A conversation with Steve Baker, part two

Charlie Morris continues his conversation with Steve Baker MP, co-chairman of Conservatives for Britain. If you missed the first part, read it here.

Charlie: The Norwegians voted ‘no’ in 1972

Steve: When I have sat down with our sister party in Norway, I get the impression that they still would quite to join the European Union and they would like us in it to help drag it in a direction they approve of.

I’ve been over and spoken to our sister party in Iceland, which is ironically is the Independence Party. Icelanders are much more pragmatic. They are much more on our side about this.

I don’t want us to have to be in an organisation that we cannot control, where we are consistently outvoted, in which we very often we cannot win because quantified majority voting often means we are not in a position to win. I don’t want to be in an organisation simply in the hope that we can somehow drag it in the direction we prefer, for the benefit of other sister parties around Europe.

I have an awful lot of sympathy for them if they feel they are locked into an organization, which they don’t support, but this is madness. To find democratically-elected politicians across Europe profoundly objecting to the nature of the European Union project, but demanding that we remain in it in order to try an defray its worst tendencies. This is an absurd system of government.

What we need is a system of cooperating nation states, where power is accountable to the people, where there is a degree of diversity in what they do and where that experimentation can show what kind of government leads to the greatest human flourishing.

Instead what we’ve got is this demand that we stay in a centralising system of government, which evidently can’t deal with either the consequences of its currency or the consequences of the free movement of people. We’re being asked to stay in it in order to try and prevent it from being even worse.

When I look at Norway  – I love Norway, I’m going there shortly and I’ve been there many times in the past – I’m not willing for us to be in a system that we cannot control which is a positively anti-democratic just because it suits other people because of the shortcomings of their own arrangements.

If the EU was built around the decentralised, Swiss model, where Germans, French and Italians have coexisted for many years presumably, it would be more effective?

If you and I were sitting here redesigning the whole of the international structure of the European Union, I would probably wish to have something much more on the Swiss model that expanded to all Europe. That is not the direction of travel of the EU.

I would love to live in a system of society where nobody had to care who the prime minister was because government left us alone sufficiently that it did not matter, but at the moment, both in the UK and across other countries in the European Union, you have to care very much. If you are interested in public policy at all, you end up caring very much who the prime minister is and what they think and that’s wrong.

Surely there’s a part of you that’s terrified about leaving the European Union?

Absolutely no part of me is terrified about this. I think we can be strong, confident and optimistic about the UK’s future outside the European Union. The European Union has not existed for very long in terms of history.

I sat at a banquet for the City of London. I’ve only been once. At the one I went to, they were proudly explaining how for hundreds of years the City of London has been at the centre of a global network of financial services. There’s no reason that would change in five, ten or a hundred years after leaving the European Union. It’s not in anybody’s interests. Our entrepreneurial flair, our commitment to liberalism, to free markets under the rule of law, is such that we would undoubtedly flourish outside the European Union.

Of course, any reasonable person should hold onto their views provisionally and challenge them and test them. I think that, bearing in mind that the European Union must centralise and federate to make the euro survive, there is uncertainty on both sides of this question. What I think I can place great faith in is our parliament, our tradition of liberal capitalism, our tradition of the rule of law and the good sense of the British public to hold their politicians to account at the ballot box.

The safer choice is to rely on the institutions that have served us so well for so long, which has evolved over the course over hundreds of years and a great deal of pain in our country, and that is what I feel safe relying on.

I don’t feel safe relying on a great cloud of politicians and officials who nobody elected. Even if they’re an MEP and they were elected on the list system, and we’ve got some wonderful MEPs. Even if they are an MEP, they end up serving an entire region of the UK, like the South East, with millions of people.

If they’re a London MEP, they’re serving millions of people. They are elected on a list system and, with the best will in the world, your priority as a politician on a list system is to be popular with party members and then when the electorate go and vote for a party, you end up popping out because you’re high on the list, whereas I have to appeal to individual men and women voting in my constituency.

