Gambling the Conservative economic record

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In today’s Daily Telegraph I’ve co-signed a letter with 20 fellow MPs in support of Conservatives for Reform in Europe, the new campaign which I chair. They include former ministers, senior MPs and a number who are known to be particularly sceptical about the EU, for instance rebelling against the Government in the last Parliament to demand a referendum.

We repeat our campaign’s central argument that a strong Britain in a reformed Europe would give us the best of both worlds: outside the euro, and protected from deeper integration, but able to access the single market; in the world’s greatest trading block of over 500 million people, but still outside the Schengen area and so able to maintain our borders. We would need to be very sure about the alternative before throwing such an advantageous position away.

But we also make a new point which is particularly important for Conservatives:

We are proud of the achievements of this Conservative Government in turning the economy around, putting Britain at the top of the world growth league and delivering record job creation. But in an unstable world the recovery remains fragile and there is still work to do. It is time for Conservatives to weigh up the benefits as well as the costs of EU membership carefully, and focus on the real risks which leaving the EU could have on our economic success.

Those who advocating leaving the EU regardless of whether the PM secures his reforms or not are saying that Britain will be better off outside the EU. So despite no economy in the G7 having grown faster than Britain since 2010; despite the OBR’s forecast that the economy will grow robustly, living standards will rise, and more than a million extra jobs will be created over the next five years, Brexit campaigners claim this record isn’t good enough.

Their message is: however well Britain is doing, we should gamble on doing better. How much better they cannot say. How we will maintain the economic benefits of access to Europe’s market they cannot begin to answer. It’s a huge – indeed, I would say incredible – ask.

Leave campaigners refuse to acknowledge any of the economic risks of exit, but the rest of us need to weigh these carefully. When Britain’s economy is already performing well, the burden of proof that it’s worth taking a risk to do so much better must surely be very high. For people like me, who have contemplated leaving (as I wrote in my book Why Vote Conservative? last year), the balance of the scales would tip if, for instance, we could not protect ourselves from deeper integration in the Eurozone, or address concerns about immigration. But provided there is reform to tackle these issues, and especially while there is global economic instability, the risks of jumping into a void start to look overwhelming.

Conservatives have a considerable political investment in our success in re-building Britain’s economy. We should think long and hard before we decide to gamble that record on an entirely uncertain new course.

The word’s biggest infectious killer

WHO-TB-Report

Last week the World Health Organisation published its latest estimates of the TB epidemic.  The good news is that the global campaign against HIV has led to a remarkable fall in deaths from AIDS.  The bad news is that TB now claims the unwanted title of being the world’s biggest infectious killer.  As the Executive Director of the Stop TB Partnership asked:

TB is killing 4,400 people a day and it is now in a shameful leading position among infectious killers. How can we, as human beings accept that a disease that is curable in six months kills more people than HIV/AIDS? What kind of minds and hearts do we have?

1.5 million people died from TB and there were close to 10 million cases last year.  These figures come just a month after global leaders agreed the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which included the target to eliminate TB by 2030.  The ambition is laudable.  But at the current rate of progress TB won’t be eliminated for another 200 years, let alone 15.  The WHO’s plan to end TB currently commands only 75 per cent of the $8 billion a year of global resources it needs.  Without a fundamental shift in gear on TB, the SDG target simply will not be achieved. That means millions of lives being lost unnecessarily in the decades ahead – and recurring cost.

Also last week the London Assembly launched the findings of its inquiry into TB in the city.  London is already known as the TB capital of Western Europe, but the UK as a whole has surprisingly high rates of the disease for a developed country.  There are more cases of TB every year in the UK than there are in Moldova.  Parts of the capital have rates equivalent to those in Rwanda and Iraq.

The Government has taken a number of welcome steps to tackle TB.  The UK’s pledge of £1 billion to the Global Fund will save a life every three minutes in some of the world’s poorest countries.  For the first time in decades (and thanks in part to the work of the APPG Global TB which I co-chair) there is a National Strategy to tackle TB in England.  The independent Review of Antimicrobial Resistance, led by Lord (Jim) O’Neill, is looking to include TB in its proposed reforms to incentivise the development of new and much-needed drugs.

