Wednesday, 30 January 2019
Brexit: boxed into a corner
Unfortunately I think the "winners" in yesterday's parliamentary manoeuvres are the arch-Brexiteers (Jacob Rees-Mogg and his European Reform group.) They can claim to have shown themselves to be "flexible" by supporting Mrs May's deal provided she agrees to re-negotiate the Irish backstop, and Mrs May can also claim to be a compromiser extraordinaire by agreeing to do this, despite the fact that up until now she has said that this was impossible.
The most perceptive comment I have seen on the demand to substitute "alternative arrangements" (as yet unspecified and with a technology as yet undiscovered) for the current deal is that it is akin to the captain of the Titanic ordering the iceberg to get out of the way.
Be that as it may, if, and more probably when, this desperate attempt to create a deal acceptable to the Commons hits the buffers, both the ERG and Mrs May can claim: "Well, we tried, we showed flexibility, we did our best. We have hit the rock of EU intransigence. It's al their fault. So well leave without a deal."
Which is what the ERG have wanted all along.
And the anti-EU press, who today manage to distort Mrs May's U-turn as her triumphant victory, will render gushing support.
It has to be admitted that, largely in its earlier days I think, the EU had the habit of taking difficult negotiations to the 11th hour and 59th minute and then, if no agreement were reached, stopping the clock and forcing negotiators to carry on until the early hours of the following day, or even longer. However, there is no sign of the EU agreeing to further amend the current deal which has taken two and a half years to complete and to which Mrs May has already signed up. It could happen, but is unlikely.
More likely will be the production of a form of words, some clarification or interpretation, which the Brexiteers are almost bound to declare to be unsatisfactory, and so we continue towards the cliff edge on the 29th March.
I find the performance of our MPs hugely disappointing. The overwhelming majority know perfectly well that the best thing for the future of the country is to stay in the EU. They voted remain in the Referendum. Everything that has been revealed since the Referendum confirms they were right. They know.
They cower before the mantras of: "We must respect the will of the people;" "We must obey the instructions of the British people." Sadly this rubbish passes unchallenged when it is repeated ad nauseam by government spokespersons and Brexiteers on the BBC and elsewhere. Why don't the interviewers, every time, say it is the way 37% voted then, but 34% voted to Remain, 12% who could have voted didn't bother and about 3m people most concerned weren't allowed to vote? And the Referendum campaign was distorted by lies, unachievable promises. illegal activities and possibly foreign interference.
If they haven't time to say all that, why not just say the referendum was ineptly conceived and fraudulently conducted?
But no: "The people''s will" (aptly illustrated as the "people's willy" by a Guardian cartoonist) is hammered away and the referendum result is raised to the status of a sacred shibboleth which must be obeyed however deleterious the cost.
As argued repeatedly on this blog, the best outcome is for MPs to grasp the nettle, admit that the whole saga has been a terrible mistake, apologise to the EU for wasting so much of their time and energy, withdraw Article 50 and promise to be constructive and co-operative members in the future.
Failing that (and yet further delaying dealing with the real problems facing both this country, the EU and the World) they should at the very least decide to put whatever deal, if any, is achieved, against Remain, to the people in another Referendum.
Sunday, 27 January 2019
27th January: Holocaust Memorial Day
In 'If This a Man' Primo Levi, an Italian Jew incarcerated in Auschwitz,, describes (pages 134/5) the reaction of "civilians" to the prisoners who are marched out each day to perform work in the areas outside the camps.
. . . [We] are the untouchables to the civilians. They think, more or less explicitly, - with all the nuances lying between contempt and commiseration - that as we have been condemned to this life of ours, reduced to our condition, we must be tainted by some mysterious, grave sin. They hear us speak in many different languages, which they do not understand and which sound to them as grotesque as animal noises; they see us reduced to ignoble slavery , without honour and without names, beaten every day, more abject every day, and they never see in our eyes a light of rebellion, or of peace, or of faith. They know us as thieves and untrustworthy, muddy, ragged and starving, and mistaking the effect for the cause, they judge us worthy of our abasement. Who could tell one of our faces from another? For them we are 'Kazett',, a singular neutral word.
