My contribution to the debate on the Centenary of the Armistice, 6 November 2018

John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): A hundred years ago on Sunday, a deafening silence broke out over the vast battlefields of Europe. Then, as now, there must have been very mixed emotions.

There would have been that great sense of loss and remorse that so many people had been slaughtered, and so many people maimed and incapacitated. I guess that for those in the trenches there was apprehension. Was this for real? Could they trust the enemy? Would this truce hold? Could they stumble out of those muddy dungeons that had been their safe houses over all those long weeks and months of toil into a more open and free world where they could behave more normally? But they were, and we are, also permitted some joy that at last this murderous, bestial war was over. After four years of mass industrial slaughter, with millions of individual tragedies between the men and the families of the different combative nations, at last the slaughter was over. There was a chance to build something better.

When I lay a wreath in the morning in Burghfield and in the afternoon in Wokingham, I will be very conscious of two things. I will be conscious that there are war memorials in every other village and town in my constituency that time does not permit me to visit that day. As I look up at those lists of names on those two war memorials, I will be very conscious of how long those lists are and of how many brothers are together on the same list, with a double or treble tragedy for the family.

That scale of loss is difficult to comprehend and to wrestle with.

It reminds me of my two grandfathers. As is the case with most of us, our great grandfathers or our grandfathers were the survivors. They were young men who fought as young men and then tried to build a more normal life when they got back from the trenches. They had not had time to have girlfriends and to marry and produce children before they went off to war. My two grandfathers, like many others, went at the earliest possible opportunity, or may even have misled those involved about their age so keen were they to volunteer. Both fought on the western front.

One was badly injured, but, fortunately, recovered. I wanted to know from them, as a boy and as a teenager, more about these terrible events. Like many of their generation who had been through the war, they did not really want to share it with us. It was obviously so awful. They did not seek my praise and they did not seek my sympathy. They wanted to shield me from it. I wanted to know more about it, but I think that they took that view because it was so awful.

We have heard many moving remarks today, particularly about those who died, but let us think about those who survived. Let us think about what it must have been like to have four years of no normal life—as someone who was 17, 18, 19, 20 or whatever they were—where they had no normal social life and no normal family life apart from very rushed periods of leave, when they could not pursue their normal sports and leisure pursuits because space would not allow it, when they had no privacy, and when they had very repetitious food. The dreadful things they fought are obvious—the shells, the bombs, the rifle bullets, the snipers and the machine guns.

You can just about imagine how awful it must have been to have that fear that you were going to be asked to advance on barbed wire and machine guns, knowing that you had very little chance of surviving, but what about the boredom? What about the relentless discipline and the inability to know how to fill the time while you were worrying about what was going to happen next? All of those things must have been dreadful.

So this is what I think we need to do. We owe it to them, to all those who directed the war, and to all those in this Parliament who sent our army to war—time does not permit this afternoon—to have a proper analysis and discussion about how we can do better in future. I am no pacifist. I think we have to arm ourselves well to protect ourselves and to preserve the peace.

We have fought too many wars and, too often, we sent our army into wars where they had limited chances of winning. We did not have a diplomatic and political strategy to follow the war. There is no use in winning a war, unless we win the peace as well. We know that the sequel to the first world war is the second world war—the tragedy that it all had to be done again on an even vaster scale with even bigger munitions and more terrifying bombs, eventually ending with the explosion of two atomic bombs to bring it to a very sad conclusion.

We need to ask ourselves how we can make sure that diplomacy and politics does not let people down so much again. How was it part of our strategy that, twice, this Parliament sent small highly professional British armies on to the continent to fight a war against a far bigger, better armed foe when they had no chance of winning because they had too little resource, the wrong weapons and the wrong tactics. In the first world war, it took four years to recruit a mighty citizens’ army, to invent a lot of new weapons and to develop new tactics during the war. We were sadly unprepared. We asked them to do too much and it is amazing what they did.

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Groundhog day propaganda

The Remain spinners have long since run out of new or vaguely credible lines. Yesterday the BBC Radio 4 Today programme did its best to keep their flag flying. The Business editor led the questioning on food shortages, when there isn’t a scrap of evidence that any important continental exporter is about to cancel supplies or that the UK is about to place new barriers at our ports to keep the food out on March 30th. Instead of asking enough of his chosen expert and then of Sainsbury about the Argos acquisition, the possible tie up with Asda, the highly competitive state of the UK food market or about how they might source more UK produce to cut the food miles, we had to have the same old nonsense scares. There is a simple answer to all this. We don’t believe them!

