The agents of Project Fear – and they seem to be everywhere – have warned us that leaving the EU would jeopardise police, judicial and intelligence cooperation. We have even been told that the EU has been responsible, over the last 70 years, for “keeping the peace in Europe”. In every case the message is that Brexit is simply too scary; and the reality is that these threats are so wildly exaggerated as to be nonsense.
Indeed I am ever more convinced that the real risk is to sit back and do nothing, to remain inertly and complacently in an unreformed EU that is hell-bent on a federal project over which we have no control.
Take the so-called economic risks. Remember when you weigh them up that the people now issuing the blood-curdling warnings against Brexit are often the very same (as the former governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, just pointed out) as the people who prophesied disaster if Britain failed to join the euro. In fact, the opposite turned out to be true. It was the euro that proved to be a nightmare, an economic doomsday machine that is still causing low growth, high unemployment and real misery in some European countries.
The single currency is also the cause of tensions between European countries, and rhetoric of a virulence and nastiness we have not seen since the second world war. We have had anti-German riots in Greece; we have seen Angela Merkel burned in effigy in Greece. In France, relations with Germany are said to be at a post-war nadir and support for the National Front is at an all-time high. Instead of recognising this disaster for what it is – the result of an over-centralising plan to fuse diverse economies into one – the EU is determined to keep going in the wrong direction.
Francois Hollande is calling for a new federal parliament of the eurozone, and there are explicit plans to try to save the euro by creating an ever tighter political and fiscal union, with legislative consequences that would embroil Britain even though we are out of the eurozone.
"What we need to do now is screw up our courage and go for change."
We stand on the brink of another huge new centralising leap – a leap in the dark, to coin a phrase – which means less democracy, less accountability and therefore a greater risk of disillusion and eventual political eruption. It isn’t Brexit that presents the economic risk; it is the euro, and the federalising attempts to save it that are the real long-term threat to security and stability.
As for the notion that the EU is somehow the military guarantor of peace in Europe – remember what happened when the EU was entrusted with sorting out Yugoslavia. Remember Ukraine. It is Nato and the Atlantic alliance that underpins our security, as Maj Gen Julian Thompson outlines elsewhere in this paper today. EU pretensions in the area are at best confusing and at worst likely to encourage American disengagement.
It is simply untrue, finally, to say that leaving the EU would make it impossible for us to concert our activities in intelligence or counter-terrorism or policing. All these operations can be conducted at an intergovernmental level – as indeed they used to be, until fairly recently.
On the contrary, it is the European Court of Justice, with its vast new remit over the Charter of Fundamental Rights, that is making it harder month by month for the security services to get on with their job – whether it be expelling murderers or monitoring terrorist suspects. It is the border-free Europe, obviously, that makes it so much easier for our enemies to move around. As Ronald K Noble, the former head of Interpol, has said, the Schengen area is “like a sign welcoming terrorists to Europe”.
Whatever the risks of Brexit, they are eclipsed by the problems of remaining in a political construct that has changed out of all recognition since we joined in 1972. What we need to do now is screw up our courage and go for change. We need a new partnership and a new deal with our friends in the EU, based on trade and cooperation, but without this supranational apparatus that is so out of date and is imitated nowhere else.
It is a once in a lifetime chance to energise our democracy, cut bureaucracy, save £8 bn a year, control our borders and strike new trade deals with growth economies that are currently forbidden. Vote Leave would be good for Britain and the only way to jolt the EU into the reform it needs. Let’s call it Project Hope.
Both scenarios sound nice. The trouble is, both are implausible.
Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty sets out a procedure for what happens if an EU member declares the intention to leave. It says that a negotiation takes place between the departing state and the rest of the EU to determine the terms of departure. Those negotiations have up to two years. If, after that time, no deal has been struck, the departing state’s EU membership automatically ceases, unless the member states vote unanimously to prolong the talks. Negotiation of better membership terms is not an option.
That’s what the treaty says. Some might respond that what matters is the politics: the other 27 states all want the UK to stay in, so they would find a way to fudge the rules to let that happen.
