Friday 31 May 2019

The Border and the Backstop

On the final pages of his detailed "Legacy of a Century of Irish Politics" Irish historian Diarmaid Ferriter writes:

[The] draft agreement on British withdrawal from the EU . . included a protocol relating to Northern Ireland  covering a backstop - in the even t of the EU and  UK failing to agree  to  their future relationships  by 31st December 2020 - to avoid a hard border in Ireland.  This detailed that in the absence of a future deal, the whole of the UK  would stay aligned with the EU customs union instead of just a specific rule applying to Northern Ireland  as originally proposed.  The UK also agreed under he terms of this new backstop that Northern Ireland would remain aligned with a limited set of rules relating to the EU's single market.

I've quoted this in full as I'm not sure that many of us know precisely what the backstop is, although we've heard it talked about a  lot.

Ferriter goes on:

In response UK Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab resigned and in his resignation letter complained  that the agreement compromised the 'integrity' of the UK  by indicating that Northern Ireland need special arrangements in relation to post-Brexit trade.  This plaintiveness about the purity of the UK and distaste for specific arrangements for Northern Ireland  flew in the face of the history  of Northern Ireland and the British, Irish and European relationships with it.

Ferriter does not here spell it out, but the "specific arrangements" for Northern Ireland within the UK incudes a continued ban on abortions an same sex marriages, some 20 to 25 per cent of its GDP coming from transfers from the UK Exchequer (lots more than we get in Yorkshire) and, wait for it, proportional representation by single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies.

Ferriter than claims:

Despite Raab's  assertions the reality was  that Brexiteers  who offered no coherent  alternative to the draft agreement, did not cherish Northern Ireland; rather it was a convenient  tactic  employed in a distinctly English power game  which also saw them cheering on the DUP in its trenchant opposition to the draft agreement.

And finally, the killer analogy:

There was an element of history repeating itself, with some British Conservatives insisting on 'an extreme and dangerous strategy as they had done  in encouraging Ulster rebellion  against home rule  from 1910 to 1914 to try and gain the upper hand  in domestic politics  rather than because of a passion for Ireland.

 This last is a reference to "Curragh Incident" of 20 March 1914, when British Army officers threatened to resign or accept dismissal (ie Mutiny) rather than deploy against the Ulster Volunteers, forcing the government to cancel planned troop movements.

So the Tories have a history of stopping at nothing, including urging to army to mutiny, in order to gain their ends.

Plus ça change . . .

Wednesday 29 May 2019

What became of the people that we used to be?

The celebrated children's author and illustrator Judith Kerr died last week The day after her death was announced  I caught a snatch of an interview she had given  on "Woman's Hour."

Judith Kerr, with her parents and brother, as Jews in fear of persecution, fled from Nazi Germany in the 1930s and eventually settled in London.

Two points in the interview stood out.

First,  she lived in London throughout the Blitz but, although her countrymen  were dropping devastation on her neighbours, neither she nor her family suffered any abuse, verbal or otherwise.

Maybe she's looking back through rose-coloured spectacles, but what a  sharp contrast to the maltreatment of "foreigners" which has exploded since the Referendum - abuse of and insults to people who, rather than doing us harm, are here to help us -  in the NHS, providing exotic restaurants and conner shops, cleaning our cars, picking our fruit and vegetables, enriching our society in all sorts of ways.

Second, as a "friendly enemy alien" she was not entitled to a higher education grant from the local authority (in those days the London County Council).  But, knowing her keenness a council official bent the rules  and gave her a grant to enable her to go to art school. 

What a contrast to the "hostile environment" created by Mrs May and which still governs our attitude to migrants.

The title of this post is taken from the introductory song to my favourite TV sitcom: "Whatever happened to the Likely Lads?"

Oh, what happened to you, whatever happened to me;.

What became of the people that we used to be?

What indeed?  Thank-you Mrs May and Nigel Farage

Tuesday 28 May 2019

Two swallows?

It's a truism that one swallow doesn't make a summer, so perhaps one fantastic election result doesn't constitute a revival.  But two?

