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Denis MacShane on Europe and Coalition policies

Denis MacShane was Tony Blair's Minister for Europe from 2002 until 2005 and has been a Member of Parliament for Rotherham since 1994. He answered our questions on the policies implemented by the coalition government, the rise in British euroscepticism and the role of the state in financing universities.



A transcript of the interview


27 November, Hôtel de Ville de Lyon

Clifford Armion: I wanted to ask you about a recent plan by the coalition government, proposed by Vince Cable. The general idea is that small firms should be able to sack employees without the risk of going to an employment tribunal. What is your opinion on this plan?

Denis MacShane:  It is rather sad because the system of employment tribunals was actually invented by a conservative government in Britain. At the time our trade unions were opposed because they thought it would transfer authority from unions to courts. It's a system of prud'hommes as one would say in France. There's no evidence anywhere in the world that simply making life harder and meaner and more miserable, especially for women workers, is conducive to increasing growth. In fact if you look at the strongest performing economies in Europe like the Dutch or German economy, there's a sense of social partnership. But Vince Cable is a Liberal Democrat, he is a liberal in economic terms, so he thinks the 19th century was a very good period to imitate if you want to get British growth going again but no serious economist thinks that this measure will have any impact at all.

C.A.: Is the whole coalition backing this plan? I heard some LibDems said that the plan was a throwback to Victorian values.

D.M.: We don't know. The government took a serious decision when it came to power eighteen months ago to apply Mrs Thatcher's type of recipes, that is to say by cutting public spending very dramatically. They thought that the private sector would step into the breach and if there was less public sector money going into the economy, it would liberate other sources of economic energy. But in Mrs. Thatcher's time, she had the possibility of privatising giant sectors of the State economy, the American economy was doing very well, the Japanese economy was doing very well. At the time even the French and German economy was doing very well, so they were helping Britain grow. Now America is in terrible trouble, the whole of the Euro zone is at best just surviving and not growing and therefore the economic choice the government made doesn't make sense. Just now for example the government is announcing it is going to put billions of pounds into subsidising work for young people between eighteen and twenty-four in small private companies which was a policy emplaced by the previous Labour government that was abolished by the Coalition and now, eighteen months later, they have to implement that sensible policy to help young people into work.

C.A.: From a French vantage point it seems that the British media are quite fatalistic about the budget cuts and the policies of the government. Do you think that the Coalition are using the financial crisis as an opportunity to bring forward elements of their own agenda?

D.M: They don't have an agenda. Traditionally, the Conservatives are elected to reduce public spending, cut taxes, increase the store of capitalist energy, but we're seeing the opposite now. Huge numbers of private sector firms in Britain in the last twenty years have moved in where public services no longer existed. The State has given up catering, security, some hospital work, some teaching work and now it finds of course that as it reduces public expenditure, it's actually private companies that are being hit very hard. So I don't think there is a coherent agenda at the moment. Mr Cameron is a very charming man, he's very rich: there are eighteen millionaires in the British Cabinet, but none of them are trained in economics. They came in with a rather naïve programme and are finding it just doesn't work. You sense a real panic in the heart of government. They don't know what to do. They're trying to blame everything on the Euro zone crisis but actually every economic trend that is now causing Mr Cameron a great deal of difficulty began before the sovereign debt crisis of the Euro zone.

C.A.: This kind of blaming the Euro zone crisis has led to a raise in the old eurosceptic trend in England. Do you think that Britain could be moving towards a referendum for a withdrawal of the country from the EEC?

