Category Archives: Politics

Posts about politics and politicians

An Informed Choice

Here are a couple of anecdotes about events that happened to me over the past two or three years and the lessons I’ve learned from them.

But, bien sur, I discuss how this relates to our EU discussions and how we might get out of this mess.

A Risky Decision

The first story happened last year. It illustrates very clearly the concept of “informed consent” as practiced by the NHS.

After an initial round of treatment to treat the cancer which was diagnosed just over a year ago, I was presented with a choice. I had responded well to the initial treatment and my cancer was in what the medics call a “partial remission”. This meant that there were very low levels of the disease in my body and I could expect a treatment-free period – the precise duration of which varies from person to person.

Optionally, I was offered additional, more advanced treatment which offers the prospect of a longer remission period. I would need to be referred to the nearest hospital offering this treatment, some 25 miles away. I had an initial appointment with a consultant there to help me to decide whether to proceed or not. The consultation was, in retrospect, one of the most satisfying consultations I’ve ever had. The doctor spelled out the side-effects of the treatment (not pleasant as she did not pull any punches) and there were risks. A small, but not insignificant, percentage of patients die from complications associated with the treatment. I was given a few weeks to make up my mind whether to proceed or not.

I spoke to a number of patients who had been through the procedure: the response was generally that it was worth it. (I recognised that these patients were from the majority who had survived: I have found no satisfactory way to communicate with those who had died!) I did agonize over the decision, but in the end, I chose to go ahead. I’m convinced it was the right thing to do. I’ve been told that I responded “very well”, but there are no guarantees. I have learned to live reasonably comfortably with the uncertainty.

My main point of this story is this: it was a prime example of the phenomenon we call “informed consent”. The medical  staff had looked after me with all the care and attention I would expect from our beloved NHS and, above all, I was treated with respect as an adult capable of making an informed choice.

Turkish Delight

The second story comes from a couple of years earlier and strikes a lighter note. My wife and I went for dinner to a newish Turkish restaurant in town. Neither of us was particularly familiar with Turkish food and the menu was quite extensive (although rather heavily meat-based! See below!). The young woman who served us was friendly and helpful – at least, as far as she was able to be.

We had some queries about the choices before we ordered our food. I enquired what a particular dish was like, hoping to get some explanation about flavours, ingredients, etc. “It’s very nice” said our friendly waitress. Undeterred, we asked about another dish we had been considering. The reply was the same: “It’s very nice.” It had been obvious from the start that our waitress did not speak English as a first language. In was now becoming clear that her English language skills were limited. We felt sure that enquiries about any item on the menu would bring for the same reply: “It’s very nice.”

So, we made some random selections from the menu and had a pleasant meal in a convivial atmosphere. Altogether, it was an enjoyable evening. But our menu decisions could hardly be described as informed – more a stab in the dark, I would say.

An Informed Choice

I’m not suggesting that the two stories are directly comparable: the decision was altogether more significant in the first case than in the second. But the principle remains the same: an informed choice is preferable to an uninformed one.

I would contend that the 2016 EU membership referendum was a classic example of an uninformed choice. During the referendum campaign Leavers’ outright lies were “balanced” by Remainers’ wild speculations about the consequences of leaving. It was a debate between two wings of the Tory Party; Corbyn’s Labour was practically invisible. The BBC did a shabby job of striking a false balance between two positions that were not ethically equivalent. The chaos we see now is for the most part the consequence of the lack of reliable – or indeed truthful – information before the vote.

So, What Now?

The words above were drafted over 10 days ago. I’ve been waiting – in vain – for some clarity to emerge from the shenanigans at Westminster. But one thing is clear: we need, as a country, to slow down, reflect and do things properly, in a grownup way.

Citizens' Assembly in action
Citizens’ Assembly in action

I think that we have a lot to learn from the Irish: in this case, on how to run referendums. Even at this late hour, there seems to be only one sensible way forward: to try to reach some sort of consensus on our relationship with the rest of Europe (and the world). And, of course, to start to heal the divisions which have opened up between the opposing sides.

Firstly, we need to take the time pressure off our decision-making processes, by requesting quite a long delay to the Article 50 procedure; 12 to 18 months would seem about right. This, of course, requires unanimous agreement from the other 27 EU member countries. I can only hope there’s still enough goodwill left, despite all our frustrating machinations, amongst our neighbours.

During the time gained, whoever is our Prime Minister needs to set up two institutions:

  • A Grand Committee of reasonable-minded politicians from all the major parties, say 12-15 people in proportion to votes cast at the 2017 general election. This Committee will oversee the work of the:
  • Citizens’ Assembly, a randomly selected forum of around 100 of our citizens, along the lines used recently in the Irish Republic. A description of how they set about their task can be found here and on Wikipedia here. The terms of reference for the Assembly are detailed below.

