I write this post just a few hours before the so-called “meaningful vote” on May’s EU exit deal.
I have today read two comment pieces which speak volumes in the “I wish I had written that” sort of way. The first is a piece in the Independent by Tom Kibasi today which gives an excellent overview on just how badly Theresa May has mishandled the EU negotiations from the very start. The second is a depressing piece in today’s Guardian” by Polly Toynbee stating that tonight’s vote in the Commons marks just the start of our problems: misery and division will beset us for a generation or more.
Two people are primarily culpable: David Cameron and Theresa May: sequentially each the worst Prime Minister (at the time) in my lifetime.
Cameron’s culpability derives from his sheer uselessness. Being endowed with the sense of entitlement to rule taught by our most elite private school led to his gross error of judgement. This was to turn an internal Conservative Party rift (between the tiny band of “Dunces” exemplified by Rees-Mogg versus the rest of the Tory Party) into a national rift which split the country asunder. My earlier post David Who? satirizes Cameron’s weaknesses, inspired by Jeremy Paxman’s remarks calling Cameron “the worst Prime Minister since Lord North”. Those 40-odd maverick MPs have stirred up racist, xenophobic thugs who now roam the streets and violently threaten all who disagree with them. One such follower murdered Jo Cox MP. Several sitting MPs and journalists must now fear for their safety, just by doing their jobs.
Well done, Cameron.
May’s culpability stems from her personality type. My Mister Men caricature of her as “Little Miss I-Know-Best”, written in June 2017, was even closer to the truth then I realised at the time of writing! Even my post written just after she took over as PM, Who May She Be?, spotted the dangers. My suspicions were not misplaced that her fine words, spoken on the steps of 10 Downing Street on the day of her appointment as PM, were just that – words. Even my jokey rewrite of the song lyrics in Forever Walk Alone still rings true.
But the best analysis is in the Kibasi article referred to above. He summarizes how May, at every turn, misjudged and mishandled her own party, Parliament, public opinion, EU negotiators and leaders of the EU27. She even tried Perfidious Albion’s old trick of “divide and rule”. May is incapable of even understanding the concept of the “national interest”, no matter how many times she repeats the phrase in her Maybot mode.
Well done, May.
Fearful for the Future
However things turn out at the big vote tonight, the UK will still be broken. It will not heal in my lifetime, perhaps not even for 20 to 40 years. The future is not bright and definitely not Orange, even if the bigots of the DUP have had May in a bind recently.
May was foolish enough to refer in Parliament yesterday to how history will judge us. I confidently predict that history will judge this period as our worst in modern times. And the chief culprits will be Cameron and May.
Enough for now. The future, after the big vote, will be here soon enough.
Meanwhile, for all those who voted Leave, here is an interlude…
In this post, I shall compare and contrast two mindsets: monarchist and republican mainly by referring to two countries: UK and the Irish Republic. I argue that the former mindset has led the UK to its current post-EU referendum mess and has also led to a terrifying rise in the levels of intolerance. I contend further that the latter mindset has enabled Ireland to escape from the dead hand of the Catholic church to become a modern, secular, tolerant society.
Monarchists and Republicans
First, an important definition, to avoid any misunderstanding. I’m using the word “republican” in the “I want an elected Head of State” sense, rather than the “I’m a moron who voted for Donald Trump” sense. By that definition, it should be clear (from earlier posts) that I’m a republican. But the central point of this post is the sort of thought processes that flow from each position and the views a person is likely to hold.
My starting point comes from the USA, ironically enough – Trump as head of state is unlikely in a monarchy and would be a good argument against my position! I refer, of course, to the US Declaration of Independence and the words “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal…” The Declaration continues “…that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness….” OK, it’s not quite right: “People”, not “Men” for a start. And as an atheist and Humanist, I’d rewrite the bit about “endowed by their Creator”. But the overall thrust is in line with my starting point.
From these principles, it’s easy to see that phrases like “We, the People…” and “the People versus X” (in court cases) follow naturally. In the latter case, I’m contrasting this with “the Crown versus X” used in UK courts.
In monarchies, by contrast, the presumption is that we are not all born equal. Some enjoy privileges (and duties) simply by accidents of birth and of lineage, although the duties are often a matter of custom and convention rather than constitutional principle. The more traditionalist, conservative institutions police these conventions with a fierce conviction. Every democratic and progressive change has been resisted and delayed by a privileged elite.
The UK, Saudi Arabia and Other Monarchies
Any objective-minded person can see immediately how corrupt and bloated the royalty of Saudi Arabia is: I believe there about 7000 people who call themselves Princes and, by any objective measure, Saudi Arabia is the least democratic, worst abuser of Human Rights on the planet. At the other extreme, more “modern” monarchies, such as are found in Scandinavia, have a modest role for their monarchs with a small group of people labelled “royal” leading relatively modest lifestyles.
