Wednesday 27 March 2019

Brexit: clearing the trees to see the wood

When I worked in Papua New Guinea I discovered that meetings went on and on and on - and then on some more.  Speakers 11, 12  and 13 had to have their say, even if speakers four, five and six had already said it. My "European"(?) attitude of,"we've already said that, so let's move on," cut no ice.  

I realised eventually that, in a country which within living memory had had no or few national forces of law and order, making sure that everyone had had their say was an essential element in getting local decisions accepted in a (usually) peaceable manner.

It is in this spirit that we must view today's debates and "indicative votes" in Parliament. Just a pity that they're taking place in the week we were meant to leave, rather than a couple of years ago.  

It is a commonplace that MPs know perfectly well what they are against but cannot come to any collective agreement on what they are for.  I expect his to be confirmed when the results of the votes are announced tonight.

However, if the debating  has cleared the air and demonstrated what has been plainly obvious to most of us for months if not years - that there is no deal, be it Norway + or Canada-style or EEC 2.0 or whatever, that is anywhere near as good as the deal we currently have by continuing as members of the EU, the day will have been useful.

Then one hopes that the Commons will move on to the crunch on Monday, when I hope the options will be either:
  • revoke Article 50, or
  • accept Mrs May's deal with the proviso that it be put to a Referendum against the alternative of Remaining. 
Sadly,  Labour Party policy is still to "honour the result of the Referendum" and chief Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg (who has prudently moved many of his financial assets to the Irish Republic so that they remain in the EU) was still enunciating on Radio Four this morning about  17.4 million people having voted for leaving,  without mentioning the 16.1 who voted to Remain, the 12.6 million who didn't vote and the several million, likely to vote Remain,  who weren't allowed to vote.

I'm quite sure that  some MPs feel quite genuinely that not to observe the referendum result would be some form of betrayal.  After all, the then prime minister, David Cameron, although he had no right to do so (no parliament can bind a future parliament) had said that the result would be observed: "No ifs, no buts."

However, one suspects that a very large number of MPs are looking to the interests of their party (as Mrs May and Mr Corbyn are clearly doing), their possibilities of advancement, or their constituency majorities, rather than the ethics of the situation and the good of the nation

I'm sorry to go on and on about this, but if the pro-Brexiteers persist in distorting the narrow majority achieved in the 2016 referendum as a clarion call that must be obeyed, then it behoves those of us who believe that the true national interest is to remain in the EU to point out the more realistic analysis:

  • the leave  vote is not "the will of the people," but just over a third of us, with slightly less over a third of us wanting to remain, and over a quarter of us not voting:
  •  the referendum was flawed in construction and the campaign distorted by lies, illegalities and false promises:
  • with many younger voters now on the register and a few older ones "on another shore and in a greater light" the majority opinion of the electorate has almost certainly changed:
So there is nothing dishonourable  about failing to observe the 2016 result: indeed it would be irresponsible not to do so.

Sunday 24 March 2019

More pre-Brexit musings

I have been much pr-occupied with other matters this week and haven't been able to take in a blow-by-blow account of the Brexit shenanigans.  However, there are one or two things which deserve comment.

First, I did't actually hear it, but Mrs May addressed the nation and told is that it was our   patriotic duty (my emphasis) to persuade our MPs to support her Brexit deal.  The is to turn the truth on its head.  Remember, this whole Brexit folly was instigated not in the national interest, but to protect the Tory Party from seepage  to UKIP.  So what Mrs May is really asking is  for us to help her save the Tory Party.  The national interest, as some 90% of informed opinion is now clear about, is for us to remain in the EU. And Mrs May knows that too: after all, she voted Remain.

Secondly, Mrs May claimed  that the majority of of people are now fed up with Brexit and "just want us (her?) to 'get on with it'."  Well, she may be right about both those assertions but that is not a rational basis for making the  most serious political decision of the last forty-odd  years. Even if many if not most of the public are indeed tired of the debate a true leader's duty in such circumstances is to lead and  persist in looking for the best solution for the nation and not succumb to ephemeral populism.