Leave extremists and their newspaper cheerleaders will go apeshit and good control of public order will be critical. Theresa May is almost certainly psychologically incapable – and it’s politically impossible – to oversee these necessary actions. Nominations, please, for a suitable candidate to replace her. We must find a way not to leave the selection decision to Tory Party activists. They are self-evidently part of the problem, not the solution.

The Grand Committee’s other main role will be to steer through the House of Commons a process which will lead to a vote on a resolution which will command a majority, and which will be credible with the EU27 and Brussels. No small ask!

Assembly Terms of Reference

If, as a result of the Grand Committee’s work, a referendum of the British public is required, the first task of the Citizens Assembly is to define the wording of a confirmatory vote question.

But the breakdown in the political process which the last EU referendum has created needs a long-term solution for Constitutional Change in the UK. Follow-on topics for review and recommendation to Parliament include, in roughly order of urgency:

  1. Replacement of our voting system for MPs with some form of preference voting, more fit for the 21st century than our broken first-past-the-post system.
  2. Replacement of the House of Lords by a 100% elected Senate (with NO shoo-in for CofE bishops), together with an appropriate voting system. A key issue should be how better to reflect the diverse needs of the non-English nations in the UK and the English regions.
  3. Disestablishment of the Church of England and the consequences of so doing: this could be more widely debated as how to protect the interests of religious and non-religious groups and ensure full secularisation of civil and political society.
  4. A system for electing our head of state.

My guess is that the five areas of work above would take more than five, and possibly as long as ten,  years. Item 4 above may need to be pushed up the priority order if the present incumbent as head of state dies before this item is reached in the order above.

Laughing Stock to Respected Nation

The political fiasco of the past 3 years has reduced the status of the UK to an international laughing stock – most informed commentators would agree. (A short, silly example is here.) A programme of work as outlined above would go a long way to restoring the former respect for the UK (which, by this time, might be just England and Wales) on the world stage.

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No Regrets?

In Memoriam

Scott Walker (1943-2019), a man with a heartbreakingly pure singing voice.

In Condemnation

Theresa May (PM 2016-2019), architect of the “hostile environment”.

In Fear and Trepidation

May’s successor (PM 2019-?), to be chosen by 100,000 of the most xenophobic bigots in the country outside the DUP, i.e. Tory Party activists.

No Regrets?

TM: I know I’m leavin’, it’s too long overdue
For far too long I’ve had nothin’ new to show to you.
Goodbye dry eyes, you watched as I appeased the Brexit loons
And it serves me right to walk away alone.

Us: There’s no regrets
No tears goodbye
We don’t want you back
We’d only cry again
Say goodbye again

The months you wasted to avoid the splits
Amid the weak, the useless and the outright shits.
I woke last night and thought of you, and fearing what comes next
I felt so afraid that our country’s truly wrecked.

TM: I’ve no regrets
No tears goodbye
Us: We don’t want you back
We’d only cry again
Say goodbye again

Your Party’s squirming to turn its back on you
Your face is showing traces of your hostile brew.
We now face, unloved , our darkest hour; there was no outreaching hand
It now feels so sad to see our broken land.

There’s no regrets
No tears goodbye
We don’t want you back
We’d only cry again
Say goodbye again

You thought only of Party and ignored the rest
You were Maybot under pressure, Little I-Know-Best.
Europe always splits the Tories, that should now be understood
And we’re so afraid evil always drives out good.

You show no regrets
No tears goodbye
We don’t want you back
We’d only cry again
Please don’t try again!

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Our Island Story, part 94

(With acknowledgements to Private Eye for the “part 94” bit.)

Notwithstanding other major news topics – the tragic killings in Christchurch, NZ, the collapse into administration of Interserve, to name just two – it’s hard not to write about the continuing saga of the elephant in the room which has destroyed UK democracy.

But first a joke: we could certainly do with a bit of levity. Warning: this joke depends on knowledge of another joke.

Br*xit walks into a bar. The barman says: “Why the long, drawn-out farce?”

The straightforward answer, and not funny punchline, is a single word: incompetence. Incompetence, above all, by Theresa May and the Conservative party she “leads”. None other than Karl Marx wrote “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”  We’re well into the farcical stage by now.

Options Good and Bad

With 13 days to go (as I write) before we reach the risk of crashing out of the EU, it’s time to lay my cards on the table about the options now open to the UK. In this post I consider both the withdrawal agreement (the easy bit which should have been agreed at least a year ago) and the type of relationship we want long-term with the EU in the future (the hard bit, not even started). The two tables below summarize my views: I explain my reasoning in the paragraphs that follow.

