Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Letters to the Press

Having dropped his charade of being neutral over the EU Referendum, and despite his failure to achieve a meaningful and legally binding reform package, David Cameron is now campaigning to convince the UK public to vote Remain.

The shallowness of this position has been exposed by many (not least by Andrew Neil on the Daily Politics). Only a few short weeks ago David Cameron "ruled nothing out" while he was seeking agreement on a minor change to in-work benefits. Yet we are now being told that to consider leaving the EU is to invite the direst consequences, as if the still reversible "emergency brake" on benefits has radically altered the equation.

Having failed failed with his "renegotiate and reform" strategy, Cameron has reverted to a more familiar approach of "Project Fear" and is essentially running an anti-Brexit campaign (an apt description provided by blogger LostLeonardo).   Prime examples of this strategy are letters to the newspapers signed by establishment figures.

Dodgy Letter from Business Leaders. 

In an attempt to kick-start the Remain campaign, Baroness Rock (a personal friend of George Osborne) arranged for a letter to be signed by 198 Business Leaders. Cameron has had to defend himself against accusations he pressured FTSE 100 companies into signing the letter. Original expectations were that the great majority (80) of  FTSE 100 firms would sign, but ultimately almost 2/3 of FTSE 100 firms declined to support the Prime Minister.

It has also been noted that the 36 FTSE 100 companies who did sign the letter spent €21.3 million lobbying the EU and received €120.9 million in grants from the European Commission between 2007 and 2014. Many of the business signatories also campaigned to join the euro in 2002, with predictions then of impending doom if the UK did not join the Euro. Many are closely associated with David Cameron, as pointed out by Quentin Letts

Neither do the small business signatories of the letter convince, reported to include: a former Miss Normandy who runs a green foods firm from a single vending machine in East London; a Belgian owner of a Welsh chocolate shop; two company bosses in the Spanish and Portuguese Chambers of Commerce; two firms which teach English to French people and offer translation services; a pub landlord who was unaware how his name had been used and who does not support Cameron's reform deal; the managing director of Wiltshire-based Sales and Coaching Solutions, Alison Edgar, who said she had no idea why she signed the letter.

But there are also many business voices who counter Cameron's narrative.  JCB, Tate and Lyle, BPI, Lloyds Banking group chairman Lord Blackwell, amongst others, had already declared for Brexit. 200 small business firm leaders and entrepenuers have written their own letter calling for Brexit. Jamie Murray Wells, entrepreneur and founder of Glasses Direct writes that he does not see the EU as "value for money". Entrepreneur, investor, and chairman of Burnbrae, Jim Mellon has advised Britain should leave the EU before the inevitable Eurozone meltdown. 

Perhaps the most notable pro-Brexit business voice to date is John Longworth, who stated that the UK's long-term prospects would be "brighter" outside the EU. Following pressure from No.10 (via Daniel Korski), he has resigned his position as head of the British Chambers of Commerce and is now free to speak out on the EU Referendum. Writing in the Times, Longworth  accuses the government of following a clearly partisan line in promulgating a "patently untrue" message regarding Brexit. He states how he had "always considered that the best place for Britain to be was inside a reformed EU" but in the light of experience, detailed investigation and Cameron's failure to secure meaningful reform he has concluded "We will have a much brighter future if we leave, but we must make this move now, before it is too late."

The heart of Cameron's case is that EU membership gives the UK a vote over the rules.  In practice, the UK's 12% majority vote in the EU council and 9% of seats in the EU parliament are both inconsequential and irrelevant. The unelected EU commission hold sole power to propose legislation and approve amendments and much of the commissions legislative activity takes place in secret meetings, dominated by corporate lobbying interests.  No wonder the EU is supported by the corporate elites and much less so by entrepreneurs and small business.

The simple fact is that EU membership is not required in order to participate in the single market. As another business leader JD Wetherspoon founder Tim Martin told Sky's Ian King - Switzerland and Norway thrive outside the EU and so can the UK. And as discussed in a previous post, Norway has more democratic influence over single market rules than the UK by virtue of  (i) an independent voice & vote in international organisations that form the regulations and (ii) the EEA agreement providing consultation at the early (lobbying) stage of the EU legislative process and a right of reservation or veto (EEA agreement article 102) on the final EU legislation.

Dodgy Letter from former Defence chiefs.  

Another dodgy letter was orchestrated by Government officials claiming EU membership protected the UK from grave security challenges. One of the 13 signatories, Lord Bramall, said that he had been presented with the letter as a 'fait accompli'. No. 10 had to apologise for wrongly including General Sir Michael Rose in the list, who went on to state that the EU's erosion of UK sovereignty was a major threat to UK security.

Other senior defence personnel, both serving and retired, have criticised the idea that UK security is reliant on EU membership. Rear Admiral Chris Parry argues that “Nato (and Nato alone) provides the collective guarantees that our island nation needs".  Former Army Commander Richard Kemp declares that Brexit would strengthen national security.  Not so much "safer in" as "safer independent and collaborating via NATO."

A vote to Remain will inevitably see increased pressure for a single EU state with a single defence force. Following the activation of the Mutual Defence Clause (article 42) in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, the European Parliament recently approved a multi-party resolution  that "Considers the activation of the mutual assistance clause a unique opportunity to establish the grounds for a strong and sustainable European Defence Union". Another classic use of a "beneficial crisis".

If instead we believe that UK security is best served by retaining an independent UK military and intelligence capability, co-operating with allies in both Europe and the wider world (via NATO, Five Eyes intelligence sharing etc) then Leave is the only safe option.

Dodgy Letter from Farmers.  

