Monday 30 September 2019

Three curiosities.

1.  Why is the government, at our expense, allowed to advertise on television and the motorways that we should "Get ready for Brexit  on 31st October,"  when parliament has passed a law, which has received the Royal Assent, that such a move will be illegal?

 I suppose they could argue that, strictly speaking the law, known as the Benn Act, says no Brexit without a deal approved by parliament.  But there is as yet no sign of such a deal, and even if one were to emerge, it  far from certain that parliament would approve it. 

The most that the government can legitimately advertise is "Get Ready for a possible Brexit on 31st October" which would puncture Johnson's chutzpah.

I wonder if anyone has complained to the Advertising Standards Authority?  Maybe I should.

2.  I am a great admired of the BBC, which is one of the few things we have left which, as an impartial news source,  is still "the best in the World and the envy of the World."  But surely their impartially is damaged by the fact that they are running Volume 3 of Charles Moore's respectful biography of Margaret Thatcher as their "Book of the Week" in the very same week that  today's Tories are holding  their conference.  This amounts to product  placement: it surely can't be a coincidence.

I haven't a record of what was "Book of the Week during the Labour conference  (I've tried to find out but the BBC website defeats me) but I'm pretty sure it wasn't John Bew's sympathetic biography of Clement Attlee.*  Nor did they run Jo Grimond's excellent autobiography** during the Liberal Democrat conference.

3.  There have been in recent weeks a surprising number of programmes about the First World War, the rise and fall of the Nazis and the Second World War.  Are we the only nation in Europe still quite obsessed by these events as we look back to our moments of greatness?

It could be argued that these programmes support we Remainers as they illustrate the horrors which the formation of the EU was designed  to avoid in the future.  It is more likely, however, that they feed the Leavers' nostalgia for a world in which so many mistakenly believe that Britain stood alone and saved the world from a terrible fate, and so could thrive alone again.

*   Called "Citizen Clem," published 2016  and well worth a read.
**  Called "Memoirs,"  published 1979 and contains in two sentences  the reason why we in  the UK have made such a mess of things since 1945:

" . . .we came out of the war being told that we had saved the world by a unique act of courage  against fearful odds.  We naturally became convinced that the world must see that we were  natural leaders of the West  entitled by our deeds of valour and skill to rest on oars as far as work was concerned and owed a debt, indeed a living, by our neighbours."  (Page 99)

Thursday 26 September 2019

Yesterday in Parliament

You would think that, on the first day of its historic unrevokedness the debates in the House of Commons would  be statesmanlike and of lofty constitutional erudition.  Instead, by all accounts, it was a day of rudeness, squabbling and name-calling such as would  disgrace a school playground.

By accident or design, MPs have succeeded in changing the reporting of the debate from one of high constitutional significance to  to one of scorn for and condemnation of politicians.

On Newsnight  last night Labour MP Barry Gardiner claimed that Mr Johnson's inflammatory language was deliberate and designed indeed to "change the subject" from  the embarrassing failure of the government's policies to  "the general state of politics."  A presumably impartial commenter on this morning's Radio 4 Today programme took a similar view - that the government front bench were  "deliberately provoking the opposition to change the debate."

I suspect this is not chance but that  the hand of Dominic Cummings lies behind it. 

Another ploy seems to be to discredit the present House of Commons.  The Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, instead of explaining the reasoning that led him to advise that the prorogation of parliament was legitimate, instead scorned the parliament as "dead" and "without legitimacy."

This is nonsense.  This parliament was "refreshed by contact with the electorate" only two years ago and is less than halfway through its term.  The election that formed it was called by the Conservatives for their own ends. Hard lines on them that things didn't work out as they expected, but they must live with the results of their own folly.

The  Opposition parties are right in their refusal to let the Tories off the hook by calling another election (which would in all probability  produce yet another Commons in which no party had a majority).

Instead it is the duty of this Parliament  to disentangle the Brexit knot by "quiet calm deliberation." (Gilbert and Sullivan got so  much right even 100+ years ago).

How about this for reasoning?