Thirdly there are serious calls, even from senior conservatives, for Mrs May to be replaced as prime minister.  This is completely  pointless.  The problem, that we cannot after all leave the EU and retain all the benefits of membership, that we can't " have our cake and eat it," remains the same whoever is prime minister.

Fourthly, Walter Bagehot, who more or less defined the British Constitution,  wrote  in defence of the monarchy,  that  people "love a mange more than a ministry." That's probably still true and it's quite likely that picture magazines of the Royal Family  outsell the New Statesman and  perhaps even the Spectator. What is also true is that the political class and media much prefer speculation about personalities rather than discussion of the issues (or "ishues" as the late great Tony Benn put it.)  Sadly we're now in this phase and acres of print and hours of air-time are wasted in how long Mrs May's premiership will last and whether it's Johnson (ouch), Gove, Leadsome or whoever will replace her.  This is a complete dereliction of duty at this critical time.

Finally, yesterday's march for a "People's Vote" numbered over a million.  At the same time more than 5 million (and counting) have put their names to a petition calling on MPs to Revoke Article 50.  I suspect a goodly number of the marchers now take this view too.

With a week to go it is still possible and legally practical for our MPs to cut to the quick and take this decision.  It just needs courage.

Saturday 16 March 2019

Brexit: no sauce for the gander

Nearly three years ago, in the EU referendum, 37% of those entitled to do so voted one way, 34% voted the other and 27% didn't bother to vote.  Lots of the people  most seriously  affected by the outcome weren't allowed to vote, the campaign was fuelled by lies and false promises, there was some illegal activity, and possibly foreign interference.

A "meaningful vote" on the the deal to implement the result of the referendum was scheduled  to take place in parliament last December, but it was postponed because the government felt that they wouldn't get the result they wanted.

It was this year, on the 15th January,  just two months ago, that the government permitted the "meaningful vote" to take place. After extensive debate in which every possible angle was explored in conditions designed to ensure fairness and truthfulness, their deal was defeated by 432 votes to 202 (a majority of more than two to one - a far cry from 37% to 34%.)

However, battered but undaunted, the government subjected their deal to another "meaningful vote" last week, on the 12th  March.  After yet more extensive debate under controlled conditions the deal was defeated by 391 to242.  The gap is narrowing!

So next week we are to have yet another "meaningful vote" designed to enable the government to get its way.

Strangely, the somewhat dubious result of the referendum result of three years ago is given the status  of sacred writ which cannot be challenged, yet the government can have as many goes as it likes to test to destruction the overwhelming view of the Commons in order to get its way.

Logic has been thrown out of the window, along with so much else that has been the proud heritage of British democracy.

Wednesday 13 March 2019

Brexit: where now?

At last the option of revoking Article 50 has surfaced in the mainstream (rather than just on this Blog.)  Mrs May gave it as an option in her speech in the Commons  last night  night in which she acknowledged the second massive defeat of her deal.  The presenter of the BBC 1 then mentioned it on the 10pm bulletin, and it has been cited again on the news this morning.

I'm surprised that this oblivious course has taken so long to emerge as a serious possibility.

For MPs to revoke Article 50 is the simplest way to get us out of the mess they have put us in.  The other options, in which they try to further defer decisions, or thrust them on to someone else, all have complications which have received little atention.

Remember that the EU has indicated that the maximum postponement they have in mind is two months - maybe three at the most.

The option with the most steam behind it is a "People's Vote."  That would take, at an uninformed guess, at least six months to set up, and  there would be much acrimonious wrangling as to the actual question(s). they could be: May or No-deal:  May or Remain; or a three way option,  May, Leave, Remain ( and how would we count that?)