Withdrawal Agreement

Option Summary Economy SMT Reputation Peace in NI GB order
A Remain in EU 0 -5 0 -6
B “Soft” deal -3 -7 -1 -4
C May’s deal -7 -9 -4 -3
D No deal -10 -10 -8 -5

 

EU-UK Relationship

Option Summary Economy MLT Reputation Peace in NI GB order
A1 Fully engaged +1? -2 0 -3?
A2 Semi-detached 0 -5 -1 -3?
BC3 Trade agreement -3 to -7 -7 -4 -3 to -5
D4 WTO rules -10 -10 -6 -1 -> -8

 

Some words of explanation are needed for the above tables. Numeric scales range from -10 to +10 and are my views alone. Positive is good, negative bad. -10 = worst case imaginable. SMT/MLT = short to medium term / medium to long term. “GB order” = lack of civil unrest. Only some options in the first table are compatible with those in the second, e.g. D necessarily implies 4.

My reasoning is given below. In summary, my preference, in an “ideal” world would be Option A1. The chances of this happening are slim! A2 is the status quo. I would be prepared to compromise to Option B3 in the interests of trying to unite our fractured country; worse options would be wholly unacceptable.

Options A to D

Option A is clearly my first preference, but raises the issue of social order (see below). Option B approximates to Labour’s position, perhaps as modified by cross-party negotiations amongst backbenchers. This is looking less likely following the failure of Parliament, in its first attempt last week, to wrest control of the process from May. So much for the tolerable options.

And so to the intolerable ones, options C and D. Both would be economically damaging, D especially so: so much has been written on the economic effects that I will not add to the word count here. The other distinguishing feature between the first and second pairs is that of freedom of movement. Words are beyond me to understand how this concept has been come to be seen as a bad thing: it defies all logic. Sadly, logic plays very little part in this whole sorry business. In any event, we’ve never been part of the Schengen Agreement: we control our borders already, if we’re competent to.

Options 1 to 4

The optimist in me still looks forward to the day when the UK uses its many skills, talents and historical experience to play a full and constructive role in EU affairs, i.e. Option A1. Childish carping from the wings (for short-term, domestic political gain) has been indulged by Tory and Labour Party (Prime) Ministers for years: the mood music is all wrong. I am coming to the conclusion that I will not live to see this happy outcome.

What kind of trade deal (or none) – options BC3 or D4 – will depend on shenanigans in Westminster over the next two weeks. And of course, any extension to the timescale beyond 29th of this month requires consensus amongst the EU27. Speculation suggests realpolitik will win over Farage’s reported mischief-making in countries most likely to object. As my wife says, “We live in interesting times”.

Economy

My assessments about the impact on the economy are based on what I’ve read and understood over the past few years. Getting picked off in a trade deal by Trump’s USA as a vulnerable lone country will suit the few free trade lunatics, their US backers on the political far right and, for different reasons, by Putin’s Russia. Trump and Putin both see the EU as their major obstacle to imposing their authoritarian world view. Their useful idiots (who include Farage and those who have not taken the trouble to understand their true motives) need to be very careful what they wish for. Everyone else knows it’s the poorest and most vulnerable who will suffer most in the dismal small government, free trade dystopian scenario.

UK Reputation

The chaos and May’s mismanagement has already spectacularly damaged the UK’s reputation in Europe and worldwide: see, for example, this commentary in the Washington Post. Here’s a sample: “European negotiators in Brussels, accustomed to clever British diplomats, have been amazed by how ill-prepared the Brexiteers have been, how little they understood about Europe, about treaties, about trade. It will be a long time before they assume, as they once did, that Britain is a serious country to reckon with.

I also hear that many news channels elsewhere in Europe and running “Look how stupid the Brits have been today” slots in their regular programming.

At best, it will take a couple of generations to rebuild the UK’s prior reputation; at worst, it’s gone forever. But our diminished status feeds back into future trade negotiations, making other countries even more wary ever to trust our government again to keep our word.

Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement

And so, to the closest outpost of our former Empire, Northern Ireland.

The Useless… and the Brave

It seems to have been standard practice, at least since 2010, to appoint an incompetent, ignorant nobody to the post of Northern Ireland Secretary in the UK Government. Karen Bradley completes a long list of such types, excelling herself by first revealing her ignorance of Northern Ireland’s politics last autumn and, more recently, making a crassly stupid remark about Bloody Sunday. Contrast this with the bravery of Mo Mowlam when she was in the post: her actions acted as a catalyst to the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. The GFA has kept a fragile peace in place for twenty years.

There are many in the Tory Party who don’t give a damn about Irish affairs and would happily sacrifice the Good Friday Agreement (and possibly even peace in Ireland) for the delusions about the benefits of leaving the EU. May’s actions in signing a “confidence and supply” agreement with the DUP bigots to shore up her minority government will come to be seen as a key strategic mistake. The DUP are about as unrepresentative of the views of the people of Northern Ireland as it is possible to get (58% of the population voted Remain).

