20 May 2016

Help! Will someone save us from the internal Tory squabble over who gets to be Prime Minister?


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There have been so many moments of stupidity in the UK EU referendum that it has been quite difficult for the assorted campaigns to best each other in the stupid stakes. But in a highly competitive field this week the Remain campaign managed it, with its effort to rope in the Beatles to make the argument for the European Union.

The Remain campaign had arranged for many distinguished actors and entertainers to sign a letter praising the EU’s contribution to British culture. Then the Prime Minister David Cameron was marched off to the EMI studios at Abbey Road, where he walked rather awkwardly across the famous crossing and a flunky tweeted that the UK should “Come Together” (the opening track on Abbey Road) by voting to stay in the EU.

That Beatles stunt is so stupid it is difficult to know where to start. The Beatles recorded their first single (Love Me Do) in September 1962 and the last time the four of them were together in a studio was on 20th of August 1969. Britain did not join the European Economic Community, the forerunner of the EU, until 1973. In no way way can the EU take any credit for the wonders of what the Beatles produced. Suggesting EU involvement, or even trying to imply it by association, is just dim or deceptive, like crediting the Russian Revolution of 1917 with having spawned Tolstoy.

But then the Remain campaign – ahead in the polls, beating Leave on the economy and with all the advantages of an Establishment outfit – keeps on making these daft mistakes that suggest they know less about what they’re doing than they pretend. How does this basic stuff like the Beatles business get past the spin-doctor planning meeting?

Any fan who know or cares anything about the Beatles knows that they are a classically British, and peculiarly English, phenomenon. They were a weird, wonderful, chance fusion between English and American culture. Yes, of course they went to Hamburg in the early 1960s, but that was because German audiences wanted American music rock and roll played by anyone who could play it cheaply. The offers of contracts made by seedy club-owners on the Reeperbahn had nothing to do with European harmony or EU programmes or funding, which did not exist.

Even the point that the Beatles – then John, Paul, George, Stu and Pete – had to blag their way in to Germany in a van without the correct papers misses the point, as though the Beatles would have been even better if the EU had existed with free movement. They succeeded; they got in to Germany, along with many other Liverpool bands. The Beatles learnt their craft there untutored, discovered amphetamines, came home, played around Liverpool, fortunately met the tasteful Brian Epstein, lucked in to Abbey Road via producer George Martin, and then conquered the world, without the help of the EU.

Was there no-one senior in the Remain campaign who knew this before they put the Prime Minister on that zebra-crossing and had the man invoke the Beatles in defence of the EU?

There are now plenty of indications, however, that this EU referendum is rotting the brains of more people than just the spin-doctors. The battle is being seen too often through the prism of the Tory leadership, and what a rotten, reductive, infuriating contest that threatens to be.

This referendum has done extraordinary things to the Tory field. It has finished off George Osborne as a leadership contender who as recently as the Budget earlier this year acted as though he had a chance. It has ruined, probably beyond redemption, the talented young Eurosceptic Business Secretary Sajid Javid, because of his decision to switch to Remain and do a pointless deal with Osborne, who will now not be leader anyway. Boris has been wounded in battle, badly. The Home Secretary Theresa May has avoided the fall out, but watch her get dragged in when the campaign in the final weeks focuses on the immigration question.

Of the potential contenders, only Michael Gove has had his reputation enhanced. Look out for Gove in any post-referendum leadership contest; more and more Tories say it.

What is most fascinating and troubling is the risk that the party’s leadership contest of the next few years may be an ideas-free zone.

We already know that the recently elected government is exhausted and the Cameron/Osborne era is drawing to a close, even if they win the EU referendum on June 23rd. This was illustrated by this week’s vapid Queen’s Speech. It is not the Queen’s fault, because she just reads out what she is given by her ministers. This time the government agenda was so thin that the monarch might as well have read out the telephone directory.

That thinness was interpreted mistakenly as a function of the EU referendum, as though the government is bursting with ideas but must hold them back for a few weeks. Only in the area overseen by Gove – prison reform – is there the hint of something substantial. Beyond that, it is difficult to detect – as of now – what the next generation are all about other than winning, important though that is.

Worse, the coming leadership appears to centre on a row about how much the rival candidates hate each other and on notions of technocratic competence. Where’s the next set of ideas or reforms?

This is more than a Conservative dilemma, of course, considering the shambles that is the contemporary Labour party. The long era of public sector reform enacted by both main parties is drawing to an end. It began under Margaret Thatcher in the mid-1980s and was extended – eventually – in schools and hospitals by Tony Blair. David Cameron took it further on schools, with academies, free schools and the UTC (technological colleges) programme.

And now? Most of the modern Tory party leadership seems to be interested primarily in scrapping around settling an elite struggle.

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX