What is the Chancellor’s Autumn statement?

HammondThis week the Chancellor of the Exchequer will deliver his Autumn Statement. It forms part of three set-piece debates which punctuate the parliamentary year, alongside the debate on the Queen’s Speech and the Budget. It is striking that two of those, the Autumn Statement and the Budget are the responsibility of the Chancellor and that, while the Queen’s Speech and the Budget statement are familiar to many, the purpose of the Autumn Statement and its relationship to Budget are not widely understood.

The media are fond of pointing out that the main difference between the Autumn statement and the Budget is that when delivering the latter the Chancellor is permitted to refresh himself with an alcoholic drink, while the Autumn statement is a more abstemious affair. However, there are other differences between the two statements which are often overlooked.

Although it takes place late in the year, as late as December in some years, contrary to some reports, the Autumn Statement actually precedes rather than follows the Budget. The parliamentary calendar begins with the State Opening of Parliament in May, the Autumn Statement takes place in November or December and is followed towards the end of the parliamentary session by the Budget statement, which usually takes place in the spring, some time around March.

The Autumn Statement and the Budget also have distinct functions. While both provide an opportunity for the Chancellor to comment on the strength of the economy, the Autumn Statement is generally used to provide details of the Government’s spending priorities and plans, while the Budget sets out the taxation measures necessary to implement those plans. To put it broadly, the Autumn Statement deals with spending, while the Budget is concerned with tax. It is perhaps not surprising then that it is the Budget, which tells people how much things are going to cost, that attracts more public attention, while the Autumn Statement can be more easily overlooked as promises yet to be fulfilled.

Indeed, the Autumn Statement can certainly appear more aspirational and is often somewhat shorter on detail. Although, like the Budget, the Autumn Statement is followed by the publication of detailed documentation, The Economic and Fiscal Outlook, the implications of this are perhaps less clear than the statements of revenue raising measures included in the Budget statement and the Red Book. Moreover, while the Autumn Statement, like the Budget, will be subject to considerable scrutiny on the floor of the House of Commons, and in the Treasury select committee, it is not subject to quite the same level of fiscal scrutiny as the Budget.

In delivery, however, the distinction between the two statements is often somewhat blurred. Chancellors will often take the opportunity of the Budget to restate spending plans already outlined in the Autumn Statement, and the Autumn Statement can have the appearance of a mini-budget. While this may have some political value, it is also understandable. There is something artificial about the notion of separating spending plans from the tax revenues needed to support them. For this reason, and following pressure both from within the Treasury, and outside bodies such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies, in 1993 the Conservative Government introduced a unified budget with a single statement, taking place in the autumn. The unified budget experiment was, however, short-lived. Following Labour’s victory in 1997, the Chancellor, Gordon Brown reintroduced the combination of an autumn statement (labelled the pre-Budget report by Labour), followed by a spring Budget and the practice has remained unchanged since. In his recently published memoirs, the former Conservative Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, regrets the abandonment of the unified budget which he describes as  a ‘very sensible approach’, although he observes with some relish that one result of this is that he is,  ‘the only Chancellor of the Exchequer to have delivered a huge all-embracing Budget at this time of year.’ (Kind of Blue, p.326).

There are, however, some very good reasons why the unified Budget did not endure. As Ken Clarke suggests the production of a unified budget once a year was a monumental task. In his book The Secret Treasury, the Labour Peer, David Lipsey, argues that the Treasury ‘was never a wholehearted convert to the unified budget.’ There were, he argues, very good practical reasons for having two statements, it served to spread the, not inconsiderable, workload involved in producing a single Budget:

The separation of spending and taxes might be hard to justify in theory; in practice, it helped with the organisation of the workload. Spending could be decided in outline by Cabinet in July. Detailed negotiations would follow in August and September. The government could then announce its spending plans in November. That would clear the decks for a crescendo in work on the budget in the following March. When, however, the whole process came to a head together, at a date between the old autumn statement and the old budget, all the work had to be done at once. The Treasury never buckles, but it blanched. (The Secret Treasury, pp.122-3)