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Agreement fever – time to cool down

The UK government is trying to get worked up about a possible EU agreement.
Just remember this is not a possible future trading or partnership agreement. It is not anything the UK actually wants. They are talking about the EU’s Withdrawal Agreement, which contains many things including £39bn that Leave voters do not agree with.
I just hope the Cabinet realises in time that trying to sign such a deal will go down badly with many voters, and would place the UK in a very weak position. There are plenty of Conservative MPs who have said they would not vote for it, and it will need primary legislation. The government cannot commit the UK to this. Only Parliament can.

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Memo to Dominic Raab

There are plenty of channel and North Sea ports allowing easy passage of goods from the continent to the UK. The Dutch and Belgian ports would love to lift more of the Calais-Dover trade. Calais has made quite clear it wants to keep the trade. No need to worry. There will be plenty of imports coming in on 30 March after we have left. Remember, the UK government will decide what checks to have at Dover! No need to delay them. They mainly come in already inspected, checked and logged electronically away from the border.

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Public sector incentives

I gave another version of my Trafalgar talk this year, close to the anniversary of the battle. One of the reasons I am interested in it is that it was a moment when the UK public sector in the form of the English Navy excelled itself. It did so to such an extent that Nelson’s flagship is still a commissioned vessel of the modern navy sitting in dry dock at Portsmouth. 200 years on from the battle its strategy and tactics are still analysed by modern naval experts and officers.

The task before Nelson, the other officers and men was formidable. They had to engage a large enemy fleet with little wind to drive them to battle. The enemy allies had 25% more fire power and 22% more battleships than the English force. Confidence, skilled seamanship, faster gunnery and better tactics helped secure them a remarkable victory, with 17 battleships captured, one blown up and four more captured a little later after they fled the battle. It was an important victory at a time when the UK was under severe threat of invasion. All Napoleon wanted his Admirals to do was to hold the English Channel for long enough to get the troop barges across, but they failed to get anywhere near to do the job. Trafalgar set them back again and turned out to be the end of serious invasion threat, though Napoleon did rebuild his navy and did threaten in other ways as the war wore on.

Accounts of how and why they succeeded include mention of several advantages which I will not dwell on here. One feature which gets less mention is that the public sector Navy encouraged a very entrepreneurial and individual approach to leadership. Whilst Captains were paid state employees on a reasonable salary, and whilst their ships were supplied and victualed by the Navy, the Navy also agreed to pay Captains and crews prize money for any captured ship. This  included the money realised from the  sale of any cargo or effects on the ship as well as the value of any warship to the Navy. Captains could plan to get rich if they gained a command that allowed substantial raiding of enemy commerce, and would do well out of a successful battle if they captured and returned enemy ships for use in the Royal Navy. Captains could use some of their own money to enhance the ship and its cargo if they wished. They had flexibility over who joined the crew and how they carried out their orders for a voyage or mission. Crews liked working for Captains who had the Midas touch.

Captains could often be relieved of command and put on half pay, waiting for some suitable new opportunity. It meant there was a keen determination to excel, both to be offered the better and more profitable commands, and to ensure success when opportunity came to take a prize. Some experienced and distinguished Captains wanted to stay as Frigate Captains as these ships were more regularly used as state privateers against enemy commerce. The victors of Trafalgar were given additional prize style money by Parliamentary grant, as a grateful nation was aware that all too  many of their captured prizes were lost in the storm which followed the battle.

It would not be right to re enact the same incentives naval public sector personnel enjoyed in the 1800s to the modern public sector, but it does remind us that personal incentive can lead to innovation, daring and success. There are acceptable ways of reward which can stimulate innovation and sensible risk taking. In this respect the navy of Nelson had much more in common with the first Elizabethans who plundered Spanish commerce from the New World, than with our own second Elizabethan Age.

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The big issue is the Withdrawal Agreement, not the Irish backstop

Those in the Cabinet who told the PM this week that we cannot accept a backstop which leaves us in a Customs Union indefinitely were right. They are also right to want the full legal advice on the draft Treaty they are asked to accept.