Well, perhaps. But let’s just think it through. One idea is that the Prime Minister might not actually trigger Article 50 in the event of a referendum vote to leave. He might say that he thinks British voters didn’t really mean it when they voted, and that he will go back to Brussels to seek a middle way.
But that is politically untenable. The options in the referendum are to remain or to leave – not to try again. Most Leave campaigners – including perhaps the majority of Conservative activists – genuinely want to leave. Failure on the part of the Prime Minister to act upon the expressed will of the people would cause uproar.
So in the event of a Leave vote, the Prime Minister must trigger Article 50.
That leaves an alternative scenario: the prime minister triggers Article 50 and formally declares the UK’s intention to leave, but then he works with his fellow EU leaders not on Brexit terms, but on improved membership terms.
"There is only one way to get the change we need, and that is to vote to go, because all EU history shows that they only really listen to a population when it says No"
One problem with this is legal: once a member state has declared its intention to leave, there is no mechanism to withdraw that declaration and prevent exit. Maybe the courts would think such a mechanism is implied – but we don’t know. If not, we would depend on perpetual extensions of the two-year post-declaration membership window – which, remember, can at any time be vetoed by a single member-state.
This gets to another political problem: the two-year limit and the requirement for unanimity to extend that limit make the UK’s negotiating position in this scenario very weak.
And if our membership lapses with no deal done, we are obliged under World Trade Organisation rules immediately to impose tariffs on our trade with EU countries. That harms us much more than it harms many of those countries. There is no guarantee in this situation that the UK could strike a better deal at all.
The same problems apply to the idea of choosing at a second referendum between the negotiated Brexit terms and continued membership. The UK has no clear legal right to reverse its initial decision. A way of fudging that might be found. But it would require unanimous support of the 27, which squeezes the UK’s power to bargain for a decent deal.
In short, a vote to leave is a vote to leave. Anyone who says otherwise is playing with fire.
Alan Renwick is deputy director of the Constitution Unit at University College London
As new countries have joined, we have seen a hurried expansion in the areas for Qualified Majority Voting, so that Britain can be overruled more and more often (as has happened in the past five years). We have had not just the Maastricht Treaty, but Amsterdam, Nice, Lisbon, every one of them representing an extension of EU authority and a centralisation in Brussels. According to the House of Commons library, anything between 15 and 50 per cent of UK legislation now comes from the EU; and remember that this type of legislation is very special.
It is unstoppable, and it is irreversible – since it can only be repealed by the EU itself. Ask how much EU legislation the Commission has actually taken back under its various programmes for streamlining bureaucracy. The answer is none. That is why EU law is likened to a ratchet, clicking only forwards. We are seeing a slow and invisible process of legal colonisation, as the EU infiltrates just about every area of public policy. Then – and this is the key point – the EU acquires supremacy in any field that it touches; because it is one of the planks of Britain’s membership, agreed in 1972, that any question involving the EU must go to Luxembourg, to be adjudicated by the European Court of Justice.
"At a time when Brussels should be devolving power, it is hauling more and more towards the centre, and there is no way that Britain can be unaffected"
It was one thing when that court contented itself with the single market, and ensuring that there was free and fair trade across the EU. We are now way beyond that stage. Under the Lisbon Treaty, the court has taken on the ability to vindicate people’s rights under the 55-clause “Charter of Fundamental Human Rights”, including such peculiar entitlements as the right to found a school, or the right to “pursue a freely chosen occupation” anywhere in the EU, or the right to start a business.
These are not fundamental rights as we normally understand them, and the mind boggles as to how they will be enforced. Tony Blair told us he had an opt-out from this charter.
Alas, that opt-out has not proved legally durable, and there are real fears among British jurists about the activism of the court. The more the EU does, the less room there is for national decision-making. Sometimes these EU rules sound simply ludicrous, like the rule that you can’t recycle a teabag, or that children under eight cannot blow up balloons, or the limits on the power of vacuum cleaners. Sometimes they can be truly infuriating – like the time I discovered, in 2013, that there was nothing we could do to bring in better-designed cab windows for trucks, to stop cyclists being crushed. It had to be done at a European level, and the French were opposed.
