It is baffling why Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, is so feted in the lead-up to the general election. It seems that no debate, interview or political discussion can take place without her featuring in some way.
But there’s a problem. Yes, she’s leader of the Scottish National Party, which is tipped to do quite well in Scotland, so we can understand why she might be in a leader’s debate. She is also already an elected politician, albeit in the Scottish parliament, so we can understand why she might have something to say on SNP policy. But here’s the problem: she isn’t standing in the election.
That’s worth saying once more, so the implications can sink in – She isn’t even standing in the election for the Westminster parliament.
And yet she is everywhere in the discussions of the general election. It’s an old-fashioned idea, perhaps, but in a democracy it is assumed that people stand for election and, if elected, then get to boss us about and make policy. But only if they are elected.
This simple fact should have been a major point of contention these last few weeks. But it hasn’t, has it?
What we have is Nicola Sturgeon shaping the debate and making promises that will bind elected members of the SNP when they get to Westminster. But she has no democratic mandate and will have no democratic mandate on May 8.
Are we to expect that she will instruct them how to vote once they are in? If so, we will be living in a democracy compromised even more than it already is. The point surely of democracy is that elected politicians decide, not outside forces.
If I am mistaken, and she will have no say at all, then why is she being so feted now? It is a fraud. The electorate is having its views shaped by someone who is going to have no role in parliament – certainly no legitimate role. That’s actually a bit of a disgrace, and evidence of the ludicrous state of affairs we have got ourselves into, particularly concerning our constitution.
On Friday morning (3 April 2015) West Midlands Police reported some breaking news as follows:
BREAKING: six people have been arrested in Dover on suspicion of Syria-related terrorism offences and are in custody in the WMP area
— West Midlands Police (@WMPolice) April 3, 2015
Good, I suppose is the thing to say – police following up tip offs, chasing down the bad guys and generally protecting society. Doubly good because this is Syria-related and we’ve heard on the news about the sort of things going on over there and we definitely don’t want it over here.
But it’s important to remember they have only been arrested – not charged; and only on ‘suspicion’ – they have not been convicted of anything yet. So for all we know they could be normal folks like you and me. There but for the grace of God go I, etc.
This isn’t much to be going on with. Really, it could mean almost anything: from the rightful arrest of six terrorists primed with suicide vests on their way to Canterbury for Easter day; to the mistaken arrest of six archaeologists on their way home from an international conference on saving Syria’s heritage from the lunatics presently smashing it up.
So West Midlands Police helpfully tell us more:
Five men and one woman were detained at approximately 8am this morning in the departure zone of the south coast port.
— West Midlands Police (@WMPolice) April 3, 2015
‘Departure zone’ should tell us something. They were not on their way into the country; they were on their way out. So we can perhaps exclude the possibility they were about to do harm in Britain, unless they had designs on the ferry, which might in a way be termed British territory, unless the ferry companies are all French these days.
‘Departure’ and ‘Syria’ recalls the recent departures of schoolgirls to Syria to assume the romantic role of ‘Jihadi Bride.’ Except it’s not that romantic, when you think about it. They go there to marry Islamic State fighters and have children who will one day take the place of their fathers in the great fight for progressive Islamism in the Middle East – and perhaps North Africa, West Africa, East Africa, and anywhere else they want to extend the benevolent rule of their kind of Islam.
There’s another issue burning away with these schoolgirls. Their teddy-bear-clutching families are ever ready to tell the willing news outlets that they are distraught and have not the slightest clue how the idea got into the heads of their ‘straight A-grade’ daughters and it was almost certainly the fault of the police, MI5, British Foreign Policy, America, Israel, the usual culprits. But whatever the cause, it had absolutely nothing to do with them or Islam.
Except it did, kind of. When your dad’s caught on camera rocking it alongside noted moderate Adebolajo and plenty of other equally moderate brothers who just happened to have an accident with the matches at the same time as carrying US and Israeli flags and who burst into renditions of that well-known Eurovision hit “Allahu Akbar” for only the best of reasons, it is perhaps not all that surprising that, growing up in his household, you feel the pull of Jihadism a little more strongly than little Daisy Becket down the road.
