Lords Diary: Peter Hain
A man on a mission, Lord Hain ponders when the Chancellor will finally take a great leap forward – and finds the PM’s Brexit proposals bordering on the ridiculous
Amazingly on Monday, the Paddington train from Neath, my former constituency where I still live, was on time.
So I made it for the start of the Budget debate on the economy with a few minutes to spare. Normally on Mondays I have more leeway for my regular journey, but an eye-check appointment made for a nervous time.
Sunday lunchtime had been spent with my 91-year old mother, once a brave anti-apartheid activist in Pretoria who, with my late Dad, had been jailed, issued with a banning order and harassed out of the country with us four children in 1966 into exile in Britain. She’d watched our favourite football team Chelsea on Saturday while my wife Elizabeth and I had headed for the Millennium Stadium to see Wales beat the once mighty Springboks in a thrilling match.
In the Economy debate, there were excellent speeches from my former Cabinet colleague Alistair Darling and Treasury adviser Spencer Livermore before my turn to speak. The pedestrian pace of economic expansion since 2010 when the Tories abruptly replaced Alistair’s successful recovery plan from the global financial crisis is the root cause of Britain’s poor performance ever since. What has held growth back is the Tories’ savage tax and spending squeeze: done in the name of ending the budget deficit.
But squeezing growth out of the economy has left the Tories well short of a balanced budget whilst doubling national debt. Having failed to end the deficit completely by 2015 – their original target – they now say they will only halve it by 2022. By then we can be sure the goalposts will be moved yet again to maintain the illusion their plan is still on track and to justify still more damaging austerity. Clearly the modern Tory Chancellor is like the frog in a pond whose successive jumps only ever take him half way to the edge. He and the frog share an aim which they cannot realise unless they try a new approach. In the Chancellor’s case that means abandoning austerity and promoting faster growth.
But that same day nobody could have expected Theresa May’s Brexit negotiations to car crash so spectacularly. I say ‘nobody’ but it’s been evident to anyone like me who has been a secretary of state that the Northern Ireland Irish border was always going to be a stumbling block. Unionists were never going to accept a customs, trade and regulatory alignment with the Irish Republic that left Northern Ireland apart from the rest of the UK. Surely the only way to maintain an open Irish border, I suggested in a question on Tuesday, was to have the same arrangement for the whole of the UK with the EU?
Hard-line Brexiteers seem to believe that this long, winding and porous external EU customs frontier – with 300 or so crossing points along its 300-mile length and farms with a foot in each jurisdiction – can be safely left unpoliced.
Surely this is nonsense-on-stilts? These thorny and intractable issues around the border would not arise if the UK remained in the Customs Union and the Single Market, which is also essential to protect all British jobs and our economy.
Then on Wednesday speaking on the Sanctions and Money Laundering Bill, I resumed my mission to get the British authorities to help track down hundreds of millions of pounds laundered abroad by the elite around President Zuma and his business associates, the Indian-South African Gupta family. Who said membership of the Lords was for retirees only?
Lord Hain is a former Labour MP and Northern Ireland Secretary