03 October 2006

Talking rubbish

Today, Christopher Booker speaks to the Bruges Group fringe meeting at the Tory Party Conference, Bournemouth.

"I'm going to talk rubbish this afternoon," he says. "And I do want to talk about the Conservative Party. But if I also mention booster seats in cars or our new size-based system of postal charges, then any of you who happen to read my column in the Sunday Telegraph might know where I'm coming from." He continues:

In the last couple of weeks I've been writing about the recent spate of controversial new laws which have made plenty of headlines, but which the media seem curiously reluctant to acknowledge as originating from the European Union.

In the past few days we have seen yet another superb example in this new law which came into force on Sunday outlawing discrimination in the workplace on grounds of age. It is quite clear that this is going to create a horrendous new legal minefield (or paradise for lawyers, if you prefer it) Anyway, according to Personnel Today, it is going to "create havoc". Even according to the government itself, it is going to add hundreds of millions of pounds a year to the costs for businesses, as they face a massive escalation in the number of appeals going before employment tribunals. In other words, badly and ambiguously drafted, this is a very bad law.

But why are we only hearing all this now? Do we remember all these points being made when this law was being debated by Parliament? Do we remember thundering editorials making these points as it reached its Second Reading? Of course we don't, because this law wasn't debated by Parliament. The reason why it seemed suddenly to appear as the law of the land was that had been slipped through under the European Communities Act to implement a six-year old Brussels directive. But when this law suddenly became the focus of excitable attention from the media – including no fewer than three long items on last Friday's Today programme - the very last thing the BBC or most of the rest of the media wanted to tell us was where this controversial law had come from.

It was the same with the new law making it a criminal offence to drive a car with a child under "135 centimentres" tall, whatever that may be, unless the child is placed in a booster seat. Despite all the avalanche of media coverage this received, including stories of policemen waiting mob-handed round school gates ready to swoop on any mum who was breaking the law, it took Boris Johnson in the Daily Telegraph to come forward to explain the simple fact that this was yet another law imposed by Brussels which our elected MPs had been given no opportunity to discuss or to vote on.

One of the most glaring recent example of this strange blindness to the way we are now governed has been the way we get rid of our rubbish. In the past few months this has become a major national talking point. The mass of different bins we all now have to put out in the name of "recycling". Then the revelations of how much of what is collected for recycling is not in fact being recycled at all, because there simply aren't the arrangements in place to make that possible, so that much of it is still either having to be landfilled, or it is being shipped out to the East or Africa to be disposed of in ways which do immense damage both to their environment and to their workers.

Our waste policy is a shambles. As it becomes ever harder to dispose of items such as fridges or old motor cars or old batteries or asbestos cement roof slates, we predictably have an unprecedented epidemic of fly tipping. All this gets plenty of coverage in the national and local press. But hardly ever does anyone ever explain why this is all happening. It is happening for the simple reason that our waste disposal policy is now almost entirely dictated by a series of EC directives which bear remarkably little relation to economic and environmental reality, particularly in this country, which is why we have been landed in such an unholy mess,

What is true of our waste policy is also true of far too much else about the way we are now governed. An ever greater proportion of the way our laws are now made and our national policies decided is now being handed over to a mysterious new form of government which bears no relation to parliamentary democracy. Far too many of the policies and laws it produces turn out to be horribly expensive, hopelessly misconceived and don’t work. What is more, when this becomes apparent, there is absolutely nothing we can do about it, because it is a system which is wholly unaccountable.

Yet the most astonishing thing of all is the way in which all this is kept out of view. We had yet another striking example yesterday when the main story on the front page of the Telegraph Business section carried the headline "Labour's rights for workers cost economy £37 billion". The CBI had produced a report stating that, based on the government’s own figures, this has been the cumulative cost to British business of 35 new rights granted to workers under employment regulations since 1998. The obvious message was that this was all somehow the fault of the Labour government. Not a hint anywhere in the story that almost every one of these new regulations originated from the EU. Was the Telegraph not aware that the making of employment law is now a Brussels competence, which means we no longer have the power to make employment law ourselves?

