Thursday, 9 October 2008
The Plan: Twelve Months to Renew Britain
Two young Conservative politicians in the UK , Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan have come up with a plan (the “Plan”) for what they call – “renewing Britain ”. Daniel Douglas Carswell has been the Conservative MP for Harwich and Clacton since 2005. Hannan, a writer and journalist, is the Conservative Minister for European Parliament (MEP) for South East England since 1999. The plan put forth by Carswell and Hannan is set out in a 195 page document titled “The Plan: Twelve months to renew Britain” that can be either bought (for £10) or downloaded (for £5) online.
Bad Shape – In the eye of the beholder
The Plan is based on the assumption that the UK is in a bad shape. Like beauty, bad shape is also something that lies in the eye of the beholder. I remember when I started my first job in the UK , I was told (apologetically) by so many colleagues that the building which housed our offices was in a terrible shape. ‘Ghastly’ and ‘horrible’ were the adjectives most often used. Before coming to London a year before to do a one-year masters course at the London School of Economics, I had a four year stint in Mumbai during which time I had seen a lot of wobbly buildings with even more wobbly staircases and antique lifts. To my eye, I could find nothing wrong with my new office building. On the contrary, it looked unbelievably solid and sturdy. No, the problem I soon learnt, was not in the stability of the building, but in its aesthetics. Grey in colour, with no glass or other frills one sees in most modern buildings these days, it was clearly not intended to have people exclaim in admiration as they walked past. The same is the case with the UK , a very prosperous country by any standard, with nothing much seriously wrong with it.
What exactly is wrong in the UK?
Carswell and Hannan manage to find a lot wrong with the current state of affairs in the UK . But they are not just cribbers, they have a magic bullet solution for UK ’s ailments.
“The British state is failing. It can’t deliver even the most basic services competently. We have the highest prisoner population in Europe , and one of the highest crime rates. Our schoolchildren compare dismally with similarly aged pupils in other countries and in previous generations. Our healthcare system is more likely to kill its charges than any other in the developed world. Our roads are choked, our railways crumbling, our airports unbearable. Our borders are, to all intents and purposes, wide open.”
Each of the statements made above by Carswell and Hannan is debatable. For example, the International Centre for Prison Studies says that Russia has the highest rate of prison population (635 per 100,000) in Europe. Scotland and England and Wales have the 17th and 18th highest rates in Europe. I guess that when Carswell and Hannan say “Europe”, they mean “ Western Europe”. Even then, Spain has a higher rate than Scotland or England and Wales . Northern Ireland is 39th in Europe, lower than France or Germany with a prison population of 87 per 100,000. The United States of America , a source of inspiration to Carswell and Hannan in many respects, has the highest prisoner population in the world. If you look at the percentage of female prisoners within the prison population, England and Wales is at the 19th place, way below Norway , Austria , Switzerland and Germany . The British health care is admittedly not as good as say, healthcare in various other European states, but then, as Carswell and Hannan admit in the Plan, such other states spend a lot more on healthcare than the UK. British road and rail infrastructure is indeed not as good as what you find in say, Germany , but then Germany has always had better roads even during the days of Winston Churchill.
The Plan revolves around a series of legislative measures (which will not take more than 12 months) to reform Britain . Carswell and Hannan feel that MPs are too powerless and have too many perks. They want to clean up Westminster by pruning the amount of perks MPs get. The House of Commons will be reduced in size. The House of Lords is not really compatible with democracy, Carswell and Hannan opine, but do not want to tackle it as part of the Plan since it will require a lot more time than one year. Policing and prosecution decisions must be made by elected officials. Judges should not be allowed to make law as they have been doing of late. Parliament must reign supreme, in its pruned form. The UK must withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights. English counties and cities should have all the powers that have been devolved to Scotland . Parents who send their children to private schools must be able to claim the per capita average being spent on them. Similarly, patients must be able to opt out of the NHS. There should be greater devolution of powers. Local governments must be given all the powers which have now been devolved to Scotland and the right to collect sufficient revenue to do many things on their own.
“To the size of a state there is a limit, as there is to plants, animals and implements, for they can none of them retain their facility when they are too large.” This quote from Aristotle finds place at the beginning of the Plan document. The main grouse espoused by Carswell and Hannan, which runs throughout the Plan, is that the UK was traditionally a small state with the bulk of its laws derived from customs and practices, but is no longer so. In the last few decades, especially as a result of the accession to the EU, the UK has come to become a state run by bureaucrats and quangos (Quasi Autonomous Government Organizations) not elected by the people. Britain has moved towards continental European values which prefer a neutral and supposedly impartial administrator to an elected politician who may have biases and prejudices. Carswell and Hannan don’t like bureaucrats or quangos who only help themselves and create more paper work for themselves. On top of it all, even bureaucrats or quangos will have their own prejudices, we are told. Carswell and Hannan don’t use the words ‘welfare state’, though it becomes clear that they do want the British welfare state to be rolled back.
After the recent turmoil in the financial markets, not many people will find the idea of a small government appealing. The question being asked now is why the independent regulators weren’t more vigilant. There isn’t much of a demand to do away with regulators despite their many lapses. However, Daniel Hannan has not changed his mind if this blog post of his is any indication.
To be fair to Carswell and Hannan, their idea of a small government is a lot more than financial deregulation. As explained in detail below, the Plan envisages a small government everywhere, especially at the local level.
Carswell and Hannan want the UK to emulate the US in various respects, one of which is the subservience of police chiefs and prosecution services to elected Sheriffs. Sir Ian Blair, the London Metropolitan Police Chief, is used as an example of how undemocratic and unaccountable a police chief can be. At the time of the Plan’s publication, Sir Ian Blair was clinging to power despite facing an enormous amount of criticism. His role during the 7 July bombing and the death of Jean Charles de Menezes left a lot to be desired. The London Assembly passed a resolution of no-confidence in Sir Ian Blair. The new Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, said that he would like Sir Blair to leave. Despite all this, Sir Blair stayed in power since he could only be fired by the Home Secretary (which happened recently after the Plan was published). Elected Sheriffs should also have the power to set local sentencing guidelines. This might mean that different towns or counties might have different approaches to the same offence. Shoplifting might attract a higher penalty in London than in Manchester . But that would be quite democratic. If the residents of London want to follow a particular approach to an offence, they should be free to do so, irrespective of what Manchester thinks.
I have some sympathy for this approach. You might argue that a nation as small as the UK should not try to emulate the US and end up with different laws in different parts of the country. If Carswell and Hannan have their way, illegal immigrants might, if caught in Barking, be flogged and deportated, whilst Argyllshire in Scotland might merely deport them. In the US , Texas enthusiastically enforces the death penalty whilst 13 states have abolished it. However, it cannot be denied that a much higher percentage of Texans support the death penalty than citizens of states where the death penalty has been abolished. If you believe that democracy should be subservient to the goal of moving the entire nation to a higher plane of values, you might not like this approach. However, what constitutes a ‘higher plane of values’ will always be debatable.
Human Rights Act
The UK is a signatory to the European Convention on Human rights and all UK laws are subject to the Human Rights Act 1998 framed under this convention. Laws made by the British Parliament can be overruled if they are found to violate the Human Rights Act. It is not unheard of in the UK to challenge laws and regulations on the ground that they breach human rights. Carswell and Hannan do not like the idea of judges using the Human Rights Act to override the will of the Parliament. They want the Human Rights Act to be scrapped. If the Plan were to be implemented, the UK will withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights.
Illegal immigrants, minorities and to a lesser extent prisoners, rely on this law more than others since they have very few other rights. Carswell and Hannan cite the example of an illegal immigrant who in 1997 was able to overturn his deportation order on the grounds that he would not receive the same medical treatment in his home country as was available in the UK . The illegal immigrant relied on Article 3 of this convention which says that no one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.’ I find this example a bit outdated since the UK now deports illegal immigrants who are ill and need urgent medical care. In the beginning of this year, media reported the case of a cancer-ridden Ghanaian woman who was deported from the UK and died soon after.
All the examples cited by Carswell and Hannan as examples of how courts have used the Human Rights Act to overturn the will of the Parliament involve illegal immigrants or prisoners or citizenship applications. I do have sympathy for the view that Judges should only interpret and should never make the law. However, if the Human Rights Act were to be scrapped, the most vulnerable section within British society will suffer the most.
Parliament must be supreme
Carswell and Hannan want a Reserve Powers Act to be enacted in order to guarantee the supremacy of the legislature against judicial activism. Carswell and Hannan find it intolerable that a national legislature might be subservient to an international body. For this reason, they oppose the International Criminal Court which can prosecute national leaders, a process which they rightly say may be misused. At least in theory, any political leader anywhere in the world, including from the UK , may be tried by the ICC. Carswell and Hannan go to the extent of saying that “the Yugoslav and Rwanda tribunals have now become a law unto themselves, prosecuting some men for no better reason than that it was thought politically expedient to have indictees from all sides in a war.” The job of prosecuting national leaders must be left to national courts, they say.
