Brussels is like Westminster - flawed by essential

Journal columnist Kate Thick says that the North East needs to lift its heads in time for the election

PA Wire Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin

Politics and economics, like the weather, can be extraordinarily local but considering Britain’s role in the world should be part of the electoral debate up here.

The national press reports that Cameron, distracted by the election, has been lax, unlike Germany and France, in fathoming Russia’s intentions.

It seems an absurd time to harbour anti-European sentiments. A UK distanced from Europe is not going to bolster our economy or security. Groupthink, more imaginative diplomatic and fiscal strategies with allies, is vital. EU bureaucracy may make us weep but why disentangle ourselves from a continent in which we are historically and financially steeped?

So it is good to read in this paper last week that North East businesses, although wanting regulatory reforms, are deeply concerned about any exit from the EU. The North East has suffered disproportionately from local government cuts while our businesses and economy have benefited from EU funding.

The world has so-called “developed” and “developing” countries. Likewise, within the UK, we have regions doing better than others. Slightly tongue-in-cheek, I wondered if the North East should consider itself another country given our government’s southern focus.

After the election, will we become open and united or turn inward and fragment? So too with the EU. The UK’s finances are interwoven with the world’s economy: Britain is on an unhealthy consumption binge of imports while flogging assets to foreigners.

Devolution is becoming a lazy shorthand for the “haves” in London and the “have nots” elsewhere. A capital is a necessary engine even if the Westminster financial stratosphere has warped our economy. Surely a nation is greater than the sum of its parts? I feel the same about Brussels, flawed but essential.

A Labour government would bring us, according to the Shadow Chancellor, a devolution programme so that the North East would have greater financial control to promote regional economic growth. The plan is not welcomed by all; some say variable tax rates would hurt the poor further. How to balance or combine fiscal devolution with redistribution is, or should be, a huge question before and after the election.

The gap between our cities and areas disconnected from globalisation is important in understanding the broader north-south divide. Manchester is being hailed as the best model for closing the divide while holding on to liberal values. Increased regional powers with a national politics based on local enterprise and foreign investment is not an impossible vision; united through hope and devolution.

The Church of England called last week for a fresh moral vision of the kind of country we want to be; this is relevant to our foreign policy as well as our domestic goals. Great statecraft, where politics is not based solely on self-interest, is required home and abroad. We voters need to awaken from our apolitical slumber.

Famed for selling weapons to depots, the UK is also renowned for its tax policy, a greedy imperial relic, a ticket to low-tax British life and corporate sleaze.

How nice it would be if Cameron and Miliband would stop blaming one another for our scurrilous tax-dodging culture and agree to redeploy the 3,250 Department of Work and Pensions employees (chasing down £1.2bn of benefit fraud) to the HMRC, where only 300 staff investigating over £70bn in tax evasion. Developing countries lose an estimated $160bn a year to our corporate tax avoidance, far more than all of the combined aid they receive. It would be win-win, home and abroad.

Arguably, climate change poses as grave a threat to the UK’s security and economy as terrorism. Cameron, Miliband and Clegg have teamed up to sign a cross-party pledge - brokered by environmental groups, the Women’s Institute and Christian Aid - to combat climate change whatever the result of the election. Wow, a wondrous show of unanimity rarer than hen’s teeth.

So what about Russia? A Russian bomber off Cornwall does not mean they are coming to get us. But there is a conflict of values; Putin clearly wants to be independent of European tutelage and fears an expansionist Nato. He would relish a weak, divided Europe.

In a better world than this, no military alliance, especially one that stockpiles nuclear arms, would be necessary. Perhaps there is a more constructive role for Russia alongside the European system, some political-economic space? Soft power rather than military hardware can best negotiate that goal; devolution and diplomacy.

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