The insensitive actions of May and her badly appointed ministers have already threatened the fragile stability in the province. All but Option A, in my analysis, threaten something worse. It’s probable that exit from the EU will bring forward the date when Ireland is reunified (and possible it will hasten Scotland’s independence too – 65% Remain).

Civil Unrest in GB

Turning even closer to home, it’s obvious that the inhabitants of these islands are more divided and more angry than at any time I can remember for at least 40 years. So, what is the risk of civil unrest under each of the Options? I’ve given my best guess in the tables above. My risk score for Option D4 above shows two figures: I will explain. Giving the Leave extremists what they want would probably minimise the risk of short-term disorder. As reality dawns and the most disaffected will be those who suffer when the economy crashes, Option D4 carries the highest long-term risk of disorder and of opportunities for the extreme right.

I’ve made some “elitist” assumptions in deriving my risk scores. There’s ample evidence already of a thuggish minority of Leave extremists, egged on by far right politicians and lobbyists, who have already caused unrest on our streets. They will be (whipped up to be) incandescent with rage if we remain in the EU. I assume disaffected, disappointed Remainers will, by and large, express their views in a more civilised way. (Stereotypically, perhaps by protests outside Waitrose?)

This is a tricky issue. A government’s key priority, agreed by those on the left and right politically, is to maintain order. But democracy must not bend the knee to mob rule. We’ve already seen the murder of one MP too many, Jo Cox. It’s a tragedy that far too many politicians: all, I believe, on the political right, have used language designed only to inflame passions. May herself seems determined not to compromise. And all of this unnecessary: Cameron’s attempt to placate the lunatic fringe in his own party has led to a fracturing of society. How will it end? Nobody knows.

And Next?

The immediate future does not look bright. It seems that May is still talking to the DUP and ERG, trying to persuade them to support her deal when she brings it back to the Commons next week. Meantime, Labour and Tory backbench MPs are trying to find common ground for a compromise.

Perhaps things will look different in a week or two. But whether in a good way or a bad one, time will tell.

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Invasion of the Zombies

What keeps you awake at night? I could say Theresa May’s mishandling of the EU negotiations and her attitude to the UK parliament. I could say the uselessness of our MPs, particularly the cowardice of the Tory members who vote for the government’s crap proposals out of a sense of fear and for party unity. What dreadful times we live in. Who knows how this week’s votes in Parliament will turn out – even if they all take place, according to some rumours.

Never have we been so badly served by our government and politicians, at least in my lifetime. Which is why I found the poster below, published, I think, by the @ByDonkeys twitter account, so appealing. Incompetents? Undoubtedly. Zombies, more like.

Here come the zombies!

The truth, however, is that I’m currently sleeping well at night (in part thanks to my current medication).

Zombies All

I speculated recently that Theresa May has actually gone mad under the pressure of trying to appease both the insane and sane wings of her party and – nominally at least – to be Prime Minister. Perhaps so – but she really has turned into some kind of zombie. And, just look at the others in the picture above! “Invasion of the Zombies” would be an entirely appropriate title for a future movie based upon these troubled times.

A crash test dummy could play Theresa May. Fill in your own names for others shown in the poster above.

Disturbed

I guess that the thought which could really disturb my sleep is this. Whatever happens this week, May will stand down (or be pushed out) as PM in a matter of months, if not weeks. Absolutely every likely successor for her in the Tory Party would give me nightmares! When do we start screaming? And why has Michael Gove been so deafeningly silent these past few weeks!

Scream!
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Mad

I’m no mental health professional so please excuse the “cod psychology” in this post!

Two questions:

  • Does being Prime Minister make you mad (as in “insane”, not just “very cross”)?
  • Is Theresa May mad?

Mad Mag

I have absolutely no doubt that Thatcher was insane when she was deposed by the Tory Party. My evidence for this? I had the dubious pleasure of “meeting” her about a year after John Major took over. Specifically, I was a guest of a company CEO at a regional lunch meeting of the Institute of Directors and Thatcher was after-lunch speaker. (Yes, I know! The things I did to earn a crust!) The table where I was seated was 5 to 10 metres at most from Thatcher’s lectern. It was the eyes that convinced me. Barking, without a doubt. And very scary to be that close. Enough said: it still sends shivers down my spine just to think of it.

Mad Blair

I believe there is a case to answer that Tony Blair, over the decade he was PM, developed some kind of mental health issues. Compare the “before” and “after” pictures below. He suffered some form of premature aging, I’m sure.

Probably he wasn’t totally out with the fairies like Thatcher was, but rather he was well on the way by the time he handed the baton to Gordon Brown. Was it the promise he made to George W Bush that started the mental decline? I leave that to you to judge. There is certainly a case that being under the constant pressure of 24 hours rolling news media puts a great strain on any human being. The peculiarly adversarial approach to politics in the English-speaking world creates further pressure. And Labour PMs face the additional burden of the hysteria of the mainly right-wing press, the most one-sided in Europe.