1.  The overwhelming majority on all sides recognise that to leave the EU with no deal would be highly damaging, and in any case parliament has already declared it to be illegal.
2.  We could possibly leave on a minor variation of Mrs May's deal, but that has ben rejected three times, so is really a non-starter.
3.  We could follow Labour's present official course, which would  be, after an election,  to negotiate a better deal.  It is unlikely, though not impossible, that Labour  could win enough seats to form a minority government and achieve this, but their published aims include remaining in the single market and customs union - otherwise known as Brexit in name only, or BINO.  That is, leaving the EU but still obeying most of the rules without having any say in making them, so what's the point?
4.  So the best thing to do is to Revoke Article 50 and stay in the EU.
5.  To calm any resulting  agitation this should be accompanied by a sympathetic and reasoned explanation as to why it is sensible  and democratic to set aside the result of the referendum, along with  concrete and calculated proposals to ease the factors (unnecessary government austerity, punishing of the poor, neglect of the regions etc) which have lead to the discontent which lay  behind the Brexit vote.


Wednesday 25 September 2019

Labour disappoints, Supreme Court delights

Labours conference decision on Monday to be indecisive and remain on the fence re Brexit  will undoubtedly benefit we Liberal Democrats if an election takes place before a People’s Vote.  Nevertheless, as a dedicated Liberal/Liberal Democrat activist for nearly 60 years I should have preferred Labour to make a clear decision in favour of Remain.  Then we could have seen 23rd September as the date the tide turned positively in favour of our chances of putting an end to this act of national self-harm which will irrevocably damage our political, economic, social  and cultural futures, along with the living standards of many Labour's loyal voters.
Why is it that Mr Corbyn and his supporters cannot recognise that leaving the EU is simply a plot by which series of fortuitous chances  (Cameron’s fear of UKIP, a complacent parliament which failed to include normal safeguards in the rules for the Referendum0, a hugely biased press, much of it owned by foreign-based tax avoiders, illegal expenditure, lies  and dubious practices via digital targeting, not to mention the possibility  of foreign interference) have enabled a tiny clique of the Tory elite to gain temporary control of the machinery of government in order to establish a neo-liberal off-shore island for their own economic benefit.
 All power to Labour's Remainers to to come on board the Exit-Brexit alliance and bring more of their party with them,  even if this does lead to a less convincing performance in the next election for we Liberal Democrats.
 In other words, I'm prepared to but the national interest before my party's interest as , I suspect, would most Liberal Democrats.
 Corbyn et al shamefully and misguidedly do the reverse

By contrast Tuesday's (24th September) unanimous Supreme Court ruling that our prime minister acted unlawfully in using residual prerogative powers to prorogue parliament certainly makes up for Monday's disappointment.

This is a moment of genuinely historic significance. Britain's shambolic uncodified constitution is actually working and, for, as far as I know, for the first time in our history a British prime minister has been declared to have acted unlawfully be our own judicial system.   

We should declare every 24th September  a National  Holiday  and  could call it Constitution Day.

What now happens is anyone's guess.  Ideally I should like our present parliamentarians, their powers restored,   grasp the nettle,  and Revoke Article 50 here and now.  They could do it before the end of the week.

Monday 23 September 2019

A Liberal Democrat manifesto?

Some commentators claim that we Liberal Democrats  are so well identifed with trying to stop Brexit that, if and when Brexti is sroted out, we shall have nothing left on which to campaign.

Happily, a contribution by a Paul Hindley, on Liberal Democrat Voice, 20th September 2019, gives a good summary of various motinons passed at this years conference which , in my view , form a convincing basis on which to campaign.

Here's an outline:
 According to Hindley, the Liberal Democrats are now committed to:

  •  investing an extra £5 billion into the welfare system every year;
  • establishing a £50 billion Rebalancing Fund to address the investment disparities between the different nations and regions of the UK.;
  •   abolishing  benefit sanctions;
  •  establishing  a legal right to food;
  • building 100,000 new social homes a year;
  • ending   rough sleeping within five years; 
  • bringing  work capability assessments in-house; 
  • increase the minimum wage by 20% for people on zero hours contracts at times of normal demand;
  • raising the central government grants handed to local government in real terms every year, 
  • ending austerity in local government;
  • initiating  a “secure income guarantee”, the first tentative step on the way to making a universal basic income or a negative income tax.
 Hindley concludes:
At the next general election, we Liberal Democrats must embody three of our core principles; pro-European internationalism, radical political reform and social justice. We must stand to 

 Revoke, Reform and Redistribute

 Let’s revoke Article 50. Let’s reform our broken politics. Let’s redistribute wealth to the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society. Only then will the Brexit crisis be resolved. Only then will the social divisions that led to Brexit and the constitutional crisis which has been caused by Brexit be truly overcome. 