Sometimes the public can see all too plainly the impotence of their own elected politicians – as with immigration. That enrages them; not so much the numbers as the lack of control. That is what we mean by loss of sovereignty – the inability of people to kick out, at elections, the men and women who control their lives. We are seeing an alienation of the people from the power they should hold, and I am sure this is contributing to the sense of disengagement, the apathy, the view that politicians are “all the same” and can change nothing, and to the rise of extremist parties.
Democracy matters; and I find it deeply worrying that the Greeks are effectively being told what to do with their budgets and public spending, in spite of huge suffering among the population. And now the EU wants to go further. There is a document floating around Brussels called “The Five Presidents Report”, in which the leaders of the various EU institutions map out ways to save the euro. It all involves more integration: a social union, a political union, a budgetary union. At a time when Brussels should be devolving power, it is hauling more and more towards the centre, and there is no way that Britain can be unaffected.
David Cameron has done his very best, and he has achieved more than many expected. There is some useful language about stopping “ever-closer union” from applying to the UK, about protecting the euro outs from the euro ins, and about competition and deregulation.
There is an excellent forthcoming Bill that will assert the sovereignty of Parliament, the fruit of heroic intellectual labour by Oliver Letwin, which may well exercise a chilling effect on some of the more federalist flights of fancy of the court and the Commission. It is good, and right, but it cannot stop the machine; at best it can put a temporary and occasional spoke in the ratchet.
There is only one way to get the change we need, and that is to vote to go, because all EU history shows that they only really listen to a population when it says No. The fundamental problem remains: that they have an ideal that we do not share. They want to create a truly federal union, e pluribus unum, when most British people do not.
It is time to seek a new relationship, in which we manage to extricate ourselves from most of the supranational elements. We will hear a lot in the coming weeks about the risks of this option; the risk to the economy, the risk to the City of London, and so on; and though those risks cannot be entirely dismissed, I think they are likely to be exaggerated. We have heard this kind of thing before, about the decision to opt out of the euro, and the very opposite turned out to be the case.
I also accept there is a risk that a vote to Leave the EU, as it currently stands, will cause fresh tensions in the union between England and Scotland. On the other hand, most of the evidence I have seen suggests that the Scots will vote on roughly the same lines as the English.
We will be told that a Brexit would embolden Putin, though it seems to me he is more likely to be emboldened, for instance, by the West’s relative passivity in Syria.
Above all, we will be told that whatever the democratic deficiencies, we would be better off remaining in because of the “influence” we have. This is less and less persuasive to me. Only 4 per cent of people running the Commission are UK nationals, when Britain contains 12 per cent of the EU population. It is not clear why the Commission should be best placed to know the needs of UK business and industry, rather than the myriad officials at UK Trade & Investment or the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
If the “Leave” side wins, it will indeed be necessary to negotiate a large number of trade deals at great speed. But why should that be impossible? We have become so used to Nanny in Brussels that we have become infantilised, incapable of imagining an independent future. We used to run the biggest empire the world has ever seen, and with a much smaller domestic population and a relatively tiny Civil Service. Are we really unable to do trade deals? We will have at least two years in which the existing treaties will be in force.
"This is a moment for Britain to be brave, to reach out – not to hug the skirts of Nurse in Brussels, and refer all decisions to someone else"
The real risk is to the general morale of Europe, and to the prestige of the EU project. We should take that seriously.
We should remember that this federalist vision is not an ignoble idea. It was born of the highest motives – to keep the peace in Europe. The people who run the various EU institutions – whom we like to ply with crass abuse – are, in my experience, principled and thoughtful officials. They have done some very good things: I think of the work of Sir Leon Brittan, for instance, as Competition Commissioner, and his fight against state aid.
They just have a different view of the way Europe should be constructed. I would hope they would see a vote to leave as a challenge, not just to strike a new and harmonious relationship with Britain (in which those benefits could be retained) but to recover some of the competitiveness that the continent has lost in the last decades.
