Carswell on Corbyn, refugees, tax avoidance, and the need for more private provision in the NHS.
We were pleasantly surprised, I will admit, when Douglas Carswell (the sole UKIP MP in Parliament) replied to our email saying he’d be expecting our call at 4.40pm sharp on Tuesday. We are, after all, merely small-time internet lefties – he is, by contrast, a busy man and an ardent economic libertarian. We took up quite a bit of his time in discussing his views on everything from the NHS to the future of UKIP in detail – and some of them may well surprise you.
We could not, of course, avoid the issue of Jeremy Corbyn in our discussion, not least because Carswell could recently “neither confirm nor deny” to the Telegraph that he had voted for the left-winger in Labour’s leadership election. His reasons for thinking Corbyn’s leadership would be a good thing, “are entirely selfish,” he tells me, as he wants “the destruction of Fabianism and socialism.” He concedes that Corbyn’s strength lies in the fact is seen as an “anti-Westminster” figure (“rightly so,” he notes wryly – he recently offered to introduce Corbyn to a number of “senior figures on the labour front bench… who’d never met him.”) Corbyn, in a limited sense, “shows the way forward… politicians need to be able to think originally and campaign,” but the Labour Party will, under his leadership, “become utterly detached from the section of interest it purports to represent.”
Corbyn’s rejection of ‘Westminster politics’ is perhaps the only common ground he shares with UKIP – so what is it, I wondered, given both are “anti-establishment”, that would set UKIP apart from Corbyn’s Labour? How will UKIP hold onto the disenchanted working-class vote they so impressively captured in the general election, if Corbyn wins? For Carswell, the answer is “distinct and unreported” – he sees a “lazy assumption that working class people who traditionally vote Labour will only respond to left wing policies – and I don’t believe that.” A key area of disagreement (among, frankly, thousands) between Carswell and Corbyn is the role of private money in the NHS. “Even the Blairites understood the issue,” he notes approvingly – there ought to be “some degree of non-state monopoly provision” in the NHS as long as the state funds it “at point of use.” Corbyn has made much of wanting to reverse PFI – were he to try and do that, Carswell says, he’d “be seen to fail within a few months.”
Note the omission of immigration as an issue that helps UKIP to hoover up Labour support. This appears to be a theme for Carswell – he seems to distance himself slightly from the more inflammatory anti-immigration rhetoric used by many in his party that, it’s fair to say, gets them the bulk of their press coverage. Voter concerns on immigration, he tells me, aren’t just about the issue itself: “I see the immigration issue as a short-hand for the failure of the political elite to be able to… deliver on what they say they’re going to deliver.” It is not the case, he argues, that UKIP’s position is (as it has been portrayed by the “commentariat,” – one of Carswell’s favourite words) “one that’s essentially xenophobic” – rather, he believes (controversially perhaps) that immigration is a vent for voters’ wider concerns about politics.
This is all very interesting, I suggest to him, but is it not true that something needs to be done practically in the short term to deal with the current refugee crisis? He agrees, and it is here that the vast differences between Carswell and his former leader, David Cameron, can begin to be seen. “We need to allow more genuine refugees into the UK,” he says, after a pause. “The problem is caused by the failure of Western leaders – Cameron – to have a coherent foreign policy… it’s been going on for years.” Many would think this sets him apart from Nigel Farage as well, (who recently criticised the EU for being too “compassionate” on the issue of refugees), but Carswell defends his leader: “I think Nigel’s been fairly spot on,” he says – he references how, pre-election, Farage said minority refugees should be allowed into the UK. “It may be,” Carswell reflects, “that bad things happen to good people around the world and that the best we can do is offer support.”
We move to wider political discussion – and it is on the issues of education and tax that Carswell’s views are at their most radical, and their furthest away from the mainstream of political debate. “One of the first things I’d like to do [were UKIP in power]” he tells me “is give more people control over their children’s education… get the government out of people’s classrooms.” The state’s role would be far smaller – this sounds like marketization, I suggest, and he agrees. He wants parents unhappy with their children’s schooling to have “the legal right to request and receive their child’s share of education funding.” Perhaps even more surprising is his view on private schools – “I would remove the charitable status,” he declares, and he criticises “rich people, including ministers, who are able to pick an elite [private or otherwise] school in London” for their children.
On tax, Carswell is just as clear – “technology makes the future of taxation taxing consumption… by definition, it becomes much harder to have progressive taxation.” Does he support flatter tax, the issue that ended Thatcher? Yes – “I think flatter taxes are a good idea,” he says. His thoughts on missing tax money are what many will find most troubling – I ask if (legal) tax avoidance is morally defensible, even though it takes money that is desperately needed away from public services? “You can’t blame people for playing by the rules,” he says, and when I press him for an answer – “if they’re not breaking the law, I think it’s difficult…” he trails off, and we move on, but his refusal to condemn tax avoidance (he is unequivocal in condemning illegal evasion) does pose a problem – particularly when the manifesto he campaigned on in May included a promise to clamp down on “aggressive tax avoidance schemes.”
As we near the end of our allotted time, I ask what UKIP will do after the EU referendum, whatever the result may be. Are they not in danger of becoming a single issue party without the issue, if the result is seen as final? Carswell disagrees. He has a grand vision for the future – he wants UKIP to “undo the disaster of the 1920s, when the old liberal party was replaced by a socialist party [Labour]… we can do that by offering a radical alternative, in the tradition of English radicalism… I would aspire to be more than a ‘none-of-the-above’ party… the future lies in presenting UKIP as a credible alternative.”
A subtle criticism of UKIP’s current one-trick-pony tactics? Perhaps. If it is, though, that is merely indicative of Carswell’s modus operandi – he comes across as a genuine radical thinker, unafraid to challenge his own party, and as someone with the full courage of his convictions – however much I disagree with him on almost everything. It seems appropriate, however, to end this article on a note of genuine and surprising consensus: “On the left” he observes, “you tend to talk in the language of criticising capitalism. If you change the word to ‘corporatism,’ I’m pretty much 100% in agreement.”
(as told to Vint, with thanks to Bat and Seb for setting up/suggesting questions for/transcribing the interview)