All that seems to me to be a sound basis for our domestic manifesto. and is something that most Labour -leaning voters will be able to support, along with genuine "One Nation" Tories.

I stil believe that the best sequence is to;

  • revoke Article 50 here and now with the present paarliement;
  • if our MPs haven't the courage, then have a People's vote on Brexit;
  • and after that, whatever the result, a General Election.

Whatever eventuates, when the General Election comes I shall be happy to campaign enthusiastically on a manifesto based on  the above.

Friday 20 September 2019

Canada - UK: a decency gap

Justin Trudeau, current Prime Minster of Canada and up for re-election in a few weeks' time, is being much maligned and on the front pages of even our newspapers for having darkened  his face and worn a turban to attend a fancy dress party with the theme of "Arabian Nights."

That was 18 years ago when he was a teacher and before he entered active politics. I suppose as the son of a previous prime minister he needed even then to be extra careful, but I can't for the life of me see that there was all that much inappropriate about it.

On a scale of one to ten rating  errors of taste, judgement, morality and suitability for high office how would it rank alongside our own prime minister who:
  • as a student was a member of a club that thought it was fun to book meals at posh restaurants and then trash the place;
  • was sacked from an early job as a reporter for sending in stories that were untrue;
  • was sacked from his party's front bench for lying to his leader about an extra-marital affair;
  • is alleged to be required to support several illegitimate children;
  • according to the latest revelations (via David Cameron's book) probably believes that the UK should remain in the EU, but calculated that supporting Leave in the EU Referendum would better endear him to the party faithful and so strengthen his chance of becoming prime minister;
  • peddled all sorts of misinformation in the referendum campaign;
  • still can't stop lying.  The latest concrete example is that, a few days before he engineered the prorogation of parliament, he claimed that such  an action was not even being considered, and then a paper was  released which revealed that he had signed off on the idea two weeks earlier;
  • and, whatever the courts decide about the legality of the affair, who can seriously believe that his purpose in proroguing parliament was to provide time to prepare a new Queen's Speech, rather than to prevent parliament from monitoring  the government's actions at this most critical time?
Dear old Canada: streets ahead of both the UK and the US in the morality stakes.  Just such a pity it's so cold for so much of the year.

Fingers crossed to Mr Trudeau's and the Canadian Liberal party's re-election.

Monday 16 September 2019

Selling off our sovereignty

Taking back control and re-asserting our sovereignty were impressive and successful themes in the Leave campaign in the referendum on membership of the EU.

 Yet on almost a daily basis we giving up, or rather selling, our sovereignty to foreigners.  And it is a fair bet that the people who are behind this selling, and profiting from it, are the very people, or their backers, who continue to campaign to "take back control"

Today ownership, and therefore control, of the UK's aerospace giant, Cobhams, has been sold to the American private equity company Advent International for £4bn.  Last week a consortium based on Hong Kong tried to buy the London Stock Exchange for an eye-watering £326bn, though for the moment the offer has been turned down.  A few weeks ago the York based part of British Steel, TSP, was sold to the French company Systra, and the future of what is left of the once mighty British steel industry lies with  Turkey's military pension fund.

There is nothing new here.

As Liberal Democrat peer William Wallace pointed out in an article in the Yorkshire Post last month,  the West Coast Main Line and  HS2 are to be run by a consortium  that incudes Italian state railways, a Chinese company is to provide key components for the 5G network, and many of our bus and railway service and utilities,including water, are now foreign owned.