D.M.: I don't think so. The problem arises from the fact that Mr Cameron, Mr Hague and the other leaders of the Conservative Party, for more than ten years, were campaigning in opposition on the three Rs: Referendum, Renegotiation of treaties, Repatriation of powers. They created a climate in which Europe is seen as the source of all the problems that Britain faces and now they're in power the notion that Britain should withdraw from the European Union is absurd. We have been the free trade, open market philosophers, for two centuries. The economic forces of the country as well as the civil servants are saying to Mr Cameron: you can't do that. So he is in a trap because he's created a conservative party that thinks leaving Europe would open the way to happiness but he has to say no, we have to stay in there. He has to say: we export more to Ireland than we do to China. Therefore helping Ireland when Ireland was at the centre of the first Euro zone crisis was essential. Britain gave a lot of money. Mr Cameron doesn't want to give money to Brussels but he's given forty billion pounds to the IMF to recycle into Europe. So he's now caught in a mess of his own contradictions. There was a debate pushed by about one hundred Conservative MPs in the House of Commons to have an in or out referendum and Mr Cameron and Mr Hague had to deny what they had been saying in the last ten years and say no, we don't want a referendum, this is not the right time, we don't want to quit the European Union. So the motion was defeated, but it shows that what was fringe euroscepticism before is now mainstream Conservative Party thinking, at least amongst the back bench MPs if not amongst the government ministers.

C.A.: Just one question on education. I think that personally you were favourable to the rising of tuition fees in British universities. Don't you think it will create a social gap between families who can afford sending their kids to Oxford, Cambridge or UCL and the others who will be facing a more restricted choice?

D.M.: No, it's the other way round. My constituency is quite poor, it is a classical proletarian constituency of miners and steelworkers and their families. I never understood why their taxes should pay to allow David Cameron to go to Oxford for nothing. I never understood why the poor of Britain should pay for the rich, for the bourgeoisie - the bobos -, the BCBG and the aristocracy to go to Oxford or Cambridge or any elite university for free. I have four children and it's expensive for me. I don't buy a new BMW, I don't go on three holidays a year and I give some of my money to help my children go to university. For poor people there are systems of loans and grants. I think that the proposition to increase very dramatically the level of contribution to go to university was a mistake and I think it will be reduced, but in general, in Europe as a whole, we spend half of what the United States spends on universities. As a result, we have the worst universities in the world. We might have three or four that are in the top thirty or forty. University power is moving to North America, it's moving to China, it's moving partly to India. We are complacent and stupid in Europe in thinking that the traditional way of the universities being paid exclusively by the State is the right way. It's a huge error. We have to double the amount of money that goes into European universities. We have to make them open, competitive, performing. We need centres of international excellence, not quiet little holiday camps for professors who think that the taxpayer owes them a living.

C.A.: The problem is that the money from the government is also being withdrawn. The research and education budget have been cut drastically in the last years. Is this going to be compensated by the rise in tuition fees?

D.M.: In Britain that's a very fair complaint: in exchange for increases in tuition fees the government is reducing part of the money it allocates to universities. It is a complicated equilibrium to get right. That said, the absolute ambition for all of Europe should be a radical twenty-first century reform of our university system because it is utterly underperforming. We're not inventing Google or Microsoft or iPads or anything. We think the Airbus was a great European invention: yes it was, fifty years ago. If Europe is to become again what I want it to be, a world centre both of thinking and creativity, of inventing new ways of running economies, of distributing social justice, producing the products and services that can re-conquer the world, then we need to have a lot more money going into universities. I think it is perfectly reasonable for the people in Europe who've got an income to pay a small part of that income for the three years their children go to university rather than depend on the taxpayers, most of whom don't get the chance to send their children to university. 



Pour citer ces ressources :

Denis MacShane / Clifford Armion. 12/2011. "Denis MacShane on Europe and Coalition policies".
La Clé des Langues (Lyon: ENS LYON/DGESCO). ISSN 2107-7029. Mis à jour le 9 janvier 2012.
Consulté le 20 décembre 2014.
Url : http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/denis-macshane-on-europe-and-coalition-policies-137437.


Forum Lyon libération 2011 (25, 26 et 27 novembre 2011)
 
 
mise à jour le 9 janvier 2012
Créé le 12 décembre 2011
ISSN 2107-7029
DGESCO Clé des Langues