Should we fear the gospel according to Douglas Carswell?
As the maverick Tory MP makes his presence felt, Andy McSmith asks where he gets his ideas from
Three years ago, Douglas Carswell was close to destroying his own career. His political suicide note was a motion tabled on the Commons order paper, calling for the removal of the Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin. No one had so directly attacked the authority of a Speaker in 300 years, and Carswell was warned that he was asking to spend the rest of his political career festering in obscurity.
"By that stage I was so disillusioned with this place, I didn't really care any more," a very optimistic, undisillusioned Mr Carswell told me, as we met early in the morning in one of Parliament's cafés last week. Like all new MPs, he said, he was initially wowed by the heritage of the institution he had just joined.
"That quickly gave way to real disillusionment. I clocked that Parliament was phoney. It was supine, spineless, dominated by spivery and spivs, and it didn't hold the Government to account. It seemed that our primary function as MPs was to provide the cheerleader chorus for the front bench. I thought Parliament and the House of Commons were one giant conspiracy against the electorate. I felt this incredible sense of liberation when I realised that I wasn't going to play the game."
There must be a part of David Cameron who wishes that Carswell had given up and gone away. Two months ago, his question about who is really running the Government – ministers or civil servants – provoked the Prime Minister to remark that what Carswell needed was "a bit of a sense of humour".
He may not be brimming with humour, but after seven years as an MP, the 41-year-old Carswell is on a high, fired by a belief that Britain is on the eve of very big developments, analogous to the crisis in the mid-1970s that brought about the collapse of the consensus politics that had prevailed since the war. It is not just the euro and the UK's membership of the EU which could be drawing to an end, he thinks, but also the orthodoxy that low interest rates stimulate growth. And he thinks Parliament is a better place since the expenses scandal.
In contrast to almost everyone in government, he is an avowed admirer of the current Speaker, John Bercow – someone who "has the one prejudice that every House of Commons Speaker should have: he is biased against the front benches in favour of the back benches".
Carswell's other inspiration is the internet. He has used his blog – 25,000 unique hits a month – to lay out what is in effect an entire alternative political programme for the Government. It involves quitting the EU, devolving more power "downwards and outwards" and abandoning low interest rates and quantitative easing – which he calls "printing money" – to let the free market and local activism sort the country's problems. "Bercow and the internet are making this place better," he proclaimed.
There is a notorious breed of traditional Tory MP – the EU bore – from whom it is advisory to flee unless you want to endure a long obsessive harangue about the latest Brussels directive, motivated – you suspect – by an unstated but visceral dislike of abroad. And one way to annoy Douglas Carswell is to call him a traditional Tory.
He, too, believes that Britain should pull out of the EU and model its European policy on that of Norway or Switzerland – brushing aside any talk of the economic dislocation that the tearing up of 40-year-old treaty arrangements would bring, saying it would work out to the general good in the end.
But his reasons are not those of the old Tory squires. Some of the things he says make him sound more like a Spanish anarchist than a member of the party Lord Salisbury once led. He wants to pull out of the EU as a precursor to dismantling much of the apparatus of the Westminster government. This would include dismantling a large part of Margaret Thatcher's and John Major's legacy. He would scrap the national curriculum, scrap council tax, and restore councils' right to tax local businesses. He describes himself as a "libertarian". He says he was inspired by a speech David Cameron made in Milton Keynes three years ago, setting out the vision of the Big Society, but is the Tory leader still a "big person with a big vision"? There was a long pause. "The jury is still out. To get us out of this economic mess we're going to have to do things that nothing in the past 30 or 40 years has prepared us for, and that's going to require real leadership. Where's the vision? We sort of got the idea of a vision with the Big Society, but this has become, I'm afraid, just another managerialist post-war administration. The Sir Humphreys are carrying on as usual. The bold changes we were promised haven't materialised."
Carswell's first memories are of Uganda under the rule of Idi Amin. His father was one of a small number of practising surgeons in the country (the first to diagnose a case of Aids in Anglophone Africa) and his mother was a GP.
"If you grow up in a country where arbitrary rule leads to the total ruin of society, the suppression of free markets leads to the collapse of living standards, of course you're going to grow up a libertarian," he said.
"One of my earliest memories was the nationalisation of the coffee industry. Idi Amin decreed that nobody could sell coffee other than through the coffee marketing board. I visibly saw farms return to bush because of it. The government printed money – it only made it worthless. So of course I am going to be slightly sceptical of 'print and pray' and how it works in Britain.
"My euroscepticism is not an end in itself, it's a means to an end. I don't want to take powers from Brussels in order to leave them loitering and festering in Whitehall. I want to bring powers back into Britain in order to disperse them outwards and downwards."
This is very idealistic. The possibility of a referendum on EU membership is less remote than at any time since 1975, but would only be the overture to the Carswell revolution. The main act would require the British Government to abandon the habits of decades, free itself from Sir Humphrey, and dismantle much of the apparatus of central control. And since Carswell has never shown an interest in holding government office, he would presumably be trying to influence this unprecedented surrender of power from the sideline.
A final question – was David Cameron right to imply that Carswell has no sense of humour? The question makes him laugh. "I think I do, actually, I think I do," he said. When asked to tell a good joke, he answered: "You've put me on the spot now. You've put me on the spot. No, I won't try because I'll say such a cheesy joke that you'll think I got it from a Christmas cracker."
The Carswell sense of humour undoubtedly exists, but at a theoretical rather than a practical level – a bit like his visionary political mission.
Dissenting voices: a Tory tradition
Remembered now for his inflammatory 1968 "rivers of blood" speech on immigration, Powell was a serial rebel who resigned from the government in 1958 over public spending, refused to serve under Alec Douglas-Home, and called for a Labour victory in 1974 as the only hope of getting out of the EU.
Sir Anthony Meyer
An Eton-educated hereditary baronet, Sir Anthony had a minor job under Edward Heath but held all the wrong liberal pro-European views for Margaret Thatcher. He was seen as a joke candidate when he ran against her for the Tory leadership in 1989 – but he showed it could be done.
An Oxford contemporary of David Cameron and a traditional right-wing anti-EU Tory, Hollobone topped the poll in a Nottingham University study of rebellious government MPs last month, having voted against the Government 106 times in two years.
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