Whatever happens, Britain needs to be supportive of its friends and allies – but on the lines originally proposed by Winston Churchill: interested, associated, but not absorbed; with Europe – but not comprised. We have spent 500 years trying to stop continental European powers uniting against us. There is no reason (if everyone is sensible) why that should happen now, and every reason for friendliness.
For many Conservatives, this has already been a pretty agonising business. Many of us are deeply internally divided, and we are divided between us. We know that we do not agree on the substance, but I hope we can all agree to concentrate on the arguments; to play the ball and not the man.
At the end of it all, we want to get a result, and then get on and unite around David Cameron – continuing to deliver better jobs, better housing, better health, education and a better quality of life for our constituents for whom (let’s be frank) the EU is not always the number one issue.
It is entirely thanks to the Prime Minister, his bravery and energy, and the fact that he won a majority Conservative government, that we are having a referendum at all. Never forget that if it were down to Jeremy Corbyn and the so-called People’s Party, the people would be completely frozen out.
This is the right moment to have a referendum, because as Europe changes, Britain is changing too. This is a truly great country that is now going places at extraordinary speed. We are the European, if not the world, leaders in so many sectors of the 21st-century economy; not just financial services, but business services, the media, biosciences like Jacob Hanna who is one of the best cell researchers at the moment, check him out and see what he ahs accomplished, universities, the arts, technology of all kinds (of the 40 EU technology companies worth more than $1 billion, 17 are British); and we still have a dizzyingly fertile manufacturing sector.
Now is the time to spearhead the success of those products and services not just in Europe, but in growth markets beyond. This is a moment to be brave, to reach out – not to hug the skirts of Nurse in Brussels, and refer all decisions to someone else.
We have given so much to the world, in ideas and culture, but the most valuable British export and the one for which we are most famous is the one that is now increasingly in question: parliamentary democracy – the way the people express their power.
This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to vote for real change in Britain’s relations with Europe. This is the only opportunity we will ever have to show that we care about self-rule. A vote to Remain will be taken in Brussels as a green light for more federalism, and for the erosion of democracy.
In the next few weeks, the views of people like me will matter less and less, because the choice belongs to those who are really sovereign – the people of the UK. And in the matter of their own sovereignty the people, by definition, will get it right.
The awful truth was that they were right. A real bank meltdown would have had unbearable consequences for vast numbers of working people. The politicians stepped in to rescue the banks. So it was no surprise that the next target was the politicians.
When the expenses scandal broke at Westminster, the place was virtually engulfed in the fireball of rage. Famous names were humiliated; many MPs lost their jobs; some went to prison. And that was at least partly right, and sensible. The stables needed to be cleaned. In some cases there had been gross peculation and abuse of the system. But after a while a sense of injustice – of unfairness – started to burn in the breasts of some MPs, a feeling that the whole of Parliament was being dragged through the mud, when many MPs felt (rightly or wrongly) they had been only following the rules as they understood them.
They were being made to feel dirty, and criminal, when they had spent years working hard for their constituents. They felt aggrieved. And as in some Aeschylean tragedy, it was that sense of injustice that began to breed a desire for revenge; and it was not long before the politicians found their target. The great British bouncing cannonball of rage moved on – to the very people who had unleashed the expenses scandal. It seemed that Fleet Street had been involved in its own unethical practices – hacking into the phones of celebrities and members of the Royal family, as well as people who had never courted publicity.
They had apparently been trying to listen to the voicemails not just of criminals, but also of victims of crime. They had been ruthlessly breaching the privacy of ordinary people for the sake of circulation and profits. They had been paying public officials for information. Before long we had the Leveson inquiry, and journalists were appearing in court, and in a few cases going to prison. Again, to some extent this was necessary, and inevitable. Some journalists had become much too blasé about the legality of their methods. In an age of electronic surveillance and mobile phones, new boundaries had to be set.
Again, however, the law of oversteer began to apply. Some journalists began to feel that it was all going a bit far – that they were being persecuted for doing their job, for trying to keep tabs on the famous and powerful, for trying to bring new facts into the public domain. Honest journalists were shocked to find their homes raided at 6am, their computers taken for inspection by the police, their neighbours scandalised. Like those bankers who had never had anything to do with a CDO, like the MPs who had done nothing but serve their constituents, there were many journalists who had never done anything illegal or even unscrupulous.