In some respects, the UK is more like Saudi Arabia than Sweden or Norway. Despite some democratic add-ons, we have a grossly bloated “royal family” (think Andrew – better still, don’t!) and an unelected second chamber in Parliament. Worse still, in the UK, it is possible to buy privileged access to power simply by having rich parents – or connections with the “right” people. The English public school system teaches – at least according to one alumnus – what he called “ESS”, an Effortless Sense of Superiority. From this flows an innate sense of entitlement to tell lesser souls what to do. Of course, the rules don’t apply to you or your rich chums or – better still – the rules (law, taxation) are biased to suit them.
A republican outlook can bring a different set of problems. In the USA, for example, it can lead to an excess of individualism and a cult of the “common man” or woman, no matter how ill-informed they may be. In France, there is a tendency for interest groups to gather together, block highways and generally make a nuisance of themselves. On balance, I’d rather live somewhere with republican-type imperfections than monarchist-type ones.
Distilling all this down, the two forms of government (or of national culture and history) lead to two distinct mindsets. Contrast these: “subject” v “citizen”, concessions reluctantly wrestled from the powerful v Human Rights, lip service v real democratic practices, secrecy v openness, etc.
I turn now, as a prime example of my general point, to comparing recent events in two countries, one a monarchy, one a republic: the UK and its former colony the Irish Republic. The events are two contrasting referendums: on EU membership in the UK in 2016 and abortion rights in Ireland more recently. The UK referendum is a role model for how not to carry out a referendum and deal with its aftermath. The Irish referendum is a good example of how to do it right.
The UK is still in the thick of the mess caused by holding and mishandling the EU vote. Some obvious conclusions can be drawn so far:
It has effectively split the country down the middle: England, at least, has been revealed as consisting of two groups who see each other with mutual mistrust and suspicion
It has had a catastrophic effect on the level of toleration of people whose views differ from each other
It has encouraged acts of violence by fringe groups, encouraged by politicians’ ill-considered language
Jo Cox MP was murdered
It has given Archbigot Arlene Foster and her morally repugnant DUP de facto power far beyond their electoral support
It has sown the seeds of the destruction of the UK, principally by the Little Englanders’ total indifference to the views of the Scots and (Northern) Irish
And the economic impact, which has been well rehearsed elsewhere.
Compare this with the comparative ease with which the Irish Republic conducted the abortion referendum and the peaceful implementation of the decision.
The Irish Citizens’ Assembly
I believe a key component of the Irish success has been the creation of the Citizens’ Assembly. For more details on the activities of the Citizens’ Assembly, check out its website here. Briefly, the Assembly was set up in 2016 to inform public debate on a number of strategic issues. The most significant was to abolish the Republic’s 8th Amendment to the Constitution, thereby opening the way to legalise abortion. The Assembly is chaired by Mary Laffoy, a judge in the Irish Supreme Court. The 99 other members are “citizens entitled to vote at a referendum, randomly selected so as to be broadly representative of Irish society”. They worked using a combination of expert presentations, Q&A sessions and debate, roundtable discussion and a plenary session. It was an opportunity to deliberate topics, in an informed way, in marked contrast to the soundbite dominated shouting match which constitute much of modern political “debate”.
From these deliberations, the wording of the referendum question to be put to the Irish electorate was formulated. The Irish Parliament took great care to ensure the electorate was as well-informed as possible before the vote. Although the Cameron government consulted the Electoral Commission for expert advice on the wording, the whole process was much more “top down” than the Irish case.
I believe that this was no coincidence. A republican mindset is far more likely to produce solutions which are “bottom up”; a monarchist mindset is far more likely to impose “top down” ones.
The People’s Vote
So, where does this leave us, going forward? It’s far too soon to say what might emerge from the current mess and Parliament’s “meaningful vote” (if that goes ahead next week). One possibility is another referendum, the People’s Vote, notwithstanding the problems caused by the 2016 one and referendums’ poor fit with the UK convention of Parliamentary sovereignty.
Back in February last year, I came very close to writing a blog post satirising a People’s Vote, to which I was at the time opposed. I have changed my views since then: a People’s Vote may be our only chance to avert catastrophe. If such a vote were to go ahead, I would strongly advocate some form of Citizen’s Assembly to inform the wording of the question(s) to be posed. All of this would take time and require the Article 50 process to be suspended. There are many who would be bitterly opposed to this, but I say that’s their problem: the issues are to important not to get this right.
Two (or Three?) Barriers
There are two, or possibly three, barriers to this happening. Theresa May has ruled this out (though who believes anything she says any more?). Any likely Tory successor would only make the chances worse. Second, delaying Article 50 needs the agreement of 27 other countries. And the third, possible, barrier? Jeremy Corbyn.