This naturally does not stop many of them throwing us a piece of bread or potato now and again, or giving us their bowls, after the distribution of 'Zivilsuppe' in the work-yards, to scrape and give back washed. They do it to get rid of some importunate starved look, or through a momentary impulse of humanity, or through simple curiosity to see us running from all sides to fight each other for the scrap, bestial and without restraint, until the strongest one gobbles it up, whereupon all the others limp away, frustrated.
The attitude of the "civilians" does not seem to me all that far removed from our present-day attitude to the increasing numbers of homeless, beggars and other misfits in our streets.
Happily Primo Levi describes (page133) a "more excellent way."
". . .[A]n Italian civilian worker brought me a piece of bread and the remainder of his ration every day for six months; he gave me a vest of his, full of patches; he wrote a postcard on my behalf to Italy and brought me the reply. For all this he neither asked not accepted any reward, becasue he was good and simple and did not think that one did good for a reward.
So Good Samaritans don't just exist in the stories of Jesus (or they didn't in 1944)
Saturday, 26 January 2019
Say no to a Right Royal Compromise
In what is apparently her annual visit to the Sandringham branch of the Women's Institute, the Queen has extolled the virtues of compromise and "coming together to seek out the common ground."
Although she doesn't actually mention Brexit this is widely, and probably rightly, regarded as a not very coded message to our parliamentarians to bash each others heads together and come up with a viable deal.
As a dedicated Liberal who believes that our MPs should be elected by single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies, so leading almost inevitably to a balanced parliament with no single party with an over-all majority and therefore able to call all the shots, it follows that I must also be a believer in cross-party co-operation and, yes, compromise.
However, it has to be recognised that in some cases compromise can lead not to the best but the worst of all possible worlds. That seems to me to be the case in every possible permutation of Brexit.
One compromise with a good deal of support is the Norway Option. This would do the least damage to our economy becasue we would remain members of the single market and the customs union, so our advantageous trade position would be maintained. However, we should be required to observe all EU rules and regulations without any further say in making them, to respect the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour, remain subject to the rulings of the ECJ on which we should no longer be represented, and continue to pay a membership fee.
So this would square the circle: we should have left the EU, have retained al its economic advantages but remain subject to al its rules with no further part in making them
Compared with our present situation as members, this is simply foolishness. We gain nothing but lose a great deal - the worst of all worlds.
Mrs May's "Deal," which remains hemmed in by her "red lines" on which she appears unwilling to compromise, means that we shall leave both the single market and customs union but remain "aligned" to them. This means that, for the foreseeable future at least, we shall observe all EU trading rules unless and until some technological method as yet undiscovered is devised to enable the Irish border (our only land border with the EU) to be crossed without physical checks.
The advantage of this "alignment" is that we should be permitted to curtail the "four freedoms" (not least of labour - though we desperately need it) and make trade deals with the rest of the world, although there is as yet no sign of the promised queue of other economies desperate to make them.
This option requires us to take a great deal of optimistic speculation on trust.
In actual fact those of us who would like to see Britain as a fully-participating and enthusiastic member of the EU have already compromised.
We have opted out to the Schengen Area, within which passports and border checks are no longer required for people crossing frontiers, we have opted out of Monetary Union (the Euro) and are not required to join it (as would be any new countries joining the EU.) David Cameron even managed to negotiate us out of our commitment to "ever closer union": something to which we signed up when we originally joined in 1972.
In other words, those of us who believe that Britain should be at the very heart of Europe have already compromised and allowed us to be pushed gradually to the periphery - the slow lane.
Sadly, as both John Major and David Cameron have discovered, for every concession made the fanatical Brexiteers want more. They will not be satisfied unless and until every one of our ties with the EU is broken, regardless of the harm done to our political standing, our economy and our culture.
So sadly, Your Majesty,"thanks but no-thanks." I cannot see further compromise by we remainers to be sensible or in any way advantageous.
Monday, 21 January 2019
Brexit - what next?
In a post in August 2018 I argued that, although a People's Vote on Brexit would be highly desirable, an even better step would be for the party whips to be taken off and our MPs to be free to debate the merits and demerits of every conceivable option and then, perhaps having narrowed down the viable alternatives to two or three, make the final decision themselves.
