In December 1824, Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, received a decidedly unpromising piece of correspondence. One Joseph Stockdale, pornographer and scandal-maker, informed him that he would shortly be publishing the memoirs of Harriette Wilson, notorious high-class London courtesan. Contained in these memoirs would be:
Various anecdotes of Your Grace which it would be most desirable to withhold, at least such is my opinion. I have stopped the Press for the moment, but as the publication will take place next week, little delay can necessarily take place.
On Stockdale’s part, this was a naked attempt at blackmail. Wellington, national hero (not to mention devoted husband and father) was being asked to pay money to be left out of the sordid publication. His response entered the annals of fame. “Publish and be damned!”
It is unknown whether any such conversations took place between Lord Ashcroft – co-author of Call Me Dave, another explosive book about a Tory prime minister shortly to hit the shelves – and David Cameron, its subject. It must be presumed not. But while Wilson’s memoirs had no effect on Wellington’s reputation or popularity, will the same be true of Cameron?
Thus far, the focus has been on an admittedly amusing but rather grotesque tale involving young David and a pig. And the emphasis here should be on tale, given the spectacular failure of either Ashcroft or Isabel Oakeshott, his co-author, to verify the account. Of itself, it’s a piece of salacious gossip, likely to seriously harm Oakeshott’s hard won reputation. Ashcroft, as we shall see, is rather above such things, however.
The book also highlights Cameron’s use of marijuana at university – no shocks or anything significant there – and his belonging to various private clubs known for their hedonism and excess. Again: what’s the story here? But today’s revelations, which won’t be discussed anything like as much, are actually of considerably more import.
There has always been a question about David Cameron. Namely: does he understand or even care about those less privileged than he is? Somehow, through 10 years as Conservative leader, five as prime minister, nothing has ever stuck to him. Just like his role model, Tony Blair, the public view him as a likeable enough centrist; a safe pair of hands, someone they can trust.
That likeability means Cameron has always been able to obscure the sheer, wanton venality of much of his government: which lays waste to the welfare state; deliberately sets the young against the old; presides over thousands of deaths as a (direct or indirect) result of benefit sanctions so punitive, they’re being investigated by the United Nations; helped precipitate the European refugee crisis by bombing Libya, abandoning it, and turning it into a failed state; unbelievably wanted to bomb the Syrian government, and effectively do something which would help Da’esh, the most evil organisation seen anywhere since the Nazis; deliberately undermines democracy by changing voter registration rules; is very clearly trying to not just defeat, but destroy the Labour Party, with catastrophic consequences for democracy; and above all, never gives the impression of being interested in governing the country. Only for itself and people like it.
People, curiously enough, like the ‘Chipping Snorton set’, serialised in the Daily Mail today. 500 of the UK’s richest, most powerful and best-connected: a veritable British Bilderberg, if Ashcroft and Oakeshott’s description is taken entirely at face value. “Whatever happens in the marquee will stay in the marquee… whenever anyone new is invited to one of these gatherings, their name requires the approval of all”.
Leaving aside the image this unintentionally conjures up of something roughly akin to the mansion scene in Eyes Wide Shut (like the authors of Call Me Dave, I have nothing if not an over-active imagination), this section alludes to the alarming fusion between British politicians and the media. Among the guests at a New Year’s party in 2008 were Cameron (then Leader of the Opposition), George Osborne (then Shadow Chancellor), Andy Coulson, then Tory Director of Communications and former editor of the News of the World; Alan Yentob and Mark Thompson of the BBC; and Rupert Murdoch’s daughter, Elisabeth.
History records the trouble which Coulson, Rebekah Brooks (and for a time, Cameron) later found themselves in. Before the serialisation of this book, we might’ve theorised that relations between certain movers and shakers in the British press were dangerously incestuous (in a strictly metaphorical sense, of course) with some of the country’s leaders. Now we know they were.
More than that: how can someone who continually moves in such high company, is so at ease amid such wealth and excess, possibly have the remotest sense of the impact of his government not only on the poorest, the weakest… but merely on the common man? Plenty of Tory prime ministers came from privileged backgrounds; plenty were patrician in nature. But Cameron? While he speaks of governing as a One Nation Tory, in practice, he governs as a One South-East England Tory, and anecdotes like the above explain why.
Elsewhere, today’s segments in the Mail underscore Cameron’s hopelessly naive, wilfully incompetent approach to both Libya and Syria: with military expertise ignored and sidelined, just as it often was in Iraq during Blair’s time. Lessons have not been learned; so much so that in Libya, as Michael Ancram correctly puts it, Cameron “did an Iraq”. This is not the conduct of a statesman acting in Britain’s best interests; but someone whose calculations are always short term and nakedly political: with far reaching consequences.
Cameron, of course, been been marked by personal tragedy. The book also movingly outlines the torment and heartbreak which Cameron and his wife, Samantha, experienced over the death of their son, Ivan. In April, Samantha spoke at length to the Mail on Sunday about that awful time, revealing how hard they had fought to get Ivan into the special needs daycare centre he desperately needed; and were able to afford night care, which eased the horrendous strain on their marriage:
Looking after a disabled child pushes you to the limits of what you can cope with…physically, emotionally… By the end of the first year we’d both been working and Ivan needed 24-hour care. We were totally shattered and pretty much at breaking point.
Cameron frequently references this tragedy in his speeches, often to reassure the public of his commitment to the NHS. Yet in light of his family’s experience, it is extraordinary how savagely carers have been hit by austerity; and that the very respite care which the Camerons depended upon is being cut by local authorities.
Changes were made to the Disability Living Allowance under the coalition; and catastrophically, the Independent Living Fund has been axed: removing at a stroke the chance for severely disabled people to lead more independent lives. To live with dignity. Restrictions and cuts to the Employment Support Allowance would simply be the icing on a quite despicable cake.
Ask yourself: how can someone who knows how demanding it is to raise a disabled child, who knows how incredibly important high quality care for that child was, possibly oversee such abhorrent cuts? The answer could only be that David Cameron does not understand what life is like for those without the wealth he and his family enjoy; nor, it must be concluded, does he care either.
Today, The Sun is leading with news of a party in 2011, attended by the prime minister and his wife, where guests were openly “snorting cocaine in various rooms and in the toilets… the extraordinary thing is the guests didn’t feel they were doing anything wrong by taking drugs around the PM”. Yet also in 2011, by express order of the government, posting stupid messages on Facebook was punished with four years in jail; and a student with no previous convictions was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for stealing bottled water worth £3.50. There were many other such cases too. One rule for the rich, another for the poor: that is the story of Cameron’s time in charge of this country.
Will any or all of the examples set out by Ashcroft and Oakeshott bring the PM down? No. It’s the narrative they speak to which is so troubling, however – and with the revelations set to keep coming for several days yet, will have a drip-drip effect, embarrassing Cameron and weakening his authority bit by bit.
Much more serious for him, though – and more than that, for British democracy – are the enemies he has made during his premiership. Two in particular: Rupert Murdoch, and that man Ashcroft. As the only thing which ever concerns Cameron are the opinion polls, he was mightily quick to distance himself from Brooks and Coulson following their arrests for suspected phone-hacking; while Murdoch was found by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee to be “not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company”. The protection which The Digger had so long enjoyed from British governments of all hues was at last denied him.
In May, in a piece for Open Democracy, I noted Murdoch’s subsequent support for the SNP and the instrumental role of an opinion poll commissioned for the Murdoch-owned Sunday Times, published 12 days before the Scottish independence referendum. This was the only poll with a sample size of more than 1000 in the entire campaign to favour ‘Yes’; yet the panic it triggered across the British establishment resulted in The Vow, and Labour’s eventual meltdown across Scotland.
I also noted Ashcroft’s extraordinarily rapid rise to prominence as polling guru (despite not being a pollster himself, nor revealing where his company buys its data from) and “friend of the political process” – as well as how, after a general election campaign in which the polls were completely wrong throughout, the result could, only as the happiest of coincidences of course, hardly have been better for someone who (a) had long since fallen out with Cameron; but (b) certainly didn’t want a Labour government either. A tiny Tory majority, boxing Cameron in and making his life impossible, bringing his exit closer and ensuring a quick transition to someone more amenable; someone by the name of ‘Boris’? Perfect. Yet uncannily how things turned out.
On the BBC yesterday, Oakeshott protested that if the book “was just a revenge job, then Lord Ashcroft and I could have published it before the election”. As she well knows, this is nonsense: Ashcroft may hate Cameron, but he doesn’t hate the Tories, and was hardly going to cut his nose off to spite his face. This book is about reminding the Conservative Party where the true power really lies; and disturbingly for Cameron, it isn’t with him at all.
Ashcroft, indeed, has been quite open about his motivations. A “not insignificant job” was promised in the build-up to the 2010 election, only for him to be offered the trifle of junior whip in the Foreign Office:
After putting my neck on the line for nearly ten years – both as party treasurer under William Hague and as deputy chairman – and after ploughing some £8m into the party, I regarded this as a declinable offer. It would have been better had Cameron offered me nothing at all.
Imagine just how untouched by the vicissitudes of public opinion and colossally removed from everyday life someone must be to openly acknowledge being motivated by bitterness against the prime minister because of failure to buy a prestigious post in the government. Imagine, too, how this bitterness can actually include said prime minister’s handling of his then non-domiciled tax status. Ashcroft, while paying no tax in Britain, was nonetheless able to make an enormous financial difference to its most successful political party; and indeed, practically rescue it from bankruptcy in the dark days of the late 1990s.
News of his tax status finally emerged in March 2010, the worst possible moment for the Tories. Ashcroft’s name became mud throughout the election campaign, undermining Conservative hopes. In light of that, Cameron would’ve had to have been mad to have given the noble Lord a big job afterwards: but in twenty-first century Britain, the politics of patronage are still alarmingly pre-eminent, as Cameron’s recent stuffing of the Lords with Tory placemen demonstrated.
The problem is this. In this so-called ‘democracy’, money – lots of it – buys influence and it buys power. When, as in Murdoch or Ashcroft’s cases, it fails for any reason to do so, whoever incurs their wrath – including a prime minister who is himself the beneficiary of colossal privilege – had better watch out. The people? Their needs? They come way, way, way down the list.
Consider for a moment the curious case of former Tory MP, Louise Mensch. Once considered a rising star at Westminster, Mensch enjoyed her finest moment in July 2011, when questioning Murdoch and his son James while on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. Her questions were “sharp, precise and coolly scornful”; she even asked one of the most powerful men in the world whether he had considered resigning.
Three days later, she received an email from an ‘investigative journalist’ named ‘David Jones’ alleging that she had taken drugs with Nigel Kennedy while working at EMI records during the 1990s. Her wonderfully brassy response – “Although I do not remember the specific incident, this sounds highly probable… I am not a very good dancer and must apologise to any and all journalists who were forced to watch me dance that night at Ronnie Scott’s” – endeared her to many new admirers and appeared to have nipped matters in the bud. Appeared.
In April 2012, contrary to her severe questioning of the Murdochs during the inquiry, Mensch disagreed publicly with Tom Watson and Paul Farrelly over whether the Committee’s conclusion of Murdoch’s unfitness had been discussed prior to Watson’s tabling of a Commons amendment. She described the report as “partisan”; while Watson went on to accuse her of tabling pro-Murdoch amendments which would’ve “exonerated” James, and allege that private conversations had been leaked to News Corp.
In August, citing family reasons, Mensch unexpectedly stood down as an MP. In January 2013, she became a columnist… for Murdoch’s Sun on Sunday. Thus had the woman who made her name speaking truth to power abruptly jumped ship and started working for that very power. I leave it to readers to join the dots.
Almost comically, Mensch can now be found on Twitter excoriating Oakeshott; but not her co-author, Ashcroft. Within the space of a few tweets, she derides Oakeshott as a “former journalist” and a “novelist”, and states she has “nothing but contempt for her”; yet she “remains a big fan of Lord Ashcroft”. Consider the utter absurdity of that position (not least from a self-proclaimed feminist): she attacks the monkey relentlessly, yet continues to indulge the organ grinder.
Like David Cameron, Louise Mensch is a very wealthy, successful, even – in relative terms – powerful individual. But that wealth and power are nothing when set against that of Ashcroft or Murdoch… and she knows which side her bread’s buttered on. She now faces the rather invidious prospect of working for someone, Murdoch, who may well – especially with Brooks ominously restored at The Sun – be about to commence a campaign to bring down her other boss, Cameron. If he does, she can only watch on helplessly from the sidelines.
One final point. As well as personal spite and fury, what is the motive on the part of these two colossally powerful men? The EU referendum. Both favour British withdrawal; both will have been left aghast by Cameron’s efforts at manning the big battalions in support of the UK remaining. Forcing him out before the campaign really begins in earnest must be the goal: but if so, the PM’s only option is to bunker down and hang on for grim death.
It’s not the stories by themselves which will bring Cameron down. It’s the men behind those stories. Some enemies are just too big to make; and since his as dubious as it gets purchase of The Times and Sunday Times in 1981, no British political leader has managed to get on Murdoch’s bad side and survive to tell the tale. In the bitterest of ironies, the Old Etonian prime minister may himself be about to discover that in British politics, money doesn’t talk. It swears.
For the best part of the last 30 years, support for the European Union (EU) and Britain’s role within it has been a badge of honour for the left. Just why is this?
Time was when – until around the mid-1980s or so – much of the British left favoured withdrawal from the then European Economic Community (EEC), while the Conservative Party was split. So much so that pro-European Tory MPs and ministers, infuriated by Margaret Thatcher’s mounting antipathy towards the European project, brought the Iron Lady down in 1990, for reasons which now appear bizarre. After her fall, the whole issue of Europe would poison the party, root to tip; while the highly Europhile New Labour grasped the political nettle. Even entry into the euro seemed likely at one point.
Yet the British left’s quarter-century-long enthusiastic support for all things Europe is at odds not only with UK public opinion, but increasingly, the facts on the ground. The euro experiment has been a political, economic and social disaster: impoverishing huge swathes of southern Europe, tying it to a currency with no escape, and even robbing member states of anything resembling democracy or control of their own destinies. Freedom of movement, the dream of so many pro-Europeans, is imploding in tandem with the Schengen agreement. EU political institutions not only profoundly lack democratic legitimacy, but are inert, helpless, in the face of the greatest refugee crisis since 1945. National governments cannot agree on what day of the week it is, let alone how to collectively respond; anti-immigration sentiment is rising across much of the continent. Is the very thing which was designed to bring help bring peace and stability to a region so often ravaged by war now unwittingly serving to provoke not unity, but mounting anger and division?
By the end of 2017, perhaps as soon as next year, the British people, denied a voice on their country’s role within the EU for over four decades, will go to the polls to decide whether the UK should remain… or leave. This article challenges my fellow travellers on the left to do what they have so often neglected: to scrutinise the EU’s very many failings, think long and hard, and ask yourselves: is staying in really worth it?
The forerunner to the Common Market, the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), was the brainchild of extraordinarily enlightened French and West German ministers. Twice in the preceding 36 years, their countries had done one another untold levels of human suffering; and Europe’s longer history had involved constant cycles of violence and misery. The peace we all take for granted now was a dream to statesmen such as Robert Schuman of France and Konrad Adenauer of West Germany: both of whom displayed immense courage and remarkably far-sighted vision. Countries which trade with one another do not fight each other. The European project, based on supranationalism and interdependence, was born.
Yet given how recently the two countries had been at war, and the natural mistrust of both their peoples, what would have happened had the ECSC, founded in Paris in 1951 (where Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands joined France and West Germany as co-signatories), been put to a democratic vote? And where Europe was concerned, lack of demonstrable popular consent would prove a constant and ever-mounting problem.
Jean Monnet, founding father of the ECSC, has often wrongly had the following apocryphal words attributed to him:
Europe’s nations should be guided towards the super-state without their people understanding what is happening. This can be accomplished by successive steps each disguised as having an economic purpose, but which will eventually and irreversibly lead to federation.
In fact, these weren’t Monnet’s words at all – but those of the Conservative politician and author, Adrian Hilton, in The Principality and Power of Europe, published in 1997. Yet this is almost by the by. That so many have ascribed the words to Monnet is because so many have been so shocked at what the European project has since become.
The ECSC morphed first into the Common Market, then the EEC. Britain joined in 1973, and its public approved membership by two to one in the 1975 referendum: where recently elected Tory leader, Mrs Thatcher, campaigned passionately for a ‘Yes’ vote. But what the public were sold then – a mutually beneficial club based on free trade and nothing more – was not remotely what would transpire; and gradually, the penny began to drop.
Contrary to her reputation of fire and brimstone (and especially, the myths she indulged following her downfall), Thatcher went on to sign the Single European Act: the first substantive revision of the Treaty of Rome since 1957, which codified not only economic, but political co-operation between member states. With the sole exception of the Lisbon Treaty, no single piece of legislation did more to accelerate the EEC’s transformation from free trade zone to political behemoth.
Under pressure from various key Cabinet ministers – Nigel Lawson, Sir Geoffrey Howe, Douglas Hurd and John Major – and greatly against her better judgement, Thatcher even acceded to Britain’s membership of the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM): where sterling would shadow the deutschmark, but as events would prove, at entirely the wrong rate. But when it came to proposals for a single currency, the Prime Minister balked.
In the House of Commons, Thatcher focused on the obvious threat which a common currency would pose to national, economic and Parliamentary sovereignty. Yet with stunning levels of prophecy, her autobiography, paraphrased by The Telegraph in 2010, set out her broader fears:
(Thatcher) warned John Major, her euro-friendly chancellor of the exchequer, that the single currency could not accommodate both industrial powerhouses such as Germany and smaller countries such as Greece. Germany, forecast Thatcher, would be phobic about inflation, while the euro would prove fatal to the poorer countries because it would “devastate their inefficient economies”.
