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Straight Talking - November 2008

Love Europe. Hate the European Union

Roger Helmer's electronic newsletter from Strasbourg

Please feel free to distribute this newsletter, or to quote from it. It is primarily written for Conservative Party members and activists in the East Midlands, but may also be of interest to others concerned about developments in the EU. If you receive the newsletter second-hand and want to go onto the e-mail list (or if you want to be deleted), please e-mail me on .

Alternatively you can subscribe with this form.

President Obama: a Leap in the Dark 

After the longest and most expensive Presidential election campaign in America's history, we know the answer.  Despite a lower margin of victory than the pollsters predicted, Barrack Hussein Obama will be the 44th President of the USA.  There is no doubting his remarkable achievement.  A young, untried, inexperienced politician from the South Side of Chicago has defeated first of all the daunting Clinton political machine, and then a somewhat reduced Republican Party, to take the White House.  His campaign will provide the material for a thousand doctoral papers by political scientists, and will be pondered and studied by political parties and activists everywhere.  There are lessons here for Conservatives, in how he motivated the grass roots, and raised huge sums in millions of small donations. 

As the first African-American President, he represents the apotheosis, and perhaps the resolution, of centuries of racial conflict and division in the USA; the catharsis for the tribal guilt of American liberals.  The vast weight of expectation which he carries on his slight and narrow shoulders would intimidate the best of us, and satisfying those expectations would surely prove beyond the capacity of the Archangel Gabriel, still less any mortal man.

It would be churlish to rain on his parade, yet my heart is filled with foreboding for our friends across the water.  What do we know of this man?  Almost nothing.  He comes untried and untested.  His history as a legislator is extraordinarily anonymous, except that he is clearly well to the left of his party.  Even the circumstances of his birth are disputed: some believe he was born not in Hawaii but in Kenya, and was therefore not qualified to run for President.

Before I got into politics I spent a third of a century in business, and I remember a cautionary saying we used: "You hire an articulate manager, and six months later you find that all he can do is articulate".  Obama is a great orator: no question of that.  But he managed to deliver stirring speeches that were remarkably light on policy (maybe another lesson for Conservatives).  We know that his friends, mentors and associates included those who hate America, and even one who set out to bomb it -- not an encouraging start.

We know that he believes not in wealth creation, but in "spreading wealth around", as he let slip to Joe the Plumber.  He is a redistributive welfarist.  He is a protectionist.  For America's social and economic problems, he is wedded to solutions that have failed over and over again, time after time.  He adopts every piece of modish liberal nonsense, not least on the climate issue.  He believes that government is the solution, not the problem.  Against this background, I am astonished that some British Conservatives spoke out in support of his campaign.

His mantra is "Change".  But it is easy to promise change, less easy to define it, and tougher still to deliver.  In international affairs he seems to believe that a new face and a fund of goodwill are sufficient to solve the world's most intractable problems.  He will soon learn differently, but meantime his naiveté is a threat not only to America, but to the whole of the free world.

I have always seen America as a Shining City on a Hill, a beacon of liberty for the whole world.  Today, that City on the Hill shines a little less brightly.

Climate Change DVD: now available online!

For all those who have not yet received a copy of my climate change DVD, "Straight Talking on Climate Change", watch the video here.  

Deceit and contempt: drafting the Lisbon Treaty

When our government was trying to convince us of the benefits of the Lisbon Treaty, we were told that it contained an "Early Warning Mechanism" that increased the powers of national parliaments to resist EU legislation, and that this meant devolving greater power to member-states and increasing the accountability of the EU institutions.

But now two prominent Europhile MEPs, Labour's Richard Corbett and the Lib-Dems' Andrew Duff, have admitted that it did no such thing.  In evidence to the Commons European Scrutiny Committee, Andrew Duff told the Committee: "there is a danger that, in assessing the Treaty of Lisbon, national parliaments become obsessed by the early warning mechanism on subsidiarity.  It was understood by those of us involved in its drafting and then re-drafting, that the mechanism, although a necessary addition to the system of governance of the Union, was not really intended to be used.  It is, in Bagehot's terms, more a dignified part of the European constitutional settlement than an efficient one."   Richard Corbett told the Committee: "in practice, I do not think that the 'yellow' and 'orange' card mechanisms will be extensively used."

The deceit is breath-taking.  The contempt in which they hold the voters, and their national parliaments, is astonishing.  But we need to learn the lesson: everything the EU does is about transferring power from us to them, and when they pretend otherwise, they're lying.

See my ITV Local video profile: here

Monetary Union: the Cracks Widen

We all remember the old schoolboy joke: "What's a Grecian Urn?".  Answer: "About a hundred Drachma a week".  There's an up-dated 20th century version of that: "What's the capital of Iceland?".  No, not Reykjavik.  The answer is "A couple of hundred Krona" -- if you're lucky!