Mad Nad

But you don’t have to be PM to be mad: sometimes just being an MP will do. I have the misfortune to have Nadine Dorries as the MP for a constituency bordering on mine. She rightly earned the epithet “Mad Nad” as a nickname used by her political opponents long before the “Get Me Out of Here” days. Certainly there has never been any evidence of any neural connection between her mouth and whatever passes for her brain. She can be guaranteed to say something stupid at the drop of a hat. So it’s hardly surprising that she has emerged as one of the most extreme MPs over the question of the UK leaving the EU.

Mad May

And so to Theresa May and my second question.

Several of my earlier posts have made reference to May’s character and personality traits. May’s fans and spin doctors (of which I am clearly neither) could, at one time, have suggested these were virtues. May at one time had a reputation for levelheadedness and was seen as a moderate, by Tory standards. Some traits have always been clearly negatives: her refusal to trust people or take advice, her apparent inability to socialize and her tendency for obsessive behaviour have always been worrying signs. Her prime obsession, in my view and that of many others, was over immigration, which has coloured her whole approach to negotiations with the EU. Commentators have remarked also on her total lack of understanding, or care for, people outside a narrow circle of Tory Party members and supporters. I now place trying to avoid a split in the Conservative Party as another true obsession which has emerged more clearly over the past year or so.

I stand by my “Mister Men” caricature of her as “Little Miss I-Know-Best” as an accurate assessment.

Three Phases

So is she mad, in the medical sense? I think we need to break down her time as Prime Minister into three phases. We must also remember her as the author of the “hostile environment” whilst Home Secretary, also adopted in the DWP, which has led to incalculable misery for UK citizens of colour, would-be asylum seekers and the disabled, poor and most vulnerable of our citizens.

Phase 1

Phase 1 was in the early months of her premiership. She made a massive error of judgement by pandering to the far right anti-EU fanatics in her party in the first Conference speech as leader and Prime Minister. Her famous “red lines” boxed her negotiating position in too soon and she rejected any bipartisan approach to the UK’s negotiating position. Her perceived necessity to balance remainers and leavers in her initial Cabinet appointments led to some extraordinarily bad choices. The UK’s reputation abroad will take decades to recover just from May’s decision to appoint Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary, let alone the other appalling mistakes.

Her other major act of bad judgement was in triggering the Article 50 process too soon, before she had any proper plan how to proceed. Her focus was on Tory Party unity, not the views of the EU27, especially that of Ireland. Even before the 2017 election, the DUP dependency and bribe, May saw Ireland simply from the narrow perspective of maintaining the unity of the UK. Ireland’s and Scotland’s wishes (and Remain majorities) were ignored and Wales probably didn’t even get a second thought.

But there was a lot of hubris in the air and in the Tory Party – although May herself denied six times she would call a snap election – until she called one. Her rabid cheerleader, the Daily Mail, ran the headline “Crush the Saboteurs”. May was intending at this phase to use so-called “Henry VIII powers” to override Parliament and act as an absolute ruler over key aspects of the legislation needed to leave the EU. Gina Miller, who successfully challenged this approach in the courts, was vilified by Tories and their cheerleaders alike.

But even during this time, I saw May as someone with poor judgement, a tendency to authoritarianism, but with no clear evidence of mental health issues.

Phase 2

The second phase followed the 2017 election and the creation of a hung Parliament. May could have attempted a multi-party coalition even then, but chose instead to throw her lot in with the DUP – the most unrepresentative bunch of bigots imaginable to represent the interests of the people of the Six Counties and to protect the 20 years of peace brought about by the Good Friday agreement.

May’s room for manoeuvre was even more hemmed in by her pact with the devils of the DUP. But there were long periods of vacillation, key votes delayed or postponed as she agonisingly tried to get first a negotiating position and then an agreement with the EU that would (just about) hold her Cabinet and most of her Party together. Who now remembers what the Chequers deal said? It’s been drowned out since by talk of backstops, time limited or not and much tactical posturing by Tory Party factions – Labour too. (Remember the agonies of the wording of the Labour Party’s position?)

But I think this phase came to a crashing halt last month when her agonizingly-crafted position was rejected in the Commons by a massive 230-vote margin. But still, I would say, no clear evidence of May actually going mad.

Phase 3

This phase is continuing. May’s position has see-sawed between further appeasement to the far right in her Party and a cynical and insincere reaching out to placate some of Labour’s demands on workers’ rights in particular. May’s underlying personality flaws have always made her a bad choice for Prime Minister (but, throughout the relevant period, all the other candidates are worse). But the shock of the size of her Commons defeat was followed by the pseudo-reprieve of the “unicorn” key vote. Based almost entirely on Tory and DUP votes in favour, Parliament instructed May to return to Brussels to negotiate “alternative arrangements” to the Irish backstop.