To watch the famous “No! No! No!” debate in the Commons in October 1990 is to observe two things. First, a Prime Minister in absolute command of the issues: who foresaw with impeccable prescience that no country which loses control of its money supply can retain control over financial policy, Parliamentary sovereignty, or even its democracy itself. And second: support which came more across the floor from figures such as Tony Benn or David Owen than her own party; especially, her own Cabinet.
Thatcher’s increasingly autocratic style – going over the head of Sir Geoffrey, the Deputy Prime Minister, and ignoring collective Cabinet government in so doing – would bring her down within weeks. Yet her words have echoed down the years since. The Iron Lady got many things wrong in her final years in office and divided the country hugely throughout her premiership; but on Europe, who now could possibly claim she did not foresee with perfect clarity exactly what was coming?
The President of the Commission, Mr. Delors, said at a press conference the other day that he wanted the European Parliament to be the democratic body of the Community, he wanted the Commission to be the Executive and he wanted the Council of Ministers to be the Senate. No. No. No.
History carries with it many strange, bitter ironies. Precisely because Thatcher had become so enormously unpopular by the end of her time, and also thanks to the fratricidal nature of her removal, instead of these words being heeded, two things began to happen. Under her successor, Major, the Conservative Party, unable to forgive itself for what it had done, descended into poison and acrimony: with the amiable Prime Minister undermined at every turn by Eurosceptic backbenchers, egged on by an embittered ex-Premier. The suddenly renascent Labour Party, meanwhile, defined itself against the hopelessly split Tories: the more the latter obsessed with Europe, the more Tony Blair guided his unified troops towards embracing Britain’s destiny at the heart of the European project.
To look back at that time – and, indeed, the years after Blair entered Downing Street – is to cringe at how many on the left assumed Tory Euroscepticism was based on narrow-minded xenophobia or fear of the other. However unelectable the Tories undoubtedly were, or obsessed with Europe they had plainly become, this meant that the detail of matters of profound importance – economic, political, social, and above all, democratic – was never properly discussed. The left simply embraced Europe as a fundamentally good thing; it never really stopped to ask itself why.
To be sure, what had now become the EU appeared to offer the kind of social protections which Thatcher had sought to remove; certainly, a spirit of open-minded, outward-looking internationalism chimed in perfectly with the broad church which New Labour had become. Yet even as it basked in public approbation, Blair’s government never sought to explain the benefits of the EU to the British people, nor allow them any say (for example, on the proposed EU Constitution) via a referendum. There was simply no serious attempt by Europhiles to set out the merits of their position. Was this because in practice, there scarcely were any?
During this time, like so many of my friends and contemporaries, I was an EU enthusiast too. Beyond some warm, fuzzy sense of peace on Earth and goodwill to all men – an aspiration of what Europe could be, not what it actually was – and blinkered antipathy to anything the Tories stood for, I never really thought about it in much depth. The Maastricht Treaty was so dense, so impenetrable, so voluminous, it seemed better suited for use as an offensive weapon than a vitally important document; goodness knows, I had little or no knowledge of the intricacies of the European Council, the European Commission, or the European Parliament. Which of these bodies had what powers, I couldn’t have begun to articulate; nor could anyone else I knew either.
All except one individual, that is. Alan Sked, founder of the UK Independence Party, was a highly engaging lecturer on my Master’s course. Each week, he would warn us of the wholly illegitimate superstate which the EU would inevitably become; each week, we’d all sit laughing. As befits trendy leftie students, almost none of us took him seriously; but like Thatcher and many on the right, Sked, a brilliant man, had long foreseen the direction of travel. If you’re reading this Alan, mea culpa. You were right.
Mind you, there was one detail I’d parrot to anyone who challenged me about my Europhilia. Freedom of movement. The idea that, should I so choose, I could up, leave, live and work in any other member state was marvellous as far as I was concerned: but in implementing this, the EU had begun to sow the seeds of its own downfall.
For there’s a flipside to freedom of movement. Not merely mass immigration but uncontrollable immigration; nations which lose control of their own borders. And in a globalised world, that inevitably means those from poorer member states migrating to wealthier ones.
At the time, to my shame, I thought the mounting complaints surrounding this, especially following EU enlargement in 2004, were barely concealed racism. They were anything but. Migration on such a scale – the largest wave of inward migration ever to hit the British Isles – pushes wages down and local people, especially those living in poorer areas, out of jobs: generating anger, resentment, alienation, atomisation. The political and media narrative in Britain began to change. In line, it should be noted, with much of northern Europe.
Yet as public frustration grew, still the British people were denied any say on anything to do with the EU. And even in places where referenda were held – in France, the Netherlands, or (twice) in Ireland – rejections of the Nice Treaty, European Constitution, or Lisbon Treaty were met with studied indifference on the part of EU leaders. Their project was now such a runaway express train that no mere member state could be allowed to derail it; so the Constitution was turned into the Lisbon Treaty, and when the Irish people – the only national electorate anywhere in the EU to be allowed a vote on the most far-reaching, seismic piece of legislation in its history – vetoed this, they were simply asked to vote again. Democracy? What democracy?
Why was Lisbon so important? In amending and consolidating the Treaties of Rome and Maastricht, it:
Moved the Council of Ministers from requiring unanimous agreement to qualified majority voting in at least 45 areas of policy
Brought in a ‘double majority’ system: which necessitates the support of at least 55% of European Council members, who must also represent at least 65% of EU citizens, in almost all areas of policy
Established a more powerful European Parliament, which would now form part of a bicameral legislature along with the Council of Ministers
Granted a legal personality to the EU, enabling it to agree treaties in its own name
Created a new long term President of the European Council and a High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy
And made the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the EU’s bill of rights, legally binding.
Whether you agree with these changes or not is beside the point. The point is: the peoples of Europe were never given a vote on it. Instead, all this was just pushed through over the European public’s collective head. In the twenty-first century, how can such profound constitutional changes – which impact on all Europeans, whether they realise it or not – be allowed without democratic consent?
In any polity, if leaders or legislators do not accede to their position through the ballot box, this lack of accountability breeds out-of-touch, unanswerable governance about which the public can do nothing. Yet that is the reality of the European Union. The President of the Commission is approved by the Parliament; except this happens unopposed. All Commissioners – who together, comprise the executive of the EU – are nominated by member states.
The President of the European Council – that is to say, the de facto President of Europe, the EU’s principal representative on the global stage – is chosen by the heads of government of the member states. And even the European Parliament, whose members are all directly elected by the public, (1) has overseen constant falling turnout ever since the first elections in 1979 (of below 50% at each of the last four European elections, and a miserable 42.5% in 2014); (2) cannot formally initiate legislation; (3) does not contain a formal opposition.
In terms of genuine democracy, most of the above is unrecognisable. If more and more people believe that powers are shifting away from their hands and national legislatures towards a group of illegitimate, unelected bureaucrats and apparatchiks, that’s probably because they’re right.
One such apparatchik was Herman Van Rompuy, the European Council’s first full-time President. An individual less cut out for the position of global ambassador for Europe, it’s impossible to conceive of; and following his appointment, one man in particular wasn’t about to allow him to forget it.
As the EU’s institutions have steadily fallen into disrepair, and publics across Europe grown more and more infuriated at the acquiescence of their national assemblies and established parties, populists have increasingly flourished. Ugly, lowest common denominator populists, in many cases; but when it comes to Europe, that doesn’t mean they don’t often have a point. So it was that as the sheepish Van Rompuy, who probably isn’t even a household name in his own household, presented himself to the Parliament, UKIP leader Nigel Farage gave it to him with both barrels:
Who are you? I’d never heard of you. Nobody in Europe had ever heard of you. I would like to ask you, President! Who voted for you? And what mechanism do the peoples of Europe have to remove you?
Farage is wrong about most things; his opinions on the refugee crisis, for example, are abhorrent. But like Thatcher, he’s been proven spectacularly correct on the EU again and again and again; and in any case, he’s only gained a position of such influence because of the enormous disconnect between Eurocrats and European voters. Which, in 2008/9, was highlighted in no uncertain terms by Václav Klaus, then President of the Czech Republic.
In December 2008, Klaus met with the leaders of various European Parliamentary groups at Hradcany Castle, overlooking Prague. His country had yet to sign the Lisbon Treaty. You might imagine this would have been a convivial meeting, with full respect shown towards a democratically elected head of state. Quite the reverse.
Daniel Cohn-Bendit, leader of the European Greens, complained bitterly that the EU flag was not in evidence above the castle, and plonked his own flag down on the table. He then informed the Czech President: “I don’t care about your opinions on the Lisbon Treaty”.
After the appalling Hans-Gert Pöttering, President of the EU Parliament, weighed in on Cohn-Bendit’s behalf, it was the turn of the Irish MEP, Brian Crowley: who fulminated against Klaus’ apparent support of the successful ‘No’ campaign in the recent referendum. When Klaus replied: “The biggest insult to the Irish people is not to accept the result”, Crowley bawled: “You will not tell me what the Irish think. As an Irishman, I know it best.”
If this was bad, it would get worse. Far worse. Two months later, Klaus was invited to speak to the European Parliament as head of a member state. Europe’s MEPs – supposed servants of the people – were clearly very unused to being told anything other than how wonderful and important they all were. Instead of engaging in the standard empty platitudes, Klaus took the opportunity to deliver perhaps the most important speech ever made in the continental legislature:
Are you really convinced that every time you vote, you are deciding something that must be decided here in this hall and not closer to the citizens, ie. in the individual European states?… In a normal parliamentary system, a faction of MPs supports the government and a faction supports the opposition. In the European Parliament, this arrangement is missing. Here, only one single alternative is being promoted and those who dare think differently are labelled as enemies of European integration.
As if to prove Klaus right, jeers and whistles now began to ring out around the chamber. Undeterred, the President continued, reminding his audience of his country’s tragic recent history under Communist rule: “A political system that permitted no alternatives and therefore also no parliamentary opposition… where there is no opposition, there is no freedom. That is why political alternatives must exist”.
At length, Klaus arrived at the coup de grace. In a few softly spoken paragraphs, he not only punctured the pomposity of the delegates as no-one ever had before; he also set out exactly what was wrong with the European Union, and why this fundamental problem could not be resolved:
The relationship between a citizen of a member state and a representative of the Union is not a standard relationship between a voter and a politician, representing him or her. There is also a great distance (not only in a geographical sense) between citizen and Union representatives, which is much greater than it is inside the member countries.
This distance is often described as the democratic deficit; the loss of democratic accountability, the decision-making of the unelected – but selected – ones, the bureaucratisation of decision-making. The proposals… included in the rejected European Constitution or in the not much different Lisbon Treaty would make this defect even worse.
Since there is no European demos – and no European nation – this defect cannot be solved by strengthening the role of the European Parliament either. This would, on the contrary, make the problem worse and lead to an even greater alienation between the citizens of the European countries and Union institutions.
There followed a quite extraordinary spectacle. Unable to bear the laser guided truth missiles raining down upon them from the lectern, 200 MEPs rose to their feet and walked out. In a dispiriting sign of just how impervious the British left had become on the whole question of the EU, many of those doing so were Labour MEPs. As demonstrations of the farce that is European ‘democracy’ go, it will never be bettered.
In his speech, Klaus had set out just how counter-productive the European project had become. Something designed to bring Europe closer together was, in fact, threatening to drive its peoples apart: because without democratic consent, and in the absence of a European nation, how had the public agreed to what was being implemented over their heads, in their name?
It was also increasingly clear that Europe could only be a superstate, or a collection of sovereign states. It could not be both, operating under the same institutional umbrella. The former required Europe-wide consent which had never been asked for, let alone provided; the latter would only lead to paralysis, with the various members unable to agree on common policy and pursuing often wildly diverging national interests.
Leftist supporters of the EU, even when noting many of its deficiencies, often argue that Britain must stay in to pursue and lead calls for reform. But the point is: for the reasons Klaus set out, it is impossible to reform. The democratic deficit has been spoken about with deepening alarm for 20 years and more; not only has nothing been done to change this, but the Union’s institutions have accrued considerably more unaccountable (in many respects, illegitimate) powers over that time. Uncontrolled immigration has continued across the continent; but in the face of an unprecedented refugee crisis and the emergence of right wing populism in Denmark, England, France and elsewhere, Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the Commission, describes freedom of movement as one of the EU’s “greatest achievements”.
And then, of course, there’s the euro. Nowhere has the intransigent, indifferent, fanatical nature of the Union been displayed more openly than over the ongoing economic catastrophe it proudly oversees. As Thatcher noted in her autobiography, tying so many hugely different economies together under one monetary unit was bound to lead to disaster. Yet this was compounded by (1) no public mandate for this in any of those countries; (2) eurozone states, in theory if not, as we shall see, always in practice, keeping control of their budgets and tax affairs; (3) German monetary discipline in the face of appalling repercussions elsewhere; (4) despite all being part of one currency, member states remaining responsible for the debts they accrue.
The latter point has meant that far and away the euro’s strongest member, Germany, has been able to have its cake and eat it: flooding the market with cheap exports, while deliberately holding wages down at home, and building up the largest trade surplus anywhere in the world. That surplus automatically grows simply as a result of prices being artificially low in Germany, artificially high elsewhere. Its own domestic and political priorities have trumped those of many other euro members.
Meanwhile, when others get into difficulty, they don’t have the option of devaluing and recovering. Instead, all they can do is put taxes up again and again (destroying their competitiveness in the process) and cut, cut, cut: with profound social consequences. The result has been youth unemployment across southern Europe of eye-watering levels: a whole generation has been written off just to preserve a currency which nobody with an ounce of economic literacy believes can work.
The euro has been such a disaster that since its launch amid much fanfare and bureaucrat backslapping, Italy has scarcely grown at all: and recently experienced twelve consecutive quarters of contraction. As the Conservative MEP, Daniel Hannan, has noted, even outside the single currency, Britain is now part of the only trade bloc in the world which is actually shrinking: a bloc most of whose members (but not so much the UK) face mounting demographic timebombs too.
Meanwhile, member states trapped inside the euro’s economic prison have found themselves unable (or rather, not permitted) to change course, even if they wanted to. Ireland was told it would have to have its budget approved by the EU and International Monetary Fund (IMF) before it could hold elections. In Italy, euro architect, Mario Monti, appointed as a lifetime senator just three days earlier, was parachuted in to lead an entire government of wholly unelected technocrats in implementing harsh austerity reforms, regardless of what the public wished. And in Greece, the cradle of democracy, events have had to be seen to be believed.
Greece, of course, is the ultimate example of an economy which should never have been part of the euro to begin with; and whose then leaders conspired with Goldman Sachs in cooking the books to gain admission. The moment it was accepted into, in William Hague’s famous words, a “burning building with no exits”, its fate was sealed.
A great deal of nonsense has been spoken about Greece somehow being responsible for the unmitigated economic catastrophe in which it finds itself: how, in the parlance so beloved of austerians, it “maxed out the credit card, then expected others to pay the bill”. In practice, Greece has been the world’s most enduring victim of the 2008 global crash. This was caused, of course, by the toxic sub-prime mortgage bubble bursting; in consequence of which, the private exposure of the banks was piled onto the public across the developed world.
For Greece, already a weak service economy hugely dependent on tourism, the downgrading of national bonds via the corporate sector and credit rating agencies was especially crippling: piling up interest payments to the point where they became a noose around the country’s neck. Greek government 10-year bond yields, generally sailing along at around 5% until 2010, soared to an unthinkable 48.6% by March 2012.
This meant of the so-called European Central Bank (ECB)/IMF ‘bailout’ loans which Greece received, fully three-quarters went towards debt and interest repayments, paying back the IMF, and recapitalising the banks. Just 11% was used for government cash needs. The loans barely went towards stabilising the Greek economy at all; and were accompanied by austerity packages so lunatic, they should have come with a public health warning.
When George Papandreou, the Greek Prime Minister, announced the government’s desire to hold a referendum on the 2011 ‘bailout’, he was forced out, and replaced, as in Italy, by a technocratic, puppet administration. There was no election; and Lucas Papademos, the new Premier, was a former ECB Vice-President. The Greek people had been warned.
Entirely predictably, given skyrocketing repayments and strangulating austerity, the package failed; and in the meantime, Papademos had intensified the mass sell-off of public assets. Pushed almost beyond breaking point, the public had had enough: voting in a government led by radical leftists, Syriza, earlier this year; then rejecting another draconian bail-out via referendum on July 5.
Since the new government’s accession, it had frantically sought a sensible accommodation with the group of euro finance ministers: Any such agreement would self-evidently feature an enormous write-off of debt. But as the maverick Yanis Varoufakis, Don Quixote himself, quickly discovered, the Eurogroup wasn’t interested in helping a stricken member along the path to sustainability and any kind of viable future. Instead, for nakedly political reasons, it wanted its pound of flesh. Papandreou had been punished for insurrection; so too must the new Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras.
The aim, plainly, was to bring Tsipras’ anti-austerity administration down as quickly as possible. The outbreak of democracy in Greece was a threat to be treated with contempt. Varoufakis found himself confronted by the ultimate blockhead: Wolfgang Schäuble, the ultra-conservative German finance minister.
The other side insisted on a ‘comprehensive agreement’, which meant they wanted to talk about everything. My interpretation is that when you want to talk about everything, you don’t want to talk about anything… There were absolutely no (new) positions put forward on anything by them.
(Schäuble was) consistent throughout… His view was, ‘I’m not discussing the programme – this was accepted by the previous (Greek) government and we can’t possibly allow an election to change anything’.
So at that point, I said: ‘Well perhaps we should simply not hold elections anymore for indebted countries’, and there was no answer.