But we can and must do more.

First, now that the celebrations over the launch of the SDGs are over, there needs to be an objective appraisal of whether – and how – the programmes currently in place can actually deliver them.  The UK is in a great position to do this with the US and other leading donor countries.

Second, meeting the SDG and WHO targets will require greater global political will and more resources to accelerate the reductions in mortality.  The Global Fund’s fifth replenishment is next year.  To date the Fund has supported 13.2 million people to receive TB treatment and saved 17 million lives from the three diseases since 2002.  The Fund estimates it will need more than USD$12 billion over the next three years to maintain current progress against the diseases.  As one of the leading donors to the Fund since its creation, the UK will have a major role to play.

Third, we need new drugs, diagnostics and vaccines.  The current treatment takes six months in a best-case scenario.  No new drugs have been added to that basic treatment course for 40 years.  The vaccine is ineffective and most diagnoses use technology that’s over 100 years old.  No epidemic has ever been beaten through treatment alone – a vaccine has always been needed.  If TB had resurged in the West it would have been beaten by now: the pharmaceutical companies would have seen a potential market and had the incentive to invest in new drugs.  This is a clear case of market failure.  The Conservative Party’s Manifesto included an exciting promise to “… lead a major new global programme to accelerate the development of vaccines and drugs to eliminate the world’s deadliest infectious diseases”.  Now we need to hear how the Government will fulfil that pledge.

The Global TB Caucus, an international network of parliamentarians which I set up last year and which currently spans 97 countries, will meet in Cape Town next month.  Our aim is to apply pressure to both donor and affected-country governments to ramp up efforts to tackle the disease.

TB is one of the world’s greatest neglected diseases.  It also one of the world’s greatest public health threats.  It is airborne and infectious, it can become drug-resistant, and it does not respect national boundaries.  Lord O’Neill’s team has estimated that 75 million people could die from drug-resistant TB by 2050 if action is not taken.

Already the biggest killer in history, now back as the world’s biggest infectious killer, this is a disease which could beat records again if we don’t act.  We can end TB.  We just have to decide to do it.

Lord Taylor’s support for new “garden villages”

The Liberal Democrat Peer Lord Taylor of Goss Moor has authored a pamphlet published today by Policy Exchange, ‘Garden Villages: Empowering localism to solve the housing crisis‘. He proposes that new local development corporations should have the power to confiscate land, with compensation at just 150 per cent of the agricultural land value, to build new “garden villages” of up to 5,000 homes.

What a pity that Lord Taylor fails to mention in his pamphlet that he is a director of Mayfield Market Towns Limited, a developer which has been trying to build a “new market town” of up to 10,000 houses in open countryside in my West Sussex constituency. Mayfield’s strategy has been to upset two local plans being prepared by Mid Sussex and Horsham District Councils, both of which have rejected the new town and allocated housing elsewhere. The developer’s tactics have included leafleting another area facing development telling the residents that Mayfield offered a better solution.

The company faced a serious reversal when the Planning Inspector recently rejected their scheme, noting that “significant concerns have been raised about the sustainability of the location of the Mayfield Market Town site”. The Inspector also warned that “The deliverability of the preferred 10,000 dwelling option, with employment development, within two local authority areas without their support, and in the face of strong opposition from two local MPs, parish councils and local people, including land owners, is also an issue of concern.”

So, unable to persuade two local authorities or the Planning Inspector to back his scheme, and unable to persuade all of the local landowners to agree to sell, Taylor falls back on trying to persuade the Government that compulsory purchase is the way forward. This is what he means by “empowering localism”.

Community power over planning

Together with a number of senior Conservative MPs I have tabled three amendments to the Infrastructure Bill, which has its Report Stage today (Monday 26 January):

  • To introduce a limited community right of appeal to the Secretary of State against decisions to grant planning permission in cases where this would go against a draft or finalised local or neighbourhood plan (New Clause 20).
  • To provide direct compensation to property owners who have drilling for fracking below their land (Amendments 78, 79, 80 & 81).

All of these amendments have been provisionally selected for debate by the Speaker.  Fracking will be debated first, 3.30 – 5.30 pm when there will be votes, then planning 5.30 – 7.30 pm when there will be further votes.