If they decided not to leave the EU after all on the grounds that no deal which involves leaving, on whatever terms, is anywhere near as good as the one we already have, then there would be a lot of harrumphing and perhaps even some French-style riots on the streets but we'd get over it and could, from that stronger position, begin to tackle the real problems facing the country - and not least the genuine grievances which led to the Brexit vote.
The idea did not receive much traction. Nor did a letter in the Guardian the following month (26/09/18) arguing that if MPs took this step than the whole mess could be sorted out before Bonfire Night.
Fiends with whom I discussed the matter seemed to take the view that I was probably right but "it ain't gonna happen."
Happily, I now feel opinion is moving in that direction.
Having spent two and a half years devising a plan that has been rejected by a bigger majority than anything else British Governments have attempted in modern times, Mrs May carries on as if nothing has happened, and is expected to propose the same plan with minor variations this-afternoon. The Leader of the Official Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, refuses to participate in cross- party talks unless the game is played according to his own rules.
It is perfectly clear that, since the Brexit issue seems to have split both major parties equally, the traditional party structure is incapable of resolving the issue.
The prominent Tory Remainer and former cabinet minister Dominic Grieve has proposed that MPs should be allowed one day for free discussion and "indicative votes" on the various options. Amazing that the body in which our sovereignty lies has to ask permission!
More boldly, Sir John Major, the former conservative prime minister who designated the Brixiteers in his cabinet as "the Bastards" has called for the whips to be taken off and some free discussion and "indicative votes" to take place. Major points out that Edward Heath, under whose premiership, after several rebuffs, we actually joined the EU, allowed Tory MPs a free vote, so these free votes would not be dangerously innovative.
I'm not sure if Major goes as far as asking MPs to make the final decision. but he seems to allow the possibility of a People's Vote if MPs can't make up their minds.
In the wonderful words and music of Gilbert and Sullivan: "quite calm deliberation disentangles every knot."
Rather than further weeks of Mrs May trying to foist her unacceptable deal onto a reluctant parliament, with an Opposition too timid to propose any alternative (other than a General Election, which would be absurd at this stage). we need several weeks, if necessary, of calm discussion form our MPs to enable them, fully informed, to make the most serious decision of their and my political lifetime.
Wednesday, 16 January 2019
Jeremy Corbyn just doesn't get it.
In his response to the government's dramatic defeat in the Commons last night Jeremy Corbyn claimed that the most serious crisis facing the country was that we are led by an incompetent government. Therefore he was moving a motion of no confidence in it.
He was wrong. True the government is incompetent, and most of us can't see much sign of competence in the official opposition either. But that is not the most serious crisis facing the country.
The most serious crisis facing the country is that we can't make up or minds what to do about Brexit.
Unless we take pre-emptive measures, we have only 72 days to go before we leave the EU without any deal at all, which is almost universally regarded as catastrophic..
So if there were any sense in our politics, every single hour and every ounce of political energy between now and the 29th March should be devoted to trying to reach agreement on the best, or failing that the least worst, solution, either for parliament to implement itself, or to put to the people in anther referendum
Instead Corbyn and his fellow Labour leaders will spend the day lobbing pretty predictable accusations against the government. He and some of this supporters will presumably enjoy it.
There is no shortage of easy targets: the dire consequences of universal credit; feeble attempts to solve the housing crisis; increasingly precarious employment; squalid conditions in out prisons;a roaring balance of payments deficit; appallingly low productivity; transport policy chaos; continued harmful privatisation in the NHS; growing inequality between peoples and the regions; our international reputation besmirched as we appearer to prefer to leave refugees to drown in the Channel rather than rescue them.
None of these problems would be made any more solvable by leaving the EU: in fact, most would become more difficult.
The government will produce some stilted defences and the "no confidence" motion will be lost.
Even if it were to be won, does anyone seriously believe that we should abandon finding solution to Brexit for three weeks or so in order to have a general election? Or that a general election campaign would be conducted exclusively on Brexit?
No wonder the rest of the world looks on us a slightly bonkers, and an increasing number of our own people regard our politics as an irrelevant game played by politicians for their own amusement and with little relevance to their own lives.
Here, as far as I can see, are the various possible Brexit options on which our MPs, instead of a showcase debate, should be concentrating:.