65 years previously, the ECSC had been born amid a spirit of solidarity: nations putting aside their differences and working together for the common good. Through no fault of its own (other than having signed up to the euro, that is), Varoufakis’ country was trapped in the worst depression seen anywhere in the developed world since the 1930s – but the EU was now a purely political project, driven by self-interested nation states. Those governments which had accepted austerity packages – in Portugal, Spain, Ireland or Italy – were horrified at the idea of Greece winning substantial concessions, because it “would obliterate them politically: they would have to answer to their own people why they didn’t negotiate like we were doing”. Greece was cornered from almost all sides.
There was point blank refusal to engage in economic arguments. Point blank. You put forward an argument that you’ve really worked on, to make sure it’s logically coherent, and you’re just faced with blank stares. It is as if you haven’t spoken. What you say is independent of what they say. You might as well have sung the Swedish national anthem – you’d have got the same reply.
The day after the referendum, Varoufakis resigned, and rode off into the sunset. In his absence, the following weekend, the whole world witnessed just what a grotesque spectacle the EU had become. Far from seeking to accommodate Tsipras, Eurozone leaders and finance ministers simply piled on more and more pressure; and were armed with the ECB’s threat of unlawfully cutting off liquidity to Greek banks. Even the central bank was now a political tool to be used by politicians as they saw fit. The Eurogroup – which please note, isn’t even a legal entity – didn’t want a workable solution for Greece. It wanted dominion.
The subsequent ‘agreement’ was even harsher than that rejected at the plebiscite: Varoufakis described it as a “new Versailles Treaty”. The Greek left now began to split; but Tsipras had been shown where the true power lay in Europe, and had no way out. On 22 July, he won a Parliamentary vote clearing the way for Greece to agree talks with its creditors on the horrendous new package; but this was no victory. To this thunderstruck observer, for all the world, it was like watching a national Parliament vote itself out of existence.
Tsipras has since been forced to call early elections: the centre-right recently caught up with Syriza in the polls. The euro may well be about to claim its latest victim; the people of Greece will continue to pay an intolerable price.
During his triumphant Labour leadership campaign, Jeremy Corbyn, hero of the British left, has spoken of “solidarity with Greece”. In practice, what does this actually mean? This summer revealed as never before how few friends Greece has within the EU: Eastern European states and Finland were arguably even more draconian in their stance than Germany. There was no attempt to find a consensus which would genuinely help the ravaged Greek economy recover at all; instead, the can was kicked down the road yet again. ‘Extend and pretend’, not real action, was the response to an enormous economic and social crisis affecting an EU member. Solidarity? What solidarity?
Britain is but one often isolated voice among 28 member states, and not even in the euro (despite which, extraordinarily, the European Commission has been trying to enforce UK deficit reduction ever since 2008. Tory austerity? It comes by express order of Eurocrats, dear readers). Even in the wildly implausible scenario of a Corbyn General Election victory in 2020, what could a government led by him actually do? Nothing. Proponents of the EU argue that this is temporary: that the right is currently dominant across much of Europe, and the Union will inevitably rediscover its ‘old values’ when the left reasserts itself electorally.
But this doesn’t stand up. Actually, the only way the euro will stand any chance in future is if a superstate is formally agreed and approved of at the ballot box by its members; and this superstate, in the manner of the federal US, then takes on responsibility for all economic and taxation policy, as well as all debts accrued. The chances of this? Zero. The Eurozone publics and many of its governments would never stand for it.
The great mistake of the EU’s architects has been to assume that, in a world of ever-closer interdependence, nation states could gradually be swept away in the name of a greater cause. In fact, as this important article explains, Europe’s elites knew that disaster was inevitable even before the euro was launched:
Specific crises of national sovereignty were needed, i.e., socially perceived problems that could not be solved within the national framework. The occurrence of such crises was a window of opportunity for the progress of the unification process, and determined its direction: an economic crisis would favour developments towards economic integration… Crises were opportunities for the development of a federalist “initiative”.
‘An economic crisis would favour developments towards economic integration’. In other words, the woes which would befall the euro’s southern states would, or so the Eurocrats believed, inevitably force those states into a federal superstate, whether the people liked it or not.
Ironically, this is essentially the same error as another enormous, unwieldy Union – the Soviet Union – made. Both nationalism and especially its benign cousin, patriotism, will always be innate and powerful forces; people will always need a place called home. And when those people have the right to formulate their own policies and forge their own national destinies at the ballot box removed from them, they react. It’s inevitable. “Europe’s nations should be guided towards the super-state without their people understanding what is happening” – but more and more people do understand what is happening, and they don’t like it one bit.
Thus in the face of the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, the response of a good number of Eastern European states – notably Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic – has been one of fear. It’s true that leaders such as the appalling Viktor Orbán, Hungarian Prime Minister, have irresponsibly whipped this fear up; but it’s also the case that peoples across Europe simply did not vote for migration of whatever nature on this enormous scale.
Meanwhile, what can other governments do but respond to these fears? The Danish government have taken to placing advertisements in the Lebanese press warning refugees of the hurdles they will face should they come to Denmark. The French government have to keep at times alarming levels of support for Marine Le Pen’s National Front in check ahead of Presidential elections in 2017: where she has become a genuine threat. The British authorities unconscionably deport 18-year-old Afghan refugees taken in as children back to their country of origin – an approach which is not only disgracefully inhumane, but as with its treatment of non-EU graduates, constitutes economic self-harm – and have not fully clarified whether the same might apply to the pitifully low numbers of Syrian children being granted asylum now.
Goodness knows what Monnet, Schuman or Adenauer would have made of Europe’s shambolic response (or rather, non-response) to this crisis; but a great deal of it is predicated upon the forces which the European project has unwittingly unleashed. Imagine if, instead of freedom of movement, the nations of Europe still had control over their borders, and could decide which migrants to accept based on the interests of their economies? Would fears about being ‘overwhelmed’ by immigration be anything like as powerful? It’s more likely, surely, that with national, points-based, needs-based systems keeping economic migration under control, European public opinion would be reassured, and refugees from a war as brutal as Syria welcomed with open arms.
In any case: with the Syrian conflict having gone on for over 4 years, killed well over 200,000, and displaced fully half of the entire population, what is the point of the EU if throughout that time, it’s never been able to provide a co-ordinated response? Not only has it taken until now for some member states to begin to agree on the numbers of refugees to be taken in; but there’s never been a common approach in terms of aid, demanding Middle Eastern states do more, or working towards the establishment of safe havens.
As it does not have an army, and is generally less influential diplomatically than a number of member states, the latter two points are largely beyond the EU’s remit: but that again begs the question, what is it there for? What benefits does it bring? What does it presently do which, if it did not exist, Europe’s nations would not already be doing?
A favourite trope of the left is that Britain cannot ‘isolate itself from the world’ or ‘exist by itself’ by withdrawing from the Union. This conjures up the bizarre image of one of the wealthiest nations and largest economies on the planet, arguably number one in terms of soft power, somehow waking up the day after the referendum and finding itself all alone, without a friend anywhere. War, famine and pestilence would, insist the doomsayers, surely follow.
Well, no it wouldn’t. Quite the opposite. The one argument which will be trotted out again and again between now and the referendum is that concerning jobs: so many, we are told, are dependent upon EU membership. It might come as a surprise to learn, then, that Britain is a net loser from the EU in financial terms; and comically, when the UK economy outperforms the rest of the EU, it finds itself penalised for success with a huge surcharge. £1.7bn was demanded by Brussels in October 2014, since quietly paid off.
Is David Cameron in a position to get these rules changed and follow Thatcher, his celebrated predecessor, in securing a rebate? Not in a Union of 28 members with qualified majority voting, he isn’t. Britain might have a voice in the EU; but contrary to the Prime Minister’s protestations ahead of renegotiation, no longer holds remotely enough sway to make a substantial difference to its direction. Angela Merkel, the true power in Europe, has declared that freedom of movement is not up for discussion (Germany’s temporary closure of its borders in recent days is actually within the terms of the Schengen agreement); and when Cameron opposed Juncker’s appointment last year, he found himself in a small minority. Of one.
Meanwhile, as (mostly, though not entirely thanks to the euro disaster) the EU shrinks, so does its share of British exports: which plummeted from 65% in 2006 to 45% by 2014. As the single currency continues to strangle most of Europe’s economies, there is no chance of this trend being reversed: the Greek saga reminding us all of just how bleak the long term prognosis is. Nothing can or will change; southern Europe will remain enslaved by debt, austerity will continue, and eventually, German, Dutch and Finnish taxpayers will face an almighty reckoning. Ageing populations across much of the continent will call welfare models ever more into question too.
Britain doesn’t gain economically from being part of this customs union. It loses. And having vacated its seat at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and been prevented from making any bilateral free trade agreement with any non-EU state since accession in 1973, there isn’t an awful lot it can do about it: unless, that is, it leaves.
Recently, concern has grown over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), being negotiated in secret by the US and EU. The UK has no say here; whatever the EU agrees, it will have to go along with. No-one really knows what the net outcome of TTIP will be – there are strong arguments for and against – but if it allows corporations to sue national governments, the worst case scenario is the effective end of democracy altogether. No wonder, some might say, Eurocrats are so keen.
In any event, just as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) impoverished and ruined Mexican farmers, so TTIP’s most pernicious effects would, just like freedom of movement, inevitably be felt by those least able to absorb them. How can the left even propose, let alone support, such a state of affairs?
There is an alternative though. In an ever more interdependent, digital global economy, freed from the shackles of the EU, Britain would – while still enjoying full access to the single market via membership of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) – be able to make trade agreements with whoever it pleased. It would have the best of both worlds. And as the EU shrinks economically, so the Commonwealth grows. The latter overtook the former in 2013; while the so-called ‘Anglosphere’ of English-speaking countries – the US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland – will soon be more populous than mainland Europe. If we included South Africa, Caribbean democracies, Hong Kong, Singapore and (however dubiously), rapidly rising India, much more populous.
Highlighting the potential strength of the Anglosphere no doubt sounds quaint; backward-looking, even. To a time of Empire long since passed, and Churchill’s famous line about the three concentric circles. But that misses the point. Its core members share common legal frameworks, common values, an approach to liberalism which makes co-operation in business, economics and much else besides very simple. There’s a reason why English is the lingua franca of business. Why should the UK look to a union based on geography, rather than common language, and a colossally successful common approach to trade?
And of course, this would only form part of British commercial policy anyway. As Hannan, the most articulate, perceptive, idealistic advocate of UK withdrawal anywhere – whom, it is imperative, should be front and centre of the ‘Out’ campaign – has noted, the argument here shouldn’t be beloved of Little Englanders. It should be that of Big Worlders. It’s a big world out there, in which Britain can play its full part across all spheres: including, of course, Europe.
If the EU really were merely a free trade zone, it wouldn’t be necessary to make these arguments. It’s not. It’s a political leviathan: which conducts commercial agreements by itself, arrogates more and more powers to itself, makes and enforces positively byzantine legislation, and has never sought the consent of the people in the process. If any object, it ignores them; if the consequences include economic meltdown across its southern states, it continues blithely along its oblivious, self-congratulatory path; and in the face of real humanitarian catastrophe on the edge of Europe, its institutions don’t so much glide into gear, as clunk. Almost in slow motion.
The fundamental paradox at its heart – that it acts like a de facto superstate, but is continually paralysed by the differing interests of nation states – can never be resolved without democratic consent across the continent, and has caused its signature ‘achievements’ of the euro and the Schengen agreement to descend into fiasco. It shrinks both economically and commercially; its top down, ever more distant nature provokes mounting disquiet and reactionary populism among peoples who have had the ability to control their own affairs removed.
To those on the left reading this who feel differently, I challenge you: name five tangible benefits of EU membership. Not soft, touchy feely, aspirational benefits; actual, real benefits. This should surely be a slam dunk given the frequently unblinking support provided for the EU – but it’s not. I can’t find a single benefit worth the name. All I can identify is the law of unintended consequences acting in all its might as never before.
Thatcher and the Eurosceptics were right all along. Not only are there no real advantages to Britain remaining, but the EU acts against economic prosperity, social cohesion, democracy and nation states; and step by step, is creating a continent both divided and increasingly fractious. If it had never been created, would anyone seriously now invent it? When the referendum comes, the British people should vote to leave.
Football has never, ever been about justice. If you want justice, go to the law courts. The reason for its extraordinary, enduring, ever-growing appeal all over the world is that it’s about stories, controversy… and above all, drama. Well, we got ourselves plenty of drama in Santiago last night. Where Uruguay defended admirably, missed a glorious chance to take a shock lead… only to be undone by that other key factor in so many major tournaments. The referee.
After Edinson Cavani’s ridiculous sending off – being sexually assaulted on a football pitch is now, apparently, a bookable offence, at least when it’s the hosts doing it – still La Celeste fought on; still they resisted. Alas, the otherwise rock-solid Fernando Muslera erred, the unlikely figure of Mauricio Isla pounced, and Uruguay were doomed.
There was still time for Sandro Ricci – an inept official, who had lost control long earlier with a series of needless bookings, and displayed a complete lack of common sense throughout – to add to his never-to-be-forgotten night by harshly (but in this case, understandably) giving Jorge Fucile a second booking for a tackle which took both ball and man. At which point, after exactly 12 months (almost to the hour) of being battered from pillar to post, Oscar Washington Tabarez’ troops had finally taken more than they could bear.
A team whose immense, single-minded unity has been key to everything they’ve achieved over the past 9 years exploded in fury as their cherished Copa America was wrenched from their grasp. Even Tabarez, enraged by what he’d just seen, more animated than in years, was in the thick of it, and also expelled for his pains. The game proceeded to its shabby conclusion: and Uruguay, beaten but unbowed, were out.
Over the past 3 years, this Blog has repeatedly highlighted Tabarez’ failure to renovate his team, or its style. Last night, there he was: still depending on the likes of Fucile or Cebolla Rodriguez despite both having barely played all season; still refusing to give Giorgian de Arrascaeta his head. La Celeste defended superbly, but did very little else; and however much, as I again reiterate, to turn Uruguay into an attacking side is to go against the very instinct and nature of the people, El Maestro is culpable for his side’s pathological poverty of creativity and ideas.
Surprise, surprise: guess who didn’t play against Chile?
But this is a nation of 3.4 million. That it achieves as much as it so often does in football is without parallel; and in such a world, small countries almost always close ranks, defend what they have and fight their corner. Uruguay do so extraordinarily well: neutrals deride their style, but this isn’t Chelsea, replete with hundreds of millions of pounds’ worth of talent. This is a little nation in the South Atlantic which despite its myriad accomplishments, the world just doesn’t care about. At all.
And because so few care, few non-Uruguayans will dwell even for a moment on what happened last night. “Victory for football!”, some will even hail. Victory for a country which failed to suspend a player charged with drink driving; whose centre back sexually assaulted a man with the immense courage to play only a day after his father was arrested for causing a fatality in – the cruellest of ironies – his own case of driving when under the influence; and whose cheating and playacting made the decisive difference in the outcome.
The record books will say Chile 1-0 Uruguay: but the hosts didn’t win that match. The officials did. 11 v 11, La Celeste were fine. 12 v 9, naturally, they weren’t. What will the (entirely justified) beef of almost all Uruguayans be? Why is it that when their star man, Luis Suarez, does something wrong, the world goes into an orbit of apoplexy… yet when Gonzalo Jara does something just as bad (arguably, worse); and Arturo Vidal does something infinitely worse, it looks the other way? What do you have against us? Why always us?
Those players and their coach didn’t erupt at the end last night just because of the officiating. What happened was the icing on the cake: the crowning turd in the waterpipe of something which started in the 79th minute between Uruguay and Italy in Natal exactly one year beforehand. Check the date. 24 June. We should really have seen it coming.
24 June 2014. The day Uruguay’s annus horribilis began.
In the aftermath of that notorious incident between Suarez and Giorgio Chiellini, this Blog fulminated against the response of 99% of the Uruguayan media and public: so prone to believing in conspiracies, so reluctant to get their own house in order. Suarez did wrong and deserved to be punished… but for nine games? This man is their national hero. Coupled with him being banished from Brazil like a dog, this looked horribly vindictive; and in a world in which a man is arrested and charged with drink driving, yet suffers no footballing punishment whatsoever, it now looks utterly ridiculous
Just to rub more salt into especially deep wounds, Suarez, continuing a vein of form so rich he must be regarded as indubitably one of the three finest footballers on the planet, just inspired Barcelona to the Champions League title; yet his country was denied his services, as it will continue to be for four matches more in the eliminatorias. Uruguay, infinitely more than Suarez, have been punished… and they’re still being so.
Against such a backdrop, Tabarez’ job was to ensure his depleted forces got on with it – and however much many of us will question his overall approach, they did. In their usual “no football please, we’re Uruguayan” style, sure: no frills, no fantasy, little to get the pulse racing. Yet strong enough, still, to pose a mighty threat to the much hyped host nation last night. Uruguay without Suarez, Martin Caceres or Alvaro Pereira? Chile couldn’t beat them.
The game looked like it was heading towards penalties: until the referee handicapped La Celeste even further. Now, it was Uruguay without Suarez, Caceres, Pereira or Cavani: and at length, with only 8 minutes left, Chile finally found a way through. What country anywhere could possibly have resisted all that?
Not, mind you, that Ricci and his team were solely responsible. The behaviour of footballers routinely leaves a sour taste in the mouth – but for Jara to provoke his fellow professional in such a way, poking his finger between Cavani’s buttocks, then going down as if he’d been shot after the Paris Saint-Germain forward barely brushed him, at a time when Cavani’s mind must be in absolute turmoil given what’s happening with his father, was disgusting. No respect for a colleague: instead, the very real family tragedy which Cavani is enduring made him a target. And the referee bought it completely.
Again, around the world, many will say: “So Uruguay got a taste of their own medicine for a change. They deserve it. Good riddance”. But by and large, they don’t deserve that reputation. Uruguay play hard – very hard – but almost always, fair. Other than that notorious incident in Natal, that is: for which, they were punished.