Moreover, there was, Lipsey argues, another more fundamental objection to a unified budget. Some in the Treasury were concerned that a single Budget was likely to open questions about tax to much wider debate.  The Treasury recognised that its weakness in dealing with government departments in relation spending was that it was forced to consult, and that in doing so it was invariably outnumbered by other departments and that decisions would ultimately be taken in the Cabinet. In relation to tax, however, the Chancellor, has singular authority and the Treasury was keen to hold onto this. ‘Tax’, Lipsey observes, ‘is for the Chancellor alone':

He will of course tell the Prime Minister what he plans. He will also consult individual ministers on individual taxes which affect their department; indeed they may be responsible for the detail of some of those taxes. But by tradition, he only tells the Cabinet the content of his proposals on the day he announces them to Parliament, when it is far too late for them to do other than applaud them. (The Secret Treasury, p.123)

Clarke’s memoirs also serve to illustrate the different processes involved in producing tax and spending plans. While the latter involved considerable negotiation with Cabinet colleagues, the tax side of the Budget was decided almost exclusively in the Treasury. He also notes that while spending plans involved negotiation it was often ‘fairly easy’ to gain consent, ‘because most departmental ministers were convinced that the spending total’s effects would not be borne by them’. The tightening of fiscal policy set out in tax policy was not so easy to sell.

When the Chancellor sits down after his Autumn Statement this week it is worth noting that the applause which will inevitably follow, at least from those alongside and behind him, may be far more sincere than that which will follow his Budget statement in March. When giving his Autumn Statement, the Chancellor is the friend of government departments, by the time he stand up to deliver his Budget speech in March he may well need a drink.

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Irrelevant questions undermine the value of PMQs

DSCF2733This post first appeared on the blog of the Parliaments and Legislatures study group of the UK Political Studies Association.

The weekly Prime Minister’s Questions is undoubtedly an important mechanism for holding the government to account. The requirement that the Prime Minister must come to the chamber of the House of Commons on a weekly basis to answer questions about government policy and administration provides a valuable, and rare, opportunity for individual MPs to scrutinise government.

However, in practice PMQs often falls somewhat short of this ideal. Criticisms of PMQs tend to focus on the Punch and Judy nature of the occasion, in which government and opposition seek to score points by outdoing each other through jeers and rehearsed one-liners. Another common source of complaint is the governing party’s use of planted questions which are merely designed to offer the Prime Minister an opportunity to reiterate a few stock phrases about the government’s achievements. If PMQs is to provide a genuine opportunity to scrutinise the government then such practices are, at best, a waste of time.

Another, less well-known but increasingly common, way in which this precious opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny is being wasted is the practice of MPs asking pointless questions about things over which the government has no control. Such questions are not necessarily designed to provide the government with a free hit and are perhaps less grating than those which ask the Prime Minister to comment on the economic benefits of the recent opening of a newsagents in Chipping Walden. However, they are similarly pointless.

Two striking examples of the form cropped up in last week’s PMQs. The first, from Charles Walker, Conservative MP for Broxbourne, related to the news that the British gymnast Louis Smith had been banned from the sport for two months after appearing to mock Islam in a video. Something for which Smith had subsequently apologised. An indignant and apparently frustrated Walker asked the PM:

When people make fun of Christianity in this country, it rightly turns the other cheek. When a young gymnast, Louis Smith, ​makes fun of another religion widely practised in this country, he is hounded on Twitter and by the media and suspended by his association. For goodness’ sake, this man received death threats, and we have all looked the other way. My question to the Prime Minister is this: what is going on in this country, because I no longer understand the rules? (Hansard – 2 November 2016, col.888)

The PM who, understandably, appeared at something of a loss at how to answer the question, ‘what is going on in this country?’, responded by asserting the importance of freedom of speech and religious tolerance, before moving onto ground on which she was clearly more comfortable, the government’s counter-extremism strategy.