At the beginning of May we Liberal Democrats exceeded our most optimistic  expectations by gaining over 700 Council seats.

Then last week in the the elections for the European Parliament we increased our number of MEPs from a solitary one to 16 on an encouraging 20.3% of the vote.  Double figures again at last.  Our wildest expectations  were for ten seats.

Of course most people look at the headline result of the EU election and the winner's rosette goes to Nigel Farage and his Brexit Party, who, won 29 seats and have become  the largest single party in the EU parliament.  What an achievement.  And all only 45 days after the creation of the party?  From where came the organisation?  And the money?

By contrast the Tiggers, or Change UK, who have now been around for several months, didn't win a single seat and obtained  only a modest total vote.

However, if we go on to analyse the results more closely we find that the Brexit victory is not all that amazing.  They didn't come from nothing but are really the now disgraced Ukip  wearing another hat, so their result has to be compared with Ukip's 2014 result when they won 24 seats with 27% of the vote.  29 seas with 32% is an improvement, but better described as "Holding your own +."

And then, of course we can summate the seats and votes of the unequivocally pro- Remain parties .  For England these are the Liberal Democrats, Greens and Change UK.  Between us we won  23 seats (LDs 16, Greens seven) .  If we than add the Scottish Nationalists' three seat and the one Alliance  seat from Northern Ireland we achieve a Remain total of  27.  Still behind Brexit, but the number-crunchers tell us, with a total of 40% of the votes, compared with 35% for  Brexit.  It's a bit like Alice in Wonderland: both have won and both receive prizes.

I get the impression that in England the pro and anti Brexit votes were pretty well neck and neck, but there were majorities for Remain in all all three of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.  The Wales result in interesting because that reverses their  position in the 2016 Referendum.

Of course all of this is a combination of fact and speculation of the 37% who turned out to vote.  There is no guarantee, or even likelihood, that the next  37%, who didn't turn out for this election but are likely to do so in a People's Vote or a General Election, will vote in the same proportions.

Nevertheless it's a fair bet that these "real votes" as opposed to opinion polls, confirm  the conclusion of the opinion polls,  that there is now a majority in the UK for Remain.

That does not mean that victory for Remain in a People's Vote is now assured.

Leave will fight dirty, Farage is a skilled campaigner (we shall not find out where his financial support comes from until it is to late), the press remains biassed and will not hesitate to further ignite the fury of the Leavers who feel betrayed and  who will not let the facts get in the way of their feelings.

But we Liberal Democrats have proved that campaigning boldly for Remain, rather than sitting on the fence, brings results. If Labour learn that lesson, and there are signs hat they are, then Summer could be just round the corner.

Saturday 25 May 2019

Goodbye Mrs May

As predicted in the previous post, (it didn't require psychic powers) the media have now abandoned serious analysis of the problems facing our society and the world and are wallowing in analyses of Mrs May's political career and, even more prurient, having fun with the posturing of the contenders for the poisoned chalice.  (The Guardian today devotes pages 2-11 - all of which I've skipped  - to Mrs May and only a quarter of one page, and that mostly a picture, to the world-wide school-children's walk-out  in protest about the climate crisis).

Most of what I've read and heard so far concerns Mrs May's mishandling of Brexit.  Whatever the pros and cons of that, I personally prefer to remember her for the disgusting creation of the hostile environment for immigrants during her six-year tenure at the Home Office, plus the fact that in her three year premiership she has presided over the continued policy of government austerity which has caused local authority services to be shredded, the continued roll-out of Universal Credit causing hardship and misery to the most vulnerable in our society, and the selling of weapons to the Saudi dictatorship which have been used to kill about 10 000 people in Yemen . . . to name but some

And all this from a woman who almost weekly has flaunted her Christianity with (presumably arranged) photographs of her entering or leaving church.  The Bible teaching of what we do "to these the least of His (Jesu's) brethren (and, presumably, sisteren) we do unto Him" seems to have passed her by.