There is however a much easier argument to use against the vague proposals emerging. The UK must not seek to sign the draft Withdrawal Agreement to pay the EU £39 bn in return for the promise of 21 months or more of talks about a possible free trade deal. That would be a very bad deal. It would be worse for the economy than leaving without signing such a one sided agreement. We need to spend that money at home boosting our own economy. We do not need another two years of uncertainty. Many Conservative MPs would vote against that. It would need new legislation to permit it.

We did not vote to leave one EU Treaty only to lock ourselves into a new one sided one. Nor is the Future Partnership Agreement likely to be one any independent self governing democracy could sign.

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News as propaganda

One of the reasons many people now do not listen to mainstream media news and commentary is the way that factual reporting coupled with expert and insightful balanced analysis has been replaced by a kind of campaign based activity. The BBC in particular has two regular campaigns running. One is to explain why the Remain campaign was really right and should not have lost. The other is to stress the need to cut back on carbon dioxide to avoid serious problems in the future.

I  have no problems with political parties, individuals, company shareholders, research institutes and others running campaigns about things they feel strongly about. I do not think this is in any way the task of an independent broadcaster paid for by taxation of all tv users in the country whether they watch the BBC or not, operating under a Charter to observe impartiality and to set high standards of journalism. It also makes for very tedious programmes.

In the case of Brexit I has lost count of how many times we have had the same old stories recycled as if they were news. They are not factual reporting. They are commentaries on various people’s forecasts and opinions. We get recycled opinions that we will be short of food, planes wont fly, short of medicines, that supply chains will be disrupted etc. All it needs is one quote from a Remain oriented think tank or business lobby group and we go round the same old scare story again. Rebuttals never attract the same attention. There is then the perpetual reuse of the Treasury 15 year forecast of a bit less growth on different scenarios, with no proper debunking of their base or of the whole idea of a 15 year forecast!

Where is the factual reporting of what airlines, pharmaceutical exporters from the continent, farmers in France and others are actually going to do on March 30th? Where are the balancing experts to offset the Remain “experts”. I have never been invited on and introduced as someone who correctly predicted the damage the ERM would do, or as someone who  has written extensively on the Euro project explaining its dangers and predicting the various Euro crises, nor as someone who has in the past led UK based international businesses with complex supply chains. If I had voted Remain and held the opposite view  I bet they would have mentioned that all the time.

We now see reported dozens of rumours about what deal might or might not be on offer, whilst it looks as if there is still no agreement on the Irish border issues or the wider issues of customs and goods inspections. The media that reports these things ignores the much bigger issue of why should we agree to pay them so much money anyway?  What linkage would there  be between the Future Partnership Agreement and the Withdrawal Agreement, given that such linkage was thought to  be fundamental to the UK negotiating position as defined by Mrs May in her Manifesto. If the EU in a couple of years time has in mind the UK should sign an Association Agreement along the lines of Turkey or Ukraine that would be the final denial of Brexit. Sensible MPs will not vote for the draft Withdrawal Agreement as it is a big  payment for more talks, which would simply prolong futile negotiations and leave the UK in a weak position.

No wonder many are turning off and being turned off by this approach. Let’s go back to news gathering, to reliable sources, to genuine experts or to clashes of experts where they disagree. We could also do with fewer reported briefings of sell out agreements when there is still no firm date for a November meeting to resolve the impasse, nor any leaked text of what might be agreed in such an event.

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5 November

Today we remember the Gunpowder plot. This planned terrorist attack on the British establishment 413 years ago was fortunately thwarted, unlike the one in 1984 which I lived through. It is curious that we still commemorate the former.

What was it about 1605 that causes it still to resonate today? I suppose it is  because the outrage was planned on such a huge scale, aiming to blow up the King, his government, and all other people of whatever opinion in Lords and Commons. It left the establishment shaken, but also relieved that their intelligence networks picked up the mistakes of the terrorist group in time. The country had just got through the potentially difficult business of passing government from Queen Elizabeth to King   James, when there was no clear single heir with uncontestable title. Elizabeth died with  no son or daughter, brother or sister to take over. It was a reminder that there was a strong minority in the kingdom that could not accept a Protestant succession and would murder on a mass scale to overturn it.