Later in the same session the Labour MP for Selly Oak, Steve McCabe, asked the Prime Minister to comment on the ruling by football’s governing body that the national teams for England and Scotland would not be allowed to wear poppies on their kit in their forthcoming game to be held on Armistice Day:

Has the Prime Minister spotted the ludicrous refusal by FIFA, the footballing federation, to let our ​players wear poppies at the forthcoming Scotland-England game? Will she tell the respective associations that, in this country, we decide when to wear poppies and that we will be wearing them at Wembley? (Hansard – 2 November 2016, col.889)

The PM was, it seemed, much more comfortable in responding to this question and was moved to offer a stern telling-off to FIFA:

I think the stance that has been taken by FIFA is utterly outrageous. Our football players want to recognise and respect those who have given their lives for our safety and security. I think it is absolutely right that they should be able to do so. This is for our football associations, but I think a clear message is going from this House that we want our players to be able to wear poppies. I have to say to FIFA that before they start telling us what to do they jolly well ought to sort their own house out. (Hansard – 2 November 2016, col.889

Interestingly it was this response which dominated media coverage of last week’s PMQs, and was reported on the front page of several newspapers. In contrast, for example, the Prime Minister’s responses to Jeremy Corbyn’s questions about benefits cuts or Jeff Smith’s question on the government’s latest high court defeat on air pollution, or the government’s commitment to increase GP numbers restated in response to a question from Rosie Winterton,  faded into oblivion.

The problem with Walker’s and McCabe’s questions is not that they are not interesting and valid issues for discussion but that they are not issues over which the Prime Minister has any authority. Both questions related to the actions of a sport governing body, in McCabe’s case, the international governing body, over which the Prime Minister has no authority or, it might reasonably be assumed, influence. Walker’s question raised the not insignificant problem of online abuse but did not ask anything specific about government policy in that regard. Indeed, it is not entirely clear why Walker felt moved to ask his question at all. As far as I can tell, Louis Smith is not a resident of Broxbourne and was not born or brought up there. The question was clearly motivated by a more general sense of disquiet about the state of the country but it is hard to know how the Prime Minister is supposed to answer such questions.

It is not that the Prime Minister will not have a view on such issues, but it is perhaps wrong to expect that she does, or more importantly that it matters. The Prime Minister’s response to such questions, made up as it is on the floor of the House of Commons, does not constitute government policy and is at worst wholly irrelevant. The policies of British Gymnastics or of FIFA do not fall within the purview of government policy and it is unlikely that the government will choose to do anything in response to such questions, or indeed that it should. It would be refreshing, although admittedly unlikely, if the PM would respond to such questions by stating that the government has no official position on these matters, and no authority, and that if MPs wish to know her personal view on such matters they should perhaps choose a different forum in which to ask such questions, the House of Commons tea room, for example.

The more serious point about this is that questions such as these waste a valuable opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny when MPs could be asking the Prime Minister to comments on government policy. When PMQs was established as a regular fixture in the Parliamentary week in 1961, it was based on the assumption that the Prime Minister would only answer questions on those areas in which they had personal responsibility. It was not uncommon for the Prime Minister to transfer questions to other Minsters or simply to dismiss irrelevant questions in a fairly perfunctory fashion. The current practice of PMQs being tabled as engagements questions, allowing MPs to ask an unseen supplementary question on any issue they care to choose, has rather undermined the Prime Minister’s capacity to transfer questions in advance. At the same time a widespread expectation has developed that the Prime Minister should now provide an answer to whatever question is posed on any issue which might excite a member’s interest. It would perhaps take a brave Prime Minister to simply dismiss a question on the basis that it is not an area over which they have any responsibility, but it might help to reassert PMQs as an important and relevant mechanism for parliament to scrutinise the executive.