1. The Norway option: this involves remaining in the Customs Union and Single Market , assuming the existing EFTA members would allow us to join them. It would do least economic damage. However it would entail following all the EU rules, existing and future (in which we should have no share in making) and continuing to allow free movement of capital, goods, services and labour. It would avoid any problem on the Northern Ireland border, but we should still be subject to the jurisdiction of the ECJ (on which we should no longer have any representation) and continue to pay a "membership fee." It is effectively "Brexit in name only" or BINO.
2. The Canada option: this would give tariff free access for most goods, though there might be some customs checks to assess regulatory compliance. Trade in services would however, be much more limited and could probably not include financial services.
3. LEXIT: a "left wing version of Brexit," the details of which have not yet been specified, but which the Labour party thinks it would be able to negotiate and which would better protect jobs, wages and employment standards than the May deal. Most commentators regard it as "having your cake and eating it." Presumably the implementation of Article 50 would have to be postponed (which would require the agreement of the 27 remaining countries) in order to give put the clothes on this option.
4. No deal: simply leaving on the 29th March and trading with the EU and the rest of the world on WTO terms. This is the preferred option of the most ardent of the Brexiteers. Interestingly Jacob Rees Mogg rebuked a commentator for referring to it as "crashing out." That , he claimed, showed bias from someone who should be neutral. Most commentators thinks this would be the most damaging outcome for our economy. Even Rees Mogg has admitted that it might take 50 years to see the benefits. Some Brexiteers claim that if we took this option we should not pay the £39bn "divorce bill" though most others would see that as an international obligation to which the UK is legally and morally committed.
5. After discussing all of the above, and perhaps even agreeing on a preferred option, putting the matter again to the people in another referendum.
6. Deciding that there is no option anywhere near as good for our economy, reputation, cultural, scientific and political standing as revoking Article 50 (which we can do unilaterally) and Remaining.
Tuesday, 15 January 2019
Brexit crunch day.
Today, 15th January 2019. the UK parliament finally gets its chance to have its "meaningful vote" on Brexit. Voting starts at 7pm tonight though I doubt we hall be much wiser than than we are now.
The print media and airwaves have been full of opinions from people who pretend to know, and who doubtless receive substation fees. I doubt if most of them know much more than I do.
One who does know more than most must surely be Mrs May, but her expressed views are clearly designed to persuade (secure her position?) rather than enlighten She pretends that there way be better terms coming from the EU, and, indeed, may yet spring a last minute surprise, but it seems unlikely. The EU negotiators have been pretty adamant for weeks that the terms are the terms (agreed with all 27 remaining members) and the deal is the deal and that it that. Listening, or, at least, receiving messages, does no seem to be one of Mrs May's strong points.
Her main mantra is that to reject her deal will be a betrayal of our democracy, so she doesn't seem to understand much about democracy either. We are a representative democracy, sovereignty lies in parliament. She was the one who did her damnedest to keep any decision on Brexit out of parliament, and a private citizen had to go the the courts to force her to allow this "meaningful vote." Her chief supporting newspaper, the Daily Mail, called the judges "enemies of the people," for insisting that parliament's constitutional rights be observed.
Mrs May's loudest supporting voice remaining in the cabinet, Michael Gove, was interviewed on the radio this morning. It was a tour de force. The interviewer accused him of peeking so rapidly and without pauses to prevent him, (the interviewer,) interjecting with any questions. He. Gove, told us (yet again) that 17+ millions had voted to leave the EU: no mention that 16+ millions had voted to stay in, 12m hadn't bothered to vote although entitled to do so,and another 3+ million with a serious interest in the result.hadn't been allowed to.
The result of this ill-constructed exercise; unnecessary, distorted by lies, illegal over-spending and possible foreign interference, must be observed as the "will of the people."
Unfortunately the Brexiteers have the best shorthands. Constructive estimates of the economic and political damage leaving will do are so easily dismissed as "project fear." Britain, freed from the shackles of EU regulations (many of which we've devised and to most of which we've willingly agreed) will soar into the sunlit uplands of great economic property and political clout,without the least explanation of how or why.
In warning that a failure to observe "the people's will" could lead to riots in the street, Chris Grayling, arguably the government's most inept minister, more or less invites, even legitimises, potential civil disobedience.