Just consider some of the other areas of national policy we have handed over to this mysterious system. Obviously, the way we run our agriculture and the laws which govern our fishing waters. The way we run every aspect of our environment policy, from how we get rid of our rubbish to the way we are about to cover our countryside with thousands of useless wind turbines. The way we run our competition rules, our immigration rules, our overseas trade, our food safety, our road safety, the regulation of our aviation and shipping, most of our laws on terrorism. And increasingly this is becoming true also of the way we have to run our tax system, not to mention large parts of our foreign and defence policies - very much including the increasingly disastrous way in which we organise and equip our beleaguered armed forces, which has become one of the really shocking scandals of our time.

All these things used to be at the heart of our national political debate. They were the subject of proper discussion in Parliament, They were the very stuff of party political conferences, like this one here in Bournemouth. Yet, bit by bit, all these crucial themes of what our politics used to be about have been allowed to slip away, barely noticed, into that mysterious twilight zone where we can no longer have any significant influence on them.

It is hardly surprising that most people these days no longer have any real idea how most of our laws and policies are decided. The media certainly don't bother to tell us. Any more than do the politicians themselves. They just carry on as if none of this had happened. Until all we are left with is the soap opera of politics. The ‘Tony and Gordon Show’. Will Harriet Harman be our next deputy prime minister? Will Charles Kennedy make a come back? How many acres of newsprint have been devoted to all this kind of rubbish in the past few weeks? Perhaps it is the only kind of rubbish which definitely does get recycled. Again and again and again. But this is just as relevant, I’m afraid, to what is going on here in Bournemouth this week.

A peculiar myth has grown up with the new leadership of the Tory Party that one of the reasons why the party has done so badly in the era of Tony Blair is that it has been too "right wing". And the supreme example of this, we are told, is that the party has been too obsessed with what they call "Europe".

Part of the new deal laid down by Mr Cameron and his friends is that their new Conservative Party must stop talking about anything that can be construed as "right wing", which therefore means, as Mr Cameron puts it that it must stop "banging on about Europe". What was it he said on Sunday?

While parents worried about childcare, getting the kids to school, balancing work and family life - we were banging on about Europe.
His friend George Osborne was saying the same thing again yesterday. "Don't mention Europe" has become the modern version of "don't mention the war".

But those of us who don't live in the Westminster bubble find this rather puzzling. And one reason for this is that we are old enough to remember what the Tory Party has actually been up to over the past decade.

John Major, as we recall, did get in a fearful mess over "Europe". It is perhaps the supreme irony of modern British politics that nothing did more to destroy the credibility of the Tory Party than "Black Wednesday", our collapse out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992. From that moment on, the Tories were never again ahead in the polls for 14 years. It was a triple irony, firstly because the Labour Party and the Liberals were even keener on our joining the ERM than the Tory Party. Secondly because our escape from the ERM was, as we know, the best thing that could possibly have happened to our economy, ushering in that decade or more of unbroken growth which really stemmed from the revolution brought about in our economy in the 1980s under Mrs Thatcher. And thirdly it was an irony because it was precisely that strength in our economy, inherited by Labour, which has been the chief underpinning of all Labour's pretensions to have been a successful government ever since 1997.

It is true that when William Hague took over in1997, he did for a while "bang on about Europe" quite a bit. When he made a Eurosceptic speech to the CBI later that year he won a genuine standing ovation. In 1998 at Fontainebleau he gave the most intelligently argued speech made about the future of the European Union by any British politician for years – since. dare one say it, that speech from which the organisation holding this meeting today took its name.

But in those days, of course, the great "European" issue of the moment was whether Britain should sign up to that successor of the ERM, economic and monetary union. And one of the biggest problems facing Mr Hague was that, as soon as he made it clear that he was no more keen for Britain to join than Gordon Brown, he was set upon in the most bizarre way by some of the most senior members of the Party. Day after day on the BBC we heard Kenneth Clarke, Heseltine, Howe, Hurd and Leon Brittan calling for Britain to join the euro. This provoked Mr Hague into such a retreat that by the 2001 election Tory policy on "Europe" had dwindled away into little more than just two slogans: "Save the Pound" and "In Europe but not run by Europe". If you were a Tory spokesman, you were allowed to utter those two little mantras but nothing more - and woe betide you if you stepped an inch off message.