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Ed Balls and a defence of sledging at PMQs

ballsPrime Minister’s Questions is one of the most extraordinary Parliamentary spectacles at Westminster, if not the world. Every week, while Parliament is sitting, the Prime Minister must come to Parliament and subject themselves to thirty minutes, (in recent times quite a lot longer), of questions from both sides of the House of Commons. They receive no advance warning of the subject matter of questions, which can range widely across any area of public policy and beyond. In a recent PMQs, the range of topics on which Theresa May was expected to field questions included NHS spending, the child sex-abuse inquiry, grammar schools, the prospect of a second runway for Gatwick airport, the ivory trade, Chinese ceramic dumping and the dualling of the A303 in Yeovil. While the leader of the Opposition is allowed to ask six questions and the leader of the next largest party, currently the SNP, can ask two, the remaining questions are selected at random from MPs who put their name into the weekly ‘shuffle’ or by a small handful who may be selected by catching the Speaker’s attention in the Chamber. While Opposition questions can be anticipated as designed to challenge or embarrass the government, those from the Prime Minister’s own benches are often designed or ‘planted’ in order to allow the Prime Minister to draw attention to the government’s perceived achievements. While such questions may provide a temporary relief from the onslaught from the other side of the Chamber, the occasional unexpected challenge from one’s own backbenches is not uncommon and may be even more painful.

The process of a weekly questions to the Prime Minister is an important mechanism for holding the government to account. It ensures that the government cannot ignore Parliament and serves as a regular reminder that, in the UK, it is Parliament that is sovereign. Even Prime Ministers who enjoy a large majority in Parliament freely admit to being daunted by PMQs. The description of the challenges of this weekly engagement in Tony Blair’s memoirs provides one of the strongest defence of the value of PMQs:

PMQs was the most nerve-wracking, discombobulating, nail-biting, bowel-moving, terror inspiring, courage-draining experience in my prime ministerial life, without question… the whole thing is a giant joust, a sort of modern, non-physical duel. The weapons are words, but my God they can hurt, and to devastating effect. For those thirty minutes, the Prime Minister is essentially on the ‘at risk’ register. It is the unpredictability that is so frightening. Sure your own back benches, if they are loyal, let you know the question, but to everyone else, it’s a blood sport and the Prime Minister is the quarry. If it goes well, you feel buoyed; if it goes badly, you feel not simply wretched but humiliated. (Tony Blair, A Journey, p.109)

However, while PMQs is widely viewed as an important democratic process, in practice the spectacle is often decidedly unedifying. MPs on both sides of the House take the opportunity to barrack and bawl at each other and score cheap points with carefully constructed, and only occasionally funny, jokes which will, nonetheless, prompt lengthy and unconstrained laughter in the Chamber. Questions, particularly those from the Opposition leaders, are often prefaced by long statements and in some cases are not even questions at all. The practice of planting sympathetic questions on the government’s own benches undermines the value of this genuine opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny and can lend the whole event the unpleasant pallor of toadying obsequiousness. Moreover, while the Chamber is always packed for PMQs, many MPs are acutely aware of the limitations of exercise and the poor image it presents to the world beyond Westminster. In interviews conducted as part of our research on Parliament and welfare policy, many MPs were critical of the value of PMQs describing it variously as ‘stage-managed’ and ‘a circus’. In contrast, some noted the daily departmental questions, which receives much less media attention, was an important opportunity for detailed scrutiny.

One of the most vocal critics of PMQs is the current Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow. Clearly frustrated at the spectacle he is forced to manage, Bercow has described PMQs it as ‘scrutiny by screech’ which is, he argues, damaging the reputation of Parliament.