Football being what it is nowadays, it is incredibly difficult to do that: to defend as well as La Celeste almost always do, and ensure what happens almost always remains within the laws. Yet Tabarez’ side does. Very often, it’s more sinned against than sinners.
The problem, though, is that very approach – defend, defend, defend, pinch something on the break if at all possible – is to invite last night’s kind of contest. It makes it inevitable. And against quality, offensive opponents – Argentina 1986, Italy 1990, Colombia 2014, Chile 2015, and many other examples down the years – those games will be lost at least as often as (in fact, considerably more often than) they’re won. Just a bounce of the ball or bad decision, and you’re going home.
We also shouldn’t forget that four years ago in Santa Fe, Uruguay benefited from a very harsh second booking against Javier Mascherano, suckered by clever (but illegal) play by that man Suarez; that at the World Cup, first Diego Godin should’ve been dismissed early on against England, then La Celeste visibly profited from the teeth of Suarez as Italy were fatally distracted in the moments afterwards… and that maybe none of the glory run of 2010-11 would ever have happened if it hadn’t been for a ridiculous, near 10-minute long delay orchestrated by the hosts against Costa Rica in November 2009: designed to take the steam right out of Los Ticos’ sails, just when they’d got on top and Uruguay were visibly panicking.
La Celeste aren’t always robbed. They frequently get just as much rub of the green as anyone else: unlike last night’s opponents, who were the width of a crossbar from eliminating the World Cup hosts only a year ago, and whose constant run of failure has, we should acknowledge, sometimes owed to rank bad luck. Perhaps Chile were simply due a stroke of good fortune last night?
Yet there’s something particularly ugly about host nations being so incorrigibly favoured by the officials. I say that as an Englishman all too aware of what the Three Lions’ solitary World Cup triumph looked like to the rest of the world, or how Spain were robbed by disgraceful officiating in the Euro 96 quarter-finals. It was appalling: albeit, unlike what happened to Portugal, Italy and Spain again in Korea in 2002, not flat out corrupt.
Was last night corrupt? Many Uruguayans will insist that yes, of course it was. After what happened to Suarez, and we’ve all learned about CONMEBOL in recent weeks, what more evidence does anyone need? All it was, though, was a desperately weak official making a rod for his own back early on, succumbing to the same psychological pressure which favours home teams all over the world every single weekend, and being fooled by some utterly grotesque cheating.
This is football. Cheats usually prosper. The only real offence (as with Suarez on multiple occasions, or Neymar against Colombia), is to break the Eleventh Commandment, and get caught. Bad refereeing is so much more likely against host nations in major tournaments: meaning Uruguay are also at fault for playing so conservatively, they left themselves facing Chile in the first place.
As the dust settles on this exit, there will, I’ve no doubt, at last be a proper debate on both the team’s style and Tabarez’ future. Football aficionados, as opposed to the broader public, have been fed up with both for a long while now. A good number will plaintively inquire why their country can’t play football in the same way as Argentina, Colombia or indeed, Chile. Uruguayans aren’t blind to their team’s many flaws, nor those of their veteran coach: who isn’t at all guaranteed to remain. There’s a significant feeling abroad that he might well not.
If he stays, little will change. He’ll still be scared of introducing younger players, and the reason for that fear lies in his desire to play so defensively in the first place. Players like De Arrascaeta or Jonathan Rodriguez just don’t fit into such a rigid plan: which for 5 years now, has had Cavani hurtling here, there and everywhere: popping up at centre back or defensive midfielder, clearing chances off the line and breaking up the opponents’ play, yet denied the chance to do what he does best. Score goals.
Yet if El Maestro does take his leave of us, there are dangers there too. Nobody should underestimate what he’s done for this team: he’s put Uruguay back on the map, given the people their pride back, and made La Celeste extraordinarily durable in ties such as this. A new, more positive coach might well achieve a whole lot less; and to be sure, there won’t be much patience for any setbacks which might occur along the way. Ahead of the eliminatorias, Uruguay are at a crossroads: but we can hope, at least, that the annus horribilis of 24 June 2014-24 June 2015 has now passed.
While our favourites lick their wounds and ponder the future, Chile already have one and a half feet in the final, and will never have a greater opportunity to break their historic trophy drought than this… but even with 12 men, a voice in my head still says they won’t: that whoever emerges from a crowded bottom half of the draw (even Paraguay) will feed off frantic local expectation and make off with the spoils.
After what happened last night, every Uruguayan everywhere will fervently hope for that. Their pride and joy still have 15 Copas America and 19 major tournaments to their name; Chile still have a big fat goose egg. The host nation, Champions for the moment only of sexual assault and turning a blind eye to drink driving, still have it all to do.
Football is, and has always been, a very, very strange game. No other sport gives the impression of being so, for want of a better term, ‘democratic’: on any given day, anyone can beat anyone. David can beat Goliath. Dreams can come true: even if the opponent has 20 chances, and you only have one. Wigan Athletic can win the FA Cup; Greece or Denmark can win the European Championship; and tiny countries with 3 million people can make off with the greatest prize of all after facing down a nation of 200 million (OK, just over 50 million back then) in their own backyard.
Well, sure. But these are exceptions, not the rule. The rule is that in club football, the richest monopolise the prizes; and in the international game, more than 95% of the time, the same teams always win… and the same teams always lose.
Not only that: but the huge bulk of the time, the same teams always play in more or less the same easily identifiable way. Germany, the greatest supposed lie to this given the revolution in their football after Euro 2000, still play like a machine: gliding effortlessly like a Mercedes, the players displaying veins of ice come crunch time. France and Holland always have huge talent, but can almost always be expected to implode like a blancmange when it matters, often amid internal recriminations and acrimony. The former did so five times out of six between 2002 and 2012; the latter, who collapsed completely at Euro 2012, have practically outdone themselves in Euro 2016 qualifying.
In South America, while Argentina invariably look less than the sum of their parts – because the cult of the individual, so intrinsic to Argentinian culture, just doesn’t work in international football – Paraguay or Uruguay are their opposite. Both paintdryingly tedious to watch; both drawing on a colossal sense of national pride to achieve a lot from a little, while Argentina deliver a little from a lot.
But some countries are fated, perhaps for all eternity, to always lose. England, full of passion and heart, so often resemble a drunken tourist taking the wrong direction after dark: proud, stupid, ambushed, never learning a single thing from the experience. Mexico, always so good in the World Cup first round, eliminated on six straight occasions in the World Cup second round… and doomed never to improve in knock-out play until they get over themselves, lose their obsession with hammering a bunch of nations Uncle Sam runs as his own personal banana plantations, grow a backbone and a pair of cojones, and join CONMEBOL.
And then, there’s Chile. The ‘team to watch’ in South America over recent years, with a model built by the great latter day philosopher, Marcelo Bielsa… yet who in their entire history, which stretches back to 1895 and includes being among the four founding members of CONMEBOL, have never won a single thing. Not a sausage. Nada.
Paraguay have won two Copas America. Peru have won two Copas America. Colombia and even Bolivia have won it once; but Chile? Never. Not only that, but they’ve never been beyond the last 16 of a World Cup not staged in their own country either.
Growing up, I had a particular soft spot for their 1998 side which walloped England 2-0 at Wembley, gave Italy a major fright in France; and for whom Marcelo Salas, El Matador, was terrifyingly effective. Yet that team was lucky to reach the knock-out stages, and swamped by Brazil once there.
Under Bielsa a decade or so later, a new side emerged. Football hipsters raved about them: but personally, I could never see what the big deal was. International football’s answer to Arsenal played in pretty little circles, and made much of their attitude of taking the game to the opposition… but had no final touch, no killer instinct: not to mention the arrogance to take Spain on at their own game (they lost), and make no changes to their approach for Brazil. Who promptly thrashed them 3-0. Gracias y buenas noches, amigos.
We don’t play football as we’d like to, but as we must. Winning the philosophical argument is no victory at all unless the game and the trophy – the only things that are actually important – are won. Bielsa, bless him, has never understood this; but under his successor-but-one, Jorge Sampaoli, do Chile?
To Sampaoli’s credit, his charges have often appeared more multi-dimensional, and certainly more direct at times, than under his predecessor. And by choosing to retain Arturo Vidal in his squad following the Juventus midfielder’s much publicised car crash while intoxicated earlier this week, Sampaoli sent out an unambiguous message. Victory is all that’s important. Higher ideals of morality and role models are for the birds.
Not, mind you, that this decision met with the satisfaction of many Chileans. Whose disgust and apoplexy was best encapsulated by the response of Eduardo Bonvallet, long time television and radio pundit, for so long a thorn in the side of administrators, players and managers. Bonvallet has such a following because, rather like Eamon Dunphy in Ireland, he calls it as it is; but also because, fully aware that football is nothing if not a pantomime, he overstates his case to provoke an equal and opposite reaction.
Eagle-eyed readers may recall that, on the eve of the World Cup, Bonvallet tipped Uruguay to win the tournament. Now, he excoriated both Vidal and his supporters: the latter as “Communists” and “thieves”; the former, in the colloquial expression, as a “flaite”. That is to say, a chav: a thug of low socio-economic background.
No doubt, South American football and society is plagued by horrible examples of the latter group. Anyone who witnessed the farcical ending to Uruguay’s Championship Final last weekend – ambulance stopped contest, all hail Nacional – would acknowledge that. But Bonvallet’s comments, however accurate, divided his country… and that division could shortly bring Vidal y compadres down.
Before Argentina met Italy in the 1990 World Cup semi-finals in Naples, Diego Maradona reminded locals of their continual mistreatment and neglect by the government and north of the country:
The Italians are asking Neapolitans to be Italian for a day, yet for the other 364 days of the year, they forget all about Naples. The people do not forget this.
The result? A very strange atmosphere: Neapolitans torn between the Azzurri and their idol. Argentina fed off this, the contest degenerated… and the Albiceleste won on penalties, El Diego’s spot kick especially plunging a dagger into the country’s heart.
With Vidal’s retention having split Chile down the middle, what happens if La Roja get into a tight, nervy, niggly, physical battle against opponents who choke off space and give them no room to breathe? How do the locals react if the game stays locked at 0-0? Forget Friday night: an exhibition game against laughably inadequate opposition, who’ve already over-achieved just to reach the last 8. The Bolivia game told us nothing. But the quarter-final? It will tell us everything, about both protagonists.
From the moment the draw was made, I haven’t just expected a Chile-Uruguay quarter-final. I’ve regarded it as an absolute, cast iron inevitability. So much so that while others have moaned about Oscar Washington Tabarez’ endemic conservatism, pointed towards his failure to rejig the side in Luis Suarez’ absence, obsessed over the team’s shape, its lack of creativity, uncustomary defensive lapses from Jose Maria Gimenez, or the misfiring Edinson Cavani, I’ve sat back disinterestedly, waited for the tournament proper to start and the inevitable to happen.
8 teams qualify from 12 at the Copa America. Of those 12, one is renowned footballing superpower, Jamaica; another is a reserve team; another hadn’t won a single competitive game on the road in 20 years until their shock ambush of Ecuador. Good grief: the first round is such a total waste of time, qualifying for the quarter-finals such a complete non-achievement, even Bolivia have managed it. The tournament hasn’t actually started yet.
Not only that: but anyone who knows anything about Uruguay knew how the first round would pan out. What are the Golden Rules where La Celeste are concerned?
1. If 5th place in the World Cup qualifiers means a play-off and likely victory, Uruguay will always finish 5th. True in 2014, 2010, 2006 and 2002.
2. If 16 teams qualify from 24 at the World Cup Finals – there are four lucky third-placed sides, in other words – Uruguay will qualify number 16. True in 1986 and 1990: the only 24-team finals La Celeste ever played in.
3. If two third-placed sides out of 3 qualify for the Copa America quarter-finals, Uruguay will finish 3rd in their group and be one of those sides the vast amount of the time. True in 2007, 2004, 2001, 1999… and now in 2015 as well. Only when either hosting the tournament (as in 1995), or boasting their most exceptional side since the 1950s (as in 2011), do Uruguay ever not finish 3rd in their Copa America group: yet on all four of those occasions above, they reached the semi-finals. In 1999, they even made the final – with a youth team – beating guess who in the semis?
We’ll come to Golden Rule number 4 in a moment. But if you don’t know why this is – why Uruguay always slouch around in the first round, looking anything but contenders, only to crank up through the gears when they need to – you’ve obviously not been paying attention. The way the team plays is the perfect embodiment of how this country is: in the Land of the Last Minute, everything is exactly as it says on the tin. In a country with an old population, where many wouldn’t change the day of the week if they could get away with it, the team will always play conservatively. Gentle (very gentle) evolution, not revolution, will always be the watchword.
There’s no point carping about it. Nothing to be gained from demanding more expansive football or more convincing performances. This is Uruguay: it will always be this way. Quite why anyone expects any different is increasingly beyond me: suffer, during the first round of a tournament in which La Celeste were always going to play badly, always going to finish 3rd in the group, and always going to qualify to face the hosts? Not me.
But here’s the thing. Remember what I said above about the same teams always winning, and the same teams always losing? Here comes our final Golden Rule:
4. If Uruguay face the host nation in a major tournament, they will almost always win. True in 2011, 2010 (when with Ghana installed as de facto hosts by a sycophantic, patronising beyond belief world – which ignores and exploits Africa in geopolitics, only to damn it with faint praise in football – they effectively did it twice), 2007, 1999, 1987… and most famously of all, in 1950. For good measure, they were even the only opponent to avoid defeat against England in 1966.
If we include Ghana, most of those victories have come in the quarter-finals: three on penalties. And even more alarmingly for Chile, in the last five editions of the Copa America, the hosts have been knocked out in the last 8 on four separate occasions. Since 1997, the only time this didn’t happen was in 2001: when the event was gutted by fears of terrorism, absentees and reserve teams.
The first round of this tournament is such a walk in the park, host nations (so often, as again this year, gifted joke group stage draws by the always incorruptible CONMEBOL) become peculiarly vulnerable when it’s suddenly win, or go home. But in Uruguay’s case? From the moment they’re born (arguably, the moment they’re conceived), Uruguayan footballers and the broader public live for these occasions like absolutely no other.
Those parents screaming on the touchline at their kids, opponents, referees or coaches? That incessant desire of otherwise placid Uruguayans to win at anything at all: even tiddlywinks? The pressure which children in this country face from a very early point in life: especially in football, where the message is to win, or else? Sure, it stifles creative play or anything resembling the exotic – but it also serves a purpose.
It means that, when they grow up, Uruguayan footballers routinely display preternatural levels of calm in the tightest of corners. If there are tiny fractions of advantage to be gained through clever play or gamesmanship, they’ll do so: because they’ve been conditioned in this from birth. If their opponents are too emotional, too over-excited, too liable to attack and lose control, Uruguay – just as passionate, but who control and channel this force in a completely different way – will pounce. And if the home fans give them abuse, or try to intimidate them, La Celeste feed off this disrespect (though really, this fear) like no other side anywhere.
Since the draw was made, who will Uruguay have most fancied playing in the quarter-finals? Chile, of course. It’s in the blood. And who will Chile have least fancied? Uruguay, of course. It’s also in the blood, and in history. The same teams always win; the same teams always lose.
We’ve remarked on this Blog many times that ever since the quarter-final against Argentina in 2011, Uruguay have spent the entire time trying to recreate that match: which embodied all the virtues of La Garra Charrua like perhaps no other game since 1950. Well, even without Suarez and the suspended Palito Pereira, now’s their chance. Again they face a host nation which fancies itself, plays attacking football, looks brilliant on its day… but has alarming defensive flaws, and too often lacks balance in how it plays.
Those Keystone Kops-sized flaws (as Tim Vickery put it, the Chilean defence are like Ken Dodd and the Diddymen) and that lack of balance mean that even if, which I absolutely do not expect, Chile get through on Wednesday night, they cannot possibly win this tournament. Someone streetwise and defensively solid will put them out of this thing. In international football, Chile’s way – like Mexico’s way or England’s way – does not work.
Uruguay’s way? Even if we consider how easy qualification for the latter stages of this tournament is, or how 5 sides usually reaching the World Cup Finals from 10 in South America allows for a continual backdoor route and enables a respectable finish at the mundial, the point is this: it does work. Goodness knows, this Blog has done little other than attack El Maestro over the past 3 years, with good reason: but to repeat a point I’ve made before, Oscar Tabarez is Uruguay. His personality is Uruguay’s personality; his calmness is their calmness; his caution is their caution; his emphasis on defence is their emphasis on defence; his false modesty is their false modesty.
And his record? Despite winning only one qualifying group at a major tournament in seven previous attempts (eight now), or overseeing only one win in Uruguay’s opening match in those eight tournaments (against Jamaica, so it barely even counts), Tabarez won the 2011 Copa America; was runner-up in 1989; finished 4th in the world in 2010, 4th in America in 2007, and 4th at the Confederations Cup in 2013. Five top 4 finishes in seven attempts. Who could possibly doubt that on Wednesday, Tabarez’ way (because it’s Uruguay’s way) will turn this figure into six from eight?
Before the game, La Celeste will play everything down, emphasise the qualities of their opponents, and speak (as Tabarez already has) of transition ahead of the eliminatorias. Take the pressure off and transfer it to the hosts. The Uruguayan public will fret about Cavani’s lack of goals, the team’s lack of creativity, and Palito’s suspension. Chileans will speak of their ‘respect’ for Uruguay: but deep down, high as 17.6m kites on their 5-0 win on Friday night, fully expect to win. Uruguay without Suarez, playing their customary style of shit on a stick? Come on: how can they fail?