The  criticisms of her handling of the Brexit issue seem to concentrate on her lack of flexibility, failure to "reach out" to either Remainers or members of other parties,  and failure to compromise.  In that she may have done we Remainers a favour.

Had she reached a compromise acceptable to parliament we should be out of the EU now but most  probably on terms which require us to observe most if not all EU rules without any say in making them.  That would have been a ludicrous position.  What is the point of leaving an advantageous and prestigious position in a Club, with a major share in making its rules, and then leaving but still being subject to them and the jurisdiction of its court?

The truth is that Mrs May was set an impossible task: to fulfil the  Brexiteers' false promise that we could  "leave the EU and retain al the advantages of membership."  It could be argued that she did her best, but the prize was unobtainable.

And, of course, it still is, Whoever wins the Tory leadership, we cannot "have our cake and eat it."  If nothing else, her experiences over the past three yeas have exposed that lie.  The surprise is that so many leading and not so leading Tories are contending for the opportunity to try.

There is talk  that Mrs May's premiership is the biggest failure  since Lord North and the loss of the American colonies.

Not so.

She didn't deal the impossible hand she was required to place.  That accolade goes to her predecessor, David Cameron.

  • He was the one who called an unnecessary referendum to get the Tory Party, not the nation, out of a difficulty (the haemorrhaging of Troy support to Ukip);
  •  he was the one who failed to provide for suitable safeguards such as reasonably truthful campaigning and an adequate majority for any change;
  •  he was the one who  made the unconstitutional promise that the result of the advisory referendum would be observed "no ifs, no buts";
  •  he was the one who walked away the morning after the result didn't go his way
 He is the one mainly responsible for our present predicament.

Some commentators are arguing that the options before us are now reduced to two: leave with no deal or Remain.


Remain is still perfectly possible: all parliament needs to do is revoke Article 50.  If the sense of taking this step becomes clearer in the next three months of Tory barnstorming, then perhaps they may not be wasted.

Monday 20 May 2019

The Tory leadership, a pointless distraction

In " The English Constitution" Walter Bagehot observed, in defence of the Monarchy, that the public were much more interested in "a marriage  than a ministry."  Given our present preoccupation with  the families of Princes William and Harry, that remains true, even  after over 150 years.

Equally true is that our media, politicians and the voting public much prefer to speculate on personalities rather than discuss policies.

Hence the premature eruption of the battle for the Tory leadership has come as a welcome, though pointless distraction.  The media need no longer cover the boring complexities of bespoke trade deals on WTO terms with the likes of the Faroe Islands; as yet uninvented technological solutions the Irish Border problem; the future status of British citizens living in other parts of the Union, nor how our quality of life is to survive unimpaired if we cut down on the number of immigrants we need to fill the gaps in our NHS and other vital services.

Already about half a dozen hopefuls have thrown their caps (or bonnets) into the ring.  With two exceptions (the other is Rory Stewart, largely because I was given a copy of his travels with his father along Hadrian's Wall as a Christmas present), I find it difficult to be sure what jobs if any they currently hold or what, if anything,  they have achieved.

Amazingly, the "front runner,"  as far as the Tory members who form the electorate are concerned, is Boris Johnson. His gaffes in both public and private office are all too well known, but there is no harm in rehearsing them so that they can be waved in front of the Tory faithful to remind them of the folly of even considering this man for the greatest of all offices of state.