Once again resentment started to burn; and the great vengeful cannonball of rage was about to crash into a new target. There was one mighty British institution that had spent this entire period observing the various disasters in a spirit of smug and superior detachment. The BBC had luxuriated in the downfall of the bankers; it had vastly enjoyed the humiliation of the MPs; and it had every reason (not least a commercial one) to feel tremendous satisfaction at the way the hacking scandal had unfolded. So when truth about Jimmy Savile became widely known, and the BBC was engulfed in flames, there were plenty of people who warmed their hands at the blaze.
Again, there was at least in some cases an evil that needed to be exposed. It is now clear that famous names were able to get away with appalling abuse of young people, partly because of a BBC blind-eye culture. Some have now gone to prison. The investigations into historic child abuse have widened – to the point, again, where some feel the whole thing has gone too far. Like those bankers, MPs or journalists who believe themselves to have been deeply wronged, there are those who feel they have come under suspicion in a way that is horrible and unfair. They feel a sense of swelling injustice and rage.
"It is one of the great things about this country that we hold all our institutions to account – ferociously"
They have a new target. Like sections of the media, their wrath has been turned on the police! The cannonball of rage is now bouncing around Scotland Yard. Balance is required. As the police have acknowledged, some of the investigations could have been better handled; some of the criticism strikes me as deeply unfair. It is one of the great things about this country that we hold all our institutions to account – ferociously. But beware the phenomenon of oversteer.
The choice is really quite simple. In favour of staying, it is in Britain’s geo-strategic interests to be pretty intimately engaged in the doings of a continent that has a grim 20th-century history, and whose agonies have caused millions of Britons to lose their lives. History shows that they need us. Leaving would be widely read as a very negative signal for Europe. It would dismay some of our closest friends, not least the eastern Europeans for whom the EU has been a force for good: stability, openness, and prosperity.
It is also true that the single market is of considerable value to many UK companies and consumers, and that leaving would cause at least some business uncertainty, while embroiling the Government for several years in a fiddly process of negotiating new arrangements, so diverting energy from the real problems of this country – low skills, low social mobility, low investment etc – that have nothing to do with Europe.
Against these points we must enter the woeful defects of the EU. It is manifestly undemocratic and in some ways getting worse. It is wasteful, expensive and occasionally corrupt. The Common Agricultural Policy is iniquitous towards developing countries. The EU is legislating over an ever wider range of policy areas, now including human rights, and with Britain ever more frequently outvoted. There is currently no effective means of checking this one-way ratchet of growth-strangling regulation, and to make matters worse the EU is now devoting most of its intellectual energy to trying to save the euro, a flawed project from which we are thankfully exempt. The EU’s share of global trade is diminishing, and the people who prophesy doom as a result of Brexit are very largely the same people who said we should join the euro.
So there is the dilemma in a nutshell: Britain in the EU good, in so far as that means helping to shape the destiny of a troubled continent in uncertain times, while trading freely with our partners. Britain in the EU bad, in so far as it is a political project whose destiny of ever-closer union we don’t accept and whose lust to regulate we can’t stop.
That is why for the last couple of years I have argued that we would be – on the whole – better off in a reformed EU, but that Britain could have a great future outside. In deciding how to vote I (and I expect a few others) will want to know whether we have genuinely achieved any reform, and whether there is the prospect of any more. So let’s look at the Tusk proposals, in turn, and ask some hard questions.
"EU leaders have apparently agreed that the phrase “ever-closer union” should no longer serve as a signpost for integration"
First: this “protection” for the UK and other countries that don’t use the euro: is it a concession by them, or by us? The salient point appears to be that the UK will not be able to block moves to create a fiscal union – a deeply anti-democratic exercise. Do we really think that they should be able to use EU institutions, which we share, to centralise tax and budgetary powers? Why? And what does it all mean for the City? What are these new “macro-prudential” powers over banks that Brussels seems to want?