ABOLITION OF THE PLANNING INSPECTORATE

NEW CLAUSE 12

Nick Herbert, Sir Nicholas Soames, Dr Liam Fox, Andrew Mitchell, Sir Alan Duncan, Zac Goldsmith, Richard Benyon, Henry Bellingham, Sir Peter Bottomley, Crispin Blunt, Nigel Evans, Rebecca Harris, Andrew Turner, Simon Hart, Chris Heaton-Harris, Dominic Raab, Graham Stuart, Fiona Bruce, Philip Davies, Julian Lewis, Gordon Henderson, Sir Alan Haselhurst, Gerald Howarth & Tim Loughton

To move the following Clause—

“Abolition of the Planning Inspectorate

(1) The Planning Inspectorate is abolished.

(2) Subject to paragraph (3), all the functions of the Planning Inspectorate are transferred to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

(3) The functions of the Planning Inspectorate in relation to Wales are transferred to Welsh Ministers.”

This New Clause simply abolishes the Planning Inspectorate and transfers its powers to ministers.  The Conservative Manifesto at the last election promised:

“To give communities greater control over planning, we will … abolish the power of planning inspectors to rewrite local plans.”

In fact, the Inspectorate has:

– upheld speculative planning applications, overriding refusal of permission by local authorities, even when the proposed development runs counter to emerging neighbourhood or local plans;

– demanded that local councils rewrite their plans to increase their housing numbers, often to levels above that set by the Regional Spacial Strategies which we abolished.

The Conservative Party pledged to abolish quangos and embrace localism.  Neighbourhood planning, an important innovation in the Localism Act 2011, shows real promise as a means to deliver greater control for local communities over development.  We need to ensure that neighbourhood planning is not undermined, and that the system is plan-led and not developer-led.  I have tabled this New Clause so as to press for more respect to be accorded to local decision-making.

COMMUNITY RIGHT OF APPEAL

NEW CLAUSE 20

Nick Herbert, Sir Nicholas Soames, Dr Liam Fox, Andrew Mitchell, Sir Alan Duncan, Zac Goldsmith, Richard Benyon, Henry Bellingham, Sir Peter Bottomley, Crispin Blunt, Nigel Evans, Chris Heaton-Harris, Andrew Turner, Rebecca Harris, Dominic Raab, Graham Stuart, Philip Davies, Anne-Marie Morris, Julian Lewis, Gordon Henderson, Gerald Howarth & Tim Loughton

To move the following Clause—

“Community right of appeal

(1) The Town and Country Planning Act 1990 is amended as follows.

(2) In section 78 (appeals to the Secretary of State against planning decisions and failure to take such decisions) after subsection (2) insert—

“(2A) Where a planning authority grants an application for planning permissions and—

(a) the authority has publicised the application as not according with the development plan in force in the area in which the land to which the application relates is situated; or

(b) the application is not supported by policies in an emerging development plan;

certain persons as specified in subsection (2B) below may by notice appeal to the Secretary of State, provided any one of the conditions in subsection (2C) below are met.

(2B) Persons who may by notice appeal to the Secretary of State against the approval of planning permissions in the circumstances specified in subsection (2A) above are—

(a) the ward councillors for the area who have lodged a formal objection to the planning application in writing to the planning authority, or where there is more than one councillor, all councillors by unanimity;

(b) any parish council or neighbourhood forum by two thirds majority voting, as defined in Section 61F, covering or adjoining the area of land to which the application relates is situated; or

(c) any overview and scrutiny committee by two thirds majority voting.

(2C) The conditions are:

(a) the application falls within the definition of “major development”;

(b) the application is accompanied by an environmental impact assessment;

(c) the planning officer has recommended refusal of planning permission.”

(3) Section 79 is amended as follows—

(a) in subsection (2), leave out “either” and after “planning authority”, insert “or the applicant (where different from the appellant)”;

(b) in subsection (6), after “determination”, insert “(except for appeals as defined in section 78 (2A) and where the appellant is as defined in section 79 (2B)).