The process of selling off public utilities started with Margaret Thatcher's government from 1979, justified by the unproven theory that the private sector would run them more efficiently.  The additional motive, if not the dominant one, was that the sales provided the government with an income that enabled them to maintain their expenditure while cutting taxes.  Former Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan described  it as "selling off the family silver."

If the initial purchasers were largely British the devotion to deregulated neo-liberal economics meant that there was little to prevent foreigners from becoming the dominant owners.

The system of foreign takeovers of private industries, notably the car industry, has continued largely unhindered.

Any elementary economics text book will tell you that this sale of assets to other economies has one great, albeit short term, advantage and at least four long-term disadvantages.

The short term advantage is that each initial sale produces a one-off credit of foreign currency in our balance of payments.  This  enables us to finance our imports on our current account, and we have "lived beyond its means" for decades.  If I can find the time I shall look up the last year in which we had a genuine surplus on our current balance of external payments.

The four  disadvantages are:

1.  Profits form the foreign-owned industries and services go to other economies.  This means a flow of currency which, instead of remaining to stimulate the British economy, goes to stimulate other economies.
2.  Senior management, and high status work such as research and development, tend to be concentrated in the owner economy rather than in the UK.
3, If expansion of the industry is contemplated than the owner economy tends to get preference over the UK.
4.  Conversely, if contraction of the industry is necessary, then the UK tends to be the first hit with the consequent loss of jobs.

The last three points tend towards the idea that those in charge of our industries and services are turning Britain into a low skilled, low wage economy.

This trend will be exacerbated if Brexit is accomplished.

Politically and economically the Brexiteers are set to turn us into a fourth-rate country

Friday 13 September 2019

Things getting better

The Whig view of history is that we're on a path which inevitably leads to greater civilisation, liberty, constitutional government and enlightenment.

That's the picture painted by most of our text books as we "advance" from Magna Carta (1215) through the Glorious Revolution and Bill of Rights (1688/9) the various (electoral) Reform Acts (1832, 1867, 1884), Votes for Women  (1918, and 1928) right  up to the Fixed Term Parliament  Act of 2011 - whoopee, the prime minister can no longer call an election just when he or she thinks the governing party can win.

Roll on Proportional Representation by Single Transferable Vote in Multi-Member Constituencies.

Of course the Whig view of history acknowledges that there are  occasional setbacks, and the Johnson government is certainly doing its level best to organise one now.

However, there are two signs that the Brexit debate is moving in the right (rational) direction.

First the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Tom Watson,  appears to have adopted the sequence advocated by Hilary Benn, as outlined in the previous post: namely, that we we  have a People's Vote on Brexit first,  and then a General Election.

Sadly, Labour's Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, doesn't yet entirely agree, but even he is moving from the fence to a People's Vote at some stage.

More encouragingly, Jo Swinson, the new Liberal Democrat leader, now argues  that parliament simply revokes Article 50 without further ado, no ifs no buts.

That is an approach advocated by this blog for quite some time,  with a second referendum regarded as a second best option.

I haven't looked up an accurate record, but I have the impression that for the first two years after the 2016 Referendum the option of cancelling Article 50 was hardly ever mentioned.  About a year ago it began to surface and we learned to call it "revoke" rather than just "cancel."

Now the Liberal Democrats are to debate this at our conference this weekend.  I shall be both surprised and acutely disappointed  if Jo Swinson's policy is not adopted.

In the previous post I have quoted G.M. Trevelyan's views on Charles I's dispensing with Parliament in the 1640s.  Now that the courts are involved in deciding whether or not Mr Johnson's prorogation of parliament for five weeks is legal, it's interesting to note that Trevelyan, on the following page, goes on to say:

"If parliament ever revived and conquered  royal despotism, the sprit of the Common Law would revive with it and conquer the prerogative Courts. . ."

Fingers crossed that Whig-style  progress continues to prevail.

Wednesday 11 September 2019

Four cheers for John Bercow

John Bercow, the  Speaker (chairman) of the House of Commons, has made a name for himself during his tenure, and particularly in the last few weeks, for championing the rights of parliament against the government.  For his pains he has been abused by Brexiteers, and even by Andrea Leadsom, Leader of the Commons, for alleged "flagrant abuse" of parliamentary  process."

