Monthly Archives: March 2017

The Weight of History

As I left home this morning, the sky was grey and overcast. It had just stopped raining, but there were occasional periods of intermittent drizzle: you know, the kind of “will it, won’t it” weather only too familiar in Britain. The weather matched my mood exactly. On the day the UK Government’s letter triggering Article 50 reaches Brussels, the weight of history hung over me like an oppressive dark grey cloud hanging low in the sky.

storm cloudsMy thoughts were as gloomy as the portentous weather. How will future generations ever forgive us for an act that Michael Heseltine called “the worst peace-time decision taken by any modern post-war government”. Quite.  (Things must have reached a spectacularly low point when I’m quoting Thatcher’s former Defence Secretary in support of my argument!)

The death of the liberal Britain that I have been comfortable to call my own will be a slow and agonizingly drawn-out process. The delusional fantasies of the implacable Europhobes (including those in the Cabinet) will soon hit the immovable object of 27 other countries’ demands and those of the EU institutions. The shits will hit – not the fan, exactly – but the rock of opposition. What will follow won’t be pretty. It’s probably only a matter of months before the hardcore Leavers will start to look around for someone else to blame. So, too, will those who believed – or colluded with – their lies.

Add to this the EU-hating press. The drip-drip poison from the pages of the Mail, Express, Sun and Telegraph will grow into a steady and corrosive flow of bile and invective. Public discourse – which already hit rock-bottom during the referendum campaign – will sink to even lower levels. Social media and the Twittersphere will become even more of a sewer of hatred. Expect a further increase in hate crime. The pound and the economy will take a dive – those who predicted this would happen already were wrong, but these are unprecedented times. It’s a matter of when, not if. Staff shortages, particularly in the NHS and in agriculture, will add to the pressure of NHS spending cuts and supermarkets’ abuse of their bargaining power against the farmers.

And, of course, it will be the poor and vulnerable who will take brunt of the fallout from all this. Keir Starmer has said some sensible things about Labour’s “red lines” in relation to workers’ rights and living standards. Other than that, I don’t see anyone coming to their rescue. On the contrary, it creates scope for opportunist populists to wreak further mischief. None of which is an endearing prospect.

On this day, Prime Minister May has called for the whole country to unite. To be fair to her, she has signed a letter to President Tusk that is reasoned and fair-minded in tone and content. But to unite behind this ragbag bunch of intellectual pigmies, moral cowards and deluded fantasists masquerading as the UK government? No way, May. No way. It would take a far, far greater person than you are, or will ever be, to make me unite behind that.

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Happy Birthday to EU!

The European Union is 60 years old today. Happy Birthday! On 25th March 1957, the six founding nations – Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands – signed the treaty of Rome. The EEC, as it was originally, has become the European Union and grown considerably, to 28 nations today. 27 of those 28 nations are gathered together today in Rome to celebrate the anniversary. The 28th, i.e. the UK, is staying away and skulking at home, ashamed to show its face – and deservedly so. We all know why.

The EU at 60
The EU at 60

Progress

The EEC /EU has developed from being a trading bloc to a wider union with a single market allowing tariff- and hassle-free flow of goods and services between all its member states. The EU is the world’s largest trading bloc. The shared values and democratic principles of the western European nations were a beacon of principle to inspire countries of the former Soviet bloc to democratize and join the Union. Europe has enjoyed the longest period of unbroken peace in modern history.

The EU has used its size and trading weight to take on anti-competitive behaviour of large multinationals such as Microsoft. It has led to practical consumer benefits such as ending the rip-off by mobile phone companies of roaming charges within the EU. The Erasmus programme has inspired generations of schoolchildren and students to work collaboratively across Europe, to mutual benefit and understanding. It has enabled the free flow of ideas and culture between its nations. Here in the UK, our eating habits have become much more Europeanized and varied. A significant proportion of Europe’s youth sees itself as European first and their national identities second.

Flawed

But let’s not get too carried away. Even its best friends, including me, realise that the EU is a flawed institution. Its ways can seem frustratingly arcane. The euro is a project whereby the politics of the case trumped the economics. Politically, it’s a good idea to bind countries further together in a currency union that makes armed conflict between members unthinkable. But the economic strains on yoking the very different economies of northern and southern Europe has led to much real pain – not least for the Greek people.