Labour's preferred option is a General Election.  That could just about fit into a two month time frame.  The problems here are threefold:

1)  Labour probably wouldn't win - the most likely outcome is another balanced parliament with the Tories as the largest party.and so the same deadlock as now:
2) Even if Labour did win a working majority, their proposals of remaining in "a", rather than "the"  customs union and single market sound like the original Brexiteer proposals of having  all the benefits of membership of the EU with none of the obligations, or "having your cake and eating it, which the EU would reject.(even if they agreed to re-open negotiations with a different government
3) Voters have a habit of deciding General Elections on issues other than the one(s) for which they were called.  Probably Labour would prefer this.

Both options sidetrack the issue of the EU Elections to be held in June.  If we haven't yet left we presumably have to take part.  Can we really cope with that, and a general Election or a "People's vote" at the same time?  Voter fatigue would probably lead to very poor turnouts and open the results to accusations of lack of legitimacy.

 The only viable option is for MPs to grasp the nettle and vote to revoke Article 50.  They have 15 days to do it.  Easy easy,  if they have the guts.

If MPs take this bold step there will, of course, be outrage, some of it synthetic, whipped up by the frustrated chief Brexiteers, and much of it perfectly legitimate, from the (I suspect very small) minority who sincerely believe that Britain as a whole would be a happier and more successful country outside the EU, and the much larger number who feel, legitimately, that the political elite have ignored their predicament for too long and so used the Referendum vote to take a swipe a the system.

There will be grief, there may even be disturbances, but we shall survive.

The treacle tins  of old used to bear the slogan "Out of the strong came forth sweetness."  If MPs can find the strength to take this boldest step we may then, freed from the burden of Brexit, have the time, energy and willl to build, along with our neighbours and within the EU, a society that really does "work for everyone"

Sweet indeed.

Tuesday 12 March 2019

Brexit: the Satruday-Morning Pictures ploy

In the late 1940s and early 50s the cinemas put on "Saturday Morning Pictures" for we kids.  There were highly comical "shorts" by Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello et al, various other bits and pieces, and always a serial, usually a Cowboy.  This invariably had a weekly "cliff hanger" ending, though usually, rather than falling off a cliff,  it was the heroine  or similar tied to a railway line as an express, belching smoke and steam, rapidly approached.  This was to ensure that we turned up, complete with our threpences  (three old pence) the following week.

It is hugely embarrassing to find our British government behaving in the same childish was:  an RAF plane on standby to fly Mrs May to Strasbourg yesterday, last minute "concessions" wrung from the EU, Mrs May presents her "triumph" to the public at 11h20 last night, just in time to swing the "meaningful vote" today.

We shall soon find out if "disaster" is averted: if the heroine is saved.

The plan, we are told, is that MPs will vote on the modified deal today.

If they vote it down they will vote tomorrow on whether or not to rule out a "no-deal" exit.

Then on Thursday they will vote on whether or not to ask for an extension to Article 50 .

Dull as all that sounds, the next thee days are the most crucial in Britain's post war political history. It is  appalling that the issue, in one of the most experienced and sophisticated democracies the world has yet known, is as fictional and farcical as kids' cinema.

MPs should bear in mind when voting:

  • the 2016 Referendum was called, not in the interests of the nation (until UKIP stirred up the mud, membership of the EU was about 16th on the list of voters' concerns) but to preserve the unity of the Tory party and defend it from seepage of support  to UKIP;
  • the referendum was ill-constructed, without any of the normal safeguards that even a music society or golf club would have in a move to change its constitution.  All parties, MPs and peers are complicit in this, including the Liberal Democrats.  What on earth do we pay all those posh lawyers £300 a day to attend the House of Lords if they let such a sloppy piece of legislation pass through?
  • the referendum campaign was fuelled by lies, false promises, scorn for the facts, a biassed and largely foreign-owned press, marred by illegalities and even possibly subjected to foreign influence;
  • the result was a narrow majority (52% to 48%) of those who voted in favour of Leave.  Before he'd realised they had won, even Leave's leader said that if the result were so narrow, then there should be a re-run,  and it has to be remembered that over a quarter of those entitled to vote didn't, and those on whom the result would have the greatest impact (16 and 17 year-olds, and EU citizens of other countries living in the UK) weren't allowed to vote;
  • that vote is now nearly three years old. It never was "the will of the people" - :just a bit more than a third of us.  Current polling suggests that, with the entry of most of those 16 and 17 year-olds who overwhelmingly favour Remain onto the register, the deaths of many of the mainly older Leave supporters, and in response to the facts which have emerged  which show the damage Brexit will do, public opinion has changed;. 
  • Consequently, respecting the 2016 result as an "instruction" from the British people is not a valid stance: indeed, with the interests of the nation as a whole at heart, it would be irresponsible to implement it.  In short: "When you're in a hole, stop digging." 
As I've argued consistently on this Blog, the quickest and easiest way to "stop digging" is for MPs to have the guts to vote to withdraw Article 50, say sorry to the rest of the EU for the trouble we've caused, and promise to be co-operative and constructive members in the future.  There are just 17 days left for this to happen, if parliament works weekends