In fact Mr Bercow has been doing exactly what he's supposed to do: champion the commons against the government.

The presiding officer of the commons has the idiosyncratic title of "Speaker" because in the early history of parliament that is what he did:  "speak" to the monarch and tell him what the commons wanted.  In less settled times this could be a dangerous business and seven Speakers have been beheaded for their pains.  You can find the details here.  That is why, on their appointment, Speakers pretend a mock reluctance to take the chair and have to be manhandled into it.

The classic incident of "crown versus parliament), which "every schoolboy knows"  (or used to, anyway) occurred in 1642 when King Charles I invaded the commons chamber with a troop of soldiers and tried to arrest five of the members.  Mr Speaker Lenthall who had been forewarned, refused to reveal the whereabouts of the five with the words that he could "neither see nor speak but by command of the house."

Charles responded with: "I see the birds have flown" and every schoolboy used to know that too.

Since that day no monarch has been able to enter the commons chamber, and the monarch's representative in the House of Lords, Black Rod, has to knock three times before she's allowed in to summons the commons to the Opening of Parliament or the granting of the Royal Assent.

In his celebrated "History of England" G. M. Trevelyan O.M. says of these seminal events:

"By dispensing with parliaments  and by dismissing all judges who dared to interpret the laws impartially , Charles removed every constitutional check upon his actions." (page 390, 1945 edition)

Mr Johnson has not gone quite so far yet, but there are clear echoes of the seventeenth century struggle in today's events: the prorogation of parliament  at the most critical time in our history since the Second World War, and Johnson's apparent willingness to disobey the law to implement his "come what may" threat.

What  is lamentable is that Johnson and the Brexiteers are in the public mind, getting away with it.  They know full well what the true relationship between government and the commons  should be in our  parliamentary democracy.  Yet when Bercow announced his resignation and the Opposition MPs rose and cheered him, quite rightly, few Tories joined them and, and, as far as I could see the entire government front bench sat on their hands.

The Tory view, though, is reflected in the sycophantic press.

One of our pundits has said that the antics of the past weeks have signalled the end of "the good chap theory of government."  The British constitution is not codified but based on a series of traditions and conventions such as the one described above.  We now have politicians fully prepared to crash though these conventions  in order to get their way.

When  the dust  settles, Brexit of no Brexit, we need to take a serious look at the need for a written constitution.

Sunday 8 September 2019

Brexit: an accptable sequence?

At church this morning the Epistle began with these  words from St Paul to the Romans:

I consider that the sufferings of this present  time are not worth comparing  with the glory about to be revealed to us.

Could have been written as words of comfort for Mr Johnson and his Brexiteers.

Yesterday Leeds for Europe held a very successful day conference entitled Europe: Remain and Reform.

One of the highlights was a speech from Hilary Benn, who was applauded for masterminding the
successful Bill to stop any no-deal Brexit on 31st October.

If I understood him correctly he outlined the following  sequence for after the 31sr October.

1.  We apply for an extension of Article 50 until 31st January.
2.  In that time, if he has not already achieved one, Mr Johnson continues (assuming he's actually started) to attempt to negotiate a new deal.
3.Then the new deal (or no-deal if no new one is available) is put to a People's Vote against the alternative of Remaining.
4.  Then, whatever the result, we have a General Election.

If MPs continue to lack the courage to Revoke Article 50, that seems to me a reasonable sequence of events.

One of the points raised at the conference is that the Brexiteers are good at devising simple slogans
which appeal to the emotions.  (Take back control! Give us back our sovereignty! It's democracy!). We Remainers tend to respond with facts rather than in emotional kind.

One acceptable slogan suggested is: Tell the truth!

We are anxious for further suggestion.

On the sovereignty issue there's been a Radio 4 series on "How others see us."  In the one on how Poland sees us:

a Polish interviewee pointed out that our Brexiteers  claimed that in the EU we had lost our sovereignty.

That is untrue.  We hadn't lost our sovereignty: we were perfectly able to have a referendum to decide whether to remain in the EU or to leave it.

Poland under the Soviets didn't have such a choice.  That's what "loss of sovereignty " means.