But fail, they almost certainly will. Once the game begins, Uruguay will move into their seemingly God-given role as international party poopers; their defensive system will frustrate, stifle and suffocate… and Chile, snakebitten by the torment of history, will begin to panic. Indiscipline will set in, chances will be missed, the public will turn on Vidal if he’s one of the culprits… and their opponents will remain infuriatingly calm, compact, and well organised. In these situations, it’s what Uruguay do.
All La Celeste have to do is hold on for 90 minutes, and penalties will arrive. They’re 2 from 2 in live shoot-outs in recent years; Chile are 0 from 1. The same teams always win; the same teams always lose.
Can Uruguay win this tournament? Not without Suarez, no. But with El Maestro at the helm, and an experienced, cussed side, they are possible finalists. As if to show that some teams can break the curse of history, but not others, I actually have a sneaking fancy for Paraguay for the title (stop laughing, I’m serious) in what is certainly a wide open field, reminiscent of that which Greece came through on the blind side to win Euro 2004.
But Chile? Not this year. Not this century either. By the end of proceedings on Wednesday, Jota Erre and all of Uruguay will be laughing; Arturo Vidal and all of Chile will be crying. The same teams always win. The same teams always lose.
Imagine a world in which the President of a domestic football association can be removed by his own government for gross corruption: yet instead of being ostracised by the world game, in fact receives a promotion. All the way to President of the continental confederation and the FIFA Executive Committee: whose daily activities make his previous life look like a picnic. That parallel universe was, until only two days ago, the preserve of one Eugenio Figueredo, national (and now, international) disgrace.
And Figueredo it then was who, far from being cowed, only grew more powerful still: profiting hugely from an alliance with Julio Grondona, the Don Corleone of South American football, which enabled the criminal carve-up of television and marketing rights of CONMEBOL’s flagship tournaments, and turned the huge majority of this continent’s clubs into little more than vassals: forever forced to sell their best players, forever dealing with endemic hooliganism, yet left to feed on crumbs from the confederation’s table.
Regular readers of La Celeste Blog can’t say they weren’t warned. We did call this The Mother Of All Crises… and why? Because it was never solely confined to Uruguay. This is a crisis with multiple international pipelines: spanning South, Central and North America, pitting the US authorities against the world governing body, throwing the bidding processes and host nations for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups into the starkest possible relief, and bringing down mafioso gangster after gangster. Individuals who long believed themselves to be above the law – and on what they’ve been allowed to get away with for so long, who could blame them for thinking so?
To deal, first, with a few of those individuals. The article I published just over a year ago set out how, just as Casal had been locked in by Figueredo from 1999 onwards – when Tenfield were outbid for the television and image rights of the Uruguayan league and national team by $32m, yet secured the contract and ludicrously preferential treatment thereafter regardless – so he was locked out when comprehensively outbidding CONMEBOL’s long term Argentinian partners, T&T/TyC. Across South America, Paco was victim of the exact same closed, corrupt parody of a process which had favoured him for so long in Uruguay.
This led to Casal initially appearing to totally over-reach himself. In tandem with various Uruguayan clubs, famous ex-players such as Diego Maradona, Romario or Jose-Luis Chilavert, he effectively declared war not only on CONMEBOL, but FIFA itself. CONMEBOL responded by suspending the AUF; while the Argentinian company, Full Play (a subsidiary of TyC) threatened to snatch the TV rights for Uruguay’s 2018 World Cup qualifiers: with a compromise eventually agreed in which Tenfield would show La Celeste’s home matches, Full Play their away games.
With Wilmar Valdez, a Casal ally (and at times, puppet) installed as permanent AUF President, Paco remained secure in Uruguay, but his cause seemed hopeless further afield. Until, of course, these indictments: which as well as Figueredo, also include Hugo and Mariano Jinkis, the little-known principals of – wait for it – Full Play.
Beyond Chuck Blazer having been the main informant for the US investigation, we know little more; but I would be extremely surprised if the above circumstances are entirely coincidental. Given Maradona and Chilavert’s immediately euphoric comments when the news broke on Wednesday, my best guess is, whether through intermediaries or otherwise, Casal has provided the US Department of Justice with substantial information. And of course, helped remove Figueredo, his one-time supporter but latter day enemy. Hell hath no fury like a TV tycoon scorned.
Thus from having appeared all but finished a year ago, Paco is now triumphant: a very big winner from the events of recent days. But we should think about what this actually means. Across South and Central America, clubs have been impoverished and emasculated by fraudulent TV and marketing deals which allowed them desperately little; forced them to sell their best players; left them unable to renovate their stadiums or do anything much about crowd safety; and has resulted in a club game light years behind what its wealthy European counterpart has to offer. All the while huge bribes were disappearing into the bank accounts and back pockets of the continent’s administrators.
Casal, among others, will surely step in and seek to enrich players – the key to his success in Uruguay – but beyond that? There’s no doubt that Tenfield/Global Sports are a modern company, with more than a hint of American business influence; but equally little doubt that Paco has always been about the bottom line, and cares precisely nothing for the general health of the game.
Worse: the indictment of Full Play means he will return to his unquestioned pre-eminence in Uruguay, while caring increasingly little about the product given his wider, suddenly realisable ambitions. No commercial competition means no prospect of change: so stadiums will remain dilapidated, pitches will remain an embarrassment, crowd violence will remain rife, clubs will remain bereft.
Last weekend, an absolute trainwreck of a football match was played out by the once storied South American giants of Peñarol and Nacional. The whole country spent the next 24 hours talking about it: talking, that is, about two joke clubs who abandoned any pretensions to greatness long ago, play football to make onlooking eyes bleed, and spend their time fighting each other and signing mercenaries aged 35 or over.
Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Two bald men fighting over a comb. A clasico played in a penal colony on Mars. But with Casal reinforced, matters will get worse, not better: last weekend’s horror show wasn’t the exception, but a dreadful portent of things to come. And while those in the US might say they want football to be run properly, nobody will care about a small country in the South Atlantic. More than ever, Uruguayan football remains under Paco Casal’s lock and key.
More broadly: the downfall of the likes of Figueredo – the former second hand car dealer who was paying his daughter the AUF’s highest salary when forced out in 2006 – and Nicolas Leoz has long been in the runes. CONMEBOL is based in Luque, Paraguay: which rather grotesquely, doubles as the confederation’s poorest member and host to its extravagant headquarters. Equally grotesquely, the octagenarian Leoz, so long its President, likely to be considered too sick to travel to the US, resides in a multi-million dollar mansion in Asuncion.
The AUF’s headquarters are modest and spartan. So is the football museum at the national embarrassment that is the Estadio Centenario. CONMEBOL HQ, on the other hand? The images below give you the tiniest sense of what it’s like: opulence both outside and in, a building which practically screams its wealth at visitors; and inside, plaques which commemorate the glorious, omniscient heads of the continent’s football associations.
To understand why South American and Uruguayan football are the way they are, though, you have also to understand why world football is the way it is. The Uruguayan game especially is only a microcosm of the global game. One is a small-scale mafia; the other, a huge one. Whose governing body is – and has been for decades – nothing short of an international criminal organisation, many of whose members believe they were chosen by the Almighty to oversee the world’s most popular sport.
The criminal indictments issued by the American authorities on Wednesday cover offences spanning some 24 years. But in truth, FIFA was corrupted beyond repair long before that. In 1974, Englishman Stanley Rous was usurped as FIFA President by Joao Havelange of Brazil. Rous was a competent administrator – but also a racist, with appallingly offensive views on apartheid South Africa, and no long term vision for the sport.
Rous’ FIFA was European-dominated. He was removed only eight years after a World Cup in England won by his native country in highly dubious fashion: which featured four semi-finalists from UEFA; from which Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay all exited controversially, in large part thanks to inept officiating which seemed for all the world to be biased towards their respective European opponents. To all too many South Americans (and many others around the world), it looked like a stitch-up.
A narrative now began to germinate amongst those who’d go on to support Havelange: namely, that FIFA was just another case of British and European colonialism and the white man’s burden, with no regard for the developing world and no desire to spread the sport. This is what propelled him to the top. This was what led to the subsequent commercial revolution in football. And this narrative was also taken up by Havelange’s anointed successor, Joseph (Sepp) Blatter.
Through the GOAL Program, FIFA provided huge funds for all member associations, with the purported aim of growing football at grassroots level (however much of this money ended up in the back pockets and slush funds of local administrators). It greatly expanded the World Cup too: taking it to the USA, Far East and Africa, and increasing the number of qualifying berths for emerging nations at the expense of football’s Old World. Naturally, the developing world – already hamstrung by a club game dominated by a European plutocracy – supported this approach absolutely… and despite recent events, still do. Blatter is still their man; the anti-UEFA narrative still prevails.
Two years ago, when I visited AUF headquarters and interviewed some staff, I was hugely struck by how reliant it was on the GOAL monies. Only through these could it grow its grassroots and youth level programmes: the latter, which have enjoyed so much success in recent years. And that was at a time when, under Sebastian Bauza, Uruguayan football enjoyed genuinely good, clean governance. Just as it was dependent on FIFA funds, so were so, so many other associations around the world: most of whom are terrified of a post-Blatter landscape. Alarmingly, as I’ll set out later, they may well be right to be so.
FIFA, then, hasn’t been 100% bad over the last 40 years. But over that time, this gentleman’s club has morphed into an all-encroaching organisation with more power than many nation states. A supposed non-profit organisation (no laughing at the back now), it pays no tax in Switzerland; and when it comes to any country bidding to host its flagship tournament, FIFA requires a series of comprehensive tax exemptions; exemptions from local money-laundering legislation; even the right of jurisdiction over its own ‘World Cup courts’.
Moreover, increasingly apparent during recent World Cup bidding processes has been that no country with the modern stadia and footballing infrastructure already in place should even dream of success. FIFA isn’t interested in countries like England, Spain, the US or Australia; it’s very, very interested indeed in places where new stadiums need to be built from scratch. Why? Because these new builds are sub-contracted out: and for the Executive Committee, that means kickbacks. Big, fat, juicy ones.
In the case of Qatar, the ludicrous choice to hold the 2022 tournament, not only were large bribes apparently paid to grease its path. Its whole series of new stadiums will then be taken down and rebuilt in the countries of ExCo members: not one, but two rounds of kickbacks, in other words. To be sure, one cannot accuse the Qataris of not understanding their target audience.
The announcement of that decision – the awarding of the greatest sporting tournament on planet Earth to a country with zero footballing tradition, where alcohol and homosexuality are banned, and where in the summer, temperatures reach 120F or above, in the face of a technical report which had ranked Qatar’s bid dead last – was, I think, the day the world (or at least, the European and North American part of it) finally woke up. FIFA could not be reasoned with; to play the game meant to pay its members millions of dollars, with no guarantee of success if someone else paid even more.
Since then, the situation has got worse. Far worse. Qatar is little short of a modern day slave and apartheid state. Workers are denied the right to leave the country without permission from their employers; those building the new stadiums are subjected to horrific, inhuman working and living conditions, and in many cases, being paid nothing. Why? Most of these labourers are plucked from poor areas of India or Nepal, promised a good life and the chance to send money back to their families… yet on arrival, suddenly find themselves heavily indebted for the ‘costs’ of ‘travel’.
Right now, still over seven and a half years before the tournament is due to kick off, an estimated 1200 workers have already lost their lives. Several thousand more will have done so by 2022. These are young, able bodied men dying in many cases of heart failure: dying because of working impossibly long hours in utterly inhospitable conditions. 1200 dead… because of football. Or rather, because of greed on the most abhorrent scale imaginable.
The American indictments do not cover the awarding of the 2018 or 2022 tournaments to Russia and Qatar respectively – but huge revelations, especially in the British press, have already been uncovered about both; and the Swiss authorities, largely thanks to complete access to the Michael Garcia report buried by FIFA, have now opened a full investigation. Ultimately, unless geopolitical events surrounding Ukraine substantially deteriorate between now and 2018, I doubt Russia are under serious threat; but make no mistake: Qatar, not before time, certainly are.
How, you might ask, when a Swiss court has already found that Havelange and his son-in-law, the disgraced former CBF President, Ricardo Teixeira, took tens of millions in kickbacks from the now defunct marketing company, ISL, then holder of the rights to the World Cup; when so many ExCo members, exhausted by scandal, have fallen by the wayside in recent years; when awarding the World Cup to Qatar (and the moving of it to winter 2022) has caused huge problems for European leagues and brought the game into total disrepute; and when Blatter himself is widely believed to have bribed his way to victory at the 1998 Presidential elections, and had expense claims for that contest which looked like this, have FIFA got away with it for so long?
Answer: because of (a) the continuing dependence of so many associations on Blatter’s largesse; (b) the governing body’s undoubted success in globalising and commercialising the sport; (c) FIFA remaining a private, entirely unaccountable organisation; (d) increasingly justifiable fears from developing nations of a European takeover; (e) Blatter’s own personal tactics; and (f) something else too. Something hugely important, which we’ll come to in a moment.
On point (e): in 1979, then Iraqi Vice-President, Saddam Hussein, launched a coup against his boss, Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr: holding the latter at gunpoint, and demanding he move aside. Six days later, the new President convened an emergency meeting of the ruling Ba’ath Party, which he ordered to be videotaped.
From the podium, Saddam declared in mock horror to have uncovered a plot against him; and read out the names of 68 individuals, all of whom were present in the room. They were immediately surrounded by security guards and taken away: while Saddam congratulated those remaining on their past and expected future loyalty. Within ten days, hundreds of entirely innocent men had been executed; and at Saddam’s demand, most of the murders were carried out by high-ranking Party members: including friends and even family of those killed.
What Saddam was doing was immediately making all those he had ‘spared’ complicit in the crimes which followed. This sowed paranoia among them: if they did not show absolute loyalty towards him, they would be next. Mistrust of each other, and constant in-fighting while the President floated above, were the inevitable result – as was the normalisation of violence and mass murder.
Of course, to the best of my knowledge, no-one in FIFA has ever murdered anyone; but Blatter’s strategy is that of the arch-dictator. By making his subordinates dependent on him, and bestowing powers and patronage, he invites them to battle each other; and when one amongst them is excommunicated, this only generates further paranoia, desperate pledges of allegiance to him, all the while gross corruption, kickbacks and fraud are normalised. Grondona’s death last summer – life is nothing without exquisite timing – probably made Blatter even more all-powerful, as well as clearing the path for the removal of troublesome and low-level subordinates from Latin America and the Caribbean.
So yesterday, looking more like a Groucho Marx tribute act than ever, there stood Teflon Sepp: speaking in hushed tones about the need to clean up the organisation from its supposed handful of bad apples (despite having been its leader or deputy since 1981), and giving divine thanks that he, the Dear Leader, had been charged with the great mission of guiding his children into the light. If he is deposed in the forthcoming months, he could always try stand-up comedy for a living: but for Sepp Blatter, divide and rule works. It always has.
So much, then, for FIFA’s internal machinations. But what of the response to it? Why, until Wednesday, had so little ever been done by the outside world? The answer is simple. Ingeniously, supposedly to protect the integrity of the sport, but really just to cover its own back, FIFA forbids any interference in football on the part of any domestic government. This means that if any seriously try to challenge it, it threatens to suspend the association and the national team: and with football the modern day opiate of the masses, what government worth its salt would ever risk such a thing?
Imagine, for a moment, if FIFA banned Uruguay from the World Cup because of government interference. If anything was ever going to provoke a revolution here, that certainly would. “Give us our football back!”, the people would demand; “how can you do this to us?”, they’d cry: not of FIFA, but of their elected politicians. And for football-mad Uruguay, read the football-mad world: most of it, anyway.
In that sense, it should scarcely be a surprise that the US, where the sport is gradually gaining a foothold but lacks anything like the enormous, emotional impact it enjoys across Europe, South America, Africa and swathes of Asia, was the country which finally set about bringing football’s governing body to account. The risks for the American government are vastly less; no domestic backlash would happen in its case.
The US, of course, was also hugely motivated by being snubbed for Qatar in 2022; but as football grows there, it is increasingly likely to want to play a part in its governance. Indeed, I think it’s perfectly plausible that to avoid complete meltdown, FIFA might end up taking the tournament off Qatar and give it to the 1994 hosts instead. Anything major in the forthcoming Swiss investigation would certainly give Blatter the excuse.
All of which brings me to a wider point. No individual in FIFA has ever had a more finely tuned nose for danger than its longtime President: meaning that Blatter actually voted for the US in the first place. In contrast, UEFA President Michel Platini and German legend Franz Beckenbauer both unconscionably voted for Qatar; while Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, recipient of £84,000 worth of Rolex watches from the Qataris, rather let the cat out of the bag when asked about the modern slave trade underpinning the organisation of the tournament:
“Move on. The media must be more careful: German industry has contracts there worth billions. Qatar was chosen, so just respect it, and accept it.”
Anyone who wants to know how Qatar became hosts of the 2022 World Cup should follow a trail of money and commerce spanning the individuals above and in particular, the German government. Qatar’s proposed gas pipeline through Syria, connecting it with Turkey and energy-dependent Europe, is not only a likely factor in the Syrian civil war, but has also helped it curry huge amounts of favour with European politicians and the European footballing world.
Ask yourself: why, in the face of an appalling death toll, which will only rise dramatically in the years ahead, have UEFA associations restricted themselves merely to complaining about the timing of the 2022 tournament? Why hasn’t a boycott been suggested? The answer almost certainly lies in the proposed pipeline, and myriad business and investment deals beyond that.
When decisions can be this cynical, this based on naked economics, geopolitics, and so immune to deplorable levels of human suffering, the idea that a post-Blatter FIFA will represent any kind of improvement is risible. His opponent today, backed by the whole of UEFA (and as has emerged overnight, the AUF), is Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan: a typical modern day football bureaucrat, himself heavily involved in Qatar’s successful bid. To be sure, he’d be a little more amenable to modest reform and European complaints; but that’s about it. If elected (which he won’t be), it’d be a straightforward case of: “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss”.