But these were men and women. So a little different to schoolgirls heading East for a bit of baby-making time with the brothers.
There’s more from West Midlands Police:
Searches are taking place at a number of addresses in Birmingham. The arrests are part of an on-going investigation.
— West Midlands Police (@WMPolice) April 3, 2015
The mention of Birmingham is not a surprise. Although you have to be careful how you phrase things because if you get the substance right but the detail wrong (admittedly in the most cack-handed way imaginable), and you are American, and you are an American who appears to be on the right of the political spectrum, the willing news outlets and other well-meaning folk will go into a frenzy of ‘You’re so ignorant,’ and ‘It’s nothing like that,’ and ‘Let me just take this opportunity to deflect from the matter at hand – namely the Charlie Hebdo murders.’
There probably won’t be much more reported on this case. Matters under investigation, for obvious reasons, are not usually splurged over the papers until the potential court case us underway and preferably post-verdict.
So what do we have?
At about 8am on Friday 3 April, five men and one woman were arrested in the departure zone of the port of Dover on suspicion of Syria-related terrorism offences. They are now being held in the West Midlands area and searches are taking place at various addresses in Birmingham. Four of the men, in their twenties, are actually from Birmingham; the other man and woman, also in their twenties, have no fixed abode. These arrests were part of an ongoing investigation.
That’s about it. Except that this incident, whether it leads to a court case or not, is part of a growing pattern. As the spaceman said to Houston: ‘We have a problem.’
If only we could use the quote in its original form: ‘Houston, we’ve had a problem.’
But this would be inaccurate, wouldn’t it? It is not a past tense matter. This sort of Islamist, Jihadist, Syrian kickback terrorism, whatever we want to call it, is not something we can claim lies behind us. Is it?
If David Cameron does not want to be made a hypocrite for criticising those NATO countries spending less than 2% of GDP on defence, the Treasury must find more money for the MoD. He may lose the general election in May, of course, which might afford an excuse, but he will need to act if he wins.
Thanks to Malcolm Chalmers, RUSI Research Director, we have a little more data to be going on with. In his briefing paper, ‘Mind the Gap: The MoD’s Emerging Budgetary Challenge’, he projects, having studied the known spending plans of all three major political parties, that defence spending will fall to 1.85% of GDP in 2016/17, equating to £36 billion.
Notwithstanding any reservations we might have with arbitrary targets, this represents as clear an indication as we are likely to get that the Armed Forces are going to come under severe strain in the years ahead unless the government changes its priorities.
If we thought for a moment that the falling percentage might only be a consequence of increasing GDP – not of falling spending – we are mistaken. He predicts real-terms reductions of 10% over four years. This, he admits, is the pessimistic projection, but it is where we are heading if things don’t change.
Whatever your view on the importance of defence spending, this represents a real diminution in defence capability. And this at a time when the world looks as dangerous as ever. We do not need to list the threats: they are self-evident.
Part of the problem is a reluctance to add defence to the list of protected areas of government spending: International Development; Health; Schools, for example. It is a truism, but it is worth saying: the more we protect some areas of spending, the more we have to look at cuts in other areas.
The report says we must add something in the region of £5.9 billion to the defence budget if we are to maintain defence spending at 2% of GDP. It also says this is ‘not plausible’.
That seems like a generous word: ‘Plausible’. If it is taken to mean an increase in the budget is unlikely, an increase would indeed seem ‘not plausible’.
But if ‘plausible’ is used to mean what is reasonable, it is reasonable to expect the government to shift spending to defence from elsewhere. After all, the government already spends more than £700 billion a year. It’s always and everywhere a matter of priorities. If a government wants to find the money, it can: it’s simply a matter of not spending money on something else.