(4) In this section—

“emerging” means a development plan that is being examined by the Secretary of State, or is due to be examined, having met the public consultation requirements necessary to proceed to this stage; and

“major development” means cases within categories defined in guidance produced by the Secretary of State.”

This New Clause introduces a limited community right of appeal to the Secretary of State against decisions to grant planning permission in cases where this would go against a draft or finalised local or neighbourhood plan.

At present developers have a right of appeal against a refusal of planning permission, but communities have no right of appeal if planning permission is given.  Often local authorities reluctantly give permission because they are fearful of losing an appeal by developers.

In order to empower local communities and reduce the use of judicial review the planning appeals system will be rebalanced so that community groups can both plan for their future and challenge bad decisions.

Specifically the amendment adds to the appeals process set out in the Town and Country Planning Act 1990.  It allows councillors who have objected to an application, parish councils or neighbourhood forums to appeal to the Secretary of State against the grant of planning permission by the local authority for certain applications.

The new right of appeal applies when permission is granted which is contrary to the adopted or emerging development plan.  This applies to neighbourhood plans as well as local plans.  Additionally the planning application will have to meet one of the following conditions in order to qualify for the right:

  • The application falls within the definition of ‘major development’;
  • the application is accompanied by an Environmental Impact Assessment; or
  • the planning officer has recommended refusal of planning permission.

This amendment has been drafted by the CPRE (their briefing can be found here and reflects one of their policies in their Manifesto to:

“Support local aspirations by introducing a community right of appeal against speculative development in areas where a neighbourhood plan has been prepared.”

I have tabled this amendment so as to raise concerns about speculative planning applications which don’t accord with neighbourhood or local plans, to give communities more power, and to ensure that the system is plan-led rather than developer-led.

COMPENSATION TO PROPERTY OWNERS FOR FRACKING

Nick Herbert, Sir Nicholas Soames, Eric Ollerenshaw, Mark Menzies, Andrew Percy, Sir Peter Bottomley, Julian Lewis, Gordon Henderson & Tim Loughton

Amendment 78

Clause 41, page 46, line 41, leave out “may” and insert “shall”

This removes the voluntary nature of the scheme as currently there is no legal obligation on shale gas companies to compensate landowners or the community although they have set up a voluntary scheme. 

Amendment 79

Clause 41, page 46, line 44, leave out “may” and insert “shall”

This requires a specific payment to landowners to be made.

Amendment 80

Clause 41, page 47, line 4, after “the” insert “minimum”

This would allow the Secretary of State to set a minimum level of compensation rather than a precise level.

Amendment 81

Clause 41, page 47, line 5, after “payments” insert “which shall be calculated as a percentage of the gross value of the gas extracted”

This provides that any compensation is calculated using the model put forward by INEOS.

These amendments would provide direct compensation to landowners who have drilling for fracking below their land.

I raised this issue at Second Reading of the Bill and believe that it would be right in principle and better in practice to set up a mandatory direct compensation scheme rather than rely on industry schemes which compensate through community funds, as is currently envisaged.

This proposal has been put forward by the CLA (their briefing can be found here) and has the support of INEOS who recently announced that they will invest £640 million in shale gas exploration in the UK.

The Government and industry have recognised that the Infrastructure Bill infringes on the existing ownership rights of individual land and property owners.  The industry has put forward proposals which provide for a payment of £20,000 into an as yet undefined community fund for each lateral drilled rather than recognising individually those owners whose rights are affected by the changes.

However, there is an alternative approach which would give away a percentage of the income generated from commercialised wells to the local community.  This would include a proportion made as a payment direct to land and property owners under whose property drilling takes place while a further payment based on a proportion of the income would be made to the local community to recognise the possible effects of development on them.

This would provide a more appropriate means of compensating those whose property rights are affected as well as the local community.  This is similar to the access arrangements in the US which have been highly effective in enabling the development of the industry there.

There are five reasons why this proposal is better than the current scheme:

1. It identifies and recognises property rights infringement by providing a direct payment to those whose rights are affected.

2. The level of compensation is based on the area affected by underground drilling and so is proportionate to the extent to which a property owner’s rights are affected.

3. It provides a genuine stake in the development for the local community to share any benefit rather than a one off payment, which is seen by some as an incentive to allow development.

