Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Neil O’Brien versus Sir Stephen Wall

We cannot complain about the scale of coverage on the EU constitution from the Today programme – even if there are questions about the balance.

Not only was Ancram given a slot, with myself and Robert Cooper later on, followed by Jack Straw, the programme also had Jim Naughtie interview Neil O’Brien of the "vote no" campaign and Sir Stephen Wall. We have produced this transcript:

JN: We know that MPs are discussing today preparations for the European referendum which may not be far way. We had the foreign secretary talking about it earlier, saying that the government’s campaign is capable of swinging opinion which, at the moment, is ranged pretty firmly against that European constitution.

We’re joined by Neil O’Brien, who’s campaign director for the "no" campaign and also by Sir Stephen Wall who was until relatively recently foreign affairs advisor in Downing Street at the prime minister’s side and also a former British ambassador on the continent and elsewhere.

JN: Neil O’Brien, is the government capable of reversing this lead that you have?

NO: Well I think it is possible, but there’s obviously no room for complacency. But at the moment, the public and voters are very strongly against the constitution and, as you’ve seen from the papers today, business is also very strongly against the constitution

JN: Are they going to continue to be against the constitution when the argument is out there against them in detail, in a way that it hasn’t been. Now I know you’ve put out endless leaflets and you’ve run a very efficient campaign but the broad mass of the public, people aren’t up with the arguments. And why should they be. They don’t have to vote.

NO: Well, I think when people are exposed to the arguments, they’ll tend to become more hostile when they find out more about what is going on. However, I would say that there is one danger. At the moment we’re campaigning to try to get a fair referendum but at the moment the government is determined to spent a lot of taxpayers’ money trying to promote the constitution. We think that is unfair because the government are effectively taking public funds and using it to sell something that they just don’t want

JM: Well, you can’t complain about the foreign secretary making a speech in support of British foreign policy. That tends to happen in every government.

NO: No, that’s not what I am complaining about. What I am complaining about is that they’re using taxpayers’ money to fund propaganda, I mean they’ve just hired a PR agency to go around explaining why the constitution is a success for Britain. I mean, that’s not information. That’s using government money to push government spin

JN: Sir Stephen Wall. What about the argument itself. Do you accept that, as someone who is in favour of the constitution that it’s going to be a very difficult argument for the government to win?

SW: Well, I think this is a determining moment for us, for Britain and the British people do have a chance to take a decision which obviously will be about the constitutional treaty, but on the back of that, about how they see our place in Europe.

And I actually think that what the constitutional treaty has done is valuable to us because we are living at a time where not only economically do we need the co-operation we have with our partners the European Union through the rules that the European Union has, but we live in a pretty dangerous world where the so-called "soft power" of the European Union is extraordinarily important

We’re going to have to develop a relationship with China which will be the big emerging superpower of this century. We have to manage the issue of climate change. We’re seeing in Sudan the first war of climate change over access to resources. We have to deal with Iran which is developing nuclear weapons. You can’t deal with these issues through force, you have to deal with them by influence and the European Union through its aid and trade relationships is a huge democratic force for beneficial change in the world.

JN: Well it was interesting to hear your former colleague in Downing Street, Robert Cooper, who now works in Brussels, putting the case for – and we also had someone putting the case against, just after eight o’clock – and arguing that the way to look at it was to look at Europe as an institution which had brought peace and stability and prosperity to Europe. You’re making a similar case in arguing the global point about the importance of European Union. Don’t you think people are more likely to vote, though, on what they see, rightly or wrongly as bread and butter issues, and whether laws are decided upon in our own parliament here or in Brussels?

SW: Well, I am not sure that’s altogether true because opinion polls when people are asked what most concerns you, now at the top of the list people say defence and foreign policy issues because I think people are rightly worried about what kind of world we live in.

But even on the bread and butter issues, I would argue, for example, as we come to tackle the whole issue of international crime, terrorism etc, I believe that what the constitutional treaty does, by allowing for more majority voting – Britain doesn’t have to take part if it doesn’t want to – that that is actually beneficial. In the days when we were trying to settle things by intergovernmental agreement, we were incapable of reaching decisions.

JN: Neil O’Brien?

NO: Well I think all this stuff about intergovernmentalism is all very interesting but the bottom line about the constitutional referendum is do we want to give up more power and control to the European Union. I think we shouldn’t because I think that would be bad for our economy

JN: Well, why is it giving up power when power can only be exercise by groups in which we have a voice?

NO: For example the constitution would give the European court power to make a lot more rulings over our economy and the way our business is run. Because of the charter of fundamental rights, European judges would be able to decide on things like our labour law and so on. And I think that would mean a higher level of regulation, more red tape…

JN: But operating under a charter of which we are signatories.

NO: Yea, yea… I mean…

JN: I take it you wouldn’t want us to renege on that signature, leaving aside the question of the constitution, would you?

NO: I am not quite sure what you are driving at. I mean the government wants to sign his constitution, which is a constitution which transfers more power to Brussels.

JN: Sir Stephen?

SW: Well, just taking the charter of fundamental rights, there are safeguards in there which on the face of the document that this cannot replace national laws and rules so there is no question of the charter of fundamental rights replacing our national labour laws. All you have to do is read the document. It’s there.

NO: European judges are already saying it’s going to change our labour laws. One of them has already said it’s nonsense to think it won’t change our labour laws. And they’re the people who are going to make the decision

SW: Well the judges are going to have make the decision based on what on the face of the document and there’s a triple lock on anybody’s ability to change our own national labour laws.

NO: Well their reading of the document is clearly that it will change our national labour laws.

JN: Let me just ask… Why do you think it is wrong, Sir Stephen… to argue, as Neil O’Brien does about powers either going to Brussels or coming away from Brussels?

SW: We have to decide in the case of each piece of legislation whether we vote for it or against it. Overall, what the constitution does is insert a role for national parliaments in that process which hasn’t existed before, and if you look at what has happened over the years, we’re not in a situation where there’s going to be a single country called Europe. We got 25 individual nation states and collectively in terms of our economic interest, fighting terrorism, dealing with a dangerous world, it is better to be working with 24 other democracies than being out on a limb on our own.

JN: We’ll, we three will meet again, quite often I think. Sir Stephen Wall, Neil O’Brien, thank you both.

I am open to persuasion on this, but my view of the exchange is that Stephen Wall had it. Some of thin only comes over in the tone, which obviously does not come over in the transcript, but the impression is of a "grown-up" discussion between Naughtie and Wall, with this querulous little boy chipping in with low grade points which lowered the tone of the discussion.

I am sorry that O’Brien seems obsessed with the minutia of the campaign, which is of relatively little importance – was the government ever going to play fair? – and missed the chance on fighting for the "high ground" that Wall occupies so effectively.

Agreed, we have got to go for our points, but there were so many contentious and untrue statements – Sudan, the first war of climate change? For heaven’s sake! – that he could have taken Wall apart.


For sure, it is always easy to second-guess someone else’s performance in a live radio broadcast, but this is the second time that O’Brien has brought up the charter of fundamental rights on the Today programme (see here) and he should have learnt from experience that it is far too complex and difficult a point to argue convincingly in the context of a short interview.

Altogether, O’Brien seemed out of his depth, with Wall in a different league. The "no" campaign is going to have to raise its game.

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