Of course today's Grecian, if he's in work, will be earning euros, not Drachma.  Greece adopted the euro in 2002, and for a while all seemed well.  That is, until the current crisis hit.  If the world's money markets have any reservations about the EU's monetary union, it will show up as a spread between the rates on government bonds between different euro member-states.  The spreads are measured in "basis points", which are simply a hundredth of a percentage point -- so if we're comparing say 5% with 5.5%, that's 50 basis points.

Some of our financial commentators got rather excited when the spread between Italian and German bonds reached 30 basis points, and started muttering darkly about threats to the future stability of the currency.  Then a couple of weeks back, well into the crisis, that figure had reached around 90 points.  Scary.  Today as I write, the Italy/Germany spread has reached 100 basis points.  But there is worse news from Greece.  The spread on 10-year bonds between Greece and Germany is at a record 123 basis points -- nearly one and a quarter percent.  Not so much a spread as a chasm.  (Late news Nov 18th -- over 200 points!).

Greece is hard-hit by the slow-down in shipping and freight rates.  Its public debt is a whopping 92% of GDP.  Its current account deficit this year is 15%, the highest in the euro-zone (and five times the Maastricht requirement of 3%).  I am indebted to Ambrose Evans-Pritchard for his report on this issue in the Telegraph of Oct. 29th.  He remarks "The markets are now clearly singling out (Greece) as the most vulnerable member of the currency bloc".  There, and I'd been expecting Spain or Italy to get the old euro heave-ho first.

Ambrose quotes Michael Klawitter of Dresdner Kleinwort: "We are no longer having a theoretical discussion about the viability of monetary union. People are really concerned for the first time".  Especially, we can take it, the Greeks.  Like Gordon Brown's tripartite regulatory system, the EU's monetary union worked tolerably well in good times (although even then the strains were showing).  Now that the storm has broken, the continuing survival of the monetary adventure is in doubt.  The cracks are widening.  Thank heaven we never joined the euro.  

Responding to the Credit Crunch 

Boyden Gray, former US Ambassador to Brussels, says "We've failed Adam Smith, not vice versa".

So far, the Conservative Party has done half a job on the credit crunch.  We've rightly blamed Gordon Brown.  While Britain faces global problems, Brown has left our country in a poor position to cope with the global weather.  We have spoken of "failing to fix the roof while the sun was shining", and that message seems to be getting through in the public consciousness.

Brown himself has described the recent extended boom as "The Age of Irresponsibility", apparently failing to notice that he himself presided over the irresponsibility, first as Chancellor, then as PM.  He has bored us to death by repeatedly proclaiming "the end of Tory boom and bust", before ushering in the biggest bust anyone can remember.  These are words that have come back to bite his ankle.

Now he, and Alistair Darling, speak of a Keynesian solution.  They will borrow even more, and spend on great infrastructure projects for the future.  Surely Keynes must be turning in his grave to hear his name associated with such an extraordinarily ill-advised and profligate proposal.  True, Keynes favoured counter-cyclical spending policies, so that governments would pay down debt in the good times, and be prepared to support spending through a recession.  Indeed governments have to be prepared to borrow in a recession as tax revenues drop, while welfare and unemployment commitments increase.  But Keynes never proposed that governments should build up debt in the boom times, and then throw good money after bad in a recession.

Brown should listen to a previous Labour Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, who rightly said that "You can't spend your way out of recession".  Or he should ponder the recent letter from a group of distinguished economists, including Ruth Lea, who have warned of the dangers of further indebtedness, and rightly pointed out that the real effect of major infrastructure projects would kick-in too late to help (assuming that this recession is shorter-lived than the last one in Japan).

Although we have pinned the blame on Brown, nonetheless he has contrived to look Prime Ministerial -- he seems to relish a financial crisis -- and he has achieved some recovery in the polls.  This half-bounce will dissipate, however, as the bankruptcies, the job losses and the home repossessions start to bite.

Now we Conservatives have to do the other half of our job, which is to present the British public with a better solution.  And a credible solution is not hard to find.  I was pleased to see that George Osborne has called for one key element -- lower interest rates -- today.  But we must also have the courage to call for serious spending cuts.  We must face down the inevitable Labour spin about "Tory Cuts".  The public know that families and businesses are having to cut back, and they will understand why in these hard times the government has to cut back as well.  The Gershon Report identified considerable areas for savings, but we must go further.  We must take a chain-saw to the proliferation of Quangoes and agencies that are growing like Japanese knot-weed over the body politic, and choking the life out of it.  Too many superannuated politicians are enjoying sinecures at the tax-payer's expense.  This has to stop.  We must dismantle Labour's expensive, unnecessary and ineffective regional structures.  (We could also save up to £100 billion a year by leaving the EU -- there are excellent political and economic reasons to do so anyway).

So two elements of the solution are lower interest rates and lower government spending.  The third is lower taxes.  (If it were prudent to borrow more, the borrowing should be used for immediate tax cuts -- but sadly it is not prudent to do so).  I do not believe that in today's circumstances we can credibly offer immediate tax cuts.  But we must do so as soon as the storm shows signs of abating.  We must make clear that we will cut taxes as soon as we can prudently do so, and that lower taxes will be a primary objective of Conservative policy.  Not to reward the rich, but to promote economic growth.

