For almost as long as I can remember, Eurosceptic Tory MPs have been defined by the media as ‘head-bangers’. As a result, few notice that they scarcely bang their heads at all these days. The European Research Group (ERG), now led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, is surprisingly united, and makes most of its arguments blande suaviterque. The noise of craniums bashing themselves against Pugin panelling is much louder on the other side — Anna Soubry in the Commons, Andrew Adonis in the Lords. The Eurosceptic head-bangers are being particularly cautious about this week’s transition deal. Although they dislike most of it, they broadly accept the whips’ arguments that if the party can agree the transitional arrangements, Brexit is assured, and if not, not. In the short term, they want to make it impossible for any Lords attempt to scupper the Withdrawal Bill to prevail in the Commons.
I would not be so bold as to say the ERG tactics are wrong. The fact of Brexit does matter more than its details, so the most important thing is to achieve that fact. But since we journalists don’t have to worry about whips, here are a few sobering considerations. First, Michael Gove’s promise to British fishermen is being completely disregarded, with particularly bad effects in his native Scotland. They will now have two more years of misery, and will be further persecuted in the process when unrealistic quotas which they cannot affect are imposed upon them, along with the full discard ban. Second, the terms of the transition are a victory for the producer interests — the CBI, the NFU, the European managers of big car companies. This is distressing when the ultimate effect of Brexit ought to be a consumer revolution like the repeal of the Corn Laws. It means consumers will have felt little Brexit benefit by the next election. Third, the more the negotiations edge forward, the less the government will contemplate ‘no deal’; yet the more one looks at the likely deal, the better ‘no deal’ looks.
Everything is so hard to read. Take the situation on Ireland. The ‘backstop’ position of a customs union between the Republic and the North would actually be a ‘back-down’ position for the British government if it happened. It would in effect break up the United Kingdom. On the other hand, Brexiteers should be encouraged that the EU has quietly contradicted itself — and squashed the government of the Irish Republic — by pushing forward with trade negotiations without settling the Irish question first. So, on balance, the ‘parking’ of the Irish border is a good thing, though no doubt Churchill’s ‘dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone’ will soon re-emerge.
On Tuesday, the Institute for Fiscal Studies unveiled ‘research’ which shows only a 0.2 per cent GDP gain for Britain if we abolished all trade tariffs. On the Today programme, Paul Johnson, the IFS director, was duly permitted to air these ‘findings’ as if they were objective truth. Yet we know — because he himself has said so [see last week’s Notes] — that Mr Johnson believes there is ‘no economic case for Brexit’. It is therefore certain that no IFS report will make one. If you look at the pie chart of the IFS’s funding, you will see that nearly half of its money comes from the Economic and Social Research Council, plus 10 per cent from government departments, 10 per cent from the EU and 18.4 per cent from ‘international organisations’. Again, this huge public-sector/governmental bias makes its research conclusions almost inevitable. For all I know, the IFS does valuable work; but whether it does so or not, it trades under false colours. In items relating to Brexit, it should always be introduced on air as the ‘pro-Remain think tank’.
Some people I respect are content to go on the Russian TV channel RT, on the grounds that ‘they let me say what I think’. I’m afraid this is a form of vanity. Of course, RT lets you say what you think: they would be ludicrously ineffective propagandists if they didn’t. The point is that by appearing, you legitimise their platform. You help create the utter confusion about what is true and who is right which is the Russian government’s aim. To reverse the usual expression, your honest opinions allow lies to be surrounded by a bodyguard of truth.
The eternal child abuse inquiry (IICSA) is currently hearing from the Church of England. Last week, evidence was given by Colin Perkins, safeguarding officer for Chichester diocese in 2015 when it declared that the late Bishop George Bell had committed child abuse and quickly paid money to the complainant, ‘Carol’. Mr Perkins said the Church was uninsured. The ‘backdrop’ to the decision to settle with ‘Carol’, he went on, was that the Church was highly nervous that ‘a potentially large number’ of victims of Bishop Peter Ball (who actually did commit sex crimes) might also make claims for which the Church was uninsured once the report on Bell had been published. He seemed to be saying that the core group set up to investigate the truth of Carol’s allegation was hurrying to settle before the Ball report appeared. If it was motivated by saving the Church money rather than establishing truth, isn’t that rather an amazing admission?
In the 1990s, it emerges, undercover police officers infiltrating animal liberation/environmentalist extremist groups were advised to confine themselves to ‘fleeting and disastrous’ affairs with their victims, known in police parlance as ‘wearies’: ‘One cannot be involved with a weary for any period of time without risking serious consequences.’ Now that the police are compelled to investigate breaches of the Hunting Act, I wonder what advice is given to their undercover officers. Unlike wearies, hunting people (hereby known as ‘foxies’) are tremendous fun and smell of nothing worse than horses and sloe gin. If the police enter into relationships with foxies, they will find them so enduring and thrilling that they will quite forget the purpose for which they arrived on the scene in the first place.
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator Australia for less – just $20 for 10 issues