Thankfully not many people in the world share this point of view. If they did, war criminals like Slobodan Milosevic would never have been brought to book.
Carswell and Hannan want the UK ’s defence and foreign policy to be determined entirely by the Parliament with a lot more parliamentary oversight over diplomats. According to Carswell and Hannan, “British foreign policy is cocooned from the democratic process. It is conducted by highly qualified officials who, although often technically brilliant, have drifted away from the values of the rest of the country. Left to their own devices, diplomatists have evolved an approach to international relations that is elitist, managerialist, supra-nationalist, technocratic and contemptuous of ‘populism’.” Reading this, I was reminded of Republicans accusing Obama of elitism!
And look at what these elitist diplomats have got the UK into? They got the UK into the EU! What could be worse than that? Carswell and Hannan seem to hate the European Union more than anything else in the world.
Each and every real and perceived foreign policy mistake is blamed on elistist diplomats who follow their own ideology rather than the people’s dictates. Unlike the diplomats of yore, modern diplomats do not project British interests. Though experts, diplomats have as many prejudices and biases as anybody else. Currently, diplomatic appointments, the contracting of treaties and national defence, are all controlled by Downing Street under Crown Prerogative powers. This has allowed the Foreign Secretary to sign up to treaties such as the Maastricht Treaty without Parliamentary approval. Carswell and Hannan want all these powers to be transferred to the Parliament. Each time the Parliament is reconstituted, all treaties and diplomatic appointments must be reviewed and approved, else they will lapse. Even if this sounds like a good idea in theory, I doubt if this can be implemented in practice unless the MPs work all year around in the Parliament, something which doesn’t fit in with the Plan for a reduced House of Commons.
Gentlemen (or Lady) Members of Parliament
Carswell and Hannan want to prune the pay and perks which MPs get. MPs will meet only for a limited number of days in a year and will be ‘amateur’ politicians. In the sense
that they will need to carry on a trade or profession of their own which will pay their bills. The only compensation they get will be for the days they need to spend in Parliament.
On paper this sounds good. But in practice this would generally prevent people without a great deal of inherited wealth from entering politics. In my opinion, it is not possible to be a part-time politician. Even if an MP does not have to spend all his/her time in Parliament, I doubt if it will be possible for the MP to hold a regular job. There will be exceptions for sure, but this proposal would take politicians to a situation similar to that of sportsmen in the days when sport was played (mainly by the wealthy) for glory rather than money.
Right to Opt-Out from State Schools and the NHS
Carswell and Hannan feel that schools in the UK are ‘failing due to too much government.’ They want the Danish system to be followed in the UK which would give parents who send their children to private schools the right to claim the per capita average being spent within the state system. In other words, the cost of sending children to private schools will come down. The net impact of such a move, in my opinion, would be to widen the rich-poor divide in the education system. The poorest children would continue to languish in state schools, whose quality would deteriorate even further.
Something similar is to be done with the NHS. Carswell and Hannan rightly say that the NHS is bloated and inefficient. Patients should have the freedom to seek services from a private health care provider and opt out of the NHS. Carswell and Hannan specifically recommend the health care system in Singapore where patients deposit money in a health care savings account (till the money reaches a critical limit) and pay their private health care providers from that account. Catastrophic insurance (of around £400 per annum) is also bought by everyone. The Plan rightly claims that the Singaporean system is even better than the system (of privately insured healthcare) in the United States .
Personally speaking, I would benefit if these suggestion were to be implemented. So would most middle-class residents in the UK . But these bits of the Plan have the potential to make British society a lot less egalitarian.
Devolution of power
Carswell and Hannan want local governments to be autonomous with all the powers which have now been devolved to Scotland . At present ninety per cent of all revenue collected in Britain goes to the Chancellor in Whitehall . This money is distributed by the Chancellor to various authorities and bodies. The net result is that local councils are quite powerless and good candidates are not interested in standing for elections at the council level.
The Plan proposes the scrapping of VAT and replacing it with a local sales tax (“LST”). Different regions will have different rates of LST. This will lead to tax competition between various regions. Local councils should also have the freedom to scrap council tax.
I can see a lot of merit in these suggestions. However, the consequences may involve a drastic fall in the amount of money being available with local councils in deprived areas. The Plan does mention a top-up for such areas, but I feel it is unlikely to be equal to the actual loss in revenue.