Then came Iain Duncan Smith. The bizarre thing with IDS was that, although the main reason why he won such overwhelming support from the Tory grass roots in the leadership election was that he had a reputation for being a keen Eurosceptic, no sooner did he get into office than we heard almost nothing from him about it ever again. Although it was the very reason why he had been elected, it just seemed to vanish from his agenda - just as he was soon to vanish himself. The very last thing one could say about the IDS interregnum was that the reason why he became so unpopular was his obsession with "Europe".

Then we had the next interregnum, under Mr Howard. A man who was occasionally prepared to flirt with Euroscepticism when it seemed opportune, as when he belatedly called for a referendum on the EU constitution, but who on the whole was as keen to keep "Europe" stuffed away out of sight as his predecessors. Do you remember that revealing moment when, shortly before the 2005 election, he made headlines by calling for more curbs on immigration, only for it to be rather embarrassingly pointed out that what he was asking for would be illegal under European rules? It made us wonder just how much he was actually aware of how far we were no longer able to govern ourselves. But again one could scarcely have argued that the main reason why Howard put off the voters was that he was "obsessed with Europe".

And so we come to that moment a year ago when, thanks largely to a single speech when he showed that he could address conference without notes, the Tory Party came to pick as its leader the man who thinks that one of the biggest mistakes made by his predecessors was to keep going on about "Europe".

The chief principle guiding Mr Cameron in his first year in office, it has appeared, is that he wants to seem as unlike a Conservative as possible. List all the principles traditionally identified with being a Tory, and the rule is now, it seems, that the Tory Party should no longer be seen to stand for them. One result of this, as the latest polls have borne out, is that it has now become a major puzzle for most people to know just what the Tory party is meant to stand for on anything these days.

Much better, the thinking seems to have been, to divert attention from policies by going overboard for saving the planet. If ties are worn at all, they should at all times be green. The important thing is flying off to watch glaciers melt (while being careful to avoid those which are still advancing). Cycling to work (while the chauffeur purrs discreetly behind, and out of shot, with a clean shirt). Putting a mini-wind turbine on one’s roof (which even that great turbine fanatic George Monbiot has realised is a total waste of time and money).

But quite apart from the naïve vacuity of all these gestures, back in the real world there is something else that is very odd about Dave's enthusiasm for "the environment". Not that he has ever given us the slightest hint that he is aware of it, but any power we might once have had to make policy on the environment has long since been handed over to the EU. So there is remarkably little the Tory Party could actually do about the environment unless we could get the Latvians, the Slovaks, the Slovenes and all the rest to agree with us.

Meanwhile, in the real world, we are still left with our rubbish disposal system in chaos, for the very reason that this is something all those same partners of ours have already agreed on. This chaos is being brought about by precisely the same system Mr Cameron would need to help him save the planet. But about the EU's waste policy, which is already a very real environmental issue for millions of people, it seems Mr Cameron has nothing to say whatever.

All of which brings us back to where we started, to where a great deal of the way our country is now run has been handed over to a peculiar form of government which is beyond any democratic control. And almost the first rule of politics these days, whether one is Tory, Labour or Lib Dem, is that we mustn't talk about it. Even if in practice that system is demonstrably failing us, and failing us very badly. Because there is nothing we can do about it. Don't mention "Europe". It has become the massive great "elephant in the room" of our politics.

There is just one issue related to Europe, however, on which Mr Cameron has acted very decisively. And it is worth looking at for a moment because I think it tells us quite a bit about his attitude to Europe and about his style as a leader.
If there is one policy produced by the European Community which more than anything else has been recognised as an unmitigated failure it is the Common Fisheries Policy, hastily and illegally botched up in 1970 as a way of grabbing Community control over the richest fishing waters in the world. I know a little about this because for years I used to report on what a total disaster this had led to – not just a catastrophe for the British fishing industry but an environmental catastrophe of world significance.