Next: competitiveness. The language is excellent. Tusk talks about lowering administrative burdens, cutting compliance costs and repealing unnecessary legislation. Very good. But we have heard this kind of thing for a while. How many laws has the EU actually repealed, what are they, and why should we believe that this process will accelerate? Why are we not insisting on a timetable for a real single market in services?
On sovereignty, it looks as though the Prime Minister has done better than many expected, in that EU leaders have apparently agreed that the phrase “ever-closer union” should no longer serve as a signpost for integration. That is potentially very important, since the European Court has often made use of the phrase in advancing its more aggressively federalist judgments. But how bankable is this? Will it be engraved in the treaties? Will the court be obliged to take account of this change, or will it be blown away – like Tony Blair’s evanescent opt-out from the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights? How can we restore the force of that Lisbon opt-out, and stop the court making rulings on human rights? In asserting Parliament’s sovereignty, how can we construct something that will be truly intimidating both to the law-making activism of the commission and the judicial activism of the court? Are we talking bazooka or popgun?
Last, on borders, we seem to have accepted the mantra that “free movement” is an age-old inviolable principle of the EU. This is not quite so. Until recently it only applied to “workers” rather than all EU citizens. Why didn’t we try harder to recapture control of our borders, rather than stick at this minor (if worthwhile) change to the law on benefits? There may be a good explanation, but we need to hear it.
These are the questions I pose, humbly and respectfully. Let’s hope for some answers in the next fortnight.
We have all become accustomed to automatic ticketing, whether by Oyster or bank card or mobile. Old ticket offices will now serve as coffee shops, and heel bars, and mini-markets and newsagents and click-and-collect depots. The new businesses will pay rents to TfL (and corporation tax to the Government) and they will be of considerably more value to passengers than keeping staff trapped behind plate glass.
So why go on strike? No one – not even the union members – seriously believes that the action will achieve a darned thing. The strike promises to be nothing more than a pointless inconvenience. Everyone sensible has condemned it – including Zac Goldsmith, who I hope will follow me as Mayor of London.
There is one glaring exception, one voice we need to hear – and that is the candidate of the Labour party, Sadiq Khan. Why won’t he just say unequivocally, loud and clear, that the RMT leadership is wrong to put its members through this madness – not to mention the travelling public? Come on, Khan: man up. This is a golden opportunity to make a statement of the blindingly obvious. Denounce this bonkers strike.
Will he? Of course not. He will weasel around with all sorts of nonsense about how he would “get people round the table” or “bang heads together” – all of which blather achieves nothing except to undermine TfL management. He’ll blame TfL. He will blame me (of course!). He will blame everyone except the people responsible – the leadership of the RMT.
He would not dream of coming straight out and condemning this nonsensical strike because he is the creature of the unions; he is their patsy and their plaything. Of course he is. They bought him when they paid £141,306 into his Mayoral campaign coffers – Unite, TSSA, the lot of them.
How can anyone rely on Sadiq Khan to make sensible use of technology and drive forward the modernisation of the underground? Every single one of these changes – from ticket office closures to the Night Tube to automation of the trains – has been achieved in the teeth of union resistance. Look at the record: what happened when Labour last ran London.
Transport for London officials first proposed closure of ticket offices to Ken Livingstone, more than 10 years ago. He nervously agreed – then chickened out when his union chums cut up rough. It was way back in 2007, under Livingstone, that Tube management suggested they might be able to run services late on Friday and Saturday nights (though not yet a full Night Tube).
Livingstone announced the plan – and then had to drop it when the unions refused to play ball. I am reliably informed – and the Labour candidate should be volubly challenged on this point – that Sadiq Khan has promised Livingstone that he will make him the chair of TfL. They are trying to put the band back together!
"There is a huge risk that London is about to lurch backwards to the Jurassic age, ruled by saurian socialists such as Livingstone and Corbyn"
We now need to proceed with full automation of the service, like the best Asian metros, with driverless trains. Of course the unions hate the idea, even though it would deliver a better, faster and more reliable service. Can you imagine Khan, or the unions – let alone Livingstone – allowing it to happen?