Social security is to be distributed at the local level. Carswell and Hannan rightly point out that local authorities are in a much better position to detect welfare fraud and determine parameters for entitlement. This is something I fully endorse as long as deprived areas as given a proportionately higher allotment to meet their welfare costs.
Cut down on red-tape
Carswell and Hannan want to repeal various Acts that provide the legal base for burdensome and costly regulation. The Plan lists 26 Acts which are to be repealed. These include laws framed under the EU Directives on Part-Time Work giving part-time workers equal access to pay, pensions, annual leave and training as full-time staff, Anti-Money Laundering Rules and the Hunting Act 2004 which outlaws hunting with dogs. As would be evident to anyone who reads the entire Plan, most of the laws which Carswell and Hannan want to repeal are social welfare legislation which conservatives have always hated. You might agree or disagree with Carswell and Hannan depending on which shade of the political spectrum you belong to.
The Plan proposes that all new pieces of legislation are to have a sunset clause that will ensure that enactments do not survive in perpetuity. I don’t agree. Some laws contain sunset clauses and these are usually the draconian anti-terrorism laws which curtail civil liberties. Otherwise laws are meant to make things better and ought to survive for perpetuity.
Alternatives to the EU
As mentioned earlier, Carswell and Hannan don’t like the European Union and they propose that the UK ought to withdraw from the EU and instead be a part of the European Free Trade Area (“EFTA”) just like Switzerland . Being in the EFTA would give the UK trade access to the European Market without having to tag along with the EU in matters such as labour policy or welfare measure or immigration. Carswell and Hannan point to countries such as Iceland and Switzerland which are not part of the EU and manage to remain prosperous. I guess Iceland was a prosperous country when the Plan was published. It is no longer so very prosperous at the moment.
I do agree that if ideologically most people in the UK differ from continental Europe , it makes little sense to be a part of the EU.
People’s Bills and Blocking Referendums
Carswell and Hannan recommend that citizens ought to be able to table bills in the Parliament if they collect sufficient signatures. The top 6 popular bills should be voted on by MPs. Similarly, if 20,000 people sign a petition to block a bill which has received its third reading, but before it receives Royal Assent, the bill should be blocked. If within a prescribed period a specified percentage of the electorate sign up to the petition, the bill should not become law.
These are good proposals and I would support them. Please read the Plan in full if you want to understand these proposals since the explanation I have given above is sketchy and may not give you an accurate picture of the proposals as contained in the Plan.
What’s the Position on Immigration?
One very important issue which has not been addressed in the Plan is that of migration. Thought not always discussed openly, migration has been one of the hottest issues in the Western world in this decade. Surprisingly, Carswell and Hannan don’t have much to say on this. There are a few mentions of reversing the flow of illegal migration, cracking down on illegal immigrants and the failures of the Migration Service. When discussing the drawbacks of being in the EU, it is said that the EU has prevented the UK from having an annual quota on immigrants. But a specific policy to tackle the perceived problem of immigration is missing. This is a glaring omission indeed.
Since the Plan is silent on this vital issue, I am tempted to infer what Carswell and Hannan might have in mind based on what they have said on other matters.
Switzerland has the most successful policy on migration in the whole of Europe . When I say “successful”, I mean success in controlling migration since controlling and reducing migrant inflows is the cornerstone of most migration policies, including that of the UK . How does Switzerland do this? To apply for Swiss citizenship, the applicant must have legally lived in Switzerland for at least 12 years. The final decision on a citizenship application is made by the local community where the applicant lives. The local community will interview the applicant and put his application to vote before citizenship is granted.
Do Carswell and Hannan wish to implement the Swiss approach I wonder? It would fit in with the Plan which wants to devolve power to local communities. Currently, a person who has worked in the UK for five years will almost automatically obtain permanent residency. Permanent residents obtain citizenship (almost automatically) a year after becoming permanent residents. If the Swiss system were to be implemented in the UK , I would assume that the number of people who obtain British citizenship will be reduced to a trickle. Would members of one community or race find it more difficult to get citizenship than others? Possibly.
No foreigner has the right to migrate to another country. The visa stamped on a foreign passport is always a favour bestowed on the passport holder rather than an entitlement. Every country has the right to implement the most appropriate immigration policy. That being said, immigration is an emotional topic, especially during a recession when jobs are being lost and the economy feels pinched. It is very easy to cause scare mongering and get voters excited on this topic. Sometimes the scaremongering works, sometimes it doesn’t. I do wish Carswell and Hannan had not remained silent on this issue.