How time ebbs away. Even as I contemplate the end of an enthralling and at times momentous second year in my own parliamentary life, I am acutely aware of the sands of time passing. This might seem a curious observation for, at the age of 38, my relative youth is still often remarked upon whenever I speak at City gatherings at Guildhall or the Mansion House. If policemen are looking younger all the time, then perhaps the same can be said of MPs!
Not only am I the third youngest man to have the honour of representing the heart of our capital city in 800 years of parliamentary representation, but increasingly unusually for a modern MP I was a businessman before entering Parliament. On that point I suppose there must be one small confession – having read law at university I did practice as a solicitor for four years, not I hasten to add in the professional negligence field! If truth be told I then joined an even lower form of commercial life by setting up and developing a head-hunting and recruitment practice which I sold to a consortium of investors led by my former business partner in August 2001.
It has proved to be a fortuitous time to have moved away from the world of commerce. And therein lies a truism every bit as relevant to the world of politics as it is to business, not least the business of risk, that timing is all.
This morning I thought I would share with you a few personalised observations on the political landscape with reference to the Middle East, having just returned from a fascinating trip to Syria. Then I shall examine Britain’s relationship with Europe – and in particular the continental post-war economic powerhouse of Germany where with unemployment at 4.3 million, and collapsing exports markets there are potentially grave political consequences.
But I start with a recognition of the importance of understanding history in our handling of the political landscape with a nod towards central Europe as the cradle of modern democracy. For me the preservation of an open, democratic and civic society is a model to which the free world – and countless millions living outside the free world – rightly continue to aspire.
Many of these enduring values came to prominence as a result of the Protestant Reformation following Martin Luther’s defiance of the Roman Catholic Church almost exactly 500 years ago. The importance that the Reformation played in the intellectual development of Western European ideas cannot be overstated. Until 1517 there had been a universal Established Church which was intolerant of any dissent to its power. Indeed the very threat of excommunication was surely less than conducive to independent thinking, scepticism or even a broad range of academic speculation. This intellectual freedom was taken up with gusto by the English and subsequently formed the basis of the British state. It has also been at the forefront of a vast array of developments in science, economics, the arts, philosophy and the political thinking which has moulded Western European and world history since that time. Similarly impatience at the rate of political change or brief periods of renewed religious intolerance resulted in many fleeing the shores of Europe to make a new life in the United States of America. Once there in the New World, the people of the United States maintained that passion for justice and freedom and coupled it with an unspoken yet intense conviction which has set the template for the underlying economic and political values of the free world today.
Yet in this the United States as a young country lacks the historical perspective on these issues which uniquely we here in Europe can add. I believe that our collective experience of the historical foundations of many European nations is now crucial if a free, open and democratic society is to hold its nerve in the face of the global terrorist threat. Precisely how this collective experience will hold sway is of course a moot point. It is clear that the United Nations will have to undergo a fundamental change if it is to maintain any semblance of influence. There is little doubt in my mind that the notion of a veto remaining in the hands of the Permanent Members of the Security Council is now well past its sell-by date.
Today we have a single global military power with the United States spending currently as much on defence as the next nine highest defence-spending nations put together. It also happens to be the sole economic hyper-power and it is not enough for European nations simply to wish that the clock could be turned back 20 or 30 years. Indeed the complacency in this part of the world is such that if there is to be a serious economic threat to the dominance of the United States within the next few decades it will almost certainly not come from our own continent but rather from fast-developing China.
In facing these difficulties, one option for the larger European nations is to insist upon continuing to receive outdated privileges while steadfastly refusing to contribute to a practical vision of the future. That paraphrases the position of President Chirac in France which may play well to the domestic gallery but scarcely amounts to a sensible short – let alone medium term – strategy, either for his own country or the interests of the continent.
Even after the conclusion of hostilities in Afghanistan and Iraq, the uncertain international situation is understandably in the forefront of the mind of anyone involved in international trade. Like most elected representatives, I have received hundreds of letters in recent months from constituents, almost all expressed alarm at the prospect of war in the Middle East. My own constituency, containing as it does, key strategic targets and other high-profile buildings recognised internationally, has naturally been regarded as the most obvious target in the UK for retaliatory terrorist attack. Indeed many of the letters written to me expressed the view forcefully that the British political leaders – across the Party divide – have not been serving the best interests of their people and that this country should distance itself from the United States rather than providing a broad endorsement of its actions. With the dust having barely settled from the conflict in Iraq it is perhaps unwise to draw any firm conclusions for the future – after all it was Chairman Mao who sagely observed during the 1960s that it was probably still too early to determine whether or not the French Revolution had been a success! Nevertheless now above all is the time for all of the world’s leading nations to employ their collective vision and political courage to grasp the opportunity to shape the future for an open, free civil society. And continued global trade depends upon the free world not being marginalized for narrow domestic political reasons.
