12 March 2009

Muddled thinking

Having expressed a certain lack of enthusiasm for the great Declan Ganley, I did go with interest to the launch of the Libertas's electoral campaign in the UK. The press conference was not as well attended as I would have expected. When Kilroy Silk launched Veritas in 2005, there was barely standing room in the big hall in One Great George Street and the main media had sent their big guns. This launch was thinly attended though I gather from Mark Mardell's blog on the BBC site that he was there or, at least, he had spoken to the leader of the campaign, Robin Matthews, described as a former British soldier. Actually, that may have been the previous day as the blog was posted at 10.30 am, the start of the press conference.

A "former British soldier" is a remarkably coy way of describing a 21-year army career and Mr Matthews was no more forthcoming during the press conference, saying merely that he had served in Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. Mr Ganley also added in ringing tones (he is good at ringing tones) how ironic it was that Mr Matthews has travelled round the world as a British Soldier "championing the values of democracy" only to find them being eroded at home.

Yes, that is ironic, all right and one is glad that Mr Matthews has understood this but one is not too sure that he knows quite what to do with that understanding.

A few quick enquiries established that Robin Matthews left the army with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and during 2005 he had commanded The Light Dragoons, a British Cavalry Regiment, on operations in Iraq. After that he was seconded to army media operations, which is not, I fear, any recommendation though it might mean that he knows journalists and will be able to give them stories.

The official bio says:
Just prior to leaving the Army, he was seconded as the Strategic Communications Advisor to 16 (Air Assault) Brigade, Helmand Province, Afghanistan and also acted as the spokesman for all British Forces there.
On the subject of army spokesmen in Afghanistan and the problems they have caused in not providing a clear narrative or even accurate information I refer my readers to postings by the boss, too numerous to link to.

However, this may explain why Mr Matthews thinks that he can just sit back and journalists will approach him. Some will, perhaps, but he is no longer the spokesman for the British Forces in Helmand but the leader of a political party on the fringes. He will have to learn some media savvy very quickly.

We were not told who else will be standing in Britain but were assured that there will be a candidate in every constituency, including Northern Ireland. That makes 83 candidates. There will also be candidates in every EU member state but it is not clear how many.

Why should we vote Libertas in June? Well, setting aside the rather nebulous talk about "restoring democracy to Europe" of which more below, the main argument seems to be that they are putting up ordinary people and not politicians.

This appears to be the USP of another party that is to be launched next Monday, Jury Team, set up by Sir Paul Judge (judge – jury, geddit?). This one wants to do without parties as well, believing that doing away with those noxious organizations will make "politics more accessible, politicians more accountable and political institutions more transparent". An attractive notion but, in actual fact, it will create something approximating Russian politics where the nascent parties have been effectively abolished in favour or a more personal style.

We, veterans of the eurosceptic movement and of party launches have sat through numerous meetings when various political groups announced that they would field "real" people or "ordinary" people, not politicians with whom the electorate is fed up and who have moved away from "real" and "ordinary" people.

This is a very fine example of what is known as muddled thinking. There is a definite dissatisfaction with politics and politicians and part of that comes from the widespread feeling that politicians now seem to be part of a separate class that has no dealings at all with the rest of the population beyond canvassing for votes every so many years.

A far greater part of the dissatisfaction comes from an understanding, inchoate but real, that those self-same politicians, while grabbing more money and privileges for themselves have, in fact, made themselves and us completely powerless by handing over powers to the EU as well as numerous unaccountable quangos.

Disentangling all that and discussing what the answer might be is quite difficult; it is much easier to say that all would be solved if people in politics were not politicians or if politicians had done ordinary jobs.

The argument is fallacious. Being able to do an ordinary job and even being good at it does not necessarily indicate any political ability. History is littered with successful businessmen or military men who failed comprehensively when they took their skills into the very different field of politics.

There is no evidence that a businessman of any kind understands larger economic matters or that a good company officer knows aught about defence (or even other parts of the army, never mind the navy, the air force or the marines); bus drivers know what is good for … well, bus drivers and do not necessarily know about transport policy and the idea of teachers being in charge of education policy (which should not be part of the government's portfolio anyway) is terrifying. I am not even talking about the possibility of those people knowing anything about other political matters. They might or they might not.

The fact that James Callaghan left school at 17, not being able to afford the Oxford place he had won and worked in various "real" jobs as well as serving with great distinction in the Royal Naval Reserve during World War II may have made him a better man but contributed little to his abilities as a politician, though he was quite good at getting round his colleagues.

While having a separate professional political class may not be such a good idea, having people who do not know anything about politics going into it is no better. Admittedly, what we have at the moment is the worst of both worlds: a class of professional politicians who know nothing about politics. Substituting amateurs with no knowledge is hardly the solution.

Apart from anything else, a bunch of elected politicians who have absolutely no understanding of what they are doing, being "ordinary" or "real" people, are extremely easy to manipulate either by the leader of their grouping or by the government, wherever it happens to be.

Nothing in Mr Ganley's or Mr Matthews's statements or in their replies to the various questions made me think that they have the faintest understanding of how the EU works or, indeed, what it is Libertas wants to achieve.