  • He was a member of the Bullingdon Club of rich kids at university, who had "fun" by, among other things, booking meals at restaurants and then trashing them:
  • He was sacked from his job as a reporter with The Times for making up (usually scurrilous) stories about the EU:
  • In a column in the Daily Telegraph in 2002 he referred  to black people as "piccaninnies" and talked about "watermelon smiles"...(some of his supporters, in the pub and out of earshot of the media, may applaud  him of this):
  • As Mayor of London he wasted millions on exploring the generally agreed to be impracticable possibility of building an airport in the Thames Estuary as an alternative to  expanding Heathrow:
  • As Mayor of London he introduced the  New Routemaster buses which had stifling upper decks in warm weather and emitted more harmful particulates than the ones they replaced:
  • As Mayor of London he wasted £46.4m of public money on the possibility of a privately run Garden Bridge across the Thames:
  • As Mayor of London he spent £200,000 on buying three water canon from the Germans, which the then Home Secretary, Mrs May, did not allow him to use;
  • As Mayor of London he built a cable car across the Thames at a cost of £60m.  Apart from a few tourists in the summer, hardly anyone uses it:
  • as Mayor of London his conversion of the Olympic Stadium to a football ground was £133m over budget and, while still in public ownership, it loses between £10 and £20m a year;
  • As mayor of London he implemented a scheme to spray sticky stuff on the roads at night in order to "catch" some of the pollution in the air  It cost 1.4m but failed to make much impression:
  • As Foreign Secretary. rather than exercising diplomacy  he insulted the French by comparing the former French president, François Hollande, to an officer in a World War II prisoner of war camp; he joked that business was prevented from investing in Libya by the dead bodies, and recited a colonial-era poem while visiting a Burmese temple:
  • He claims to have agonised until the last moment before the EU Referendum as to whether he was in favour of Remain or leave  If this is true he can't think it makes much difference, yet he now energetically espouses the Leave case;
  • He has antagonised the Tories' major backers by the expletive "f**k business";
  • He has insulted  Muslim community by comparing  women wearing their veils to "letter boxes" (some of his supporters will probably love that in private) and saying that they look like bank robbers.
I may have missed some.

An article in the current issue of Prospect sums up Johnson as "a profoundly frivolous man on every question apart from his own advancement."

It is a sad day for our democracy that a man of such incompetence, and who deliberately revels in being a " joker", though he is, of course, an intelligent man, is a serious contender for any public office, let alone the highest.

His self aggrandisement can be thwarted  if Tory MPs, who are charged with the selection of the final two candidates, fail to put him on the list.

But the real tragedy is that neither an election of a new Tory leader, nor the General Election on which Jeremy Corbyn lays his hopes, will actually solve the Brexit problem.  There simply is no deal, whatever the talents of the prime minister or the composition of a new parliament,  that is anywhere near as good as the one we already have by staying in the EU.

The EU gave us an extension until October to work things out.  We were told not to waste it, but that is exactly what we are doing,

Post Script (added 31st May).  Another comment on Johnson taken from  an article  by Nesrine Malik in the Guardian on 29th May: "[Johnson is] one who waits to see  the way the crowd is running before dashing in front of it and saying "follow me".

Sunday 12 May 2019

. . a tide in the affairs of [the Liberal Democrats]

As Shakespeare said  (J ulius Caesar Act 4, scene 3) :

"There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which taken at the flood leads on to . . ." well, who knows?

Two opinion polls published  over the weekend show the Liberal democrats ahead of the Tories, with the latter  in fourth place.

Here's one of them.

BREX: 27% (-1)
LAB: 25% (-1)
LDEM: 14% (+3)
CON: 13% (-1)
GRN: 8% (+2)
CHUK: 6% (-2)
UKIP: 3% (+1)

 Of course, it's only by 1% and well within the poll's margin of error, so nothing to get too excited about.

But as Harold Wilson said: "A week is a long time in politics,"  there's still 11 days to go before the EU elections, and the political situation is more volatile than most of us can remember.

Sometimes circumstances favour a political party.  As mentioned in the previous post, they favoured the Greens in our recent local council elections because both Sir David Attenborough's TV programmes and the demonstrations inspired by the Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunbeerg were very much in the headlines.  The Greens perform strongly in this opinion poll.

But we Liberal Democrats performed not just strongly but very strongly in those same elections, winning over 700 council seats (whereas Labour lost over 80 and the Tories over a 1 300).

So just for once, and after  a long period in the doldrums, we are, if not yet once again "flavour of the month,"  in poll position among the Remainers (in England.   Of course: things are different in Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland).

