Economy first, politics second

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GEORGE Osborne’s strident intervention in the growing debate about Britain’s future relationship with the European Union needs to be placed in political and economic context.

First, the politics. By raising the prospect of Britain leaving the EU unless Brussels agrees to fundamental reforms on business competitiveness, the Chancellor is trying to appease the 95 Tory MPs who have signed an open letter calling on Parliament to be given a veto on future Europe-wide legislation.

As the Conservative Party’s chief strategist and tactician, Mr Osborne knows that the Tories need to present an united front if they’re to withstand the electoral threat now posed by an emboldened United Kingdom Independence Party.

He also wants David Cameron to be given the chance to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership of the EU and it was significant that Mr Osborne repeatedly name-checked Angela Merkel – the widely-respected German Chancellor is one of the few leaders sympathetic to the UK’s demand for reform.

However the politics – and the daily debate about the impact of new laws on migration and criminal justice for example – is of secondary importance to economic considerations in this complex and vitriolic debate.

Even Mr Osborne has acknowledged this necessity. Significantly, he said that it was “in no one’s interests for Britain to come to face a choice between joining the euro or leaving the European Union” before arguing that “the biggest economic risk facing Europe doesn’t come from those who want reform and renegotiation, it comes from the failure to reform and renegotiate”.

This is reflected on the opposite view by the considered view of the respected Leeds businessman Alan Halsall, the co-chairman of Business for Britain. He questions the wisdom of EU legislation, including data protection laws and the workers’ time directive, applying to those British firms that do not export to Europe – or other markets.

As such, his manifesto for change, the so-called British Option, is a timely intervention as Mr Osborne tries to balance political and economic considerations ahead of this year’s European elections and the 2015 general election. It is a balance that the Chancellor will need to strike carefully so that short-term political factors do not jeopardise the UK’s long-term economic prospects.

A class struggle

THE contrast between Benefits Street and Educating Yorkshire, two fly-on-the-wall documentaries broadcast by Channel Four, could not be greater. The former is being criticised for sensationalising the culture of welfare dependency that has been so damaging to the country’s economy while the latter highlighted the inspirational work of teachers at Dewsbury’s Thornhill Academy to help pupils meet their potential.

It was a point eloquently highlighted by respected Bradford primary school headteacher David Jones when he gave evidence to Parliament’s education select committee on why the attainment of children from white working class backgrounds in Yorkshire, and further afield, lag behind their peers.

He believes that excessive media coverage of some notorious benefit cases is counter-productive because it leads to some children thinking, erroneously, that this has to be their future and that there are no employment opportunities available to them.

He contrasted the experience of their forebears who were virtually guaranteed a job, even if it was down a mine, with today’s generation who will be left on society’s “forgotten pile” unless steps are to be taken to convince youngsters from housing estates that they have a valuable contribution to make if they study hard and acquire qualifications in the key skills.

In short, a way needs to be found for schools like Thornhill Academy, and its inspirational teachers who became household names, to become the norm rather than the exception. But teachers can’t work miracles on their own – they also need the support of parents at all times.

A ticket to where?

WHAT should take priority? The safeguarding of rural bus services in North Yorkshire, even though they run at a loss, or the continuation of free and discounted travel for pensioners in a Government scheme that takes no account of incomes and ability to pay?

This is the dilemma facing North Yorkshire county councillors who want the Treasury to relax the rules on the allocation of free bus passes so more money can be spent on supporting many of the 150 services which are now under threat in the latest round of cuts.

Their point is a rather ironic one: free passes are pointless if they’re insufficient services for travellers to use in the county.

Yet this difficult decision is also symptomatic of transport policy-making in countryside areas. If services are to prosper, and particularly in tourism hotspots like North Yorkshire, there needs to be long-term funding so operators have a chance to grow passenger numbers and reduce their dependency on subsidies from cash-squeezed local authorities.