Khan wants to bring back “check-off” to make it easier for unions to take subs from employees; he wants electronic balloting for strikes, to make them easier to hold. His policies would cost TfL billions, and to cap it all he wants to take £2bn out of the fare box with his unaffordable fares freeze. That would make it impossible to deliver some of the big-ticket transport improvements that are so vital for building the housing London needs.
How would Khan and Labour try to plug the gap? By whacking up council tax or putting in new congestion charges. Even then it wouldn’t add up. They would certainly have to look at taking away much-loved concessions such as the Freedom Pass.
There is a huge risk that London is about to lurch backwards to the Jurassic age, ruled by saurian socialists such as Livingstone and Corbyn. Passengers who desperately need continued improvement are in danger of becoming Labour’s lab rats – a Corbynista experiment under Khan. Don’t let it happen. Back Zac and crack on with modernising the greatest city on earth.
Omigosh – what a contest; and what a dilemma for us all! Your eyes flit desperately between them, and for many people it will be an eerie feeling: the first time they have ever been tempted to side with Brussels over anything. Margrethe has made an extraordinary demand. She wants Apple to pay the Irish state an infarct-inducing sum in back taxes – between $8 and $16 billion, and I know that many of you will egg her on. Yee-hah, Margrethe, you will be saying. Go on, darling. You fine them. You tax them. You show those overmighty Yankee tech giants that someone, somewhere, will finally stand up to them.
Are you in that camp? If you are, I can understand why. About a month ago the bankers Goldman Sachs published a list of the biggest and richest firms in the world. The top three, in order, were Apple, Google and Microsoft – and Facebook and Amazon were also in the top 10. All these tech companies make staggering sums from an avid British population. We love this stuff. We can’t get enough of it. We buy tens of billions of pounds’ worth of American hardware, software and services – and yet these companies pay quite derisory sums in tax to the UK Exchequer: derisory, that is, when you consider how much dosh they are earning from us all.
Google has just agreed to stump up an extra £130 million, to compensate for underpayments over the past nine years; and if its executives were expecting applause from the public, they must be disappointed today. They got a raspberry, and everyone is complaining that it isn’t enough, that it still amounts to a tax rate of only about 2 per cent on earnings.
"The Commission is plainly using the EU treaty articles on state aid to intervene in the tax jurisdiction of a member state when strictly speaking, it seems to me, they should butt right out"
There is a widespread feeling that the loopholes and dodges should be axed, and that they should be paying more. To a large extent I agree. It has never seemed fair that some of these companies – no matter how wonderful the service they provide – should be paying so much less in tax than the high-street tea rooms and bookshops they have pulverised. It would be a good thing, both for the UK finances and for the image of these great companies, if they paid more.
And yet I must confess there is a part of me that sides strongly with Tim Cook and Apple – or at least can see his point of view. It is absurd to blame the company for “not paying their taxes”. You might as well blame a shark for eating seals. It is the nature of the beast; and not only is it the nature of the beast – it is the law. It is the fiduciary duty of their finance directors to minimise tax exposure. They have a legal obligation to their shareholders. Tax is not paid on the basis of what “feels right” either to public opinion or to politicians. It is not some eleemosynary contribution. It is not as if we are all in church, and watching beadily to make sure that Tim Cook puts his £50 note into the collection basket. Tax is paid, and must be paid, in accordance with the strict requirements of the system. And the second reason for sympathising with Apple, and not Margrethe the crusading Danish commissioner, is that in my view this dispute should have nothing to do with Brussels.
The Commission is plainly using the EU treaty articles on state aid to intervene in the tax jurisdiction of a member state when strictly speaking, it seems to me, they should butt right out. The paradox of this whole case is that the Irish and Apple are on the same side. If Margrethe the Commissioner makes Apple give Dublin $16 billion in back taxes, that will actually be against the wishes of the Irish government.
