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Douglas Carswell

Position: Co-founder, Direct Democracy Group

Last Updated: Friday, October 15th, 2010

If one were to draw up a list of Conservative MPs unlikely to be invited to join David Cameron’s Government, the name of Clacton MP Douglas Carswell would appear pretty near the top.

Just this week he led a 37-strong Commons rebellion this week which attempted to reduce Britain’s contribution to the European Union (from which he seeks British withdrawal) and he is without question one of the most independent minds on the Conservative benches. He does not seek ministerial office, making him all the more difficult to whip.

However, there is an irony in that many of this maverick’s radical ideas have gone on to become part of the political mainstream and adopted as party policy in recent years.

Born in 1971 to missionary doctors, he spent much of his childhood in Uganda but was educated at  Charterhouse (where he boarded) before gaining degrees in History from the University of East Anglia and King’s College, London.

He worked in business as corporate affairs manager for a TV company and then as an investment manager before entering politics.

Carswell monetarily hit the national radar in 2001 as the defeated Conservative candidate standing alongside Prime Minister Tony Blair on stage at the count in Sedgefield. He had to wait another four years before securing election to Parliament himself, as MP for Harwich in Essex – an area where eurosceptic fringe candidates have a strong track record (although UKIP did not stand against him in 2010 when he stood in the redrawn Clacton seat).

It was in 2002 that Carswell started writing about the political credo he promotes to this day, when he wrote a pamphlet, “Direct Democracy”, for the modernising ginger group Conservatives for Change (which was linked to Policy Exchange at its inception but is now defunct).

He called for directly-elected US-style police sheriffs, confirmation hearings for certain public appointments and the democratisation of quangos – all of which are now in the Tory mainstream – and before the 2005 election he did in fact work in the Policy Unit at CCHQ.

Immediately after his election to Parliament in 2005, he assembled a group of fellow travellers who signed up to a a new pamphlet, “Direct Democracy: An Agenda for a New Model Party”, which reheated the themes of his 2002 effort. It called for:

–          local councils to be made self-financing by replacing VAT with a local sales tax, with more power devolved to local councils;

–          replacing “impotent” police authorities with directly elected Sheriffs with the power to direct policing priorities and appoint and dismiss Chief Constables;

–          “radical localisation” of the education system, making schools independent, free-standing institutions, allowing new providers to enter the market and giving parents the right to take the funding for their child’s education from the council and take it to a school of their choice;

–          the removal of politicians from controlling the minutiae of health care and funding patients, through the tax system or universal insurance, to purchase health care from the provider of their choice;

–          widespread constitutional reform, including a reduction in the power of the executive, a bolstering of the legislature, more use of sunset clauses, the introduction of citizens’ initiatives to dictate some of the parliamentary agenda, a part-time politically and geographically representative second chamber of existing elected politicians and the repatriation of power from Brussels.

Among the 23 signatories were several names who are now senior members of the Government, including Cabinet ministers Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt, and up-and-coming rising stars such as Greg Clark, David Gauke and Nick Herbert.

Another signatory was Daniel Hannan MEP, a long-time associate of Carswell, with whom he then co-wrote “The Plan: Twelve Months to renew Britain” in 2008. This went even further than the 2005 book in setting out how the localists’ agenda could be put into practice in government and was more explicit in calling for Britain’s EU membership to be replaced with a Swiss-style free trade agreement. It also called for a Great Repeal Bill, open primaries for election candidates, the scrapping of the Human Rights Act and the election of select committee chairmen.

Carswell often finds the House of Commons a frustrating place – not surprising for one who is such an idealist. He was one of the first MPs to write a regular daily blog – occasionally from a mobile device whilst sitting on the green benches themselves – and thinks nothing of challenging long-standing dictums. This was clear for all to see in

2008 when he became the first MP to call for the removal of Commons Speaker Michael Martin, setting in train a series of events which led to his downfall the following year. As a result Carswell won the 2009 Spectator Parliamentarian of the Year award.

Whilst a number of Carswell’s ideas have become part of the Conservative mainstream, others remain very quirky: he is one of the very few Tories to support electoral reform, favouring elections by Single Transferable Vote in multi-member constituencies. Furthermore, his repeated calls for British withdrawal from the EU (or at least a referendum upon that question) continue to fall on deaf ears as far as the party establishment is concerned.

But he and his ilk are growing in number and have an increasing following among younger Conservative activists – as acknowledged by the fact that the Daily Telegraph placed him 48th – up eleven slots – in its recent annual listing of the hundred most influential Right- wingers.

He is married to Clementine with a baby daughter and his hobbies include jam-making – a subject on which he has been known to give talks to his local branch of the Women’s Institute.

Jonathan Isaby

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