This is perhaps the second low point in recent years for the UK parliament. A mixture of cowardice and delusional fantasy by mainly Tory MPs voted for an impossible fudge driven by a forlorn desire to put Party unity above national interest. (The first low point was in 2015 when Parliament agreed to hold a referendum without any of the usual safeguards that a country with a proper constitution would already have considered, e.g. a super-majority needed for change.) But my main point is that the combination of the shock of the 15 January defeat and the cover provided by the “unicorn” vote on the 29th has tipped May over the edge.

May still refuses to rule out “no deal”. This is a position of supreme folly and a criminally irresponsible way to treat a mature democracy. We can infer that Party unity is now May’s only driving force and her stubbornness, which some saw as a virtue, is now pathological.

The UK on Valentine’s Day 2019

So, welcome to the current reality. May is doggedly pursuing her unicorn in a rabid and illogical attempt to hold both the mad and sane wings of her party together. She marches, blinkered, towards the cliff edge. All the alternative Tory candidates for leadership seem to belong to the mad faction of the party. Labour, under Corbyn, dithers.

The only people who approve of our plight are some neo-fascist fringe parties in mainland Europe, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and others of their ilk. The rest of the world thinks we’re mad.

I once wrote a blog post called “Respect”. Pah!

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Failure of Leadership

I nearly fell off my chair laughing. The comment wasn’t intended to be funny, but I found it hilarious. It was made by that little pipsqueak, Gavin Williamson, who – please don’t laugh – was actually appointed Defence Secretary by Theresa May. Williamson, the Private Pike of the Cabinet, was in friendly company and he let his imagination run away with him a bit.

In a speech to the “Boys Who Like their Toys to Go Bang” (aka the Royal United Services Institute), he spoke of his dreams. He dreams of drones which swarm like flies to put off the enemy’s defences. He dreams of sailing our one aircraft carrier to the South China Sea (to frighten the Chinese). He dreams too of spending lots more money on the Toys the Boys like so much. (Reality check: the aircraft carrier might be ready by 2021. Oh, and it might have some planes – American, of course. If the Yanks have managed to fix the 300 “unresolved high-priority deficiencies”, reported by the Pentagon, by then. The planes? US F35s, a snip at 92 million quid – each!)

Stupid boys

How about this as a rousing cry to the true blue-hearted amongst us? “We must strengthen our global presence, enhance our lethality (our what?) and increase our mass”. By eating more junk food, perhaps – preferably radioactive, to enhance our lethality. (Plutonium is heavier than lead, usefully.)

But it wasn’t that which made me laugh. No, it was this little gem: “We should be the nation that people turn to when the world needs leadership”. Leadership?? In one bound, little Gav goes to the top of the pile – and it’s a big pile – of deluded Tories.

Laughing Stock

It wasn’t really little Gav’s fault that I had laughed so much. You see, I’d only just finished reading a 2-page article from reporters in seven EU countries of their views of Britain. I’ve used the phrase “laughing stock” in posts before, but that really only captures a part of it.

Un big mess

To give you a flavour: the full article can be found here. Phrases like “a pantomime”, “un big mess”, “national psychodrama” sprinkle the article. A view from a Netherlands newspaper: “It’s like the crew of the Titanic deciding, by majority vote, that the iceberg should get out of the way”. “Perhaps Great Britain is so fundamentally insular and protective of its own future and freedom, this is its destiny”: CEO of the port of Calais. He adds: “But it’s a pity”. A Spanish academic muses that the “systemic failure” of our attempt to leave the EU calls into question the very idea of the great British democracy. There is some regret: a German diplomat compares it to being dumped by your girlfriend: “I still have her jumper … hoping her scent will linger.” A Czech political analyst describes it as seeing “an established democracy descending into this chaos and irrationality”.

Perhaps the last word should, fittingly, come from Ireland, a country we treated very badly for 800 years. It rekindles the idea of “perfidious Albion”. An Irish history professor: “there is a sense that with the British, unless it’s written down you can’t trust anything they say”.

Theresa May

Which brings us to our “Prime Minister”. Some of us have memories long enough to stretch back to last autumn. That was when May signed a legally binding agreement with the EU which included a “backstop” to protect free flow of goods and services between the Irish Republic and the Six Counties in the north. That’s the same Theresa May who, a few weeks later, encourages Parliament to vote against that agreement. Parliament (i.e. Tories and DUP) duly obliges, defeating the agreement by a margin of 230 votes. May offers to renegotiate what she agreed only weeks earlier. Perfidious seems a fair enough description.

