep. Conservatives rightly promised to curb excessive immigration, but have signally failed to deliver. Moreover as long as we stay in the EU, no British government can deliver. “Free movement of people” in Europe drives a coach and horses through any serious attempt to control immigration (though the Border Agency at Heathrow seems to be fighting a rearguard action).

Let me be clear: UKIP does not oppose immigration per se, and absolutely would not seek to apply any criteria based on ethnicity. We recognise the importance of some immigration for British industry and agriculture, and the importance of education of foreign students as an invisible export. But the numbers must be consistent with the capacity of our social infrastructure. And above all, no one can be allowed straight off the boat and into the benefit office or the NHS. Immigrants must be prepared to work, and pay taxes, and to respect the values of our society.

ECHR: We cannot allow judges to take over decisions that should be made by elected parliamentarians. We cannot allow the ECHR to prevent us from expelling foreigners who are deemed to be a threat to our society, or who have come to Britain illegally or committed serious offences here.

Foreign aid: The public cannot understand why, in times of stringency at home, we continue to turn on the taps of foreign aid, often to countries who have their own aid programmes, or nuclear programmes, or space programmes — and who, in at least one case, have said they don’t want our charity anyway. Foreign aid should be limited to unforeseen emergencies, and should be cut back like other budgets during difficult times.

Defence: By any measure, the Coalition is in a dreadful muddle on defence. Huge amounts of money wasted, aircraft carriers with no aircraft, soldiers failing to get the support they deserve. Defence of the Realm is a primary duty of government, and this Tory-led government is making a pretty bad fist of it.

Pursuing the periphery: Whatever position you take on same-sex marriage, or Lords reform, the fact is that the public cannot understand why politicians and government seem to be obsessed with peripheral issues that don’t resonate with the bulk of ordinary people. Voters don’t get that excited about the Leveson enquiry, but they do worry about whether they’ll have a job next month, or be able to pay for a tank of petrol. Why can’t the government focus on what matters?

We in UKIP like to think of ourselves not as right or left, but as the party of common sense. We focus on the issues that matter to most voters, and on most of those issues, we tend to support the common-sense views of the British people. As Andrew Lilico put it so succinctly: “UKIP isn’t conservative, but it’s not so anti-conservative as the Tories”.

The Working Time Directive

Back in 2005 I voted against the Working Time Directive, which sets a maximum 48-hour working week, because I believe that, like so much EU legislation, it is unnecessary, restrictive, disruptive to the labour market and a further level of red tape and bureaucracy that damages both business and freedom. Interestingly, Vince Cable wrote recently in The Telegraph that it is time to “close down the red tape factories of Brussels”. That’s Dr Vince Cable, the renowned Liberal Democrat, of the same Liberal Democrats who voted en masse for the WTD in 2005.

In 2008 I voted against the Agency Workers Directive which comes into force in the UK this year, much to the chagrin of businesses across the country who employ some of the 1.4 million temporary workers, some highly skilled. The AWD aims to address the discrepancies in pay between temporary and permanent employees and requires that after 12 weeks continuous service, workers will now have the right to the same basic rate as full-time workers in the same position — and therefore far less chance of finding temporary work in the first place.

I voted against these measures not only because they’re bad for business, but because they’re bad for workers too. They deny workers an overtime opportunity. In the case of the AWD, they kick away an important ladder back into work for the temporarily unemployed. Temporary work creates opportunities and often acts as a stepping stone into full time employment for people who have been out of the market for a while, perhaps due to family commitments. Demanding that workers only work 48 hour weeks not only raises costs to businesses as employers are forced to employ more people to cover the necessary shifts (the NHS being a prime example), but implies workers are unable to decide their own working hours. Similarly, the AWD could price temporary workers out of the market.

To add insult to injury, the Agency Workers Directive is failing to “protect” those it claims to protect. Keen to avoid the additional costs generated by complying with the law, I hear from constituents that some agencies have found a way to by-pass the Directive in its entirety, forcing workers to sign opt-out forms under the threat of unemployment. Many temporary employees are kept on a revolving carousel of three month temporary contracts or being sacked on their 11th week. Far from supporting working people, these Directives do little but limit opportunities, prevent individuals from gaining relevant employment experience through temporary work and add yet another layer of red tape. Despite the good intentions, they make workers worse off than they were to start with.