4. It incentivises land and property owners and the local community to support development by allowing them to share directly in the success of any development.

5. It reduces the upfront cost and risk of development for investors since any payments are deferred to a point at which a well goes into commercial production and is generating income.  If a well is unsuccessful then fewer costs are incurred by the developer.

Whilst it might be expected that other operators will bring forward similar proposals, the Petroleum Exploration & Development Licensing (PEDL) process means that each licensee will have a monopoly within their license area.  As such there is little pressure on other operators to put forward competing offers beyond the industry’s basic voluntary measures.  As the Bill is currently drafted there is no guarantee that landowners will receive compensation for the infringement of their property rights.

I believe that drilling locations for fracking should be chosen carefully to minimise disruption to communities, and that the activity should be strictly regulated.  I support the Government’s new presumption against fracking in National Parks.

The English Question

St-George_s-Day_2705594k

The Prime Minister’s statement, in response to Scotland’s ‘no’ vote, that ‘a new and fair settlement for Scotland should be accompanied by a new and fair settlement that applies to all parts of our United Kingdom’ is welcome and right. Now we have to work out what devolution in England will look like.

The PM said that ‘the question of English votes for English laws – the so-called West Lothian question – requires a decisive answer’ and that ‘… just as Scotland will vote separately in the Scottish Parliament on their issues of tax, spending and welfare so too England, as well as Wales and Northern Ireland, should be able to vote on these issues and all this must take place in tandem with, and at the same pace as, the settlement for Scotland.’

Of course, Scotland has its own Parliament, not just Scottish votes for Scottish laws. Does balanced devolution now require an English Parliament? John Redwood makes a neat proposal that Westminster’s MPs representing English constituencies could also sit for an English Parliament, saving a new tier of politicians, and so we could. But an English Parliament raises big questions about the government of England. After all, the Scots have their own government and a First Minister.

I touch on these issues in my book ‘Why Vote Conservative 2015‘ which will be published in a fortnight’s time. Here’s the relevant extract:

That Scottish nationalism arose with such force is a symptom of the lopsided nature of devolution in the UK. Though the Scottish government has broad powers to enact policy (by some measures wider than those granted to German Länder or Spanish ‘autonomous communities’), it will not be responsible for raising money to pay for them until 2016, when a Scottish income tax will be introduced. This asymmetry precludes a proper debate on fiscal policy and the role of government, while providing nationalists with the ability to blame funding shortfalls on an ‘English’ government in Westminster.

The effects of this asymmetry provide an important lesson for the further devolution which, if Scotland has voted ‘No’, is now inevitable in that country and which, in turn, raises the question of what should happen in England. The well-known West Lothian question, which identifies that Scottish and Welsh MPs can vote on English matters, but English MPs cannot vote on Scottish or Welsh matters, will have to be solved. But so, too, should the remoteness of English government from the English people.

Under current constitutional arrangements, it is quite likely that a government could be elected to office with the support of Scottish and Welsh MPs, despite lacking majority support in England. When the reverse occurred it stimulated the growth of nationalist sentiment in Scotland that was only partially dampened by devolution. It is not hard to imagine a government with a majority derived from its strength outside England imposing taxes that would be borne disproportionately by English taxpayers to finance policies of which English voters disapproved. Such situations would provide fertile soil for an English nationalism every bit as destructive of the Union as the Scottish and Welsh kind. Preserving the Union – our country – therefore requires significant constitutional change.

A minimalist solution of ‘English Votes for English Laws’ has much to recommend it. It fits in with the British tradition of constitutional evolution where constitutional changes are made incrementally, and with minimal disturbance, and therefore with political practice, instead of imposing abstract theoretical models of political order at the expense of good government. It dispenses with the need to create a wholly new institution and provide salaries for a further set of politicians. It is immune from what might be called the ‘Prussian Question’, when one unit in a formally federal country exerts disproportionate influence over the others due to its sheer size, as Prussia did in Bismarck’s Reich.