In this poll Liberal Democrats have almost twice as much support as the Greens, and more than twice as much as Change UK (the Tiggers)

An article by Jonathan  Freedland in the Guardian  urges the Stop Brexiteers to give their vote to the Liberal Democrats. Of course, that's probably speaking to we anoraks, but a movement  started by Gina Milear, the wonderful woman who went to the High Court to force Mrs May to give parliament some say in Brexit, has set up a website Remain United  which may have a wider currency because it's on Twitter.   This recommends those who wish to stop Brexit to vote  Liberal Democrat in England, SNP in Scotland and Plaid Cymru in Wales.

Given than stopping Brexit is by far the most important political objective for anyone who has the reputation of the nation, and all our futures, British and European, at heart, this issue should transcend other minor variations of policy and party loyalty.

So in the next eleven days there's all for us to play for.

Saturday 4 May 2019

Local elections: reading the runes.

It is a truism that not a great deal can be predicted from local election results.  After all, only a third of  those  entitled actually vote, and  even in these grim times (turnout was only 66% in the 2015 general election, and 69% in 2017) we can expect around twice as many to vote in the next general election, whenever it comes.
Be that as it may, lessons are being drawn , so I may as well join in.

The Tories lost 1 334 seats.  Given that forecasts of losses in the region of 1 000 were regarded  as spin so that, when the actual losses were less, that could be sold as "not al that bad" -  to lose nearly a third more is pretty grim.

Labour lost "only" 82 seats.  But, after nine years of Tory rule, we should normally expect the main opposition party to be making huge gains, even if the government were reasonably competent, which the present one  patently isn't.

By contrast we Liberal Democrats gained 703 seats, considerably more than the 411 we lost when these seats were last fought in 2015,and more than the 500 "predicted" by the Tories  reasons of spin as above. And the Greens gained 194 seats.*

Astonishingly, both Labour and Conservative spokespersons interpret the result as instructions to "get on" with Brexit, by which they seem to mean complete it, however damaging the result may be, rather than abandon it.

Surely this is bizarre: given that the parties which made gains are we Liberal Democrats, openly and enthusiastically in favour of remaining in the EU, and the Greens too though their position is more masked.

 Surely the message could more sensibly be read that Brexit be abandoned.

Having said that, we don't actually know what  the half of the electorate who didn't vote in these elections actually think. Nor is it sensible to assume that all those who voted Liberal Democrat of Green actually agree with (or even know about) our pro-Remain stance.

And, of course there are local factors.  In the ward where I campaigned  we won 65% of the votes, but at least one voter told me openly hat his vote was "for local" and that he, as a "Veteran" was for Brexit as he  wouldn't want to fight for the Europeans.  (He didn't seem impressed by my rejoinder that at least if we fought  for a cause approved by the EU we should have had a say, whereas we didn't have much say when coat-tailing the Americans.)

One thing that stood out for me in observing the counting of the votes was the vastly increased number of spoiled papers, any with "we want Brexit" or similar (sometimes not very polite) messages scrawled on them.  There is clearly a great deal of anger amongst those who want Brexit  regardless of, or indifferent to, the consequences.  But I suspect this anger is confined to a relatively small minority, (see here for an analysis of this) and we should be careful not to allow those who shout loudest, either in parliament or among the grass roots, to call the tune.

We can, I think, conclude for these results that Labour's stance of "sitting on the fence" re Europe is gaining no traction with the electorate,  and these results will probably diminish their enthusiasm for a general election,  which would most probably result in another parliament without a majority, and in which  they would be unlikely to be the largest party.

Nor will cries by disaffected Tories that Mrs May should be replaced make much difference.  Brexit will still remain unsolvable.

So we remain where we started.  Either MPs pluck up the courage to Revoke Article 50 without further ado (in my view the best solution) or we put it to the electorate again in a People's Vote.

I think the Greens  were fortunate to do so well.  The recent publicity about climate change, arising from the TV programmes by David Attenborough, and the campaigning of  of the young Swedish girl, the remarkable Greta Thunbeerg, pushed the green cause to the forefront at just the right moment for them