Clearly we all have an obligation as members of a global community to fulfil a responsibility beyond our national boundaries. We cannot simply cower in the face of a threat from a dictator or other international terrorists on the basis that this country, rather than other nations, could thereby become the next target. Let us make no mistake – there will continue to be other targets until these international terrorists are hunted down and eliminated.
My reservation at the end of last year was that Iraq appeared to have been singled out as a solitary target but even then I was making the case for a broader ranging Middle Eastern settlement. In particular I welcome the roadmap towards a resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian dispute which will ensure the universal recognition of Israel within secure boundaries as well as securing an economically viable Palestinian state. These are easy words to utter – the difficulty will be putting this into force not least as some of the most extreme elements within Israel are currently camped out in the occupied territories, the very lands that will need to be handed over if Palestine is to be a meaningful economic entity. I also believe that far too often US and European commercial interests in Saudi Arabia have enabled the Western world to turn a blind eye to the almost feudal system there and the inexorable rise of Wahhabi influence which has helped promote, and at times harbour, international terrorism. This ambitious programme of reform will take decades, but failure to respond to the threat now will perhaps make London a slightly safer place from a retaliatory attack today, but in my opinion will do little in the longer term for global democracy and thus the stability which we all crave.
For the threat of terrorism amongst our civilian populations is especially insidious. With a cloud of fear in the sky, as people continue to go about their everyday lives, slowly but surely they elect to change their daily routine. It is the little things at first – no longer taking the Underground, avoiding main retail centres and cutting down on international travel. Gradually people stop seeing the truth before their eyes until there is a temptation on the part of many simply to ignore conduct that would otherwise be regarded as unacceptable. It is argued that cultural allowances must be made for this and for that and suddenly even the most idealistic of our citizens turns into the keenest proponent of realpolitik. In 1938 it was said that – Czechoslovakia is a far away country – in order to justify a policy of inaction. Today in Britain I see far too many people using the same justification for steering clear of further intervention anywhere in the Middle East or beyond. Yet terrorists know no such maps and, as we have seen, they will kill ruthlessly without regard to geography. Surely we should all agree that in today’s global community there is no longer any such thing as a far away country. Otherwise the threat of terrorism has the capacity to corrupt the terrorised every bit as much as the terrorist. Let us be clear – the attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001, the murderous outrages in Bali and Kenya last year and last month’s attack in Saudi Arabia were not simply isolated events against random targets. Rather they were attacks on the notion of open, free, democratic, civil society.
Those apologists for extreme Islamic fundamentalism, people who really should know better, argue that it is born out of poverty and envy for what we have here in the West. I say to you that is a fundamental misunderstanding of the philosophy of Al Qaeda – for in truth their philosophy is one of hatred for everything that we in the West stand for, not least as their terrorism is based on the persistent and the deliberate violation of human rights. Remember that it is tolerance of diversity rather than our ethnic origins, race or religion which makes us what we are. Our long-enduring values of religious, political and economic freedom are bound together by centuries of international trade. Indeed the insurance business which we celebrate here this morning is at the forefront of that centuries old movement we now call globalism and which so fundamentally underpins our belief in democracy and the rule of law.
However, I am deeply concerned that in the aftermath of the Iraqi conflict the notions of ‘regime change’ – and ‘pre-emptive self-defence’, both of which are untried and untested, have now entered the dictionary of international relations. These new doctrines have been relied upon by the United States and the other coalition allies and I am now concerned that we run the risk that they will be used as a precedent in future by dictators trying to annexe other sovereign nation states.