For most of the public Prime Minister’s Questions is the shop window of the House of Commons. The media coverage of that thirty minute slot dominates all other proceedings in Parliament during the rest of the week. If the country comes to an adverse conclusion about the House because of what it witnesses in those exchanges, then the noble work of a dozen Select Committees will pale into insignificance by comparison… If it is scrutiny at all, then it is scrutiny by screetch which is a very strange concept to my mind… PMQs ha[s] become a litany of attacks, soundbites and planted questions from across the spectrum. It was emphatically not an act of scrutiny conducted in a civilised manner. And this is what the House of Commons has allowed to be placed in what I repeat is the shop window. (John Bercow, speech at the International Centre for Parliamentary Studies, London, 2010)

Many MPs are prepared to accept such criticisms and will pay lip-service to the need for a quieter or more mature approach to PMQs. In contrast, there are few who are prepared to defend the current practices. One notable exception to this is the former Shadow Chancellor, and extraordinary dancer, Ed Balls, who was, until recently, one of the most active practitioners of the dark arts of PMQs. While his recently published memoirs, Speaking Out, don’t necessarily provide a wholehearted defence of the less edifying side of PMQs they do explain the reasoning behind his own actions in the Chamber, when sitting opposite David Cameron at PMQs. He clearly derived satisfaction from his ability to provoke the Prime Minister and also stresses why, in his view, such actions may be necessary:

On television, you never get a sense of how small the House of Commons actually is, how close the opposing benches are to each other, and what a cauldron of noise is created. The microphones pick up only a fraction of what is going on, as do the journalists up in the press gallery. It was perfectly possible, and common, for George Osborne and me to have a whispered chat throughout PMQs exchanges. I’d observe how little David Cameron understood the issues; George would ask in response why then were we unable to lay a glove on him?

Of course, Cameron would also hear what I was saying and would become more and more irate, especially when I had the temerity to address him directly, and ask repeatedly – in the manner of a disappointed schoolmaster – why he didn’t just work harder at his job…

Naturally a small part of me wished I could be in Ed’s shoes, and pose the questions myself… But while I couldn’t ask Cameron questions, I could certainly use my low-level heckling and visible body language at PMQs to put him under pressure: using my outstretched hand to signal that the economy was flatlining, for example – a gesture akin to smoothing a bedsheet.

If you believe you’re born to be prime minister you probably don’t think that anyone else has a right to question the way you do the job, let alone treat you with disrespect… Among the media, his own ministers and MPs, and behind closed doors of Downing Street, Cameron’s temper was even more notorious than Gordon Brown’s. But that was a side if his character that the public rarely got to see, and PMQs became one of the only occasions we could expose it.

I’m absolutely certain he never came into a session on Wednesday intending to say something nasty or patronising… but eventually his inner Flashman would win out… So when Cameron finally lost it, it’s true that it always gave me some temporary satisfaction. (Ed Balls, Speaking Out, pp.345-6)

While Balls was clearly motivated by a desire to expose the Prime Minister he also admits that the actions of Opposition MPs at PMQs may also depend on their own leader’s performance, concluding that:

On days when Ed scored a good hit, I was quieter, but on the days when he didn’t, I’d try to catch Cameron out. If there’s a comparison with close fielders sledging in cricket, it’s that you don’t bother when your spinner is turning them sideways, but you have to try everything when it’s 200-0 on a flat pitch.

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Cameron’s gone. What will he do and what is his legacy?

CamA slightly shorter version of this article was published in The Lincolnshire Echo.


In a period of political upheaval David Cameron’s announcement that he is leaving the House of Commons with ‘immediate effect’ is not the most surprising news of recent months. It would, perhaps, have been more surprising if he had chosen to remain as an MP.

What do retiring Prime Ministers do?

It is now rare for departing Prime Ministers to remain in Parliament. Gordon Brown, who remained as an MP for the whole of the 2010-2015 Parliament is something of an exception in recent years. But Brown, who was a prominent campaigner for the Union in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, rarely spoke in Parliament and chose not to contest his seat at the 2015 general election. The last defeated Prime Minister who stayed in Parliament long enough to fight a general election from the backbenches was James Callaghan who remained as an MP for two parliamentary terms following his defeat by Margaret Thatcher in 1979, stepping down just before the 1987 general election.