A more radical alternative would be a fully federal UK, in which an English Parliament, comparable to the Scottish, was set up (with the assemblies of Northern Ireland and Wales becoming similar parliaments). Such a scheme would see the federal government of the United Kingdom retaining responsibility for areas such as foreign affairs, defence, immigration, overall macroeconomic policy and international trade, while an English Parliament, like the Scottish from 2016, would be able to raise its own taxes. The boundaries of jurisdiction would be settled by the UK Supreme Court, as they currently are between London and Scotland.

Either solution would raise the possibility of an English majority, quite possibly Conservative, being at odds with a UK majority. A fully federal system would expose these differences more clearly: there could be a Labour Prime Minister of the UK and a Conservative First Minister of England. The question, then, is which is more likely to provide a focus for a now latent but potentially damaging English nationalism: an arrangement that continues to ignore English claims, or one that answers them. What is clear is that this is no longer only a Scottish, or for that matter, a Welsh or Northern Irish question. Disraeli’s observation that ‘I am a Conservative to preserve all that is good in our constitution, a Radical to remove all that is bad’ is the beginning of wisdom in this debate. We should no longer allow hot-headed nationalism to dominate it. A constitutional convention is needed to examine the issues.

Devolution in England should also mean more powers to our cities and counties, and it was encouraging that the PM also said there would be further announcements ‘in the coming days’ about ‘how to empower our great cities’. I call for a determined new drive for localism in my book – and I think it should go a lot further than our cities.

Some in the Labour Party have already tried to suggest that regional or city devolution is all that is needed to answer the demand for England to have a greater say. Graham Allen MP, for instance, who is Chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, tweeted:

An English Parliament would not deliver devolution but defer it. Devolution can only be delivered by local powers not by rehashIng Westminster.

I disagree, as I suspect will most Tories. Renewed localism is necessary, but not sufficient. We also need a proper answer to the English question.

Reflections on the revolution in Scotland

No Thanks and Yes signs

We weren’t meant to go. I mean, no-one actually said ‘please don’t’, but the vibe was unmistakeable. Please go to Clacton where there’ll be a by-election. Have a great recess and maybe even see you at the Party Conference. But don’t go to Scotland.

To be fair, we were asked to telephone canvass, I suppose on the basis that if Scots voters could only hear our Tory tones, and not see our blazers, old school ties and raspberry cords, the Union would be safer.

I couldn’t stand it any longer. I’d written a local column about the break-up of the three century-old Union. I’d talked passionately about our shared history. I’d said it was the most important political event for a generation. And so the logic became inescapable. I had to get there to help. If I was quadruply compromised – Tory, Southern, English and a little posh – I just wouldn’t open my mouth.

I arrived at the ‘Better Together’ campaign office in Edinburgh to find dozens of volunteers who felt the same way. Many had taken days off from work to lend a hand. A young guy from Yorkshire said he couldn’t face the prospect of the Union being broken and not being able to say what he’d done to try and prevent it. There were lots of young Scots who worked in London but had come home to campaign. They wondered if they’d feel welcome in their country in future.

But most of the volunteers were locals. One Edinburgh resident told me he’d come to help after his house was vandalised because he had a ‘no’ poster in his window. He’d never engaged in political activity before, but was now determined to get involved. They’d carved the word ‘coward’ on his door at night, oblivious to the irony of their anonymous crime.

We went down to Leith to canvass voters who were still undecided or had said they’d vote ‘no’. There was a sea of ‘yes’ posters in the windows. A nationalist stall was doing a brisk trade. As we got out of our cars, a few passers-by, infused with Mr Salmond’s changey-hopey spirit, yelled abuse. God, I thought, this doesn’t look good.

Then we began to knock on doors in the tenement blocks. A few people, incredibly, still hadn’t made up their minds. But the ‘no’ vote seemed to be holding up. Some of the ‘don’t knows’ had even come to us. Time and time again, we were thanked for being there, or delivered a sad rebuke for the campaign’s relative invisibility. ‘You lot have been really absent – the others have been here the whole time’, said one young woman.

One man told us that people were scared to reveal themselves as ‘no’ voters. The day before, he’d seen a ‘no’ campaigner screamed at by a furious resident, accusing him of being a ‘Tory quisling’. My fellow canvasser queried the word. ‘Aye, you know, the Norwegian fella’, he said with some surprise.