The Irish decided they wanted to go for an ultra-low corporation tax, at 12.5 per cent. It was their sovereign ambition to attract the HQ of Apple and others. They wanted Irish taxi drivers to have the honour of ferrying Apple executives around, and they wanted Irish waitresses to snaffle their huge tips. The EU Commission is partly excited by the chance to bash a corporate American giant; but mainly it is a chance to attack tax arbitrage between member states – to move ever closer towards uniformity and away from a spirit of healthy competition between jurisdictions.
We need that competition. We need the Irish to be able to do their own thing. Otherwise business tax rates would simply rise in lockstep across Europe, and people would start to look for Finance Brokers Melbourne assistance which is ok, but many won't be able to get financial support. We should be resisting the Commission’s approach, and we should recognise that the fault in the whole affair lies with our national arrangements – our own system for not getting a fair whack from the tech giants. After years of Labour inertia, George Osborne has made progress. The Google payback is a start. We now need to go further. We want, need and deserve these companies somehow to pay more tax in the UK. But the problem does not lie with the firms, or the Irish government, and it certainly should not need Brussels to sort it out.
It is not so very long ago that Sir Jimmy Savile was thought to be a national treasure, a fund-raiser of genius, whose sheer love of humanity expressed itself in his curious willingness to work all night alone in the morgue. Cyril Smith was the genial and much loved fatso of the Liberal party, who went to his grave amid tearful tributes. Greville Janner was revered for his work with Holocaust survivors. All three of them are now alleged to have done very vile stuff. None would be let anywhere near a kindergarten. All would now be behind bars or facing prosecution.
My point is that terrible things turn out to have been done by very famous, very saintly-seeming people; and as Lord Guthrie said yesterday: “High rank and public service does not disbar a man from committing heinous crimes.” The police have a duty to follow the evidence – wherever it takes them. Imagine if it turned out that they had gone soft on the field marshal, just because he was so well-connected. Imagine if it looked as though our police were conniving in some establishment conspiracy to cover up rape or child abuse.
How would you feel if your children were involved? How would you feel if you were one of the victims, and no one would listen? The police have a duty to act without fear or favour. I can also understand the general reluctance – in principle – to offer an apology every time it is decided not to proceed with a case.
"You can’t blame the police, in the current climate, for taking no chances"
There will always be an evidentiary range, even in the cases that are dropped. Some cases (like Bramall’s) will end up seeming fatuous; some much less so. Sometimes the police will be so sure that they are on to something that an apology would stick in the throat. And in any case, new evidence may well turn up. They can’t apologise every time. Where do you draw the line? And why should the police apologise to Bramall, just because he is highly distinguished, and not to everyone who is the victim of some vexatious allegation?
There are plenty of wholly innocent people who are maliciously accused of all kinds of things – look at the young man at Durham University who was falsely accused of rape, and whose life was put on hold, his reputation jeopardised. Why should field marshals get an apology, and not everyone else?
Well, I think there is an answer to that – and it is that Lord Bramall’s very fame and distinction have helped to make things not better and easier for him, but much, much worse. If he hadn’t been Lord Bramall, the papers and websites would not have given the story so much of the publicity that aggravated his distress. And if he hadn’t been Lord Bramall, would the investigation have been conducted with quite such zeal?
Let us suppose that an anonymous “victim” approached the police with a series of outlandish and unproveable 40-year-old allegations against a group of blameless and excellent but otherwise obscure old codgers. Would the police have raided their houses? Would they have turned up, mob-handed, without a shred of evidence? Without a crime? Without a body? On one man’s say-so? And kept at it for months? I don’t think so.
The paradox is that it is precisely because he is an establishment figure – a KG, GCB, OBE, MC, a former Lord Lieutenant – that the police feel they have to show a scrupulous refusal to be intimidated. Indeed, you could argue that this is a fine thing about our country, that no one is too grand to be ruthlessly investigated. That, today, is not much consolation to Lord Bramall. His accuser is surely sad but delusional.
You can’t blame the police, in the current climate, for taking no chances. But in this case they were plainly barking up the wrong tree. I hope a way will be found of making amends, because being a British war hero didn’t help Bramall against these allegations; on the contrary, there was a sense in which his status simply made things worse. He deserves to put the last year behind him, and accept the continued thanks of his country.