If that provokes the Brexiteers to stir up a bit of "yellow vest" agitation on the streets, we'll get over it . (It will be nothing compared to the Miners' Strike)*.  And if some MPs lose their seats for doing their best for their constituents, that's a small price to pay for the future respect and prosperity of the nation they are sworn to serve.

Failing that, MPs should vote to  put whatever deal they come up with to the people, this time with proper safeguards.

* As depicted by local boy David Peace's "GB84", which , late in the day perhaps, I just happen to be reading.

Friday 8 March 2019

Workers' rights - flimsy assurances

Twenty-five years ago, in 1994, the Sunday Trading Act permitted shops to open on a Sunday.  Until then Sunday had been a "quiet day", set aside primarily for families, relaxation and, for those so inclined, religious observances.*

There was predictable opposition from the churches, who were mollified by assurances that no-one in the retail trade would be "forced" to work on a Sunday, and no-ones' career progression would  would be hampered if they asked to be exempted from working on Sundays on religious or any other grounds.

As far as I know these safeguards were written into the Act.**

If they were, then  they are not worth the paper they are written on, becasue shop workers are now routinely scheduled to work on Sundays as on any other day, and a refusal would certainly hamper their careers even if it did not result in the sack.

I'm also told  that the time-honoured tradition of double the normal hourly rate for working Sundays has also gone out of the window.

I mention this bit of history because in the past week, in order to try to persuade some Labour MPs to vote for Mrs May's EU deal, the government has assured them that they will have the chance to debate and adopt in the UK any improvements in workers' right that the EU may introduce after we have left, (should we do so.)

You can find more details here:

Once again the assurance is not worth the paper it is written on.  Even if it is included by the present parliament in in the EU  Exit legislation,  there is nothing whatsoever to prevent a future parliament changing or repealing the legislation.  That's what "reclaiming our sovereignty" is all about.

Or the provision could simply be ignored, as seems to be the case with Sunday Trading legislation. (Or maybe those assurances have been repealed as well)

Given that the entire Brexit is the dream child of the proponents of right-wing deregulation to "let  the market operate freely" there can be little doubt that one of the major results of Brexit, if we go through with it, will be reduced protection for working people.

The EU's safeguards for the rights of employees are probably far from perfect, but they are much better than anything the UK had before we signed up to the "Social Chapter" of the Maastricht Treaty, (remember the Tory government opted out of it).

We must learn from, and not ignore, our history.  The best way to preserve, and improve, employees' rights, is to Remain in the EU and  work co-operatively with our neighbours  towards a fairer and more effective society.

*  It's interesting that this Sunday Trading Act was the result of misinformation similar to that which promoted the Brexit Vote.  We were told that Britain should move into modern times and enjoy a "Continental Sunday." To my surprise when I spent a year in France in 2004/5, I found that Sunday Trading is strictly regulated and all the supermarkets and larger shops close on a a Sunday, just as they used to do in the UK.  I understand there are similar restrictions in Germany. 

 **It is Schedule 4 but my limited search capabilities haven't yet enabled me to find a copy.