In the town centre, an unsmiling campaigner handed me an official ‘yes’ leaflet urging me to vote for independence to keep the Tories out forever. We briefly took up a rival position nearby. It was impossible to tell, from their looks, which way people might vote. But they started to come up to express their support, some wanting stickers to declare it, others surreptitiously taking pamphlets or stealing a wink of approval.

A reporter from Hong Kong and a Swedish TV crew followed us around, utterly bemused by events. A woman burst out of a block of flats to ask us where the ‘no’ shop was to counter the ‘yes’ store on the corner. ‘How does this compare with your constituency?’, asked a fellow campaigner as we walked down the familiarly-named South Sloan Street. ‘It’s not quite the same’, I replied, deciding not to mention Arundel Castle or its English Duke.

Two men wearing ‘Aye’ and ‘Fuck Aye’ blue t-shirts, the latter by now beginning to represent my view (with a more literal emphasis), passed us on the way to the pub. A group of obviously drunk men at the door shouted something totally incomprehensible but definitely abusive. As we hurried by, one of them ran after us to grab a leaflet, quietly signalling his support. I gained entry to a pitch dark corridor in a tenement block and felt my way up the staircase. ‘Piss off’, a menacing voice said from above, before I could say which side I was calling from.

On the way out I talked to a couple of young Spaniards who were having a cigarette. They’d come over to work in Edinburgh and had jobs in a bar. I thought of Nigel Farage. I asked if they had a vote. No, they said, they weren’t registered, but thought they shouldn’t vote anyway. I asked how they’d vote if they had to. ‘I’m Basque’, said one, with a smile.

An Eastern European guy ran to catch up with me on the street. ‘I hate nationalism’, he said, ‘It’s terrible’. He was upset because someone had told him he’d have to change the faded union logo on his rucksack after Thursday. ‘The UK is such a great country’, he said. ‘Why can’t people see it?’

This was a Labour-held parliamentary constituency in which the SNP claimed less than 10 per cent of the vote at the last general election. I wondered where all the pro-Union Labour activists were. Some of our team were bitter that, earlier in the campaign, the message had come down from Scotland’s Labour hierarchy not to adopt a high profile. While volunteers soldiered away on the ground, Westminster’s complacent Labour leadership had let them down.

All around us, the ‘yes’ side had appropriated the Saltire and the message of change. The ‘no’ side hadn’t wanted to feature the emblem of the United Kingdom. Alone in Princes Street, a determined looking elderly gentleman waved a large Union flag to appreciative passers-by. Nearby, a banner urged a ‘yes’ vote for an independent socialist Scotland. Two huge bill-boards, separated by an advert for toiletries, summed up the campaign. ‘Don’t risk your pound, pay, pension’ declared a gloomy ‘no’ message. ‘Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands’ enthused the ‘yes’ poster.

The campaign strategies appeared to differ in other ways, too, ‘yes’ making their presence felt in the streets, ‘no’ canvassing with targeted precision. Our team leader, a charismatic young volunteer, had been going since the early morning. We headed back to the campaign office to recharge our canvass sheets and grab some junk food. The room was teeming with activists. One startled us by announcing that Nick Robinson had been fired for challenging Alex Salmond. I checked twitter hurriedly. ‘I don’t think so,’ I said. ‘Oh yes’, she insisted. The First Minister was clearly the only thing she disliked more than the Corporation.

It isn’t just the nation that’s divided. We canvassed houses with split loyalties. ‘We’re all voting ‘no’, except for my son’, said one reflective father. ‘We’ve lost him’. I wondered how the country would heal in the event of a narrow vote one way or the other.

On the way back to London, where the train passes over the river Tweed at Berwick, I remembered that I’d once – nearly twenty years ago – delivered a speech on the Union Bridge which links England and Scotland to warn that the United Kingdom was at risk. I wonder if I really thought, at the time, that it could break.

Whatever happens today, we face a separation of a kind, to use the marital metaphor which already seems weary and is certainly not big enough to reflect the enormity of this decision. Until now English nationalism has been dormant. Now it’s poised to rise with a vengeance. My inbox has filled with e-mails from constituents demanding that, if Scotland stays, England will be treated fairly.