If you are elected on the system we have in Parliament, you have to be connected to your electorate and they are normal men and women. If you are an MEP, you be connected to party members. They are wonderful people who I adore, but they are a self-selecting, small subset of the overall electorate. That must mean that if you are an MEP, you are far less accountable to the people. I do not place my faith in the European Commission, the European Parliament, the European Court of Justice or the other institutions because they are not accountable to the good sense of the British people.

Will we have pre-negotiated trade deals and will there be fear if we leave?

One of the duties of a politician is to see forward to potential difficulties in the future and to take actions today to defray them. One of the difficulties one might foresee is any kind of trade barrier. The reality is that we are in the World Trade Organisation and so is the EU. Being in the WTO means they must offer us ‘most favoured nation’ trading status, and Business for Britain have been through and done the numbers.

Even if they instituted tariffs on MFN basis, we would still be better off compensating people instead of making a net contribution to the EU. Our membership of the WTO defrays even the worst-case scenario of trade barriers being elected under WTO rules if we left. Trade barriers aren’t actually in anybody’s interests, so I think we shouldn’t expect the worst-case scenario. We should get the British option, which would be better.

We should be optimistic that even under WTO rules, we can still be better off outside an unreformed EU.

If we vote for Brexit, does the prime minister have to resign?

The reality is that David Cameron has a profoundly difficult job to do, not just on the EU, but on security, on the economy, on the welfare state, on NHS reform on migration generally. He has a profoundly difficult job to do. We are a very, very long way indeed from anybody challenging his authority as leader.

What we have is a constitutional question on whether we are satisfied with our institutional arrangements of our membership of the EU. It is of course a profound question. It is difficult to see any major figure in the government being able to be PM, having been on the wrong side of this question.

So you asked a profoundly important question. Whether or not the PM continues will be a matter for all Conservative MPs at the end of the process. It will be highly dependent on how the whole process evolves.

It is an extremely serious matter. David Cameron is a good PM who will long be remembered by history, for governing in coalition when the country needed it, and then for winning an overall majority against all the odds.

His noble intent is to minimise the disruption of any changes in our relationship with the EU. You can see that in his actions.

But if you look at what DC has said, particularly what he said about British courts, British judges, British laws and a transparent and accountable parliament, David Cameron’s heart is to have a sovereign Parliament which can determine the law of the UK. I’ve reason to believe that he would like British migration policy made in Britain. You can see with our relationships with China and India, clearly we would like to be concluding our own trade deals.

I have been pretty careful in everything I have said over the course of this journey, to be close as possible to what I think the PM wants. But the PM is a pragmatist. No, he’s not going to be insulted by me saying that. The PM is a pragmatist and he will adjust what he does in order to be pragmatic and do what is possible. The big question each of us must decide individually, at the ballot box, because we all have an equal vote, is whether that pragmatic proposition to the British people is the right one.

If the British people decide, resoundingly, that the PM’s proposition is the wrong one for the overall governance of our country, it is quite difficult then to see how he could continue as PM. What we need to do though is to make sure that our country is governed responsibly, so even on that issue, we need to behave with great caution.

The PM may end up saying, “We can’t get out of ever closer union. I can’t actually do anything about people not being allowed to send child benefit home. I can’t stop people coming over and claiming tax credits. Even these modest proposals, I can’t change”.  The PM might end up finding himself, however reluctantly, recommending to the British people that we leave the EU so we can take a grip on these fundamental issues that people care about.

I think it’s quite conceivable the PM will see coming a complete failure to achieve anything meaningful, anything that is consistent with what he and other senior members of Government have said over a long period of time, and therefore to recommend exit. It is a small possibility, but a real possibility.

Is Hadrian’s Wall a risk?

It is a great pity that the Scottish Nationalists wish to be so bitter about it. We are giving them most of what they want. The Scottish people did just reject independence from the UK.

When you listen to someone like Lord Michael Forsyth, who has long experience in Scottish politics, with all of the challenges involved, you find he thinks that the Scottish people will vote with the rest of the UK when the day comes. It is generally thought that it is one of the issues where the SNP are out of touch with their electorate.

The SNP are very keen in Parliament to be known as the Scottish National Party and not the Scottish Nationalists. They don’t wish to be seen as nationalists. One of the aspects of their positioning is to say that they are pro-EU in order to be seen as internationalists, not as narrow, inward looking, nationalists. Bearing in mind that they are both socialists and capable of being accused of being nationalists, you can see why they wish to avoid it.