Those candidates offering genuine change – Michael van Praag of the Netherlands, or football legends Luis Figo and David Ginola – have already fallen by the wayside. Figo, possessing real business and administrative expertise, and contacts of the highest quality, publicly bemoaned what he discovered during his campaign; while Ginola’s brief candidacy, misunderstood by almost everyone (myself certainly included) was intended to shine a light on just what a joke the idea of real change in FIFA actually is. I’d still argue it did more harm than good overall; but changeFIFA, who have long been publicising the grotesque goings-on in Zurich, are owed an apology.
Platini? He’s every bit as bad as Blatter, and a European-dominated FIFA or breakaway would probably be even worse for the game than the status quo. It’d surely result in better governance; but would also lead inexorably to a takeover by the European clubs, formation of a European Super League, and sidelining of both international football and the developing world. It would, in other words, be roughly akin to India, Australia and England’s disastrous, greedheaded takeover of international cricket.
Developments this week have, meanwhile, been especially alarming for South America: which, after the fall of Figueredo, Havelange, Teixeira, Leoz, and – Casal’s greatest stroke of luck of all – the death of Don Julio, has been left with nobody of any real influence inside FIFA House. This is why rumours continue to persist of CONMEBOL losing half a qualifying place from the 2018 World Cup: which can only have been rendered vastly more likely by the arrest and indictment of so many individuals from this continent. Blatter ‘punishing’ CONMEBOL for this would shore up his support and play to the public gallery. It is, I would suggest, increasingly likely to happen.
Fully cognizant of which way the wind is blowing, Valdez has declared for al-Hussein, in a populist move designed to play on the continuing sense of grievance in Uruguay over Luis Suarez’ suspension from the Copa America. Yet even if all South American nations join the AUF, it’s unlikely to do them much good.
Thanks to Asian, African and Central American support, old Sepp is home and hosed for now… but with FIFA’s sponsors getting more and more anxious, Europe and the US on a mounting collision course with everyone else, and plea bargains likely to be offered to any of the indictees prepared to rat on him (and with nothing to lose, why wouldn’t they?), the ground is falling away from him piece by piece. The Mother Of All Crises has plenty of mileage to travel yet.
How will it all end? As ever, expecting FIFA to voluntarily reform is to ask turkeys to vote for Christmas: but whoever ultimately succeeds Blatter won’t change much. The best thing that can be hoped for is for 2022 to be taken off Qatar (and if not, for a mass boycott to be organised instead); but as long as football remains the big time, booming circus it is, it will always be run by those who put greed, enrichment and naked self-interest ahead of the broader good.
As it is in Uruguay, so it is around the world. As the disgraced Eugenio Figueredo and victorious Francisco Casal would surely both confirm: money doesn’t talk. It swears.
As the dust settles on Thursday’s so-called ‘shock’ General Election result (a shock to a largely unquestioning media all suffering from group think and the same sort of clustering which clearly infected the horrendously inept opinion polls; but not, at least, to a few of us), Britain’s two traditional forces of the centre-left find themselves in varying degrees of disarray. The Liberal Democrats, in government in the last Parliament, have only 8 MPs left; and a long, painful conversation about the future has already begun within the Labour Party.
The coming 5 years will be no ordinary Parliament. The Conservative victory ensures that a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU) will now happen. It also makes a second Scottish independence referendum vastly more likely: inevitable, I would suggest, if an SNP government pledging another plebiscite in its manifesto is returned next year; even more so if England votes to leave the EU, while Scotland votes to remain.
These massive constitutional arguments will occur against a backdrop of renewed, heavier than ever austerity; the Tories repealing the Human Rights Act, while embracing the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. These will be tough, painful, discordant times, the most vulnerable taking the worst punishment; and David Cameron’s likely successor as Tory leader will be vastly more formidable, and hellishly difficult to stop. The left has lost a critical crossroads election. If it loses again in 2020, the Britain which results (almost certainly without Scotland) will be all but unrecognisable.
Already, ambitious Labour figures have begun setting out their ideas with a view to throwing their hats into the ring at a leadership contest later in the year. Tony Blair, the only Labour leader to win a general election since 1974, and – get this – the only one to win an overall majority since 1966 (not one, not two, but three of them) – is providing typically sagacious counsel: but in his own way, entirely missing the point. And in that, as so often the case in British politics (and certainly on the British left), he is joined by almost everyone else.
But we’ll come to Blair and Labour in a moment. First, I want to focus on the biggest losers of all at this election: the Lib Dems. Until 2010, they, not Labour, were my natural home: and had been ever since the first election I voted at, in 1997. Not, mind you, that I actually voted for them that year: First Past The Post (FPTP) and the need to vote tactically in Harrow West saw to that. My vote at every election has always been anti-Tory depending on where I lived; but at five general elections, this has meant I could only support the party most in tune with me twice. A problem shared by many millions of others on the left in Britain’s so-called democracy.
Why did I consider myself a natural Lib Dem? From late 1997 onwards (specifically, when Labour introduced university tuition fees), it was plain they were now to the left of Labour: marrying social democracy with social liberalism in a manner completely absent from the Blair government. On the electoral system, on drugs, even on their famous “penny on income tax”, the Lib Dems offered new ideas and engaged not with symptoms, but causes – while Labour’s promise to be “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” proved so much hot air as government by Daily Mail took over: Iraq, 90 days for terrorism suspects, ID cards, detention of children.
Like any Lib Dem, I was always conscious of what separated me from Labour – but this difference never even resembled the chasm separating me from the Tories. I never forgot which side my bread was buttered on; nor who, to put it in the always-tribal parlance of British politics, the true enemy was.
Under first Paddy Ashdown, then Charles Kennedy, the party gained ground – but only because its rise was tied to Blair’s transformation of the electoral background. Labour’s dominance couldn’t last forever: Blair, so often berated and loathed by many on the left who should’ve known an awful lot better, was a complete one-off. But under Kennedy, it became horribly apparent that the party had no long term strategy: what would it do when the Tories recovered, as they inevitably would?
It’s no coincidence that the internal coup against Kennedy of January 2006 occurred only weeks after Cameron had become Tory leader. An old fashioned liberal, One Nation Tory (or at least, so he then appeared), Cameron immediately set his sights on peeling off ‘soft Tory’ Lib Dem voters: social liberals and small ‘c’ conservatives who would happily have voted Tory under John Major or Edward Heath, but loathed how reactionary and plain nasty the party became under William Hague or Michael Howard.
Rapidly transforming public perceptions of his party, Cameron had a dramatic initial impact; while the Lib Dems began to panic. First, Sir Menzies Campbell, such an impressive spokesman on world issues hitherto, proved a disaster as leader – then Nick Clegg began to chart a rather different course.
Along with David Laws, Danny Alexander and others, Clegg led the so-called ‘Orange Book’ liberals: who believed that government should keep out of people’s lives not just socially, but wherever possible, economically too. Their thinking was much more in line with the old Liberal Party; they believed the future lay in gradual realignment right in the very centre.
Nick Clegg in happier times
That Clegg was so centrist is surely why both Cameron and Gordon Brown sought any opportunity to “agree with Nick” at the famous first TV debate in 2010: following which, the party was briefly launched into public consciousness in a manner never seen before. The Lib Dems even led several opinion polls; a dramatic electoral breakthrough beckoned. But alas, both the chronic iniquities of FPTP and a late squeeze ahead of a probable hung Parliament foiled them. Against all expectations, the party actually lost 4 seats – and now, a horrible decision lay ahead.
For so long, the party had held together a loose coalition of social democrats and liberals. To make matters more complicated, while its members leaned left, most of its voters leaned right: its heartlands, such as south-west England, south-west London, and parts of Scotland, were all soft Tory. And in 2010, while it proved able to resist the Tories in such areas, wherever it was up against Labour in a marginal seat, it almost always lost: frequently much more heavily than had been thought possible.
In Islington South and Finsbury and in Oxford East, both held by Labour by tiny, three figure margins, I watched thunderstruck as pledges of absolute support from mainly younger voters following the first TV debate turned into apathy; even, by the end, fear. With Brown heading for certain defeat, Labour threw all its resources into getting out its core vote: at which it proved astonishingly adept. This traditional support had been built up over many generations, family members passing it down to their children and grandchildren: how could the Lib Dems, continually forced to look in two directions at once by the electoral system, possibly compete?
Answer: they could not. I’ve no doubt that this obvious inability to challenge Labour in its heartlands was part of what informed Clegg’s momentous decision to join the Tories in coalition; a decision greeted by vast amounts of Lib Dem activists with dismay.
The morning after the 2010 election, every Lib Dem everywhere knew what the numbers meant. We knew a rainbow alliance of progressive parties was not viable, propping up Brown would appear very illegitimate, and most Labour MPs could see that and were not interested; that the panicky markets and right wing press would demand stable government with cuts having been promised by all three major parties; and that both our party and Labour had been exhausted and bankrupted by the campaign. Meaning if we left Cameron to govern in a minority, another election later that year, accompanied by a whopping great Tory majority, was the very likely outcome.
Yet I hadn’t campaigned for the Lib Dems in order to prop up the Tories; nor had most activists and members. “I’m a Lib Dem because I want reform, not power”, I said to my best friend; but her response was simple. “How will you get reform without power?”
That, in the end, was the key. What was the point of the Liberal Democrats if not to implement our policies when we had the chance? What was the point of us existing as a separate party if we were merely some adjunct to Labour? And if we didn’t join a coalition to temper the Tories’ most gratuitous excesses, who else would?
That chance to actually implement some of our ideas at last was why the infinitely more electorally sensible option of confidence and supply was ruled out. Plus, Clegg argued, if we could make a coalition work, Britain’s age old adversarial system, two tribes warring with one another and forever failing the people they were supposed to represent, could finally begin to recede.
To do this, the Lib Dems had to demonstrate that they understood how coalitions are supposed to work – but Laws’ negotiating team simply did not. When a coalition is under discussion, the smaller party has all the bargaining power: the Tories needed us, we did not need them. Every Lib Dem knew that joining Cameron in coalition would be electorally lethal: in all likelihood, it would destroy the party. Doing so therefore required vastly more than the miserably few concessions extracted: above all, on electoral reform.
During the 1992 election campaign, thought quite likely to result in a hung Parliament, Ashdown repeatedly stated that in any negotiations, proportional representation (PR) would be the red line. John Major derisively referred to this as “Paddy’s Roundabout”: presaging Cameron’s approach this year by successfully warning the electorate that, to avoid ‘shabby backroom deals’, they should vote Conservative.
PR remained the Lib Dem cause celebre throughout the next 18 years – and given how much they (along with millions upon millions of voters) suffered and were disenfranchised by FPTP, if they didn’t demand it when a hung Parliament finally came along, when would they? But Clegg didn’t. Appallingly, despite having correctly dismissed it as a “miserable little compromise”, Clegg allowed himself to be bought off completely by William Hague’s nefarious “extra mile” of a referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV).
AV, as I’ve noted previously, is the one and only electoral system which is frequently even less proportional than FPTP. Hague knew his party would mobilise all their heavy weaponry in a referendum; that Clegg would suffer huge blowback from voters furious that he’d joined the Tories; and that if the plebiscite was lost, he could then claim that Britain had decisively rejected voting reform. Certainly, the number of people who still think the UK vetoed PR in 2011 (when it actually did anything but) provides a reminder of how ruthlessly brilliant the Tories are at getting their message across. So ruthless that, on completion of the coalition negotiations, Hague told his wife, Ffion: “I think I’ve just destroyed the Liberals”.
As well as the AV debacle, there was the great betrayal on tuition fees: which the Lib Dems had pledged to stop, then voted through. There was no reason for them to do this; that they didn’t simply sit on their hands and abstain was inexplicable. Nothing turned younger voters away from politics more than this decision: and even during this campaign, the Lib Dems argued, appallingly, not that the policy was wrong, but that their pledge had been wrong.
Their support for the bedroom tax, huge cuts to legal aid, and even the imperilling of judicial review cast them in a dreadful light: as did their propping up of a government which had begun waging ideological war on the most vulnerable. When a smaller party is in coalition with a larger one, it can veto anything it wishes; why did Clegg’s party not do so?
To subsequently present itself, as it did during this disastrous campaign, as having ‘moderated’ the evil Tories bore no resemblance to public perceptions – and in politics, perceptions are everything. It didn’t matter that the Lib Dems claimed to have implemented 75% of their manifesto; to so much of the public, the government had been nine-tenths Tory, and Clegg had enabled something they just had not voted for.
Appalled by the rank incompetence of the coalition negotiations, and especially by AV, I left the party in 2011: joining many others in moving into Labour’s ranks. The Lib Dems were now not so much centrist as centre-right; only Labour seemed to offer a progressive alternative. Ed Miliband (a brave man with a horrendously flawed strategy) gradually began to appeal; Nick Clegg (a weak man with an even worse strategy) seemed increasingly repellent.
Regarding that strategy: the failure to present the Lib Dems in coalition as anything other than a right wing party would mean, surely, that when up against the Tories in their heartlands, their MPs would be hobbled. Why would voters vote for a nine-tenths Tory party when they could choose the real thing? Which, of course, is precisely what materialised.
Now, the devastated party are already speaking of renewal: moving back towards the left, electing Tim Farron as leader. But in this, they completely miss the point. The last time a liberal party was this annihilated, it took more than half a century for it to become part of the Lib-Lab pact; almost 90 years to return to genuine government. Unable to challenge Labour in its heartlands, it has been wiped from the map in soft Tory areas too; and throughout this Parliament, catastrophic European, local and by-election results, culminating in Thursday night’s meltdown, have wiped out its previously strong local position, without which no party can campaign effectively or improve its position at anything other than a snail’s pace. Ukip’s emergence as a natural repository of protest and FPTP will do the rest: the Lib Dems have no way back.
What is the point of them now? To repeat forever, to an ever dwindling group of followers, the immortal phrase: “But we did it in the national interest”? To point to equal marriage, a huge rise in the personal allowance or the pupil premium as having somehow made it all worthwhile? Is that all there is?
But there’s a problem. If the Lib Dems do move back to the left, they will again take crucial votes away from Labour. At so many seats up and down the land, this is what enables the Tories to win (indeed, on Thursday night, Ukip had this effect in many areas) – so if the only purpose of the Liberal Democrats is to unwittingly help the Conservatives continue their great carve-up of the UK into a nation of a few haves, many have-nots (which their own activists plainly don’t want in any way), you might argue that they really shouldn’t exist at all.
As I noted in an earlier piece, the reason for Britain having played host to continual centre-right or out and out right wing government over the last 35 years isn’t that the electorate is on the right. In effect, the voting system is – and has been ever since the split on the left of the early 1980s. Compounding this, there are now what we might term three and a half parties on the left (Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens, and those Ukip voters who came from Labour) in England; four and a half (allowing for the SNP and Plaid Cymru) in Scotland and Wales; but only one and a half on the right (the Tories and those Kippers who came from them). Amid such a state of affairs, expecting a progressive government to ever be possible is madness: the numbers are against it all over the country.
When you throw the SNP surge into the mix, no wonder Labour was so squeezed on Thursday – and it is simply delusional to believe this won’t apply at future elections too. Ukip will gain attention, funding and members as we head towards the EU referendum; the Greens and Lib Dems are already attracting new members; and the trade unions themselves are rumoured to be threatening to withdraw their support from Scottish Labour: which like the Lib Dems, has no way back.
What on Earth is the point of all these parties taking votes from one another and letting in a Tory government voted for by less than one in four of the public? Why does any party exist if it cannot gain power; and why do so merely to help those it most opposes rule supreme instead? Yet that is Britain under FPTP; and in this multi-party age, things aren’t getting better, but worse.
That, of course, is what is already provoking urgent discussions within the Labour Party about the need to move not to the left, but to the right. To meet voters’ aspirations, be friendly with business as well as workers, lose the ‘us versus them’ tribalism which turned so many off over the last 5 years, and ‘redefine the centre ground’ (whatever that actually means).
As the graphic above shows, if Labour were actually to move to the centre, it should head leftwards. Perceptions of what is ‘centre’ or ‘moderate’ bear no resemblance to where Cameron and the Tories now are – but FPTP does not allow Labour to move left. Instead, if parties remain as presently constituted, it can only head right, with Chuka Umunna best placed to provide a contemporary reprise of Blairism.
Naturally, key Blairites such as Peter Mandelson are already rushing to anoint Umunna – but in Scotland, northern England, and I strongly suspect, the Ukip-tilting midlands too, Umunna will have no cut through. None whatsoever. He’ll be perceived as just another metropolitan New Labour suit; just another career politician with no understanding of ordinary people; just another painful reminder of what Labour once were, and once stood for.
“No”, cry the activists, “our next leader must be working class; he must be authentically Labour”. So they gather around Andy Burnham – but he’ll have the same problem with the Tory press and the same negative impact in Tory shires as Miliband did. And whoever of these two (almost certainly, Umunna) wins, Boris Johnson, a man feted more like a rock star than a politician, to whom nothing bad ever sticks, and who has the rightwing press in his pocket, will shortly lie in wait.
An awful lot of nonsense is often spoken by many on the left about Johnson. “He’s a buffoon! He’ll embarrass himself! He can’t be Prime Minister!” But sorry folks: any politician basking in this much public backing (even in many cases, adulation) most certainly can be PM; and Johnson, who has spent a lifetime cultivating a unique, engaging ‘maverick’ image, has already twice seen off Labour in London: where it is supposed to be naturally strong.