May has stated she will stand down as PM before the next general election. Some rumours say she we leave her post this summer. It’s too awful even to contemplate who might win an election involving just 100,000 geriatric out-of-touch-with-reality Tory Party members. There is literally no one who could conceivably lead the Tories who could actually be described as a leader, except in the deluded, pied-piper, over-the-cliff sense of the word.

Jeremy Corbyn

So, let’s have just a few words about the Labour alternative. Opinion polls give conflicting results, but there is no sign of a clear win for a future Labour government under Corbyn. He has anti-EU history and shows no leadership qualities when it comes to his avowed respect for Party democracy (i.e. the policy decisions of the 2018 Labour Party Conference) where they differ from his own long-held views.

Whether he deserves this or not, he carries the air of a man who hasn’t changed his opinion on anything in forty years. Don’t get me wrong, I would not like a Labour leader who has such a lack of principles, putting Party before national interest, as any conceivable Tory leader (including May herself). But a measure of pragmatism would enhance his reputation for humanity.

Conclusion

The EU referendum has wrecked UK politics and political parties. It’s a matter of when, not if, the Tory loony irreconcilables split off from the saner Party members. Labour may yet fracture, too, although for different dynamics: at least with Labour, both the rival wings are broadly rational in their thinking.

So, where does that lead us? Basically fucked, I guess. But whatever Britain is in 2019, it’s crystal clear what we are NOT. And that’s “the nation that people turn to when the world needs leadership”. No matter how many drones we buy (which don’t actually work yet as Williamson desires).

Stupid boy.

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Catalogue of Errors

Over the past two and a half years, I have tried to imagine any plausible scenario whereby the government could have made a bigger mess of negotiations with the EU following the June 2016 referendum result. So far, I haven’t come up with any. In other words, Theresa May has made the biggest mess of these negotiations that I can imagine. With the results of the last two Tuesdays’ House of Commons votes fresh in our minds, I feel it is time to apply some analysis to May’s performance.

Hence my name for this post is Catalogue of Errors. I want to break down this sorry tale into 3 categories: strategic mistake, lesser errors and major errors.

Strategic Mistake

Lest we forget: the 2016 referendum showed a nation divided, broadly speaking, down the middle. The vote was 51.9% v 48.1% with 29% of the voters not bothering to vote. Our MPs are paid to represent our interests; specifically to recognise the closeness of the result and to act accordingly.

May got it wrong practically from day one. It is now crystal clear that she focussed her strategic objective on Tory party unity, not the national interest. In practice, this meant dealing with the chronic Tory infighting over EU membership, endemic for over 40 years, rather than seeking a broad consensus based upon cross-party cooperation. This is a major, major strategic error which has affected all else. It is only in the last few days where the extreme weakness in her authority has forced her, reluctantly and with gritted teeth, to make a number of unconvincing gestures to opposition parties. Nothing has come of them so far.

The decision to suck up to (and bribe) the archbigots of the DUP (who represent the opposite to majority opinion in Northern Ireland over EU membership) was a consequence of this strategic mistake and the hung parliament following the 2017 election. The hubris which led her to call the election was also a consequence of the original strategic mistake (party before country), aided and abetted by the right-wing press – remember the “crush the saboteurs” rhetoric?

Lesser Errors

I will briefly summarise a string of the more obvious tactical errors committed by May since becoming Prime Minister.

Perhaps the most obvious was in her self-preserving idea of “balancing” leavers and remainers in her Cabinet. This led to monstrosities like Boris Johnson becoming Foreign Secretary, a man so narcissistic and self-unaware that he single-handedly turned the UK into a laughing stock. David Davis, a lazy, brainless idiot and Dominic Raab, a swivel-eyed Leave zealot “led” our EU negotiations. These embarrassing appointments further downgraded our standing in the world, as well as wasting about 2 years of negotiating time.

May’s personality and reliance on a few close allies led to her isolation both within the Tory Party and worldwide. Contrast this with the open way in which the EU negotiators kept close contact with key politicians in the EU27, thereby ensuring there was transparency and a high level of agreement amongst those with whom the UK was negotiating.

Major Errors

But I return to the two major errors committed by May since the summer of 2016. Both have been, in effect, appeasing the insane Leave fanatics in her own party. The first instance was the speech she made to the Tory Conference in autumn 2016 with her famous “red lines”. That earned her the approbation of the 70-somethings in the conference hall but has boxed in her negotiating position ever since.

The second major error happened yesterday. She made a U-turn by supporting the Brady amendment which in effect trashed her own negotiated deal following her crushing 230 vote defeat last week. Leading up to this vote, May had said it was her deal or none: renegotiation was “impossible”.

Worse, the Brady amendment’s notorious “alternative arrangements” plays totally into the fantasies and delusions of the worst Leave fanatics. True, she has bought a few days’ grace as the nominal leader of the country (and a few deluded headlines in today’s papers – check out the Mail’s page one headline for an extreme example). In exchange, she persuaded the House of Commons to support the maddest of the Leave extremists’ fantasies. The EU had made it clear that renegotiating the withdrawal agreement was a total no-no. The “alternative arrangements” are straight unicorn-thinking.