It is so meaningless to leave the UK but to be within the EU, in terms of sovereignty. It is impossible to see how any logical person would think it’s a good idea. The SNP are not fools. There must be an element within the SNP who understand that leaving the UK to be in the EU is madness.

It would mean adopting the euro, if they did it as a sovereign independent country. Anyone since Lisbon has had to adopt the euro. The currency of the EU is the euro.

Wouldn’t the British Isles look strange from space with England, Wales and Northern Ireland trading in pounds, whilst Scotland and the Republic of Ireland trade in euros?

Yes, it would look strange.

If we look back at what went on in the days when they were first thinking about a common European currency, Hayek thought that having competing national currencies across all of Europe was a more practical proposition than the utopian ideal of a single currency.

He wrote the book The Denationalisation of Money to explore the idea. Now we have all got these smartphones and technology, something that Douglas Carswell has pointed out, technology means we could easily have competing currencies across Europe. We don’t have to have monolithic single currency zones. For reasons Hayek explained, competing currencies would probably drive up the quality of money.

The free market would replace the rules?

Free markets have rules, it’s just the extent to which those rules are flexible and determined the choices of individuals versus imposed by authority.

Europe would look odd if Scotland and Ireland were on the euro and the remainder of the UK, were on the pound. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect Scotland to vote the opposite way to the rest of the UK.

Would the Scots have a second referendum?

They would certainly make the case for a second referendum. Whether or not one would be granted remains to be seen. It would require a law to be passed in Westminster. The fundamental issue is that we can’t say until we see the result of the referendum.

When I listen to Michael Forsyth explain in some detail with some passion and force that the Scottish people are highly likely to vote with the rest of the UK, when I look at the futile absurdity of Scotland choosing to join the euro, because it has left the UK, I don’t think it’s realistic that Scottish people will vote to join the EU.

If the current front bench were sitting on the back bench, would they be members of Conservatives for Britain?

Yes I think they most certainly would. It is not now a secret that some members of the government are now on my mailing list. There are some members of the government who, if approached in an appropriate way, would wish to be kept up to date with what’s going on.

It is not a secret. Chris Grayling addressed Conservatives for Britain at the Conservative Party Conference. Boris Johnson has said that he wants Parliament to have a unilateral veto over EU law. The weekend I launched Conservatives for Britain, the foreign secretary said that was tantamount to leaving the EU.

Boris Johnson is not saying we should leave the EU, but what he is saying is that we should have unilateral veto over it, which the foreign secretary says is tantamount to leaving. This is the kind of language you get in politics.

Most Conservative colleagues feel most strongly that we should be able to set our own laws in our own country, but also that we should be able to cooperate and trade with the rest of the nations of Europe. The fundamental problem for almost every Conservative is this fundamental clash between heart and head; the wish to be friends, but on an entirely different basis.

What I see happening progressively is that Conservatives are coming to the conclusion that a completely different basis is not being offered to us and therefore we must leave in order to establish that completely different relationship.

The trick is going to be establishing a completely different basis for constitutional relationship without going through a painful divorce.

We all love Europe. Europe is cool. That doesn’t change. Europe will continue to be cool. We’ll all still love Europe. I’ll still go skydiving in Spain. We’ll still go skiing in the Alps. We’ll still love Europe; we just won’t have to obey the European Court of Justice.

Any final comments?

London has got a unique position. If Britain voted to leave the EU, London would continue to maintain most of its attractions and qualities. Large financial markets, a predictable common law system – which is one of our best exports, good quality tax and regulatory environment, we’re at the centre of global markets time-wise, English will remain pre-eminent and we’ve got a brilliant labour market.

There is every reason to believe that London and financial services would continue to thrive and prosper in the UK as a hub for the world. The rest of our economy would follow along. It’s in all of our interests to trade and cooperate with Europe on a friendly basis, and I am optimistic and upbeat about our prospects if we choose to leave the European Union rather than staying shackled to an organisation which must change, and which at the moment is failing by its own account.

Steve Baker MP, thank you very much.

Category: Brexit

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