A three-pronged policy.  Lower interest rates.  Lower spending.  And as soon as we can, lower taxes.  Not perhaps the most attractive policy -- restraint and retrenchment never are attractive, but then given the choice, we wouldn't be starting from here.  But a lot more attractive than Labour's debt-driven descent into the abyss.  

I meet the Great Lady's handbag

On a visit to my old college, Churchill College, Cambridge, on November 14th to address their Phoenix Society, I was privileged to be offered a guided tour of the Churchill Archive by Allen Packwood, its Director.  The Archive was founded to store the Papers of Sir Winston Churchill, but now includes the Thatcher archive, as well the papers of many other public figures from politics and science.

I was privileged to see the original typescript of Churchill's famous "Finest Hour" speech, with the great man's personal hand-written amendments -- the actual piece of paper he had in his hand as he addressed the House of Commons on that dark day in June 1940.  And later I came face to face with one of the artefacts in the collection.  Baroness Thatcher's famous handbag, in black crocodile, carefully wrapped and preserved for posterity.  

Cato's Video on Tax Havens:

Dr Dan Mitchell of the Cato Institute has produced yet another excellent video, this time on the subject of Tax Havens. Tax havens must be protected because they promote economic efficiency, and help keep high tax regimes honest.  By having banking secrecy laws and low taxes (sometimes none at all), tax havens attract money into their banks, encourage saving and investments, and promote low taxation in other countries (tax competition).  

The Climate Change Bill: a futile and very costly folly...

The truth about the Climate Change Bill is that it will impose an unbearable burden on British industry and households. I have written extensively on the subject, but Ruth Lea has written an excellent reminder to us all on the Conservative Home website. She wrote this on the eve of the House of Commons vote.

"According to official figures, climate change policies already account for 21% of the average business electricity bill [...]. But by 2020, the burden of green policies is expected to rise to 55% of the average business electricity bill. Green policies are not just futile -- they guarantee the further migration of industry out of Britain"

ILPH Comes to Strasbourg

OK, so they call it World Horse Welfare these days, but I still think of it as the International League for the Protection of Horses.  They have just completed a major report on the cruelty inflicted on horses transported long distances from Eastern Europe by truck, travelling day after day in appalling conditions, to await slaughter for meat in Italian abattoirs.  I am not usually an enthusiast for EU rules, but we are dealing here with cross-border transportation which justifies a coordinated approach.

ILPH are calling for better conditions, and for proper enforcement of welfare standards.  I was delighted to be able to offer them help and support in this project, as I have been doing for some time.  If you agree, make your voice heard on www.makeanoise.co.uk!  

Kilroy: Cheap At Half The price!

There has been huge media interest in the announcement that Robert Kilroy Silk MEP is appearing on “I’m a Celebrity”, eating bush tucker and widgetty grubs in the Australian outback.  I can’t wait to see it (if I can remember to watch).  I have done a huge number of press, radio and TV interviews on this story, and my line is — I wouldn’t mind him taking a few weeks out for a TV show, if he did a decent job for his constituents for the rest of the year.  But he doesn’t.  He’s frequently unavailable to the press.  He’s only rather occasionally in the parliament, and when he votes in plenary he keeps his finger on the “Abstain” button.  I know that because I can clearly see how he votes from my own seat in the Hemicycle.  And so far as I can ascertain, he hasn’t been seen in the East Midlands amongst the constituents he’s supposed to represent for a very long time.

I was amused to hear that he justified his jungle jaunt by arguing that “he hadn’t had a holiday this year”.  I understand that he spends most of his time in his Spanish villa, recharging his perma-tan by the pool.  He appears to do little else but take holidays. 

But one question I have been asked several times, and to which I didn’t have the answer until yesterday, is: how much money is he getting for the show?  But the figures for Kilroy, and for most of his companions, were published yesterday in the Telegraph.  I have to say that of the motley list of his companions, I only recognised a handful of names — Martina Navratilova, the tennis star.  Esther Rantzen, the TV presenter.  Brian Paddick, the ex-policeman and failed Lib-Dem Mayoral candidate.  The others were new to me, which either shows that I’m out of touch with popular culture, or that they’re not really celebrities.  Maybe both.

But I was impressed to note that Kilroy is way off the pace on fees (if press reports are right).  Dani Behr (who’s he?) is up for £40k.  Martina comes a close second at £30k.  Esther Rantzen is worth £25k.  George Takei makes £20k.  Poor old Kilroy comes in at £15k, fifth equal with Brian Paddick.  Mind you, he seems to be worth twice as much as Nicola McLean, so I feel rather sorry for her.  Whoever she is.

I do hope that Kilroy enjoys his toasted widgetty grubs, and feels that the effort was worth it.  But if the plan is to revive his media career, then his fees for this enterprise suggest he still has some work to do.


That's it for this Strasbourg session. Please remember to check this website for more background on current parliamentary business, details of proposals being voted at the Strasbourg plenary session, and a host of other issues.