I hope Vince Cable is serious, but I fear such a momentous volte face is just smoke and mirrors from the Sage of Twickenham.

The thoughts of Chancellor Osborne

George Osborne says that Coalition policies will now focus on delivering benefits to that clichéd constituency, “hard-working families”. This is widely seen as shorthand for higher taxes on the rich (“Sorry we reduced the top income tax rate from 50% to 45%”). But it shouldn’t be. The best thing that George can do for hard-working families is to prioritise growth, and that means making the UK a more attractive place to invest in. And in turn, that means deregulation, flexible labour markets, regulatory certainty, and lower personal and business taxes. Put simply, if you make conditions unattractive for entrepreneurs and investors (for example by punitive income tax on the better-off) you damage everyone, by driving business off-shore, slowing growth and increasing unemployment. If you’re a worker on the dole, you’d rather get a job than hear that the rich are taking a caning.

Chancellor George has also said that he’s learned from the local election results, and that he will now concentrate on things that matter to the public, like jobs and growth and so on. He doesn’t say so, but presumably this implies “Not HS2, not Lords reform, not same-sex marriage”. If we’re lucky it might even mean “Not wind farms”.

But in his list of things that do matter to voters, I’d appeal to him not to ignore energy. It’s a subject that doesn’t come high on the list of voter concerns — until the lights go out. There are few things for which voters find it harder to forgive a government for than blackouts and three-day-weeks. And as Tim Yeo has warned, in a rare moment of lucidity, if we go on as we are, we shall face exactly that — black-outs — by the end of the decade. We’re closing generating plants — coal (because of EU rules) and nuclear (because of ageing) — at an alarming rate, and we have no credible plan to replace them. Nor do we have the necessary conventional back-up for the 30% of capacity which Ed Davey improbably proposes to get from wind-power by 2020.

This is another huge crisis in the making. Fortunately we can see the iceberg up ahead, and we have time (just about) to turn the ship round. But only if we act now, and there’s little sign of that. George should be clearing the way for new nuclear and for urgent shale gas exploitation. He has said “You don’t save the planet by destroying the economy”. Great sound-bite, George. But you need to act as if you meant it.

One more thing: George says he “accepts responsibility” for poor presentation of the 2012 budget, which is widely believed to have contributed to poor local election results for the Coalition parties. But what does “accept responsibility” mean? When Lord Carrington accepted responsibility for failing to anticipate the Argentine invasion of the Falklands, he quit — despite Maggie’s attempts to persuade him to stay. Many felt that the responsibility was not his, or not uniquely his, but he felt that it was, and believed that the only decent thing to do was to resign. That’s what “accepting responsibility” for failure meant in 1982.

Today, “accepting responsibility” is no more than a form of words, a cautious and begrudging verbal apology. In this, as in so many ways, our public life is diminished.

Putting the bad word on Commissioner Tajani

Here is a link to a speech I made in the Industry, Research and Energy Committee on the 8th May, lambasting Antonio Tajani, Vice-President of the Commission and Commissioner for Industry and Enterpreneurship.

The Empire fades away?

According to recent news reports, Her Majesty the Queen has been urged to remove “Empire” from awards like the OBE and the CBE, on the grounds that it’s old-fashioned, irrelevant, inappropriate and anachronistic. All the favourite pejorative adjectives of the politically-correct.

Of course we accept that the British Empire has been consigned to history. Of course the use of the term is anachronistic. We all know that. No one disputes it. But then the House of Lords, the Honours System and indeed the Monarchy itself can all be regarded as anachronistic.

But they all have a value. They remind us of our history and our identity. They connect with what Sir Winston Churchill called “Our Island Story”, which we forget at our peril.

The real question, or course, is whether or not we want to remember the British Empire. If, like the wretched cringing self-flagellators of the left, you believe that the British Empire was an act of wicked exploitation and slavery, a crime against humanity, then of course you will want to expunge it from history. I believe it was George Orwell who said that the British intelligentsia were unique in Europe in being ashamed of their own country. (“Within the (English) intelligentsia, a derisive and mildly hostile attitude towards Britain is more or less compulsory“). Of course those people want to expunge every vestige of Empire.