The one thing I always found frustrating was that, although everyone in the end was prepared to agree that the CFP was a disaster, no one seemed to have the faintest practical idea as to what to do about it. Tony Blair promised he would do something about it before he was elected in 1997, even if it meant renegotiating the treaty. But he then just rolled over. Three successive Tory leaders, Hague, IDS and Howard, all in turn gave personal pledges that if elected they would pull Britain out of the CFP. But what no one seemed prepared to focus on was the practical question of how our fishing waters could be managed more responsibly; in such a way that fish stocks could recover, while the fishermen themselves might once again be able to earn an honest living.

The one person who finally got round to looking into this was the man appointed by Michael Howard to be his fisheries spokesman, Owen Paterson, MP for North Shropshire. Mr Paterson not only talked to fishermen the length and breadth of Britain. He also visited all the significant fishing nations round the North Atlantic, he went to Norway, the Faroes, Iceland, Canada, the USA, even down to the Falklands. He spoke to fishermen, scientists and politicians in all those countries, and what he found was an eyeopener. He found that in every case they had developed modern fisheries management techniques which have enabled fish stocks not just to survive but to grow. While the fishermen themselves have never been so prosperous. The contrast to the utterly dismal situation here in Europe, particularly here in Britain, could not have been more startling.

What this enabled Mr Paterson to do was to produce a Tory policy for fishing which might at last give some genuine meaning to all those pledges that Britain would pull out of the CFP: a practical strategy which might not just halt an ecological disaster and restore the fortunes of the British fishing industry, but also make it possible for our continental partners to continue fishing in UK waters on a properly sustainable basis. This was the policy, eventually backed by Michael Howard, on which the Tory party won back a good deal of the support it had long since lost from our fishing communities. And this was the policy on which the party fought the last election, when it was noted that in more than one fishing constituency the Tory vote went up enough to win back the seat.

So what was the one European policy which Mr Cameron couldn't wait to drop when he became leader? It was this fishing policy. Instead, as the man put in charge of drawing up a new policy to replace it, he appointed John Gummer, a fanatical admirer of the EU and the man who 14 years ago was more hated by Britain's fishermen than any other fisheries minister we've ever had, because of the zeal with which he set about complying with Brussels' orders to close down a fifth of our fishing fleet.

Three things were particularly striking about this decision. The first was that Mr Cameron didn't make any public announcement about it. He just let it trickle out that the policy had been dropped, in a roundabout way which could not have gone down worse in all those fishing communities which felt that once again the Tories had betrayed them.

Then there was the apparent reasoning behind the decision: to pull out of the CFP was politically impossible because it would mean a treaty change. But at the same time Mr Cameron and his friends have been quite happy to make noises about how they would pull Britain out of the Social Chapter, which would be just as much in breach of the treaty as opting out of the CFP. The very fact that they can be so woolly and inconsistent about this sort of thing makes one wonder yet again just how much these people really understand how the European Union works.

The third virtue of that abandoned fisheries policy was that it was the only serious proposal yet made by anyone to do something to halt the environmental disaster which the CFP has made inevitable, not least through its policy of discarding, which every year forces fishermen to destroy countless billions of fish to no purpose. So, by rushing back to support the CFP. It seems Mr Cameron is apparently quite happy to see that ecological catastrophe continue. Making one again wonder just how much he actually knows or cares about the environment he claims to be so keen on.

So where does this all leave us?

We can sum up by saying that many of the policies and laws which rule our lives are now produced by a weird form of government which is not only wholly undemocratic but also astonishingly inefficient. But no one is meant to talk about it.

We live under a national government which in the past nine years has shown itself to be not only the least efficient but also the most dishonest and corrupt we can remember. In every direction it has inflicted the most appalling damage on our country, from our policing to our private pensions, from our farming to the mess it has made of our local democracy, from the debauching of our honours system to the the largest expansion we have ever seen in the public payroll, from the mass closure of local hospitals to the scarcely believable damage it is doing to our country's defences,

All these, and many more, are issues which cry out for a response based on robust, democratic, common sense Conservative principles. But what do have instead? We have a "Not The Conservative Party", led by a man who would prefer not to talk about any of these things. A man who would rather be seen on the internet washing up porridge bowls in his kitchen than talk about the truly horrifying and tragic mess facing our troops in Afghanistan.

I'm sorry to say this, but I really do hope that what we are looking at here is just another interregnum. It's time the politics of our country got back to the real world.