Meanwhile, the Labour Party, the Official Opposition, paid to criticise the government and offer alternatives, stands incoherently on the sidelines.
If (when?) Mrs May's deal is rejected they will move a motion of no confidence. When? Well, soon.
Then they'd like a General Election. No recognition of the fact that it would now require a two thirds majority of the Commons to vote for it, and that even if they did, Labour would be unlikely to win it ( the two parties are neck and neck in the opinion polls.)
And even if they did that, there is no probability the the EU would negotiate a deal more favourable to the UK than they have with Mrs May.
Labour's policies remain in the la la land of "have your cake and eat it" which most people left behind two years ago.
We shall see if the Commons have the guts to "take back " the control which is their entitlement. The Commons Speaker is accrued of anti=Brexit conniving, by allegedly re-interpreting the rules to strengthen their hand. Another "enemy within?." But guarding the independence of the Commons against an over-mighty executive is his historic function. That's why he pretends to struggled when appointed (because in the bad old days Speakers who stuck up for the Commons could get their heads chopped off, or worse.)
Let us hope that our MPs have the courage to act of what they know is the truth: Brexit is a bad idea; a backward idea; an idea promoted by the very rich for the very rich; supported by a largely foreign owned press; not in the interests of the public but "sold" to that public with dishonesty and dissimulation.
The quickest way out of the mess is for MPs to withdraw Article 50, apologise to the EU for wasting so much time, remain members on the present highly favourable terms, and promise to be engaged and co-operative members in the future.
Saturday, 5 January 2019
Each year I have a pre-Christian lunch with three fiends; one a fellow Liberal Democrat, the other two keen Labour party supporters, one whom campaigns actively in a Labour/Tory marginal. He asked me how I would vote in such a marginal , and without much thoght or explanation I replied "Liberal." Afterwards and on reflection, I thought this might have been a bit blunt, so I wrote him the following letter (names have been changed):
At our pre-Christmas lunch you asked me how I would vote in a Labour/Troy marginal where a Liberal Democrat candidate had “no chance” and I replied “Liberal.”
This deserves a little more explanation.
Perhaps it would have been a bit more tactful if I had said that voting Labour rather than Liberal Democrat would be worth considering if there were a reciprocal arrangement in a similarly placed Liberal Democrat/ Tory marginal where Labour voters undertook to vote Liberal Democrat. This idea has been floated from time to time but I’m not aware that it has achieved much. Further research is needed. The Labour leadership is strongly against such arrangements but sometimes voters take matters into their own hands.
More broadly, a “realignment of the Left” has been hovering in the background for most of the last half-century, if not longer. The late Paddy Ashdown was very keen on it, as you may have gathered from the obituaries.
The first “realignment” in which I was involved was in the late sixties or early seventies. David Steel, Ben Whittaker (a Labour MP) and Des Wilson (the Shelter founder, but not then in the Liberal party, but dubbed “the country’s best known Mr Wilson") tried to form a cross-party Radical Action Movement (RAM). I went to a meeting. It came to nothing when the other Mr Wilson (Harold) won a small majority in February 1974 and a bigger one later in the year.
The formation of the SDP and eventual merger with the Liberals was another attempt which ended in failure because the overwhelming majority of Labour MP remained loyal to what became “Old” Labour .
More recently was the “Project” which Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair toyed with in the 90s. Proportional representation of some sort (possibly not STV in multi-member constituencies) featured prominently. Blair lost all interest once Labour won its massive majority in 1997.
In other words, Labour tends to be interested in cooperation with the Liberal Party /Liberal Democrats when Labour is weak, and loses interest when it wins, or looks as though it can win, a majority, however small.
Many Labour members are bitter that the Liberal Democrats formed a Coalition with the Tories in 2010. As you know, neither Jack (the other Liberal at the meal) nor I think the formation of that Coalition was a mistake. If you believe in proportional representation then a balanced (better word than “ hung”) parliament is almost inevitable so the making and breaking of coalitions will, with PR, become a normal feature of our democracy (as it is in Germany and many other European countries.)