By the time he left the Commons, Callaghan was the Father of the House, the title reserved for the longest serving MP. He was followed in this position by one of his predecessors as Prime Minister, Edward Heath who also chose to remain in the Commons after a defeat by Margaret Thatcher, in Heath’s case for the leadership of the Conservative Party. Heath only stood down as an MP in 2001, twenty-seven years after he ceased to be Prime Minister.

It is the example of Edward Heath which has perhaps provided the starkest lesson to outgoing Prime Ministers about how unrewarding life can be on the backbenches. Thatcher claimed that she offered Heath a position in her first government, although Heath’s recollection was somewhat different, and when he declined the two barely spoke again. Heath was, however, a persistent and sometimes vocal critic of Thatcher’s leadership from the backbenches earning him the unwelcome sobriquet of the ‘incredible sulk’.

It is also the case that few outgoing Prime Ministers now choose to take a seat in the House of Lords, at one time a well-trodden path for Britain’s former Prime Ministers. Of Britain’s post-war Prime Ministers Attlee, Eden, Macmillan, Wilson, Callaghan and Thatcher all ended their days in the House of Lords, although some, most notably Churchill, declined the offer. However, Thatcher was the last former Prime Minister to take a seat in the upper House, and since her death in 2013 there are now no former Prime Ministers in the House of Lords, although a substantial number of peerages have gone to former Ministers from the governments of Major, Blair and even Cameron.

Why has Cameron stepped down?

Cameron’s age may offer one explanation for his reluctance to remain in Parliament. David Cameron is leaving Parliament at the age of 49, that is one year younger than the average age of MPs elected to Parliament in 2015, and five years younger than Tony Blair when he left office in 2007. David Cameron was the youngest Prime Minister of recent times. He is also leaving office at a younger age than most of his predecessors began the job. Churchill, Heath, Callaghan, Thatcher, Brown and of course Theresa May were all older than Cameron is now when they first became Prime Minister.

Cameron almost certainly has plans for a career beyond Westminster. He has considerable personal wealth but is unlikely to follow John Major’s example and sit back and watch the cricket. In reality, former Prime Ministers, including Major and most controversially Tony Blair, have developed lucrative business interests and can demand significant fees on the after-dinner speakers circuit. Although he has said that he would like to remain in public service it is likely that Cameron will be presented with many attractive opportunities in the private sector. While the manner of his departure and his reputation for bold, if not entirely successful, risk-taking may worry some, there are many, particularly in the City of London for whom this may be seen as an asset. Ironically while many voters may criticise Cameron for turning his back on a problem he helped to create, there are no doubt some in the financial sector who will pay handsomely for his advice on how to handle Brexit.

Cameron’s legacy

There has already been a great deal of discussion about Cameron’s legacy since he stepped down as Prime Minister in July. However, it is hard to see him being remembered for anything other than being the Prime Minister who prompted Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. Whether that is viewed as a toxic legacy or something more positive is, of course, out of his hands. It is dependent on the deal negotiated by Theresa May or quite possibly her successor, and the impact this will have on the UK. Either way it is somewhat ironic that Cameron will largely be remembered for delivering something he didn’t want and has no control over.

One other area in which Cameron deserves some credit is in making the Conservative Party electable once more. The Conservative Party went through three leaders (Hague, Duncan-Smith and Howard) and lost three successive general elections prior to David Cameron’s election as party leader in 2005. Although Cameron was only marginally more electorally successful than his predecessors, failing to win a majority in 2010, he did at least lead the Conservatives back into government, albeit in coalition, after thirteen years of opposition. More extraordinarily, and easily forgotten in light of what has happened since, Cameron managed to secure a Conservative majority in 2015. However, as the last few months have shown, all of that is likely to eclipsed by the impact that Brexit has on a party and a country which he no longer leads.