Politics may yet intervene. Pressure from the Commons, the Lords, the Defence Select Committee and, of course, the Opposition sniffing an opportunity, might force the government (of whatever colour) to find the money, even if, as the briefing paper suggests, it would have ‘to be found from increased taxation and/or borrowing’.
But perhaps the government has no intention of spending more on defence. There are, as the strategists give every impression of believing, no votes in defence. Though if the Conservative Party wants to retain its core vote, it might think twice about undermining yet another area of national life it’s core supporters think important. If the Conservative Party is not for strong defence, what is if for?
If the MoD is left with no option than to absorb real spending reductions, what are the options?
Personnel? Well, the personnel budget has already taken a hit. We know 20,000 soldiers are in the process of being cut, leaving the strength of the Regular Army at 82,000. The briefing paper goes further: we have reduced the numbers of service and civilian personnel by 17% and 28% respectively.
There are murmurings that the personnel budget will again be targeted, perhaps reducing the Regular Army by another 20,000. Perhaps this is little more than contingency planning, never to be implemented, but we cannot be sure. Politicians have a way of leaking stories to the media to see how they ‘play’ with the public. If the grumblings are manageable, then crack on—no votes in defence.
But it will be harder this time around to cut troop numbers further. You can squeeze only so much water from a sponge.
That leaves the equipment budget. Can savings be made here? Perhaps. The Defence Equipment Plan 2014 refers to a budget of £163 billion (for both procurement of new and maintenance of old) over the next ten years. While it might be difficult to make savings on some big-ticket items, not least a submarine replacement for Trident, there could be scope to cut in other areas.
Whatever happens, the MoD is in for a torrid time. It will either have to argue for more money, or it will have to find things to cut. Not an enviable task, even though there are no votes in defence.
It is being reported in The Times and The Mail newspapers that a number of Tory MPs are not happy with the government’s stance on defence spending. About thirty of them, we are told, are preparing for some sort of Commons revolt next week when NATO spending is debated.
Their anger stems from the growing impression that the Tory hierarchy isn’t that bothered about defence. Defence of the realm is supposed to be a Conservative issue—the first responsibility of government—so you can see why some might be upset by these reports.
It seems increasingly likely that defence spending will fall below 2% of GDP, which is the amount all members of NATO are supposed to allocate to defence. This, of course, does not necessarily mean defence spending will fall in real terms, just that it will fall as a percentage of national wealth—provided the economy grows. Having spent so much time berating other members states, it seems a bit rich for us to fall below the level in the next year or two.
But there are also whispers that defence spending will fall in real terms, too. What they are talking about is a freeze, holding spending to about £36 billion for the next few years. When inflation is taken into account, this amounts to a real terms reduction in defence spending. This would have a real impact on our defence capabilities.
And on top of this, the dreaded phrase “There are no votes in defence” is raising its head again. Allegedly from Philip Hammond the Foreign Secretary no less. I have no idea whether he said this (his people say not), but if he did it would not have been a radical observation. Perhaps it’s because the benefits of defence spending are too intangible—much better to vote for benefits, subsidies and spending on things people will draw on every day, such as health or education.
It would also seem that these Tories have a right to be suspicious. The Coalition government has already slashed the size of the Army by 20,000 soldiers. This is 20% of total strength. By anyone’s measure, even when offset by the proposed uplift of 10,000 reserves (which is still a concept that needs to be proven), this is a significant reduction in our military strength.
Coming at a time when the threat from Russia to its neighbours, particularly the Ukraine and potentially the Baltic states, seems to be on the rise; and at a time when the threat from Islamism shows no sign of abating and every sign of increasing: it seems entirely logical that MPs with an interest in national defence should make their point.
It’s just that I’m sure the government would prefer them to make their point in private, and then shut up about it.
There’s a general election on its way. You might have noticed, but if you haven’t: it’s on Thursday 7 May 2015 at a polling station near you, during which the 650 constituencies of the United Kingdom will elect one person each to represent them in the House of Commons.