But if like me you believe that the British Empire, despite many faults and failings, was on balance a huge force for the benefit of mankind, a force that took education and democracy to the far-flung corners of the world, then you will want to retain it in our narrative, and you will be comfortable with its continued use. India, the world’s largest democracy, might not have been a democracy, and indeed might not have been a nation at all, without the British Empire. I have visited the Singapore parliament, and while the building is modern, their parliamentary procedure would be entirely familiar with anyone accustomed to the House of Commons. We have much to be proud of, and we should keep the mementoes of our great achievements.

The RSPCA and Sow Stalls

The RSPCA have recently been in touch asking me to sign Written Declaration 0006/2012 (pdf format) which calls on Member States to comply with the Pigs Directive, and in particular the ban on sow stalls.

Normally I avoid signing WDs that call for EU regulation, but on this occasion I have agreed to sign, although for rather different reasons than those advocated by the RSPCA. While I’m happy to accept a moral duty to promote the welfare of animals, I do not believe in “animal rights”. My concern here lies primarily with the fact that British farmers have been disadvantaged by the UK government’s decision to implement the sow stall regulation years ahead of time (our national pig herd was decimated), and they continue to be disadvantaged by the failure of some EU member-states to implement the rules.

The WD notes that the obligation of member countries to convert individual sow stalls into group housing is to be implemented by all holdings in the EU by 1 January 2013, but so far only three Member States (the UK, Luxembourg and Sweden) have implemented this rather expensive directive, and only four other countries look set to comply on time. I dislike EU regulation that raises costs and bureaucracy for business and agriculture. But I’m especially against it in cases like this, where we in the UK take the hit, while others don’t, putting us at a competitive disadvantage.

It is becoming more and more difficult to pretend that EU membership benefits British farmers.

Local Elections

Last week’s local elections saw UKIP win a record share of the vote, returning seven councillors and coming second in 136 seats. In the East Midlands we did remarkably well, fielding six candidates in Derby City Council where Alan Graves polled 32.8%, narrowly losing out to Labour.

We received 218,000 votes in the English local elections compared with 98,000 in 2008 and were the only Party beside Labour whose vote share increased. And it did significantly; 5 points higher than a year ago. Not only was our share higher but we polled up to 14% across the country with 50 candidates scoring over 25% of the vote. Although we did not see our recent polling success translate into seats, largely due to the First Past the Post voting system in place for local elections, it is exciting to see such an increase at local level to the kind of percentages we held at the last European elections. We are making great progress, 14% is a wonderful pointer for 2014 and our objective for the next European elections is clear: we want to come first, and I think we can.

Restaurant Review: the Trout at Tadpole Bridge

I was going down recently to Buscot Park in Oxfordshire, the National Trust property, to see the Burne-Jones picture cycle “Legend of Briar Rose”, and I pulled a pub for lunch almost at random off the internet. The Trout at Tadpole Bridge. It proved a lucky choice. It’s an old-world pub set by the Thames, close to the source, but the river is still big enough for navigation by small craft. When I was there, it was in spate (drought warnings notwithstanding), and looked magnificent — if not too safe. The pub has mooring for half a dozen boats, and access to splendid riverside walks (though I decided to save those for a warmer day). Entering the pub (which also has a few rooms for residents, or for diners too well lubricated to drive home), one is welcomed by the warm smell of wood-smoke, and a wonderfully traditional interior. There seems to be a fine selection of draught beers, though sadly as I was driving, I had to pass on the beer. In a friendly atmosphere I enjoyed scallops (magnificent) followed by stewed rabbit. The food was really good, and the menu was interesting — the sort of choice where you’d really like to try everything. The location is handy for Buscot, and for William Morris’s Kelmscott. I recommend it (and no, I don’t own any shares in it!), and I look forward to going again.

Two heads are better than one.

Around the Parliament there are posters advertising a “Transatlantic Economic Dialogue”, with two heads in profile, and the catchy slogan “Two heads are better than one”. I remember my old mother using this aphorism in the fifties. The full version, as I recall, was “Two heads are better than one, even if they’re only fish-heads“.

Conclusion

That’s it from Straz for the May session. Please remember to visit this website, my blog at http://rogerhelmermep.wordpress.com, and follow me on Twitter: @RogerHelmerMEP

Also have a look at the UKIP MEP web-site www.ukipmeps.org