Yes, tell the truth.

Almost  all "expert" opinion takes the view that  "glories" are most likely to be "revealed " in a co-operative future inside the EU rather than as a lonely island of diminishing importance outside

Tuesday 3 September 2019

MPs, please say "No" to Brexit and "No" to an election

This week, perhaps even today, is likely to be the most crucial for UK politics since the Second World War.   In the  Commons no one is quite sure what will happen. It al depends on what the Speaker permits, how the government wriggles to get round it, how many Tories have the courage to rebel and how many Labour (30 under Stephen Kinnock?) support Johnson (would you believe it?)

The best option, in my view, is for MPs to order the revocation of Article 50 and have done with it.

Since they haven't yet seen the light, the second best is for them to be successful in passing a law to stop  a No Deal Brexit, along with an extension of the potential leaving date to 31st January, 2020.

Even if this is passed, and I hope it will be,  there is no reason to suppose that the EU would grant such an extension unless we can offer some evidence of a constructive purpose for it, such as a People's Vote or new and  realistic proposals for the Irish Border.

Successful or not, I suspect Mr Johnson and his advisor Dominic Cummings will regard the result as an excuse to try to have a general election.  It is quite likely  that this has been their plan all along: an unrealistic demand for a renegotiation of the May deal, which the EU has refused time and again; to make further negotiations impossible anyway buy demanding the removal of the Irish Backstop, which the EU has said it cannot possibly contemplate; then blame the EU or their intransigence, and have a quick general election in which they will triumph with the Boris Bounce.

This ruse will only succeed if Labour fall into their trap.  Since the Coalition's new Parliament Act prime ministers can no longer call an election at their whim.  Parliaments must run their full five-year course unless two thirds of MPs support an election, of if the Leader of the Opposition succeeds in winning a vote of no confidence and no alternative government can be found within 14 days.

So if Labour does the sensible thing and holds its horses, the Johnson-Cummings "plan," if that is what it is , can be thwarted.  This will be difficult for Labour to do, since Mr Corbyn has repeatedly demanded a general election. However, in his latest statement he has left himself a bit of "wriggle room" by saying "not if it is to enable our crashing out with no deal."

In my view labour should hold back for the following reasons:

1.  They probably won't win.  Corbyn is encouraged by Labour's better than expected performance in 2017, but then he was up against probably the most inept Tory election campaign in history.  This time their campaign will not be led by the intellectually constipated Mrs May and her "strong and stable" mantra, but by experts in the dark arts of mood manipulation.

2.  The Tory campaign will be as full of lies as was the Leave campaign.  We have already seen how they have prepared the ground.  The "magic money tree" has been rediscovered, there are extra funds for education, the NHS, roads and railways, Scotland, prisons, the police, you name it, except for asylum seekers, social security  and refugees.

3. If Labour tries to trump (sic) these promises with more funds for social security, Sure Start or children in disadvantaged areas, the existence of the magic money tree will be denied, the effects of  20% or so depreciation of the £ as a result of Brexit ignored, and the easy shroud of Labour profligacy and economic incompetence will be waved vigorously.*

4. General election campaigns  rarely stick to the lines the parties initially intend.  "Let Churchill finish the job" didn't help the Tories in 1945, nor "Who governs Britain" Ted Heath in his clash with the miners in1974.  If MPs haven't the courage to revoke Article 50 then we need a further referendum focused exclusively on whether to remain in the EU or go ahead and leave.

5. Be it  a general election or a focused referendum, the Tory  spin machine will try to blur the decision with the question "Do you really want to put Corbyn into No10?  In fact, they're already doing that: it's about the only argument they have.

In my view the most outcome of a general election would be another parliament in which no party would have a majority, and the largest party would not be Labour.  So much better to avoid the distraction of an election and stick to the parliament we've got, and the one key decision we need to make - Leave or Remain.

*  In a comment to a previouspost a John Tolson (who may be a forme pupil) draws attention to these details when a newspaper magnate tried to bounce Lord Mountbatten into   replacing Harold Wilson as PM and  leading a government of busineszmen becasue of Wilson's alleged economic incompetance.


Well worth a look.