The EU can appear extremely bureaucratic. Ask anyone who has tried to fill out an EU funding application form! The need for simultaneous translation in its formal sessions slows down discussion and adds to costs. And yet the total EU budget is small – less than that of Birmingham City Council for a union of over 300 million people. And as for the frustrations: I’m almost embarrassed to repeat the old chestnut that it was Winston Churchill who said it was better to “jaw, jaw, not war, war”.

The EU has struggled to cope with major challenges in the past decade. The shock caused by the global collapse of the economic order in 2007-8 and the failure to come up with a more effective alternative has led to ten years of low growth and real economic pain for individuals and families. The unprecedented level of migrant flows resulting from the chaos in the Middle East has strained, to the limit, compassionate and liberal attitudes towards vulnerable migrants. Exploitation by the far right and populists of the fears aroused by these forces poses an existential threat to the EU. A lot of us have our fingers crossed that the centre – and decency – will hold.

So when the EU needs to be concentrating on its challenges and agreeing a common view on the way forward, energy and effort need to be diverted into negotiating with the one who wants to leave: the UK.

The Future?

The EU commission has produced a White Paper outlining five scenarios for discussion amongst the 27 other member countries. The UK government is threatening to turn our country into some devil-take-the hindmost, lowest-common denominator, race-to-the-bottom, low tax and low skills rogue state if we don’t get what Theresa May thinks Britain wants from the exit negotiations. It’s easy to imagine some future scenario when the UK becomes a pariah state.

Freed from the constraints of the UK’s strong rear-guard action to prevent stronger EU-wide regulation of financial services, I can see the EU collectively enacting rules that prevent some of the more obviously risky “smoke and mirror” City practices. Add to that the City’s role as the hub in a network of Crown Dependencies who are offshore tax havens facilitating money-laundering and tax evasion. (See also my earlier blog post: The City: Paragon or Parasite?) And you get a situation where the UK is out in the cold, with trade sanctions and a permanently damaged global reputation.

So, Happy 60th Birthday, EU! May you prosper and continue to set an example of freedom, democracy and civilized values. It’s a tragedy – especially for our children and grandchildren – that we won’t be there with you.

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Ignorant and Misled

Viewsnight is BBC Newsnight’s recently created, visually gimmicky, slot to present a wide range of opinions from individuals, often themselves mavericks or non-mainstream, to provoke debate about current topics. It’s a welcome initiative (apart from the gimmicks).

Thursday night’s slot was given to Richard Dawkins on the subject of “Brexit” – his word, not mine. In two minutes, Dawkins is able to demolish the whole EU referendum process and I agree strongly with everything he said. Er, except, perhaps one thing – see below. But first, see for yourself:

Dawkins on ViewsnightClick here to view video

Dawkins makes a concise case about the dangers of referendums and the need for safeguards to be built into any well-designed constitution for a country. This is because of the long-lasting effect of constitutional change, compared to a normal election, where the decision can be reversed a few years later. Neither David Cameron nor the UK Parliament saw fit to build any such safeguards into the EU referendum process last summer. And to cap this, the British public were lied to on an unprecedented scale during the pre-vote campaign. Dawkins rightly condemns David Cameron’s stupidity in running scared of UKIP and the lies told in the run-up to the vote.

He similarly, and rightly, condemns the bullshit along the lines that “the British people have spoken” in the May government’s line ever since. The idea that a small majority of votes in a simple binary choice, in the absence of factual information, represents the enduring wisdom of a nation is palpable nonsense. Similarly, the outright bullying since by the usual rabid sections of the anti-EU press has no place in a modern liberal democracy.

Condemn the Act, Not the Person

But now I come to the one problem I have with Dawkins’ piece. About 20 seconds from the end, he refers to the “ignorant and misled public”. Whilst both epithets may be literally true, he loses sympathy with much of his audience at this point. Referring to the public as “ignorant” is politically unwise: playing the man, not the ball.

A reasonable analogy would be in the upbringing of children. Parents and professionals such as teachers are told, when a child is naughty, to criticise the act, not the child. Just because a child has done something bad doesn’t make that child a bad person.

naughty child

The same is true for stupidity. We’ve all done things in our lives that we regret as being stupid. That doesn’t necessarily make us stupid people. David Cameron was stupid to cave in to his more rabid backbenchers by announcing an EU referendum after 40 years plus of lies and misrepresentations, by politicians and the media, about the EU. That stupid decision doesn’t mean I think that Cameron is stupid: weak, certainly, but not stupid.