If and when Johnson becomes Tory leader, his tanks will be parked all over the centre ground, whether Labour likes it or not; the media and opinion shapers will laud him to the skies. Defeating him will be a far, far tougher task than is ever acknowledged – and if you’ll forgive me, given the left’s execrable record in these things (spending years hating Blair and demanding he leave, only for Brown to be immediately defeated and all New Labour’s hard work to be dismantled; crying ‘apostasy’ when The Guardian called for Brown’s resignation in June 2009, but his replacement by Alan Johnson could easily have left Labour as the largest party at the election a year later, preventing all that has followed; then insisting, against all reason, that a figure as hapless as Miliband would unseat Cameron, only for a Tory majority pledging much harsher austerity to be returned instead), I’d sooner go with my judgement on this than theirs.
When Labour makes the wrong decision, it lets down those who most need its help. But the problem for it now is: with three and a half parties on the left, one and a half on the right, Scotland lost for good, and a far more popular Tory leader in waiting, it is actually hobbled wherever it goes. No leader or strategy will resolve this; only either events or thinking truly outside the box can.
The debate within the party is, in effect, between those focused on winning critical swing votes from the Tories (a few thousand in around 100 constituencies each represent the target here); or those who highlight, with enormous justice, that between 1997 and 2010, Labour lost fully 5 million working class voters; and probably around a further 3 million to the SNP and Ukip on Thursday. A few thousand in swing seats; or eight million lost voters? The answer should be obvious – but the ludicrous thing about FPTP is, it’s not.
Boundary changes which strengthen the Tories will ensure that if Labour returns to being a working class party, it will lose: it cannot afford to be unsuccessful in the Home Counties. Yet if it morphs back into Blairite New Labour, why would voters choose it when they could have Johnson instead; and how will it recapture any of that lost support? Not only in Scotland, but from Ukip too?
This is the point that no Labour politician anywhere will ever admit to. It is completely trapped by FPTP – now, given the rise of two nationalist parties in Scotland and England, more than ever. Even if, by some minor miracle, it somehow overcomes all this and scrapes a win, it can only do so by holding together a fragile, loose coalition of voters who return to the Tories before long – and casting millions upon millions of traditional supporters out into the wilderness. From where they either vote for any of five other parties (none of which can form a government in the UK; all of which help stop Labour doing precisely that), or are lost from the democratic process forever.
“I didn’t leave Labour”, SNP supporters say plaintively; “Labour left me”. If the party again heads down the ‘modernising’ route, it will have learnt nothing at all from what’s just happened in Scotland – but not to do so is, under FPTP, to bring about inevitable defeat. It is, I repeat, trapped: whichever way it chooses to go.
There is an alternative though. A clear one. An obvious one – yet which, the British left being what it is, isn’t even being seriously considered. What single event led to the SNP’s sudden, historic transformation of the Scottish electoral landscape? The referendum campaign. So many on the left who had hitherto opposed one another joined forces in common cause; with an extraordinarily energised movement gaining even more power following Cameron’s statement the morning after the referendum: a speech which destroyed Scottish Labour, and won the Tories the election.
Well, now the British left face another referendum, of just as much import: on the EU. Large chunks of the Tory press will be hellbent on withdrawal; so will huge swathes of the Tory Party. Freed from the coalition, my very strong sense is Cameron ultimately will be too: sure, he’ll make noises about renegotiation, and probably go through the motions of several summits – but his party is now so anti-European that naked political calculation will trump any sense of the national interest. With Cameron, it always does.
During the election campaign, we’ve already seen what impact an anti-progressive media can have on the outcome. Imagine what that message will be like during the referendum; imagine the myths and prejudices which the Telegraph, Sun, Mail and Express will trot out, especially about immigration. The British left will face the fight of its life to win – but in this lies the answer. Labour, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, Liberal Democrats and the Greens (along with the few remaining pro-European Tories) will have to do what they’ve never done before: unite, or else.
If it can do this – if it can pull together, and throw itself body and soul into keeping the UK in the world’s largest single market, it will trigger serious consequences on the right. If the Tories stand mainly for withdrawal, yet Britain votes to stay in, how does the Tory Party hold together? Ukip’s emergence owed to many factors: but chief amongst them was Cameron’s support of gay marriage. When traditional Tory supporters complain that the Prime Minister is not a ‘true conservative’, what they mean is he’s not a social conservative. And it’s that divide, social conservatives v social liberals, which could well cause a mass exodus to Ukip, and leave Cameron or Johnson with nowhere to turn.
Imagine, though, that the Tories do somehow hold together. Cameron, after all, has spent the past five years under siege from many within his own ranks, yet was returned with a first majority since 1992. All the factors I referred to above would still apply; the left will still cut its own throat at the next election. Unless…
Throughout my life, the left has warred far more bitterly with itself than its common enemy, the right. It’s frequently been bewildering to observe; Labour and Lib Dem supporters engaged in constant acts of electoral self-harm, while the bitterness and rancour that’s developed between Labour and the SNP has caused nothing but division. Blair’s comments yesterday suggested that even his party’s most successful ever leader does not understand what has happened in Scotland in any way: harping on endlessly about “narrow nationalism” is no small part of what led to Scottish Labour’s annihilation. But when it comes to the SNP, antagonism, not engagement; negativity, not reconciliation, is all Labour seem to know.
In Germany, the Christian Democrats (CDU) and Christian Social Union (CSU) are sister parties of the centre-right. The latter only fields candidates in Bavaria; the former does not stand against them. During the election campaign, what was so noticeable about Labour and the SNP’s manifestos was, for all the rhetoric of both (Labour trying to sound pro-austerity to appease English swing voters; the SNP trying to sound anti-austerity to pile the pressure on Labour), there was barely a cigarette paper between them. Yet these parties with near identical agendas still stood against each other at an election which had nothing to do with independence. Why?
What is to stop Labour and the SNP coming to an arrangement whereby the former does not stand against the latter in Scotland – and both form part of one progressive bloc in Westminster? Nothing could do more to heal horrendously deep rifts than that; nothing would persuade Scots that Labour is still a progressive party and aren’t ‘Red Tories’ more than that either.
Moreover: as a minimum, in any seats where there is a danger that a fractured left of centre vote lets the Tory candidate in, what is to stop the progressive bloc merely putting forward one candidate, maximising the chances of success? At this election, there was clearly an informal agreement between the SNP, Plaid and the Greens; yet again, other than in the case of Nicola Sturgeon’s rampant party, FPTP split the anti-Tory vote and let the Tories in.
To take just one example of very many: in Lewes, the Lib Dems’ Norman Baker lost his seat by 1083 votes to the Conservatives’ Maria Caulfield. Neither Labour nor the Greens had any chance of winning; yet 5000 votes went to the former, 2784 to the latter. And this sort of thing is repeated all over the country at every single General Election.
36 years of neo-liberalism; 36 years of the gap between rich and poor getting greater and greater… and still the tribalism of the left is more important to it than representing a natural anti-Tory majority which still exists, yet is never delivered upon. What kind of lunatic state of affairs is this? One which continually enables the Tories to divide and rule.
The discussions within the Labour Party shouldn’t be about its own future direction. They should be about how to unite progressive politics. Then there would be no need for it to sell its soul by appearing ‘Tory’; or abandon the many millions who once depended on it. The Tories? The Tories would be finished.
And those discussions should apply just as much to all the other anti-Tory parties too: above all, the Lib Dems. Regarding whom, I expounded upon at such length to demonstrate just how futile they are; how they frequently do much more harm than good, all as a result of Britain’s corrupt, unrepresentative voting system.
The first thing any new Labour leader should do is hold talks with their Lib Dem counterpart and endeavour finally to heal the historic rift on the left from which the Tories have perpetually thrived. Millions upon millions of unrepresented, abandoned voters deserve no less. The second thing any new Labour leader should do is go further, and build a genuine, real progressive alliance with the SNP, Greens and Plaid, along the lines suggested above: whereby candidates do not stand against each other.
The even bolder option would be, temporarily, for one election only, to merge all these parties except the SNP (which if independence hadn’t yet happened, would stand as a sister party in Scotland) into one, new party: let’s call them, the Democrats. In the US, this party represents a very broad coalition of many different interests: the unions, coastal liberals, the poor, professional classes. Yet there, in a country the size of a whole continent, no-one speaks of these interests being too different or too tribal to unite into one; everyone knows who the common enemy is. The Republicans. The American two party system is most like the UK’s – so why couldn’t it happen here too?
A huge reason so many voters (34% of the electorate on Thursday) have been lost to British politics is the parties spend so much time trying to be different from one another, they all end up appearing alike. Labour stood on its most progressive platform since 1992 – yet you wouldn’t know it from the responses of most of the public. “They’re no different to the Tories”, said many about a party whose economic and social approach is miles removed from Cameron’s – but in such a focus group, swing voter-obsessed world, that shouldn’t be a surprise.
Imagine if there was one simple choice facing these voters. The progressive, or the conservative. Things would be an awful lot clearer then: in fact, I’m confident that very many would be re-engaged if the progressives set out what the purpose was. Suddenly, there’d be nothing forcing Labour to the right; suddenly, it could re-engage with its core vote with no concern at all; suddenly, Britain could chart a wholly different, vastly more inclusive course. And just for the icing on the cake: unless they united too, the right wing vote would split hopelessly between the Tories and Ukip, ruining both in the process.
Then once the Democrats, or progressives, or whatever they called themselves, were elected, there would be nothing to stop an immediate move to PR: which would enable many new parties to emerge, and a huge amount of real choice for voters who could finally choose what they want, not what they don’t want. There’d be nothing to stop a move to full federalism either: devolving power to communities and localities, ending Westminster’s hopelessly centralised grip on a country which requires far, far better.
The great sadness is that none of what I’m setting out here should be a dream. It should be simple common sense. There is nothing to stop all Britain’s parties of the left doing precisely this; the only thing which does is internecine tribalism and petty self-interest which makes no electoral or political sense. Only the Tories feed off that, to everybody else’s ongoing detriment. So unless Labour want to keep letting down those they’re supposed to stand up for, and if they ever want to give themselves the remotest chance of implementing a genuinely progressive agenda, it (and its fellow parties of the left) needs to swallow its pride once and for all.
How to stop Boris? By uniting against him. It’s as simple and straightforward as that.
Thursday May 7, 2015. Britain goes to the polls at what is universally – entirely wrongly – believed to be the closest General Election in fully two generations. The opinion polls are deadlocked, and have been for months. The choice facing the country is by far the most stark since 1992: this wasn’t, contrary to what 99.99% of people assumed, a close election – but it was certainly a watershed.
On Tuesday morning, I set out why I believed that almost all forecasts and predictions were wrong: Ed Miliband’s strategy had been hopelessly flawed; his party would find itself squeezed from all sides; and above all, that the methodology employed by every single opinion polling company was wrong. Alarmingly wrong. Disastrously wrong. Inexcusably wrong.
At this point though, I want to highlight that, in no small part, I was wrong too. While I foresaw an enormously disappointing night for Labour, I did not anticipate such an apocalyptic one. Whereas I expected that the Scottish National Party (SNP) surge would hold, and count horribly against Labour not only in Scotland, but even more in England, where it had become the central plank of Conservative strategy to frighten voters into giving David Cameron a proper mandate, I did not foresee the almost complete wipe-out which resulted. And contrary to my belief that the Liberal Democrats’ positioning themselves as a sensible coalition partner would enable their support to hold up to some extent, it instead entirely melted down: Nick Clegg’s party squeezed even more horrendously than Labour amid the strange, Byzantine beast of First Past The Post (FPTP).
True, despite all that, I still did considerably better than any of the forecasting websites, any of the polling companies: I got the big picture right, you might say. But even I stopped short of stating the Tories would win a majority; I thought a further Tory-Lib Dem arrangement was likely, and never foresaw that half of this equation would all but vanish from the electoral landscape altogether.
A little later, I’ll be introducing readers to the man who did get it right: the only man prior to the formidable exit pollsters who got it extraordinarily, almost impossibly right. But if you’ll forgive me, on this awful morning for progressive politics across England and Wales (if certainly not Scotland), I want to indulge in a spot of something so often beloved of those on the left: self-flagellation.
You see, what happened at this election – this supposedly cataclysmic shock – was supposed to happen all along. The government, while embarking on a series of horribly divisive, almost entirely unnecessary economic policies, had experienced no disasters. The Prime Minister’s approval ratings remained good; at times, remarkably good. Those of the opposition leader were, thanks to his palpable lack of gravitas and the toxic reputation of his party (blamed both for Iraq, entirely justifiably; and the 2008 financial crash, rather less justifiably) poor: at times, extraordinarily so given dramatically rising food bank use, rising inequality, and a prolonged fall in living standards unparalleled since the Second World War. Most of this directly affected those who would, surely, represent Miliband’s core constituency – yet any sense of cut-through remained elusive.
Then consider that, for reasons I set out last month, the nature of Britain’s electoral system has made it impossible for any party standing on anything resembling a truly radical, progressive agenda to get anywhere near winning an election since 1979 (in fact, since 1974): with the early 1980s split on the left meaning that, in effect, the entire voting system was dragged ever further to the right, a self-perpetuating process which is still ongoing and shows no signs of slowing down. And above all, on by far the most important indicator of any party’s readiness for government – economic competence – the Tories had remained well ahead of Labour ever since the crash; considerably because of the latter’s extraordinary failure to challenge a narrative about ‘austerity’ which isn’t only misleading – but is fallacious and increasingly dangerous to Britain’s medium and long term future.
This narrative, parroted relentlessly by the increasingly hysterical Tory press, the BBC, and both the Tories and Lib Dems, meant that when Miliband said perfectly reasonably that no, Labour had not over-spent before the crash, most viewers were horrified. How could they trust someone so irresponsible, not even prepared to apologise; who’d been part of a government which, so everyone insisted, had ‘run out of money’?
Never mind that no country in charge of its own money supply can ever run out of money (it simply prints more); never mind that Britain wasn’t even remotely imperilled in the manner of southern European countries trapped in the euro zone and crucially, without control of their money supply or economic policy; never mind that the effect of coalition-imposed austerity was simply to remove huge amounts of liquidity from the system, grind the economy to a dead halt, and it only began to recover when those policies were significantly ameliorated; never mind that almost all macro-economists around the world (notably the Nobel Prize Winner, Paul Krugman; the Merton College, Oxford Professor, Simon Wren-Lewis; and even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) itself) had rejected austerity as a busted flush; never mind that not Labour, but the coalition, had doubled the national debt, and left it massively more exposed to an increasingly possible second crash; never mind that the economy had been growing rapidly when Gordon Brown was forced out of office; never mind that borrowing costs are historically low, and inflation is at zero; never mind that the welfare state itself had been built by the postwar Labour government at a time the country was technically bankrupt (so it simply borrowed instead, investing in infrastructure and setting a course for the Keynesian consensus); never mind that the now immortalised Liam Byrne note was a playful aside to his successor in the manner of long established Treasury traditions; never mind that, mindbogglingly, the Tories were proposing a more extreme version of the very policy which had failed so completely in the first place… none of this mattered.
If a lie is repeated often enough, it becomes the truth. Thus both coalition partners asserted that Labour’s much more balanced approach to deficit reduction would “pass our debts on to our children and grandchildren”, even when Tory policy will, by preventing growth or re-balancing, actually do that very thing; both continued to espouse the risible nonsense that Britain’s debt (which remember, they had doubled) was somehow comparable to a credit card debt, or that running a country is akin to running a household budget.
The press, run by barons who benefit enormously from the continuous upward funneling of wealth to the super-rich, and who would be personally impacted by a mansion tax, the return of the 50p tax rate, and especially the removal of the absurd protection of non-doms, hammered the message home again and again: Labour would endanger everything. A shockingly economically illiterate public (so illiterate that this itself poses an increasing threat to public policy, and certainly to the UK’s fiscal health) would inevitably acquiesce: despite policies which do most of them ongoing financial and social harm. And once the ‘danger’ posed by a party with the brass neck to have huge numbers of MPs democratically elected by Scottish voters was thrown into a wholly disingenuous, toxic mix, the die was cast: with public minds panicked into nonsensical comparisons with the 1970s, told that Nicola Sturgeon would ‘drag’ Miliband to the left… despite the SNP actually standing for slower, more drawn out austerity than Labour.
But throughout the last five years, Labour themselves have been horribly culpable: for failing to challenge a false narrative, or set out their own plans in any convincing way. When Miliband defended the Brown government’s record during the televised debates, he needed to assert why it hadn’t over-spent – but in keeping with serious communication issues which dogged him throughout his leadership, he couldn’t. Instead, like a rabbit in the headlights, hoist by the petard of his own foolish commitment to austerity, he froze – and his failure to ‘take responsibility’ will undoubtedly have hung particularly heavy in undecided voters’ hearts in the polling booths yesterday.
That the public have continued to blame Labour for hardship caused by the coalition is a huge part of the reason why Miliband’s results at local, European and by-elections were so poor; and those results, as we shall see, represented an enormous, critical warning: not only to Miliband, but the pollsters. Both ignored them (in the latter case, incomprehensibly so); both will have plenty of time to reflect and repent on this now.
To recap: miles behind Cameron on approval ratings, public credibility, and especially economic competence; lacking in authority or leadership skills; leading a party with a toxic image (and with a Shadow Chancellor who embodied this in public minds more than anyone else); standing on a progressive platform the like of which hadn’t succeeded at any general election in 40 years; overseeing continually poor electoral fortunes despite mid-term ballots almost always providing a huge boost to any modern day opposition (and for that matter, failing to pull into anything like the kind of mid-term lead which any opposition needs in order to win the big one); and up against a government regarded by most as perfectly competent, how could anyone possibly have believed that Ed Miliband’s Labour Party stood the remotest chance of being returned yesterday?