Mostly I feel a great sadness. It’s the second time in a year that I’ve been deeply troubled by a democratic decision, the last being the vote in the House of Commons not to take military action against Syria after its use of chemical weapons. But this event seems bigger even, and potentially far more damaging, than the shameful loss of resolve in our foreign policy.

And now I also feel dismay. Dismay that we’ve somehow, carelessly, let this happen. Dismay that our broken politics might now break the United Kingdom. Dismay – no, anger – that the people without hope on those council estates have been so let down by socialism that they genuinely see independence as a route out.

Nothing, nothing, has mattered more in my nine years as an MP, or for that matter in my lifetime. And I was expected to go and buy ice creams in Clacton.

Boris orders sobriety

Boris Johnson has today launched a really interesting initiative: a compulsory sobriety trial in South London which aims to reduce alcohol-related reoffending. People committing alcohol-related offences will be required to remain sober for a period of up to four months, enforced with electronically monitored tags that can detect if they have been drinking.

All credit to the Mayor who, with his Deputy Kit Malthouse, lobbied hard for legislation to allow for the introduction of a new sentencing power, the Alcohol Abstinence Monitoring Requirement, to allow sobriety orders to be introduced. Despite considerable Whitehall resistance to the idea, we finally secured the necessary change in the law in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.

The sobriety pilot is based on a model from South Dakota in the US where, according to the Mayor’s Office for Policing & Crime (MOPAC), the benefits include reducing recidivism, reducing the number of people going into prison and therefore the cost of prisons, and allowing offenders to remain with their families and in employment.

MOPAC states that a 24/7 enforced sobriety scheme is now used as a sentencing tool in several US states. Between 2005 and 2010 over 13,000 offenders had been through the programme, amounting to 2.4 million tests, with a 99.6 per cent pass rate. Over 54 per cent were totally compliant during the entire term of their sentence and recidivism rates were less than half of non-sobriety offenders over three years. The prison population fell by 14 per cent.

‘Compulsory sobriety’ has, however, never been tried in the UK before. This trial aims to test how the courts use the new orders, how agencies work together to provide the support around tagging, the effectiveness of the tags themselves and compliance rates.

Professor Keith Humphreys, a former White House Drugs Advisor who has advised City Hall on the project, talked persuasively about the scheme on the Today programme this morning. You can listen to his interview here (2h44m in) and read the BBC news online report here.

A few quick thoughts:

1. This shows how technology can transform the fight against crime. GPS tags now make smart curfew requirements and the close monitoring of offenders possible. Now tags can detect the use of alcohol and drugs. But we’ve been slow to exploit this new technology.

2. We need to unlock local innovation to allow creative new solutions in criminal justice. It’s no accident that this scheme has been championed, and is now being piloted, by the Mayor, not a minister.

3. Far from encouraging local innovation, central government acts as a brake on it. It took months of relentless lobbying to persuade the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office to pass the simple legislation to allow the pilots, since when they have moved at a glacial pace. The Home Office has at least devolved power to elected Police & Crime Commissioners, but the MoJ is instinctively centralist. If central government won’t devolve power to an elected mayor who represents 8 million people, who will they trust? There needs to be a profound cultural change in central government to permit proper localism.

4. The key principle in disposals like this is certainty: offenders need to know that a breach will result in instant and decisive penalty. Our criminal justice system resists such practice. The pilot’s weakness is that it could take weeks for action to be brought against offenders who drink while tagged. If an offender breaches the sobriety order, they will first have to be returned to court where further sanctions can be imposed. Imprisonment is only likely to result from persistent non-compliance. This isn’t swift and sure justice, but neither is it the Mayor’s fault – it’s a fundamental weakness in our system of probation which needs fixing.

5. Opinion polling for the GLA in 2011 found that sobriety orders were popular with the public (well over two thirds supported the idea). Doubtless some will disagree. I recall the horror of a prominent politician, partial to a shandy, on being told that an electronic device might be used to monitor someone’s alcohol consumption. And I wonder how long it will be before the civil libertarians complain that sobriety tags are an egregious breach of human rights ….