It is worth noting that we in Britain elect a single member of parliament to represent us—we do not elect a party, neither do we elect a Prime Minister. We elect a person; and these persons subsequently group themselves together, at which point the largest of these groups forms a government.
OK, so the party affiliations of each candidate are well-known before votes are cast, but the principle stands: people often vote for someone they like even though they might not be too keen on their party. This is our system, and it has worked extremely well for quite a few centuries.
Yet some people – advocates of proportional representation in particular – don’t seem to get this. They propose that if a political party wins, say, ten percent of votes, it should be allocated ten percent of seats. First Past The Post, they say, prevents this, which is supposedly undemocratic.
There’s a logic to their argument, of course there is. It’s the logic of PR. It is also a logic that begins from a misunderstanding about our system. That is a problem. Our system is not primarily a party system. It is a system of individual, personal representation, whereby those individual MPs are accountable to their constituents—not to their party.
Of course MPs are accountable to their parties, you might say. What are the whips for if not to ensure MPs answer to their party? Sure, but their first loyalty is to their constituents. MPs are elected by their constituents, not by their parties.
I raise the point because James Kirkup has been wondering how many seats UKIP will win. He concludes that it is unfair for them to get only one percent of seats in the Commons if they have won ten percent of votes. Not only is it unfair, but it will also feed one of the resentments he believes fuels support for UKIP in the first place. Namely:
‘Ukip is at least in part an expression of anger at the system, the cosy Westminster establishment that Kippers believe colludes to ignore and frustrate their wishes and the wishes of the electorate as a whole.’
He fears that if UKIP voters notice the discrepancy, they will only become more frustrated with the system:
‘Because an electoral system that could well leave a party with 2.5 million voters holding just 2 seats in the legislature is a poison that could kill faith in representative democracy.’
He has a point. People do say that our political system is a conspiracy against the people. But if that is the case, it might be a good idea if the people had our ‘system’ explained to them. That way, they might not get so angry.
It is false to assume that an MP voted into parliament on, say, thirty percent of the vote cannot represent the seventy percent of constituents who did not vote for him or her. Representation is not an absolute. There will be times when even the thirty percent feel their opinions are not being adequately represented by the person they elected. (For example: Conservative MPs agreeing to defence cuts against the wishes of many of their voters).
But that’s the nature of politics. That’s what happens when you elect one person to represent thousands of people. They all have their own pesky point of view. That’s the problem with people: their individuality. It’s what certain celebrities playing at politics don’t realise. There is no way to represent everyone’s view absolutely in parliament. Those who think there is simply misunderstand how representative democracy works.
I am not referring to James Kirkup here. But his thought about FPTP is interesting:
‘First-past-the-post really is a conspiracy between the Conservatives and Labour against smaller rivals and against the electorate.’
FPTP certainly encourages a two-party system, even though sectarian loyalties in some parts of the country seem to refute this principle. It is indeed one of the arguments cited in favour of FPTP: that it enables strong government and an easy way to change government.
But the charge that FPTP is ‘a conspiracy… against the electorate’ is the exact same charge levelled at PR. Which one is it? It’s probably both, up to a point. But that brings us back to the original point: people not understanding our system.
We do not have PR. We have FPTP. And the main advantages of FPTP are that it enables strong government; it offers a straightforward way to change government; and, perhaps most important of all, even though I put it last, it allows us to cling to the notion that we are represented by an individual and not by a party machine.
There may be weaknesses to the system as it stands today, but there are weaknesses in all systems (as James Kirkup acknowledges). We miss the point if we simply look at the maths and deduce that our system is junk because a small party gets a higher proportion of votes than seats.
Our system is not about voting for parties. It is about voting for people. If we don’t like voting for people, and want to vote for parties instead, leaving the selection of MPs even more in the hands of parties than it is now, then fine. But let’s be clear about what we will be doing. And let’s be clear that there will be consequences, some of which we won’t like.