Similarly, May’s desire to give parliament and the people no further say in whatever deal her government is able to negotiate does not appear to be the result of May’s stupidity. But it does reinforce my impression of May as someone with very strong authoritarian instincts and a determination to get her own way, come what may. That’s more sinister than stupid.

Meanwhile, back to Richard Dawkins and his video. The man has a reputation of getting up people’s noses – even of those who agree with him. It’s a shame he does this again in the Viewsnight video. Because on this topic, as on may others, he’s absolutely right.

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Obsession

Theresa May appears to have taken her gloves off in her approach to consulting the Scottish Government over the terms of the UK’s exit from the EU. The more conciliatory tone she used in her early days as PM has given way to something altogether more aggressive. The word “obsession” caught my eye from May’s speech to the Scottish Tories’ conference yesterday.

Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon
May and Sturgeon

Obsession was what she accused Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her Government of. Obsession, that is, with a drive for independence for Scotland. It strikes me that this term misses a glaringly obvious point. Sturgeon leads a government whose ruling party is the Scottish Nationalist Party. Pardon me, but its name is a bit of a giveaway. Its principal raison d’être is, by definition, to strive for Scottish independence. It’s a bit like criticising UKIP for banging on about leaving the EU. Or the Suffragettes obsessing about votes for women.

May’s Own Obsession

In a recent post, I spoke of Theresa May’s own obsession: immigration. Her choice to place control of immigration above all factors will, if carried through, lead to the most economically and socially damaging form of our exit from the EU. The economic case has been made repeatedly and I won’t repeat it here. But there are lots of examples in the media to illustrate the point, such as this tale of the Mini’s camshaft manufacture.

The list of heart-rending tales of inhamanity dished out regularly by the Home Office on both EU and non-EU citizens in their residency applications grows longer almost daily:

  • The Dutch woman of 24 years residency, with two British children, who was told to make preparations to leave – even though she has residency rights as an EU worker at least until Britain actually leaves the EU;
  • EU citizens denied UK residency for various technical problems, including failure to provide proof of having medical insurance;
  • A 32 year-old German national who was born in the UK was refused UK permanent residence for failure to supply documents from 1982 to the Home Office because the Revenue & Customs don’t keep records going back that far;
  • A Zimbabwean asylum seeker who fears for his life if returned to Zimbabwe has been told he will be deported – he bravely rescued two children from a neighbour’s house 3weeks ago.

And so on and so on. As the man in the last case said: “someone should have a heart”. May ran the Home Office for six years, during which the bureaucratic nightmare of its handling of immigration issues steadily hardened. Setting the tone from the top of that Department, it’s clear May doesn’t “have a heart”. That’s made all the clearer by May’s stated intention of overturning the Lords amendment to the Article 50 bill guaranteeing rights for existing EU residents in the UK. She plans to ensure 3 million EU nationals and 1 million Brits living elsewhere in the EU are political pawns in the exit negotiations. No “heart” then, for the uncertainty and anxiety caused to 4 million people.

No Heart

From her track record at the Home Office, disrespect for the democratically elected government of Scotland and disregard for the wishes of its people, May’s authoritarian streak shows more and more. I get the impression of a woman who has led a sheltered, middle-class life with narrow, socially conservative ideas and (as I said) an authoritarian streak. She shows no curiosity to actually find out or empathise what impact her government policies have on those who lead very different lives from her own circle. May’s words of concern for the “just about managing” are just that: words. There are no discernible actions or policies yet to back them up. The words stem from a cold-hearted political calculation, not from the heart.

Theresa may obedience

It’s ironic that it was May herself who warned the Tory Party conference in 2002 about their party’s image as the Nasty Party. In recent years, it seems she is the one above all who is reinforcing that image. With the Conservatives almost 20% ahead in the polls, May’s hubris continues to rise higher. As today’s Guardian says: “Mrs May subordinated economic policy to the pursuit of a myth of cultural indigenousness. History shows that leads to a spiral of ever more aggressive nativism.” It ends: “Mrs May, be warned: this won’t end well.” But, sadly, millions of the more vulnerable of us will suffer before she does.

Nasty Party, nasty woman in charge.

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