Major failed to control his “bastards”. Cameron appeased them by holding a vacuously-worded referendum. May has played into the hands of these lunatics not once, but twice. Albert Einstein (or maybe somebody else) famously defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. If so, then we are being led into a fantasy renegotiation, already having been told “no”, by a mad woman leading a party of cowards and fantasists.

End of Democracy?

The UK famously claims it does not have a formal written constitution – not strictly true, some of it is written down, but not all in the same place. But the arrangement leads to a whole lot of making it up as we go along. Can UK democracy survive this apparent collapse of the past few days? That will be the subject of a future post!

Anyone betting on a happy ending?

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Culpable

I write this post just a few hours before the so-called “meaningful vote” on May’s EU exit deal.

Two Commentaries

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

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

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…

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Two Mindsets

  • Two countries

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.

Andrew flogging arms to the Saudis

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.

Two Referendums

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:

  1. Democratise the House of Lords into an elected Senate;
  2. Specify what role, if any, referendums have in our democratic arrangements;
  3. Review our adversarial first-past-the-post voting system;
  4. 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.

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Priti Vacant

Oh, so Priti vacant!

Priti Patel MP
Priti Patel MP

Priti Patel , you may recall, was International Development Secretary with plans to abolish her own Department. She lost her ministerial post after some dodgy business about undeclared moonlighting meetings in Israel. Out of office for just over a year, her extremist views on the UK leaving the EU have got her back in the news last week.

Leave Extremist

Those with longer memories will recall that Patel was one of the leading lights in the campaign for Leave leading up to the referendum in 2016. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see this fits in with her far right political views. She is an avowed fan of Margaret Thatcher, who she claims as her political hero. She now falls naturally into that group of MPs (mainly Tories, some DUP) who want Britain to leave the EU in pursuit of an extreme form of low tax, small government model for the UK. That is, by pursuing an ever purer form of Free Market Fundamentalism which has been responsible for low economic growth and a shocking rise in poverty and inequality. This is analogous to giving a sick patient stronger and stronger doses of a medicine that causes harm until the patient dies. (See my earlier posts Two Castles (part 2), Some Are More Equal, Inequality Damages Your Wealth, for example and background.)

Patel is back in the news because she was complaining May had not tried hard enough in her negotiations with the EU. Specifically, she advocated that May should have made more of the threat of food shortages in the Irish republic as a bargaining tactic.

The Great Famine in Ireland

irish famine
The Great Hunger

Patel should know more about Irish history than to make such an insensitive remark. Irish history is indelibly marked by the Great Famine in the 1840s, which led to a million deaths and a million Irish people emigrating from the ravaged country. The Wikipedia account of the Great Famine gives a full explanation. We were taught at school, under the name the “Irish Potato Famine”, that this was an unfortunate natural phenomenon, caused by the disease known as “potato blight”. Whilst this may be true up to a point, there was criticism at the time of the UK government’s inadequate response to the crisis (not reported by my history teacher).

Modern historians concede this made matters worse, but point to a more fundamental issue. Food continued to be exported from Ireland to Great Britain during the famine and English absentee landlords had benefited from the confiscation of land in Ireland from the 16th century onward. Landlords’ agents in Ireland saw their bosses’profits as more important than the lives of the Irish people.

Famine in India

Famine in India
Famine in India

If Patel had forgotten her Irish history, surely there is even less excuse in her apparent failure to understand that similar famines had occurred in the 19th century in India. I note from her CV that Patel’s parents were born in Gujarat. Did she learn nothing about her Indian heritage and history from her parents or grandparents? Has she never even been curious?

The effect of UK government policy exacerbated severe famines in India from the late 18th century through to the 1920s, in particular in the last 50 years of this period. The story is familiar: there was enough food in India to feed its population, but the distribution infrastructure was geared towards the needs of imperialist Britain, not native Indians. (This includes, incidentally, the much-vaunted railway system, whose routes were geared to the appropriation of India’s natural resources for export to Britain and for the convenience of the Imperial rulers.)

Modern historians estimate that, in total, between 20 and 40 million Indians died during the period of British imperial rule as a direct result of British government policy. And no, I wasn’t taught that at school, either.

A New Moral Low

Patel’s attitude is, ironically, imperialist in the extreme and shows the Brits’ traditional contempt for the Irish. To use the Irish people as dispensable pawns in some great game between the UK and EU27 takes us to yet another moral low point in the continuing sorry saga of this country tearing itself apart over EU membership.

Further proof, if proof were needed, that she is not fit ever to return to public office.

Contrary to expectations when my previous post was published, my medical treatment has been delayed. Hence this post!

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