Tag Archives: Brexit

Yearning for a glimmer of hope

I promised myself that I wouldn’t sully this blog with any reflections on the UK General Election, but not to write something would be to undermine why I started blogging in the first place. Having just finished drafting what follows, I can say that it really does feel good to have got it off my chest. Better out than in, indeed! Fear not, there will be no more election stuff here during this campaign.

It’s a miserable time to be a wishy-washy liberal. In a complex, networked world, it is a cruel paradox that everything is now seen in strictly binary terms. You’re either with us or against us. Brexiteer or Remoaner. Patriot or saboteur. Strong and stable, or an agent of anarchy. Metropolitan elite or northern working class. One of ‘us’ or one of ‘them’. The pragmatism and pluralism that have underpinned UK politics for most of the past 100 years are no longer respected values. Instead, we have a cruel parody of a democratic process that sees the two main parties peddling lies and half-truths, supported by a press that long-since abandoned any pretense at impartiality. There is an irony in the fact that broadcast media is now so dependent on politicians to fill the endless of hours of live news programming that it can no longer risk alienating those politicians by actually holding them to account. There seem to be no checks and balances to the abuses of process that have become common-place in UK politics. And all this while sneering at the events in Washington. Look first to the plank in your own eye.

Both Labour and the Conservatives (aided and abetted by most mainstream media outlets) are determined to downplay Brexit in the General Election campaign. This is not surprising. In less than two years, the UK will leave the EU. Both Labour and the Conservatives appear to believe that this momentous change in our relationship with our most important trade partners can be negotiated in a way that will leave us better off at the end of it. This is delusional and amounts to a monumental fraud against the British people. It is possible that UK plc will be able to survive outside the EU. New trading agreements with Europe, the USA, other members of the Commonwealth, may well emerge. If we’re really lucky, they may take less than ten years to conclude, and at the end of the process we may be in a position that is no worse than we have now. What nobody seems able to answer, is what the impact of the intervening period will be. And there will be a long gap between the end of the Article 50 process and the signing of significant new agreements. Ask the Canadians. There are some clues. Wage growth is stagnating; house prices have flat-lined; the initial ‘boost’ to exports following the devaluation in the pound is now balanced by escalating raw materials and food costs, hitting household income and driving up inflation. City firms are planning to move staff and operations to European capitals; others are reviewing decisions on new investments. Sweetheart deals with the likes of Nissan are providing a having a short-term palliative effect, but there are only so many holes that can be plugged in the dyke before the water comes crashing through. In this context, to be making claims for increased investment in public services or defence or preserving the pensions triple-lock, or committing not to increase taxes, is at best irresponsible and delusional; at worst, it is cynical and calculating. And the analysis applies to both the hard left and the hard right, Labour and Conservative, in this campaign.

What’s a wishy-washy liberal to do in the face of this seemingly hopeless situation. I’m lucky. As an exile in a foreign constituency for the time being, I can at least vote for an anti-Brexit candidate with a realistic prospect of success. It’s possible that I might even have the unusual thrill of casting my vote for the winning candidate in a General Election (this hasn’t happened much in my lifetime to date). Admittedly, the Greens won’t be forming a government any time soon, but at least I won’t be voting hopelessly.

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That was the week that was

It’s been a bit of a week. Seven days’ ago, Hillary Rodham Clinton looked likely to become the first woman President of the United States of America at the end of an election campaign that had focused almost exclusively on the personalities, and had featured virtually no analysis of their policies or proposals for government. Donald Trump’s achievement in securing a majority of the electoral college votes with fewer popular votes than his Democratic Party rival may yet lead to a review of that system ahead of the next election in 2020. Before then, the transition of Trump the anti-establishment ‘outsider’, through Trump the President Elect, to Trump the “Leader of the Free World” will be fascinating to watch. The early indications are that he is already backing away from some of the more controversial pledges of his campaign. Obamacare may not be swept away quite as comprehensively as his supporters may have expected, and he has put some distance between his promise to “lock her up” and any commitment to launching a formal investigation into Clinton’s unorthodox use of e-mail servers as Secretary of State.

Global markets – initially jittery in the wake of Trump’s victory – appear to have taken things in their stride since, perhaps providing further evidence that in 2016, governments (even those in the largest territorial economy in the world) are of only passing interest to and influence on world trade and capital.

The mysogyny, racism and demonisation of minorities that characterised so much of the Trump campaign has already shown itself to be a major challenge to politicians from other countries. Diplomacy has been strained to its farthest limits as statements seek to congratulate Trump’s success whilst stopping short of endorsement of the means by which it was achieved. This was perhaps best illustrated by Angela Merkel, who stated that: “Germany and America are connected by values of democracy, freedom, and respect for the law and the dignity of man, independent of origin, skin colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or political views. I offer the next President of the United States close cooperation on the basis of these values.”

The claim of Trump supporters that those who continue to call out the discriminatory nature of many of his pre-election statements are simply sore losers, mimics the labelling of those in the UK who continue to campaign against Brexit as “Remoaners”. It is unlikely that the deep divisions that have been riven on the basis of gender, race, sexuality and religion during the Presidential campaign can be healed simply on the assertion that the vote has happened and everybody should now just accept it.

What has been interesting in the last couple of days, as the initial surprise and novelty of the election outcome has given way to more sober reflection, has been the emergence of a narrative that seeks to connect Trump’s victory with Brexit in the UK, and Putin’s rise in Russia. This (from historian Tobias Stone) is one of the more academic analyses and is quite depressing for those of us who value liberalism, equality, and openness.