Every single key electoral indicator was against it and in favour of the Tories. The apocalyptic, beyond seismic fall-out from the Scottish referendum – incorporating a Scottish left feeling completely betrayed by the last-minute announcement of The Vow and Cameron’s apparent shifting of the goalposts the moment a NO vote was confirmed; furiously mobilised against a Scottish Labour Party who had stood alongside the hated Tories and therefore confirmed itself once and for all as ‘Red Tories’, who neither represented their interests nor had delivered anything resembling social justice despite 13 years of government – which, true to form, wasn’t so much ignored as entirely missed by Labour’s laughably oblivious London headquarters until it was already far too late – was only the latest of many factors which, combined, could only lead to one conclusion. Miliband would lose; and he would lose big.
Thus, a week after the referendum, a time when most commentators were incomprehensibly expecting a Labour majority, and had not picked up on what was happening in Scotland in any way, I stated that he would inevitably lose in this post on The Guardian. When challenged, I even forecast the share of the vote: 37 or 38% for the Conservatives; 31 or 32% for Labour – and posited:
I think we’ll start the general election campaign, ie. a month before polling day, with everyone anticipating a hung Parliament. We’ll finish it, as a minimum, with the Tories as the largest party – and probably with a majority.
To me, this was the only logical outcome. As we moved towards the election, I treated any Tory lead as a sign of the inevitable; but was bewildered as Miliband appeared (according to the fatally, catastrophically flawed polls) to overtake Cameron during the campaign, then as things remained level pegging all the way to polling day. I simply grew more and more suspicious: what was wrong with the polls? Why were they all saying something which I could scarcely even conceive of being true?
Yet even then, I didn’t follow this through to its logical outcome. In my article on Tuesday, everything I highlighted should have left me forecasting a Tory majority: not merely that Miliband could not possibly become PM. I should also have better appreciated that, given a hitherto merged party encompassing both the Liberals and Social Democrats had effectively cut its latter half away by joining the Tories, but would be facing those very same Tories (who the polls were under-stating) in most of its key seats – who basked in public approbation for economic competence, while the Lib Dems played the Aunt Sally role of being blamed for any of the coalition’s more pernicious policies – Clegg’s party wouldn’t just lose half its support. It would inevitably haemorrhage a whole lot more: and be lambs to the slaughter when up against the Conservatives.
Instead, naturally enough I suppose, I asked myself, “in 2015, with all their sophisticated techniques and given all the lessons of the past, could ALL the pollsters – even including Nate Silver, for goodness’ sake – really be THAT wrong?” So I restricted myself to predicting another Tory-led coalition, rather than extrapolating in conclusion the very thing which all my arguments should have led me to. My forecast remained much more favourable to Cameron than almost any other anywhere; but still, mea culpa. A lesson learned.
Then on Wednesday night, as the nation slept before crunch time, and the likes of May 2015 asserted preposterous levels of hubris about the likely outcome, everything suddenly became clear. I had chanced upon the one and only forecasting hero of this long campaign: whose services will surely be in the highest demand in the years ahead, who had conducted comprehensive, demonstrably proven psephological research, and whose findings drove an absolute coach and horses through every single professional forecaster and polling organisation… as well as sending an unforgettably cold chill down my Labour-supporting spine. For the Conservatives, his work spelt Nirvana; for the opinion polls, it spelt Nemesis.
In an extraordinary tour de force, the best, most counter-intuitive piece of electoral research I believe has ever been conducted in the modern day (better even than Silver’s in 2008 and 2012), the website Number Cruncher Politics (NCP) explained that, according to all possible indicators and variables, the polls were telling a wildly different story to that accepted by just about everyone.
As I had done, NCP strongly suspected a repeat of 1992-style Shy Tory Syndrome; but unlike me, as the man behind it is possessed of the scientific expertise necessary to trawl through exhaustive amounts of data going back some 50 years and model it in various ways, he had the ability to conclusively prove it. By examining electoral data covering the previous 35 years, toplines from the last half century, and opinion polls from this Parliament, he identified a very clear statistical pattern, which repeated itself through three separate models. His main findings were as follows:
1. As I had noted in my article, opinion polls at British General Elections are usually biased against the Tories and in favour of Labour. The exception, when both the Conservatives and Labour were a little understated in 2010, while the Lib Dems were wildly overstated, was in all likelihood, a one-off (and to me, easily explicable by how vulnerable the soft progressive vote invariably is under FPTP. The same demographic of voters inflating the Lib Dem position 5 years ago were, I intuited, having an identical effect on Labour this year).
2. The unusual fluidity of the electorate during this last Parliament (so many Lib Dem voters abandoning the party; Tory and Labour voters heading over to Ukip) had almost certainly undermined – perhaps even entirely negated – the adjustments made by pollsters after the debacle of 1992. Especially when it came to the usual method of reallocating ‘don’t knows’ – because far fewer of these would vote for their traditional party, but amid a new, multi-party landscape, how could pollsters possibly determine who would, and who would not?
4. Conflicting internal polling – reports of which I noted in my article, and clearly precipitated a dramatic change in strategy over the last week as a panicking Labour campaign desperately courted the notoriously unreliable young vote (again, the same voters who failed to turn out for the Lib Dems in 2010, despite so many of them having promised their support) – bore uncanny resemblances to 1992.
9. All three models – based on adjusted topline numbers; polling internals; and actual votes – were telling an extraordinarily similar, unbelievably alarming story about this year’s election; and combined, when tested against the polls at every General Election since 1983, outperformed them on all but one occasion (2010, when the difference was a mere 0.2 points).
10. What was that story? Namely, that the Tories were heading for a victory by between 6, and more likely around 8 points – despite the opinion polls all suggesting things were dead level.
The sheer, overwhelming exhaustiveness of the research left no room for doubt. I was awestruck by what I had just read, and given my habitual sense that the polls were very, very wrong, knew it could only mean one thing. The Tories were heading either right to the cusp of an overall majority; or their first majority since, you guessed it, 1992.
Three final opinion polls were now due to be published before 7am. Inexplicably, none were; allappearedseveral hours later instead, along with a fourth too. Had the polling companies seen the NCP research, appreciated the catastrophe it foretold for them, and reappraised their data? I have no idea, but can only suspect not. I tweeted it to May 2015, but got no response: instead, the New Statesman’s forecast site happily updated the news that the final polls still suggested a tied race, and Miliband premiership.
(1)No person shall, in the case of an election to which this section applies, publish before the poll is closed—
(a)any statement relating to the way in which voters have voted at the election where that statement is (or might reasonably be taken to be) based on information given by voters after they have voted, or
(b)any forecast as to the result of the election which is (or might reasonably be taken to be) based on information so given.
Above, point 1(a) refers to exit polls: which of course, are never released until 10pm. But 1(b), while not explicitly doing so, appears at all elections in the past to have been taken to cover opinion polls released after voting has begun. This was the sixth General Election I’ve experienced – and never before have opinion polls been published after 7am on polling day. Why were they on this occasion?
In fairness to the pollsters in question, the Act was hardly designed for an internet age dominated by social media and, at this election, by forecasting websites: all of which continued to apply the latest data despite point 1(b); while on Twitter and Facebook, various candidates re-tweeted endorsements from voters and voters declared who they had voted for. As The Telegraph notes today, some form of mild campaigning still seems to have been going on beyond that.
A mess, then, which the Electoral Commission would do well to resolve ahead of future ballots – but there are two vastly more serious points here. First, for the duration of the campaign (and, for that matter, a good 2 years prior to that, according to NCP), all polling companies and forecasting sites have been publishing wildly, at times ludicrously inaccurate information which inevitably influenced the race, and the outcome. When parties are assumed to be tied, their strategy changes; media treatment of them substantially changes (never more so than in Labour’s case this year); public responses change too. In the latter case, how many more voters are likely to vote a certain way out of fear that those they’re opposed to are in touching distance of victory? And under FPTP, how many vote tactically who would otherwise not have done – and vice versa?
In practice, as the NCP model conclusively demonstrates, Labour were never ahead, and have probably been several points behind throughout the campaign. Yet that’s not what the polling companies were saying. Should organisations with such disastrously flawed methodology and a consistent record of inaccuracy which, as exposed by NCP, dates back at least 32 years, be allowed to dominate the agenda in such a way; and above all, to have such heavy influence on debate and public discourse?
Remember: huge amounts of the Tory campaign were dedicated to frightening English voters into stopping a minority Labour government propped up by the SNP – but in practice, this was never the prospect it appeared, because Labour were doing much worse than was believed. Enormous amounts of discussion were put over not to policy, not to manifestos, but the electoral and Parliamentary arithmetic – but this bore no resemblance to the reality.
Is it any wonder the British public have such little understanding of macro-economics when whole election campaigns – leading to a decision hugely determining the futures of them, their families, their loved ones – are given over to constant reactions to never-ending opinion polls: even when these polls are completely wrong? Other countries (most notably, France) do not allow polling firms to play such a huge role during the final week of election campaigns; why on Earth does the UK?
To make matters worse, the thesis I set out on Tuesday focused heavily on the role of Lord Ashcroft: whose constituency polling has been a huge feature of this campaign, and clearly became central to most forecast sites: most notably, May 2015 and Election Forecast. My piece concluded that his data was almost certainly awry; and in that, we now know that he was in very good company with all other polling firms.
At The Telegraph, virtually ever since Ed Miliband was elected Labour leader, Labour-supporting Dan Hodges has consistently (and we now know, quite brilliantly) forecasted Miliband’s demise. He must be experiencing very conflicting emotions this morning; as a fellow Labour traveller, I know I am. In February, he asked a question which the British polling world should have already been asking: “What does Lord Ashcroft want?”
As Hodges set out, over the last 5 years, Ashcroft has morphed in public persona from hugely controversial non-dom to friend of the political process: opening up the business of polling to the public in a manner never seen before. But Ashcroft, contrary to what so many must assume, is not a pollster: he buys in polling from other companies, publishes the results, but won’t reveal who these companies are. He himself is not a member of the British Polling Council either.
Not only that, but he’s an extremely wealthy Tory peer, and former Deputy Chairman of the Party. During tbis campaign, he’s tweeted his admiration of Sturgeon – whose ‘danger to England’ just so happened, by purest coincidence, to constitute the central plank of the successful Conservative strategy. I have never known a Tory give such regular praise to a nationalist in the way Ashcroft has.
His final ‘snapshot’, released well after 7am yesterday, had Conservative and Labour tied, and only added to the bigger picture that the two parties were deadlocked. But ask yourself, purely hypothetically: if you were a Tory who naturally desired your party to win as convincingly as possible, would you want the final poll to have them well ahead… or locked in a race too close to call, which would encourage maximum possible turnout? More to the point: purely hypothetically, if you were a Tory who wanted maximum possible negative exposure of Labour throughout an election campaign, scaring the public into voting heavily against them, would you want them to be well behind… or seemingly on the verge of victory?
How far the obvious flaws in Ashcroft (sorry, I mean the companies which he buys his polling in from)’s data help explain the almost identical flaws in every other firm’s data, I couldn’t possibly begin to imagine. But how has such an obviously self-interested individual become the most influential figure in opinion polling? Why were at least two very well-publicised forecasting sites so dependent on deeply flawed data? Why haven’t more questions been asked about his motivations?
One man who has asked such questions – many, many such questions – has been the Labour peer, Lord Foulkes. He conducted his own online pursuit of his Tory contemporary throughout the campaign: leading to frequently entertaining exchanges, but never leaving observers in much doubt as to what he thought. Foulkes has hinted for many days that the polls were wrong; and in February, went a great deal further. Opinion polls, he fulminated, were increasingly:
“Being manipulated at the behest of people with money, whether they be the media or individuals, as part of the political process… What is clear now is the media in particular, but others as well, are demanding instant polling, determining when it should be done and how it should be done. The academic rigour that ought to be carried out isn’t being carried out.”
And to be sure, given what this article has set out, who could possibly argue true academic rigour had been carried out on a whole series of polls which haven’t just been a little wrong – but a lot wrong? Very wrong. Astoundingly wrong.
Similarly astounding, when you stop and think about it for a moment, is how, after half a century’s dominance of Scotland, the Labour Party have been swept away just like that via a speeding yellow flash; meltdown triggered, as noted above, by The Vow and its ongoing fall-out. But what’s so often forgotten about the referendum campaign – the democratic event that changed Scotland irrevocably forever – is that between August 2013 and polling day itself, just two opinion polls (and only one with a sample size of over 1000) put YES ahead. That latter poll, by YouGov and the Sunday Times, was publicised with unusual relish by Rupert Murdoch on Twitter, and sent shockwaves through the British establishment.
Its response to one solitary rogue poll? The Vow. As soon as it had been made, Labour were in no position to control what resulted; and when that involved Cameron cutting the rug away from Gordon Brown’s feet on the steps of Downing Street, suddenly, a party which for so long had dominated Scottish politics was faced by an oncoming train it (because it was in government in neither England nor Scotland) could do nothing about – which yesterday, flattened it completely, destroying its broader electoral hopes in the process.
Opinion polls, then, can be remarkable things with yet more remarkable consequences. Especially when they’re conducted for a newspaper de facto owned by someone with a surprisingly good relationship with the then First Minister of Scotland; even more when they help trigger the collapse of a party which had taken that someone on in a manner of no other British political party in my lifetime. What did that someone’s lead redtop do during the election campaign? Simultaneously support the SNP (against Labour) in Scotland; the Tories (against Labour, while banging home the message of dangerous, rebellious, left wing Scots coming to rule over the English) in England.
Rupert Murdoch, of course, was humiliated by the Leveson inquiry into phone hacking; deemed “not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company” by the British government, and has been investigated by both British and American authorities for bribery and corruption. This perhaps helps explain The Scottish Sun’s enthusiastic support for the SNP; The Sun’s vituperative opposition to Ed Miliband, whose ideas threatened to end any remaining influence of Murdoch over the UK media, and its voicing of a narrative which would inexorably pull England and Scotland apart, threatening the imminent break-up of a 308-year-old Union.
Through his actions, Murdoch has left no doubt regarding his open hostility to the UK and British establishment. Hell hath no fury like a global press baron scorned. At the same time as Murdoch has fallen from grace in Britain, Ashcroft’s star has dramatically risen. Which is, presumably, entirely unremarkable – but the examples of both provide a heavy reminder of what can happen when vested interests collide with the democratic process.
As Foulkes has noted, extraordinarily, the ever more influential polling business is entirely unregulated. In such a world, despite their consistent inaccuracy, all polls are effectively taken on trust: a remarkable state of affairs. Foulkes has therefore introduced a Parliamentary Bill intending to establish an independent regulator; which will also place restrictions on polls being published in the three weeks leading up to an election. In light of all that’s happened in this campaign, one can only wish his Bill speedy and safe passage.
To return, though, to yesterday. I now knew conclusively that the polls were hopelessly askew – but the dear old British public did not. Neither did the BBC presenters: who in tandem with the entire watching world (but not, at least, maybe two or three of us) greeted the exit poll with incredulity. The moment I saw that poll, I was entirely sure it was either (a) absolutely accurate; or (b) still underestimated the Tories’ position. The latter was how it proved. While frantic Labour supporters initially clutched at the straw of an exit poll that wasn’t – a YouGov re-contact survey confirming the previous day’s numbers, which had been arrived at via all the same mistakes as all the other polls – I simply told my friends that it was over. And it was.
We’ll never know whether those in charge of the exit poll had been alerted to NCP’s work. Either way, though, they at least did a magnificent job in hellishly demanding circumstances; they at least emerge from this complete fiasco with their heads held high.
As I type, David Cameron is now back in Downing Street, gleefully clutching a 12-seat majority. He and the Tories, though, will soon discover that in politics, as in life, we should be careful what we wish for; for with an EU referendum now certain, Cameron is likely to be even more boxed in by his lunatic fringe than John Major was after 1992. The chaos of that period destroyed the Tories’ public image, opening a chasm in the party which even the staunchly Euro-sceptic Cameron has been unable to close. With the economy now likely to be sent straight back into recession by even heavier austerity than before, I would be moderately surprised if the Prime Minister makes it as far as the referendum; and in the event of a vote to stay in, even more so if the Conservatives don’t do what they’ve been threatening to do for over a generation, and split completely and irrecovably.
For the other big winners of the night, the SNP, the path to independence is clear. How can a country with one Tory MP and 56 nationalist MPs possibly be governed from London by a majority Tory administration? Answer: short of immediate full federalism and an immediate change to proportional representation – preventing such a scenario ever occurring again – it cannot. The Union’s days are numbered.
And Labour? With Miliband having resigned with typically good grace, now the party must put right its awful, tragic error (for both men) in choosing the wrong brother in 2010; and resolve its ongoing internal debate between the kind of quasi-social democratic agenda offered by the now departed Ed, and something closer to the Blairism necessary to win under FPTP. Chuka Umunna would plainly represent the latter; but in truth, if Labour are ever to regain a foothold as a natural party of government (especially once what we know now as Britain becomes merely England and Wales), it desperately needs to reach out to and reconnect with the many millions of working class voters it has shed since 1997.
Tony Blair knew how to win; but did not know how to create something truly long lasting and self-sustaining. Only by shunning both Blairism and Milibandism can Labour hope to do that: it needs to forge a new non-statist, localist, communitarian approach, in which the ties of family, friendship and community are reborn; power is devolved downwards to localities and through federalism, and offers real remedies for Britain’s increasingly divided, fragmented, discordant, atomised society.
That huge bloc of traditional support (the latest chunk of which voted SNP and Ukip last night) must be won back; the sense of alienation they feel must be listened to and engaged with. Their aspirations – as well as those of small business or bigger business – must be met: a much larger, much more coherent coalition of Labour support than is ever generally appreciated is out there, but has been almost entirely neglected for a whole generation.
As the country discovered yet again last night, British politics only works for a few. As it regathers its energies from this latest devastating blow, it is Labour’s task and will always be Labour’s cause to ensure that, by offering new solutions to both new and old problems, it finally begins to deliver for the many.