Towards a Democratic UK
But let’s just be optimistic for a moment. It’s not impossible that a People’s Vote will occur in the way I have described. And that we are spared the disaster of crashing out of the EU. Surely then, the time will be right to question our entire semi-democratic, ramshackle constitutional setup. My “best case” wish list would be something like this:
Democratise the House of Lords into an elected Senate;
Specify what role, if any, referendums have in our democratic arrangements;
Move to an elected Head of State using (again) the Irish system as a possible role model
And of course, demand of any political party that puts itself up for election as a future government to play a fully engaged, constructive role as a member of the EU. That includes making a clear case for the benefits – both to the UK and to the other member states – of EU membership. Infantile heckling of the EU and its institutions from the sidelines must become a thing of the past.
Who is more to blame, Humpty Dumpty or Theresa May? I will leave you to decide, after reading through the words which follow. Students of English as an Additional Language are welcome to join in the game – in other words, “foreigners are welcome”. To my website, I mean: to many of my compatriots, perhaps as many as 52% of them, this phrase is an alien concept when applied “to my country”.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” Humpty Dumpty, of course, is a fictional, fairy tale character who, by the time Lewis Carrol wrote those words in the 19th century, was drawn to look like an egg.
The original fairy tale has its origins in the First to Third English Civil Wars (with the Fourth now coming soon!) The real Humpty Dumpty was a cannon used by the Royalists to defend Colchester Castle during a siege by Parliamentarians. (You may remember the Parliamentarians, aka Roundheads: they were the first to die in their thousands in the cause to establish the concept that Parliament, rather than the King, is sovereign.) Parliamentarian forces successfully knocked the Cannon from the castle battlements and it fell into swampy ground outside the castle walls. As the story goes, “All the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again”.
One of the most vacuous (unless you have mental age of eight) neologisms is May’s phrase “Brex*t means Brex*t”. To this, Leave extremists have given us “Leave Means Leave”. These tautologies, together with a commonsense knowledge of how language works, might lead you to the conclusion “X means X”, where X is any word. You would be wrong. There is at least one exception to the general rule. The assertion “Indefinite means indefinite” is false, when followed by the phrase “to remain” and stamped into a passport.
In her New Year message to the nation, May has added yet another empty, meaningless phrase to the lexicon: the country can, apparently, unite so long as we “turn the corner” together. Where exactly this corner is, and why it has such magical properties to unite us, are both unclear. But fear not, good people, the corner that will do the trick is out there somewhere. I assume that we all have to meet somewhere round the corner from the corner in question and turn the corner together to make it work. I await further information! See you there!
English for Foreigners
The ever-hostile Home Office last week launched an online registration scheme for EU nationals resident in the UK. This is to enable them to continue to receive their existing rights to move freely into and out of the UK. The fee is £76 (with exemptions for some). Without such registration, under the “hostile environment” policy created by Theresa May, such EU nationals would be liable to harassment by UK Border Force, denied benefits, free NHS treatment and fearful of unlawful deportation, just like the Windrush generation has suffered.
Reaction has been hostile. In a Guardian report, one long-term resident who is a Danish national wrote: “You absolute s****! I’ve lived here 35 years, got a stamp in my passport for ‘indefinite leave to remain’ in 1985 and now you want me to apply to stay in my own home.” Max Fras, a visiting fellow at the LSE, sarcastically expressed his “deep gratitude” at the opportunity to pay £65 “for the possibility of letting an app as reliable as Southern Rail on a snowy day to decide the future of my existence”. Even the Sun criticized government policy in a leading article headed “EU are welcome”. It’s a pretty pass when the government’s main tabloid cheerleader has turned against the May Government’s inhumanity.
One elderly holocaust survivor even compared this government to the Nazis’ treatment of Jews:
The accompanying text says “The last time my family qualified for registration and ‘settled status’”. There’s nothing more I can add.
According to our Home Secretary, we’re facing a “crisis” because, since mid-November, an average of nearly 4 people a day have been landing illegally on our shores. (At the peak 3 years ago, an average of 2000 people a day were crossing the Mediterranean to enter Greece. From which I conclude the Government’s panic is propaganda, not proportionate.) I, for one, will be sleeping more easily now that I know Sajid Javid cancelled his holiday to return home to save us all. Better still, he’s getting 2 UK Border Patrol boats to sail back to UK waters to deter Johnny foreigner. According to Wikipedia, the length of the UK coastline is 12,429 km or, if you include the larger islands, 31,368km.
I’ve got a better idea, adapted from Trump’s Wall: why don’t we just build a higher sea around our island? That’ll keep ‘em out! Their flimsy little boats will never be able to climb over that: a quick capsize, problem solved! And all we have to do is just keep on pumping out the CO2. Sorry, East Anglia, it’s been nice knowing you. Seaside holidays in Norwich, anyone?
The far right, particularly in the USA and increasingly here in the UK, clearly welcome any development which obscures the truth and confuses people. Russia under Putin would agree. So come along, all you people. Learn the New English where all words are stripped of any meaning and we call all march forward into 2019 united and happy.
A thought: why didn’t May take her Cabinet to The Corner instead of Chequers to teach them the New English? Then they could have all turned the corner together, united and happy!