Examining the political landscape, it is right, if only briefly, is to touch upon Britain’s relationships within the European Union. I have only recently taken my seat in the House of Commons and I should like to think that my career in Parliament may last for the next quarter of a century at least. In my opinion it is this type of time-scale which needs to be considered when examining the development of Europe’s future. Much has changed in the last decade or so, but of one thing we can be sure – the rate of change in a global world will only accelerate. What I sense today is the vital need of this country embracing the expansion of a freely trading Europe because in that way we are both broadening and deepening the support of democracy on the continent. If we keep people outside the European Union the potential for extremist political leadership is made that much greater.
I must confess that the domestic debate on the European Union is often sterile and lacking in the sort of vision to which I refer. As you will know, in my own Conservative Party there has been a polarisation of views and an increasing detachment from the desire to understand more about the EU. With that sterility Britain has diminished its potential key role in the development and improvement of the political and economic institutions on the continent. But let’s make no mistake, the prospect of major difficulties soon in the EU loom large. Indeed it is now time for a visionary approach towards the future of the EU, requiring practical idealism and hard-headed analysis. Few citizens recognise the fundamental difference that will take place when the EU becomes 25 nations strong in twelve months time and whilst Britain remains semi-detached from much of the decision-making there is a foreign policy vacuum on mainland Europe where there remains such reluctance to introduce much-needed labour market reforms.
I spent a fascinating week in February in the former East Germany, meeting local politicians, business leaders and seeing with my own eyes what has become of those cities which had such high hopes following German reunification in 1990. It was a rather disquieting experience. Indeed many to whom I spoke there were deeply sceptical about the prospect of EU enlargement and the economic effect this will have in eastern Germany. The European political class, safe in its Brussels and Strasbourg ivory towers, fails to understand the two nations which remain in Germany to this day and the failure of many eastern Germans to adapt to capitalism. There is a desire there instead to have a cradle to grave welfare existence and a reluctance to take responsibility and embrace a market economy. The sheer mentality and psyche of many – even the young – who live in this part of Germany has changed little since reunification. Meanwhile the EU is on the verge of further enlargement to the East with other former communist states. Make no mistake, this is an enormous undertaking and brings with it major political risks.
Meanwhile the main problems which we shall face is that some of the brightest young people in these new nations of Europe will vote with their feet and leave their home country in realising their new-found freedom of movement to seek opportunities in places such as the UK. Although this may provide a short-term boost for all parts of the London economy, it augurs very badly for the economic welfare of the EU accession nations. The debilitating and destabilising effects throughout Europe are likely to be profound. The gap in growth between the EU on the one hand and the United States and China is growing inexorably year by year. It also has disturbing political connotations with the continued emergence of the far right as a substantial force. It is to provide a civilising influence that many in the EU demand that Britain now plays a more committed role in European affairs. My fear is that the fundamental destabilisation of Europe over the next decade brought about by rapid and ill-thought through expansion means that we should think very carefully about committing ourselves further to the European project.
I have chosen in this address to concentrate on the international political picture. The City of London is, after all, one of the key global centres of trade, finance and business services. The continued – perhaps worsening – political uncertainty will provide opportunities for all of your businesses. This country cannot be isolated from international squalls, although it is clear that after six years of relatively plain political sailing this Labour government faces major internal divisions over the two main subjects of my speech – the prospect of further military adventures in the Middle East and the closeness of our ties with the European Union.
As for London itself, the language of crisis goes back to the seventeenth century and the signal of an end to London’s economic boom is always the same – the prospect of bankrupt property developers by the score. Just the other day I read a newspaper article from exactly 11 years ago, in June 1992, which lamented London’s faltering economy, appalling public transport, collapsing education system, crisis-ridden theatres. Well, as you know, these stories could have been written this very week. Yet for much of the past decade London has been booming. As ever, the capital’s economic cycle never lasts long, but in both its upswing and downturn it outperforms the rest of the country.
I am quite sure that nothing is fundamentally different in the current downturn. But without criticising the statistical robustness of the Mayor of London’s Draft London Plan published last year to great fanfare which suggests an increase of population in the capital of 700,000 by 2015, I wonder whether this will come to pass. All of us here know the reluctance of staff to commute for as long as they have in the past, the cripplingly high cost of private sector housing and the worries about safety and security on our streets. Mood swings are often as important as raw economic statistical data in these matters. I simply wonder whether London will in the next decade or so be seen – especially for the young starting their careers – as sexy in the way that it was in the 1960s and 1990s? And therein lies a real political truth – it is the sheer uncertainty of what lies in the future that is one of the great charms of politics, not to mention a necessity for any thriving insurance business.