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Not too late for an informed debate on EU membership

This article first appeared in ‘The Business’ supplement to The Lincolnshire Echo, June 2016.

IMG_0950The European Union has changed beyond all recognition from the economic community Britain joined in 1973. It is now an economic and political union with a common foreign and security policy, its own parliament, a common currency and open borders which extend across large parts of its twenty-eight member states. For those campaigning for Britain to leave, and even amongst some of those who would like to remain, there is a feeling that the so-called ‘European project’ has moved forward at a dizzying pace, driven by forces over which we have little control.

On the other hand the EU is very much the product of the community which Britain was eager to join in the 1970s. The shape of the community which Britain joined was set out in the 1957 Treaty of Rome, which promised to ‘lay the foundations for an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe.’ For forty years successive British governments have signed treaties which have expanded the remit of the EU. At the same time, far from being bounced into ever closer union, Britain has a consistently negotiated opt-outs from those aspects which it does not support. Margaret Thatcher successfully negotiated a rebate on Britain’s contributions and opted out of the workers’ rights included in the Maastricht Treaty. Britain is not a member of the Eurozone or part of the Schengen area which has removed border controls, while David Cameron has, amongst other things, negotiated Britain’s exclusion from the founding principle of ‘ever closer union’.

Of course the debate about Britain’s membership of the EU is not simply an argument about the past. As economic uncertainty has spread across the continent, some argue that EU membership is an unnecessary drain on Britain’s resources. The inconvenient truth for the ‘remain’ campaign is that Britain is a net contributor to the EU. While British membership does not cost anywhere near the £350m a week which has been claimed, Britain does pay more into the EU than it gets out.

However, this has not always been the case. Britain was the poor man of Europe when it joined the European community. As a booming economy it now contributes towards the development of other states. While some will argue that there are real benefits to promoting economic prosperity across Europe, creating stability and markets for British goods, those opposed to the redistribution of wealth at home are unlikely to support it abroad. It is also important to remember that in some areas, Britain still benefits considerably from EU funding. In agriculture and research and development, for example, EU funding to the UK exceeds the EU average.

Less easy to calculate than the cost of membership are the economic benefits of being part of the largest trading bloc in the world. The EU is Britain’s most significant trading partner. The ‘leave’ campaign argue that as the fourth largest economy in the world, Britain is more than capable of standing on its own two feet. However, they are unclear about where Britain’s economic future lies. Exit would certainly mean considerable economic uncertainty. Britain would be forced to negotiate a trade deal with the EU which may take considerable time and in doing so would still be required to retain many EU regulations in order to maintain trade relations.

Polls indicate that the majority of the public, including those who think Britain should leave, accept there will be an economic cost to exit. Whether this is a price worth paying may depend on how one feels about other aspects of the EU. At the centre of this debate is an argument about sovereignty or control.

It is often claimed that membership of the EU means that Britain has lost control of its borders. Although this is not the case, the free movement of labour has seen an influx of foreign workers into the UK. Businesses, including Lincolnshire farmers, have benefited considerably from this, but immigration has also created tensions in communities where some feel it has placed pressure on local services.

There is also a widespread view that the EU is run by unelected bureaucrats who make decisions which are somehow imposed on the member states. The reality, of course, is more complex. The EU is an institution comprised of a large number of independent states and membership inevitably involves comprise. Decisions in Brussels are taken by Commissioners appointed by the member states or by the Council of Ministers which includes British Cabinet Ministers, and then approved by the European Parliament, which we elected. The system is by no means perfect, democracy rarely is, but nine times out of ten Britain gets what it wants.

Sadly much of the debate has focused on general perceptions of what membership involves rather than how and why the EU exists and the real benefits and the undoubted costs of membership. It is not too late for an informed debate.

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