Finally, we have a letter from the National Farmers Union sent to the Times backing EU membership.  The use of the phrase "We’d pay, but have no say" has No. 10's fingerprints all over it.

As with single market regulations, agricultural standards are set by international organisations, not the EU.  The Codex Commission, International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) and the Office International des Epizooties (OIE) are organisations recognised by the WTO Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Agreement.  UNECE and the OECD are also involved in setting agricultural standards. The truth is, an independent UK with an independent voice and vote in these organisations will provide more say over agricultural standards.

As for payments, it is patently clear that the UK has been making significant payments to CAP over decades, subsidising European farmers and receiving back much less in subsidies to UK farmers. To add injury to insult, the UK has been fined for completing the complicated CAP paperwork incorrectly ! Post-Brexit, the UK government would  pay equivalent subsidies direct to UK farmers and still have money over compared with current CAP contributions.

The major anxiety raised by the NFU's letter is the continuance of trade in agriculture following Brexit. This can be readily achieved by: (i) maintaining regulatory convergence, based on the global regulations; (ii) an agreement on tariffs, which is very much in the EU's interests given that the UK imports 3 times as much agricultural products from the EU as it exports to the EU.

A counterpoint to the letter is provided by Farmers for Britain, who view Brexit as a potential leap into the light for UK agriculture.  Former environment minister Owen Paterson has made the case that UK agriculture would be better off outside the EU.  These both paint a positive vision for UK agriculture using the subsidies to more productive ends.  By adopting policies tailored to national and regional requirements of UK agriculture and environment (rather than a one-size-fits-all pan-european scheme) food production and environmental protection (especially flood prevention) would be increased.

The Times has since carried a letter from Charlie Flindt of Alresford that provides a blunt riposte to the NFU's claims to speak for the farming industry (see image at top of this post). His voice and the voice of Farmers for Britain sounds far more authentic to me than that of the NFU.

Dodgy Letter from Scientists

When I first wrote this post, I thought to myself - there's bound to be a letter to the press from scientists next. For much of the last year, there has been a media campaign to convince us that UK science is critically dependent on EU membership.  Sure enough, on March 9th, 150 scientists wrote a letter to the Times proclaiming that “leaving the EU would be a disaster for UK science” , which repeats familiar arguments in stating :
“The EU has boosted UK science in two crucial ways … increased funding …. we now recruit many of our best researchers from continental Europe, including younger ones who have obtained EU grants.”
The EU funding is of course simply our own contributions being returned to us via EU programs such as Horizon 2020. Outside the EU the same money could be directed to scientific research, but in a manner of our own choosing. Similarly, the Erasmus+ program that provides EU grants to students/researchers. These programs are open to non-EU countries (e.g. Norway, Switzerland, Israel etc). It should also be borne in mind that this EU funding amounts to a paltry 2.3% of UK Higher Education spending

The argument around recruiting young researchers is based on the assumption that immigration policy post-Brexit would restrict visas on the same basis as non-EU researchers, i.e. a minimum salary requirement of just over £20,000 pa. This policy was implemented by the UK Government for non-EU researchers in its increasingly desperate attempts to meet its aspiration for immigration in the 10,000s.  In fact, the comments I have seen regarding research scientists (Eu or non-EU) is “but that's the type of immigrants we want !”.

To me, this highlights how our current immigration system is unbalanced and discriminates against non-EU talent. Even UKIP's policy (which may well not represent majority UK opinion) is to limit immigration of low-wage, unskilled labour from the EU, but attract the best talent from the whole world (not discriminating against non-EU states), particularly in fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine (STEM).  The salary requirement could simply be dropped, or alternatively the education establishments could meet the salary requirement, which would also mean that UK talent is not so easily lured away by prospects of better pay abroad or from alternative careers.

Of course such a letter carries “prestige” when it carries names such as Stephen Hawking.  But it should be borne in mind that Hawkings own politics are bound to colour his views on the EU – he is a long-standing "progresssive left-winger" and last year he publicly endorsed Ed Milliband - i.e. he would not be likely to take a eurosceptic view.

It should also be noted that there are Scientists who take a contrary view. The group “Scientists for Britain” were recently represented by Professor Angus Dalgleish on Newsnight when debating the letter  - as can be seen on this youtube clip.  They have also issued a full rebuttal of the letter written to the Times.  The rebuttal is well worth reading and can be found here.


Cameron's orchestrated letters to the press and the responses to them show up an interesting contrast:
  • on the one hand we have a small elite of corporate bosses and "chums of Cameron & Osborne" - in short the lobbying community - telling us that life beyond the EU is simply not possible for Britain. 
  • on the other we have entrepreneurs, small businessmen, owners of established UK export companies, farmers who want to revive UK agriculture and the rural economy and the leader of Britains small business organisation willing to sacrifice his job and position - in short the community of doers - who visualise a brighter future for Britain.
I know who I would listen to.


  1. On my Twitter timeline I keep getting promoted tweets from an account purporting to represent British scientists for the EU. I can't help wondering if this account has been funded by the EU or our government (either way from taxpayers money).

    1. It wouldn't surprise me if they were a funded account. Its pretty shocking how much academia has been bought by "EU funding" (= taxpayers money), even though it only amounts to 2.3% of Higher Education budget.

    2. It wouldn't surprise me if they were a funded account. Its pretty shocking how much academia has been bought by "EU funding" (= taxpayers money), even though it only amounts to 2.3% of Higher Education budget.

  2. Scientists for Britain have written an excellent reply which is well worth reading. it can be found here.

    1. Thank you - it is an excellent reply by Scientists4Britain and I will add a link to it from this post.

    2. Thank you - it is an excellent reply by Scientists4Britain and I will add a link to it from this post.