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The Spectator's Notes

Why did Cameron call a referendum if he thought it could start a war?

Also in The Spectator’s Notes: why clamping down on tax havens would be seen as gross interference; Jeremy Thorpe; the BBC and North Korea; Sats

14 May 2016

9:00 AM

14 May 2016

9:00 AM

One of the many problems with David Cameron’s threat that leaving the European Union could plunge us into war is that it sits so strangely with how he spoke about the EU before he called a referendum. In those days, he was studiedly cool about the union: he had no sentimental attachment to it, he told us, just a pragmatic weighing of the advantages for Britain, depending on what he could obtain. His ‘deal’ for a ‘reformed Europe’, supposedly essential to recommending a Remain vote, contained no Tolstoyan themes at all, just stuff about when migrant EU workers could claim benefits and suchlike. When he now says, ‘By the way, if we leave we’re all going to die,’ one feels he should have thought of that earlier.

‘In the modern world,’ says John Major, supporting the EU, ‘you have to share sovereignty.’ Does the United States, China, India, or Japan do this? Does Australia, Canada or New Zealand? Are they all wrong, Sir John?

I am no tax expert, but when 300 economists, particularly if led by Jeffrey Sachs and Thomas Piketty, all agree about something — as 364 did that Mrs Thatcher, in 1981, was messing things up — one can be confident they are mistaken. The 300 want this week’s global anti-corruption meeting to clamp down on tax havens. This is, among other things, an attack on Britain, because they call on us and the United States to deal with ‘all countries for which they are responsible’. This ignores the fact that some such places — Jersey and Guernsey, for example — are not governed by Britain, though they share the same Queen; and that others, such as Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands or the Caymans, though colonies, have systems of self-government. In any other context, a British attempt to overthrow these systems would be regarded as gross colonial interference. At any one time in the world, there are lots of places or countries which provide services which citizens from other countries find useful. Britain, for instance, is the main place to settle disputes in maritime law. Tankers are Liberian or Panamanian registered. Macao used to thrive on gambling because mainland China prohibited it. Cannabis may be smoked in Colorado. The state of Delaware gives more freedom to companies than other US states. An expert in the field tells me that 80 per cent of all the world’s mutual funds are established in Cayman, so it is probably true to say that every single one of the millions of British citizens with private pensions depends to some extent on offshore arrangements, and the British government’s own pension fund has billions in offshore investments. The same expert informs me that while Britain is only now enacting ‘beneficial owner’ identity collection rules, Bermuda has had a government-vetted register system since 1943. ‘Offshore’ is, in principle, a legitimate means of competition by which a small place can gain advantages over a big one. Has much happened in the past ten years to show that big ‘onshore’ countries are better at regulating their financial industries than the hated offshore?


John Preston has just published a gripping account of the Jeremy Thorpe case, A Very English Scandal (Penguin). Sometimes the details make one laugh out loud or gasp with amazement at the tale of the shooting of Rinka, the Alsatian dog, and all that followed. But although I was completely carried along by the narrative, I found myself resisting the book’s implied conclusion that Thorpe’s acquittal of conspiracy to murder Norman Scott was a disgrace. Possibly I am biased, because my father worked for Thorpe over some of the period involved, writing his speeches and giving him political advice (luckily the personal and constituency sides of things never fell to him). But the point that emerges very clearly is that almost all the people involved — Peter Bessell, Scott, David Holmes, Andrew ‘Gino’ Newton, perhaps Thorpe himself — told lots of lies. There is almost no part of the narrative, therefore, which can confidently be believed. So when George Carman QC, counsel for Thorpe, decided not to call his client in his trial, he was doing the right thing. If he had called him, Thorpe would have had to admit to various homosexual affairs which, though not strictly relevant to the case, would in those days (the late 1970s) have ruined him. Instead, Carman set about destroying the credibility of the witnesses against Thorpe, and triumphantly succeeded. After long debate, the jury decided to acquit Thorpe. They were surely right. Juries are not supposed to guess about who is guilty (if I had to guess about Thorpe, I would guess that he was), but to decide on the sole basis of the evidence heard. The acquittal was a triumph for the jury system.

Preston records that my father drove Thorpe to Downing Street for his leader’s talks with Ted Heath in February 1974 about forming a coalition. If this were true, it would conclusively prove that Thorpe really was an insanely compulsive risk-taker, since my father has never learnt to drive. I checked with my father, and he assures me that he arrived in one of the passenger seats.

It’s not all bad in North Korea. You can at least expel the BBC, as happened this week, when you consider that it is ‘speaking very ill of the system’. No such luck here, where the BBC’s supporters hijack the Bafta awards to speak ill of our system and the corporation claims the continuing right to demand licence-fee payers’ money with menaces.

Sitting on a train to Scotland last week, I found myself opposite a mother with a dear little dark-eyed son. By their accents, clothes etc, they were clearly not from the educated classes. The boy had a textbook open, and his mother, encouraging him to do some work, pointed to a word in it and invited him to read. ‘Onomatopoeia,’ he said without hesitation and with perfect pronunciation. Maybe these hated Sats tests are working.


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