The Spectator's Notes

The Spectator’s notes

3 March 2016

3:00 PM

3 March 2016

3:00 PM

The government, or at least David Cameron’s bit of it, seems to think that trade is something that takes place because of a trade agreement. The order is the other way round. People trade, and have done for several thousand years, because it is to their mutual advantage. After a bit, governments come along and try to direct and often impede it, but in the modern world of instant communications, ready transfers of money and container shipping, this has become blessedly difficult. A friend, Edward Atkin, who has made a large fortune out of Avent baby bottles and like products, tells me: ‘I have never known or asked whether any of our customers in over 80 markets was trading in a country with or without a trade agreement with the EU. We exported 80 per cent of our output. Most of the world’s leading exporting countries (Japan, South Korea and the US) have no such trade agreements with the EU. This does not matter because the WTO forbids high duties and limiting conditions.’ Often, indeed, barriers to trade come for reasons other than tariffs. The US is a true single market internally. The EU is not, although it is a tariff-free zone. Small differences (for example, in the design of electric plugs) are deliberately inserted by member states: ‘Our baby products,’ Atkin goes on, ‘had to be designed for local requirements, like the French needing a 300cc bottle, while every other market wanted just a 250cc one.’ I believe that regulations in some member states are specifically — though not, of course, declaredly — designed to keep out JCB, Dyson etc. The government’s bloodcurdling propaganda document warns that if we vote to leave, negotiations will take ten years. I don’t believe it, but if it were true, it would not be much different from what happens if we stay in. The EU is a constant negotiation, with many official careers entirely consumed in this process. While fonctionnaires sit around doing this, the caravan of trade moves on.

Polling day for the referendum is 23 June. I have heard people lament that Mr Cameron has carefully chosen a date with no historical references (Waterloo Day, for example, being two days earlier). It is not so. I am grateful to a learned correspondent who informs me that 23 June is the day which traditionally marks the founding of the Althing, the Icelandic parliament, in 930. When he addressed it, Winston Churchill famously irritated its members by the first half of his sentence and gratified them with the second half: ‘I come from the mother of parliaments [pause] to the grandmother of parliaments.’ It is strange that the freedom so bravely claimed by a small number of Nordic persons well over a thousand years ago should be a controversial thing for the citizens of a 21st-century nation to want to restore.

But what do the ‘leave’ people want? Should Britain be like Iceland, Norway, Switzerland or Canada? Quite a lot of those on the ‘leave’ side, particularly among Ukip supporters, say that they must have a common position about what type of relationship Britain, when leaving the EU, should negotiate with its former partners. This sounds logical, but it is a trap into which the ‘remain’ side wishes its opponents to fall. Notice, for example, how Matthew Hancock, the Cabinet Office minister charged with expressing George Osborne’s thoughts when it is not convenient for Mr Osborne himself to do so, keeps pressing the point very hard. If ‘leave’ announced a plan, two things would immediately happen. The Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, would use every possible source of official ‘information’ to tear it apart, and the ‘leave’ campaigners would start quarrelling with one another. The ‘leave’ campaign is not entitled to have a plan because this is not a general election and it is not (unlike the SNP in the Scottish referendum) a government, and cannot become one. All it can do is illustrate the range of sensible possibilities and try to kill the more absurd scares. If the British vote to leave, it is the present government who will have to work out how best this is done. Since it is government policy to let us vote, I wish Mr Cameron would get clever Sir Jeremy to turn his mind to this preparatory task and stop telling ministers that they cannot see government papers.

The RSPCA is being made, because of its persistent perversion of its charitable status, to drop its deliberately controversial prosecutions (often used as a means of fund-raising), and concentrate on the purpose expressed in its name — ‘the prevention of cruelty to animals’. This is good news, but is it right that the RSPCA should retain any role at all in bringing prosecutions (apart, of course, from supplying evidence)? Justice is unlikely to be impartial if it goes into partnership with bodies with such a strong axe to grind. Something similar applies to the police’s closeness to the NSPCC, which encourages an uncritical attitude to accusations of child abuse.

As so often, The Simpsons were years in advance of actual political facts. In the programme about ten years ago, Lisa Simpson, for reasons I have now forgotten, becomes President of the United States. She sits in the Oval Office and is briefed by aides on the mess she has inherited from one President Trump. Trump made the great mistake, she is informed, of ‘investing in our nation’s children’. The country is bust and ‘Our free breakfast program merely created a generation of super-criminals.’ Among commentators on either side of the Atlantic, one of the few to see the coming of Trump was the former owner of this paper, Conrad Black, who knows the man. Now Conrad has a vision. Lamenting the move away from the Roosevelt-Churchill and Reagan-Thatcher relationships ‘which brought the West victory in World War II and the Cold War’, he writes: ‘There are stranger, and far worse, prospects than that Donald Trump and Boris Johnson could rebuild that relationship, with all the resulting benefits of olden time.’


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