In his introductory comments Mr Matthews spoke of "a Europe that seeks to transfer more and more power to Brussels, chipping away at national sovereignty in the process". But the whole raison d'ĂȘtre of Libertas is to create a pan-European party that will, somehow, make the EU more democratic and accountable, which is what it apparently was at some point in the past.

I asked Mr Matthews whether his aim was to campaign to restore power to national parliaments or to reform the EU, whose structure would not change even if the Lisbon Treaty failed, and if the latter, how was he intending to go about it. His reply did not fill me with confidence.

The first thing, he said, was to take stock and to ensure that there is a vote on Lisbon (preferably, one assumes a No); whether people are prepared to sanction this enormous transfer of power to the European elite. Then we can move on and, in due course, Libertas will publish its policies. I suspect this means that they have not thought beyond the first step.

Back when I cut my eurosceptic teeth, the days of Maastricht and the battle for that referendum, it made a certain amount of sense to say that we should concentrate on this treaty that had qualitatively changed the process of integration.

The European issue was new to most people as the project had been apparently (though not in reality) quiescent for many years; it was necessary to introduce all the many aspects of it into public discourse and to suggest withdrawal appeared to be politically suicidal. Luckily Jacques Delors on the one hand and the people of Denmark on the other helped us to make "Europe" familiar to many.

We have moved a long way from there, though not as long as we would have done had some people concentrated more on what really matters - politics and policies. To return to the same point and argue that we must not frighten the horses and let's discuss the Lisbon Treaty, which is so horrific that it makes one faint with horror, before we, possibly, move on to other issues is pointless at a time when people are seriously discussing the possibilities of British withdrawal or even the complete collapse of the EU.

But then, that is precisely what Mr Ganley is afraid of: that those wicked eurosceptics will have their way and the great European project, which, in his opinion, would be absolutely wonderful if only it acquired popular support, will collapse. That is why we say that Libertas is not fighting on our side - they want to strengthen the EU, we want to destroy it in order to start creating genuinely democratic structures in European countries and alliances between them and outwith Europe.

Libertas is facing a number of problems. In the first place, there is some doubt as to whether they will be able to stand in the election as Libertas UK as UKIP has registered that name as a political party and has put up one candidate in a local by-election under that name. Usually that means that the name of the new party has to be changed but it is not clear what is the situation with a pan-European party, which is based in Brussels.

To those sensitive souls who tell me this was a dastardly low-down trick by UKIP I say pshaw. This is no more dastardly than the Tories trying to infiltrate their people into the UKIP administration or Libertas, itself, cavalierly sidelining other Irish organizations who had laid the foundation for their own work - organizations such as The National Platfrom, led by Anthony Coughlan, which somehow managed to win the first referendum on the Treaty of Nice without Mr Ganley or his financial input.

As far as the Treaty of Nice is concerned, Mr Ganley has amnesia. Year Zero came with the French and Dutch votes against the Constitution. There was no history before that.

Then there is the question of money. Mr Ganley told one questioner very firmly that he was through with putting money into the campaign because, he could not resist adding, this was not just about him but about all the people of Europe. The question is how many of those people will put money into what promises to be a very expensive exercise.

Mr Ganley's own idea is that it is the small donors that matter. I think he has been misreading the funding of the Obama campaign. There is well-documented evidence all over the internet and the blogosphere that most donations to the latter were not all that small and those that were under the reportable level were all too often multiple donations. There were, as Hot Air documented several times, no real checks on whether money came from the same card several times.

Mr Ganley, on the other hand, is calling for people to contribute one pound each. If you give even a pound, he said, you will feel yourself to be part of the campaign and will get involved. Um, no, that is bad psychology. People give money to a political party in order not to get too involved, unless they give a lot, in which case they want their investment to pay off.

Still, big money is needed for political campaigning across 27 countries and it is not clear where it will be coming from.

Then there is the question of competition, particularly in Britain. Libertas is not like UKIP, they explain because they want to make Europe or the EU (the two are still interchangeable) stronger and more democratic in order to harness the energy of the European people. (I kid you not.) UKIP, on the other hand, wants Britain to withdraw, as does the BNP, though that party was not mentioned. That is just negative.

Actually, that does not have to be negative if plans are elaborated on the subsequent political development because politics is not either/or - either you stay in the EU or you fall into the darkest abyss. Even the Commission does not use those crude arguments any more. Why on earth does Libertas?

In any case, "we want to withdraw, restore power to Parliament and govern ourselves in our own interest" is a difficult to achieve policy but it is very clear if one wants to explain it to the electorate. We want to make the European elite democratically accountable is not so easy to explain, especially if you do not even know what you mean by that or how such a thing can be accomplished, even in theory.

The Conservatives, too, are stirring, obviously frightened by the ever more crowded electoral field on which their rather feeble eurosceptic credentials will not be discerned. Whereas, if all you are offering is a vague desire to reform the EU, well you have the Lib-Dims and the Greens. No doubt others will appear in the next few weeks. Then there is the about to be launched Jury Team, about which I shall write next Monday. (Or as close to it as I can manage.)

Finally, Mr Ganley issued a warning. They will be attacked (well, one usually is in politics) and we must not believe what will be said about them. Once again, he put on his "ready-to-go-to-the-stake" expression: they are afraid of us in Brussels, he said, they do not want a pan-European movement, they will accuse us of being eurosceptics. But do not believe them.

Well, OK, I will not believe them.