The mistakes in the 2010-15 Coalition arose from the naïve way in which the coalition was conducted – Liberal Democrats supporting everything rather than defining: these are the policies on which we agree and will give open support; these are the policies on which we have reservations but will not vote the government out; these are the areas in which we disagree and on which we will campaign and vote independentl. We should have been able to say on so many policies: they have 300+ MPs; we have only 57 – we don’t agree but we can’t stop them, only modify the damage this will do.
Also it is now evident that Nick Clegg trusted Cameron while from the beginning the Tories did their best to shaft us, among other things by pouring campaign funds into the seats we held in order to gain them – very successful.
What Labour critics fail to acknowledge is that, while the Liberal Democrats adopted a policy of negotiating first with the party with the biggest minority in the Commons. ie the Tories, there were also parallel but less publicised negotiations with Labour. Gordon Brown was very keen on these but prominent Labour figures, Jack Straw, David Blunkett and others, were strongly opposed and these negotiations foundered.
So from this, possibly somewhat biased, outsider’s perspective it appears that “die-hard Labour" believes that:
- · Labour holds the monopoly blueprint by which society is to be improved:
- e those with alternative suggestions (Liberal Democrats, Greens, some nationalists, feminists, et al )are trespassing on" our" turf and should jolly-well get out of the way.
In support of the second proposition, Liberal Democrats holding public office often get the impression that Labour hates us more than the Tories.
Add to that, not only did the Tories shaft us in the Coalition, but Labour, in my view shamefully, did so too, on two key rises of the Liberal Democrat programme:
1. Electoral Reform. We purposely ran the referendum on the “Alternative Vote” because this was policy the Labour Manifesto. Your then leader Ed Miliband publicly supported it and so did some other Labour leaders, but others publicly campaigned against and many MPs and much of your membership remained indifferent.
2. House of Lords reform was also in the Labour manifesto. Labour supported the Coalition proposal in principle and then blocked it by the back-door method of failing to vote for the parliamentary time to debate it. What hypocrisy.
These two shameful acts (of lack of action) support the two criticisms above: good ideas are only good if they come from Labour.
Tom asked if I thought our party would survive and even revive.
Of course it will, or something like it. There is a need in any democracy for a party which gives the highest priority to individual liberty commensurate with the liberty of others (increasing levels of surveillance made possible by modern technology make this increasingly vital); is enthusiastic about international co-operation; wants to set limits to inequality; advocates sharing sovereignty with Europe, the UN and eventually the rest of the world: is keen to promote real equality and not just equality of opportunity, wants a generous welfare safety-net for those who, through their own fault or otherwise, fail to flourish without help; puts long-term considerations (eg on climate change) before short-term advantage; believes in stake-holder participation in the conduct of economic enterprises and the profits made; and wants to reform the constitution to devolve as much power as sensible to the lowest possible e level.
In summary, a major difference between us and Labour arises from that last point. We are bottom-up reformers, Labour is top-down.
That doesn’t mean to say that there isn’t a lot of overlap in our policies, especially in regard to welfare. So a re-alignment of the left could come as and when Labour recognises that it does not, after all, have a monopoly of what “the good society” should look like and is prepared to work with parties which share some of its ideas.
The key to this co-operation is electoral reform. For Labour to adopt that your die-hards must accept
a) that it is unlikely to be able in the future to win over-all majorities by itself, and
b) even if you do, that one party-massive majority government is not often good government (as witness the errors of the Blair years, for example)
One last point. Your argument about Liberal Democrats et al handing seats to the Tories by “interfering “ in your marginal seats is probably invalided. It assumes for example that, in the absence of a Liberal Democrat candidate, most or even all our vote would transfer to Labour and thus dish the Tories.
Whereas it is true that most Liberal Democrat activists are to the left, that is not necessarily true of our electoral support (just as not all Labour voters are Socialists). Some of our support comes from “centrists” or those disgusted by the bullying arrogance of the two larger parties. Some will be “one-nation Tories” who (with god reason) feel that the Tories have moved too far to the Right. It is a fair bet that, in the absence of a Liberal Democrat candidate, some of our supporters wouldn’t vote, and only about half of the rest would vote labour, with the other half voting Tory.
I believe there is research evidence to support this.
So I do not believe we are “queering your pitch.” I shall go on campaigning for my principles, and urge you to continue campaigning for yours – at least until you see the light.
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