So what can we do to prevent the creeping intolerance and ‘fear of the other’ that seems so endemic in the arguments that underpinned the Trump campaign, the Brexit campsign before it, and so much of what we see emerging from Putin’s Russia? Ultimately, we have to take our lead from people like David Remnick, writing in the New Yorker magazine earlier this week :

remnick-quote

Remnick’s ideals are not exclusively American of course. They are the same things that Angela Merkel highlighted. Now, of all times, we have to believe that they will prevail.

Remember, remember the 5th of November…

Bornfire night in the UK. The annual festival of fireworks commemorating the foiling of a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament. You can find out more about the original Gunpowder Plot here : http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/civil_war_revolution/gunpowder_robinson_01.shtml  but the significance of Bonfire Night in 2016 has been brought into even sharper relief by the events in the High Court of Justice this week.

In June 2016, the UK electorate voted by 52 : 48 in a non-binding referendum to leave the European Union. These are facts. The referendum said nothing about the speed with which the exit was to be achieved, nor the terms and conditions that were to be negotiated in leaving the political and economic union. How could it? A referendum is – by its very nature – a black and white, binary process. “Leave” or “Remain” were the only options available to the electorate in June.

Since June, the debate has raged in the media and across the country about the precise form that ‘Brexit’ should take. Every pub, café, workplace has seen variations of the same sorts of conversations about hard and soft Brexit, and the triggering of Article 50. Bizarrely, the one place that has not staged that debate is the House of Commons – the centre of our parliamentary democracy. Other than repeating the utterly meaningless phrase that “Brexit means Brexit”, and stating consistently that the government will not discuss the terms of its negotiating strategy with the EU because that would somehow make the negotiation more difficult, Ministers have treated parliament with utter contempt on the issue.

Thankfully, the rules governing the withdrawal of a country from the EU (the now-fabled Article 50) require that country to follow its normal constitutional conventions in formally triggering the exit process. The UK – famously – does not have a written constitution per se. Ironically, it has been a Conservative Party manifesto commitment for at least the last three general elections to introduce a formal Bill of Rights that would go quite a long way towards codifying UK constitutional convention, but it has so far proved to be beyond the wit of Ministers and Civil Servants to come up with something that adequately replaces several hundred years’ worth of legal and parliamentary convention.

Thus it was that this week, the High Court was asked to uphold the constitutional convention that Acts of Parliament cannot be repealed other than by a subsequent Act passed in the usual way by both Houses and subsequently endorsed by the Crown. This was something of a blow to the Prime Minister, her three wise monkeys overseeing the Brexit process, and the baying, Neanderthal, ultra-right ideologues that now populate most of the print media in the UK. They seem to have forgotten that in the UK, British Laws for British People can only happen through the explicit Acts of the Houses of Parliament.

The High Court acted to reinforce the constitutional convention that Parliament is sovereign in the UK’s democracy, preventing a unilateral and un-scrutinised exercise of Article 50 that would have been as damaging to the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, as Guy Fawkes gunpowder would have been to the bricks and mortar of the Houses of Parliament in 1605.

That Article 50 will be exercised in due course is beyond doubt. That it will be exercised with the will of Parliament following appropriate scrutiny and debate of the government’s strategy for Brexit, is thanks to the Rule of (British) Law and the independence of the judiciary within the (British) constitution. And if that’s not worth sending up a firework for, I don’t know what is.

 

In, out, shake it all about…

So – that’s it then. Brexit. The UK will be leaving the European Union at some point in the next 2 to 3 years. New treaties and trade deals will be struck; a new leader will be elected for the Conservative Party and, (by the looks of things), Jeremy Corbyn will be ousted from his role as leader of the Labour Party. At the moment, things look bleak. The pound has lost ground against the Euro and the Dollar. The FTSE 100 has fallen by 5%. There are dire warnings about the implications of the decision to leave on jobs, economic growth, pensions, the NHS, higher education, and national security. On the plus side, from the Brexiteers’ perspective, the UK has regained control of the country, and can now move to sort out immigration.

At least, that’s the narrative that ran throughout the campaign. ‘Project Fear’ pointed to economic disaster if Brexit succeeded. Vote Leave raised the spectre of unlimited immigration and even more European interference in UK affairs if the vote was to remain.

In reality, it’s unlikely that either of these domesday scenarios has any real basis in fact. There will be a short-term shock to the economy, but the Bank of England and most responsible financial institutions had already made provision for that. There will be an impact on research and development, and capital investment decisions in the private sector; and whoever is Chancellor of the Exchequer by this time next week will probably need to increase public capital expenditure to take up that slack. The rate of immigration to the UK will decline as some non-UK citizens decide that they no longer want to stay; and others decide against coming here in the first place. There will be skills shortages and higher job vacancy rates as a result. Unemployment (already at or around near historically low rates) will not be effected to any great degree. And immigration will return to something near current levels as the reality dawns that in fact we need people to do the work that generates the revenues that the country depends on.

The rash promises of the Leave campaign (£350m a week saved; remove VAT on domestic fuel; maintain farm subsidies at current levels; reduce immigration below 100,000 a year; and so on) will be slowly diluted or abandoned altogether. By enlarge, it’s very likely that in a couple of years, things will be pretty much the same as they are now.

The problem, of course, is that because things will be the same, the anger, the sense of powerlessness, the disillusionment with the political class, the belief shared by at least 51% of the voting public that they are not being served by the current system, will remain. And the big question then will be : so what happens next?

That’s the challenge for post-Brexit politics. How can whatever emerges from the train-wrecks that are the current Conservative and Labour parties re-engage with people in a way that makes the political process real and meaningful again. It won’t be easy.