The other reason is probably that the combination of a bonfire and fireworks makes a great evening out for many. It is seasonal, with colder dark evenings a suitable backdrop for a great warming fire and for a colourful display. Some now find the idea of burning a Guy in effigy distasteful, as we remember the best known criminal of the plot. Others worry about the noise of fireworks affecting animals, or fret about the safety risks of so much modern gunpowder. The trend to more large displays makes sense. You can pool the costs  to get better fireworks, and more care can be taken in setting up the show and letting it off. You can hold them away from homes, with strong emphasis on avoiding fire hazard.

I think it is a tradition that fulfils a need for a November event. We can all come together to be glad that different strands of Christianity now live in tolerance of each other, and to celebrate that on this occasion in 1605  terrorism was thwarted. It is a good reminder that settling political difference by arguments and votes is a much better approach.

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Bad deals

Versions of a possible deal for the UK with the EU have today been denied by the government. That’s sensible of them. All the versions I have seen are not Brexit. Let’s just leave, spend our own money, and negotiate a free trade deal once the EU has realised we are out. There’s nothing on offer worth £39bn.

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In praise of good experts

When I criticised so called economic and business experts on the BBC someone wrote in here to say if I were ill I would want an expert doctor to help. Yes, of course. I am all in favour of genuine expertise. I have spent a lot of my life reading and listening to people with expertise to widen my understanding. I admire learned people who improve our knowledge  and  make accurate predictions and diagnosis.

Were I ill I would of course turn to well educated qualified doctors who know far more than me about illness and treatment. I would however want an expert who was likely to get both diagnosis and treatment right. The first instruction for any expert must be, do no harm. The second must be to know the limits of your knowledge and craft, and learn each day from experience. I do not  usually write here with critical comments about modern medicine as I am not qualified to do so.

I am qualified in matters financial, and have studied economies and public policy for many years. That is why I feel confident enough to criticise and disagree with so called experts in these areas  who lack basic knowledge and with experts whose judgement is faulty. In the recent Today programme case both so called experts were commenting on the simple question of what the Bank of England was going to do on interest rates. Both wrongly stated the current interest rate, thinking it was one third lower than it is. Why should we then value their opinion?

An apologist for the BBC said it was just a simple mistake. I of course accept we can all make mistakes. I go to considerable lengths to check facts and figures for this blog, but agree I could make a mistake. If I did I would move rapidly to amend it. I have not heard Today amend this mistake. Whilst I could accept one of them could make a mistake I find it difficult to believe two genuinely independent experts could  both make such an elementary mistake on the same occasion. Surely the outside expert is used by theBBC to avoid just that sort of error or lack of knowledge by the in house expert? The outside expert did correct the BBC man when she thought he was wrong to say the Bank was forecasting a recession on a WTO exit from the EU. She quoted  the wrong interest rate as well as the BBC man.

I am returning to this because the Today Business correspondent regularly turns one of the few decent business slots on the mainstram media into an anti Brexit story. Following the interest rate howler he rushed on to try to explore how and why a no deal Brexit might cause a recession.His guest helped him, by agreeing that there were unnamed forecasters who hold this view though she did not think that included the Bank of England.

He asked her why these nameless forecasters thought that. It was surely a factual question which you could only answer as an expert if you had read these forecasts and could name them. If you answer speculatively and in general terms, as she seemed to do, you should as an expert  balance the answer with why others presumably in her view  including the Bank of England do not think there will be a recession just from a no deal exit.

The following morning a different BBC person introduced the business slot. This time we were told – with support from another “expert” interview” – that the pound had risen owing to rumours of a financial services deal between the UK and the EU. They made heavy weather of explaining this would be a one sided affair with the EU in the driving seat, without mentioning that the EU wants access to London and has more passports into London than London has into the continent. The government had denied there was any such agreement, and there is no official draft or agreed  text allowing an expert to tell us what they have in mind. More importantly during this section of the business slot there was no mention of the fact that the Governor of the Bank of England had added another possible two interest rate rises to his forecast, which most people think was the main reason the pound went up! They got around to mentioning this as an also ran possibility after this story about Brexit.

This is not serious journalism based on texts, statements and sources. Most days this section of the Today programme is just used as a way of attacking WTO Brexit.



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  • About John Redwood

    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, He graduated from Magdalen College Oxford, has a DPhil and is a fellow of All Souls College. A businessman by background, he has been a director of NM Rothschild merchant bank and chairman of a quoted industrial PLC.

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