In an increasingly uncertain world shoddy deals rule

Harold Wilson

I have always had more than a passing interest in politics in spite of my life’s experience that the pursuit of it never seems to amount to very much. Political heroes sooner or later reveal themselves to have feet of clay. Certainties are invariably proved false, and at the end of every rainbow alliance there is a crock of disappointment.

It is often said we get the politicians we deserve. Really? There is something to be said for automatically disqualifying from office those putting themselves forward for election. No right-thinking person would do such a thing.

Some of my best friends are politicians (I don’t have many friends) but it must be said, the transition from ordinary citizen to elected representative seems to bring out the worst in people.

Inside most of us there is a narcissist struggling to get out. The political class appears to have no difficulty restraining its inner narcissist. It is said that a civil servant, witnessing the descent to earth in a helicopter of NIO minister Dr Brian Mawhinney, remarked: “The ego has landed.” It was a good joke then, and fitted its intended victim. But it could just as easily have been said of any politician using that form of transport.

Until I was eight I lived in Birmingham where I was the child of immigrant parents. With impeccable news judgment, my mother decided 1968 was the right time to return to Lurgan. I was a fan then of Harold Wilson – an Oxford don who hid his sophistication behind a northern accent and a fog of tobacco smoke.

In the 1969 Northern Ireland Parliament election, I remember naively arguing in my Catholic primary school playground that people should vote for the party that had the best policies – a notion deemed nonsensical then. Curiously such an attitude is still regarded as avant garde here 50 years on.

Over the years I must have voted for every party going (even the DUP, given the PR system allowed me to identify their candidates as the ones I least wanted to see elected). I even voted tactically for David Trimble to see off a DUP challenge. I think I was the only tactical voter in North Armagh, and I failed miserably, as did he.

When I was 50 and living in Scotland I had the opportunity, for the first time in my adult life, to vote for a party capable of forming the Government. Again I backed the wrong horse. The Tories got in.

Writing now, a little before publication, I am reluctant to comment too much on the current political situation. Things are changing so fast. By the time you read this, the Queen may have sacked her hapless PM and taken the reins of power herself.

As things stand, Theresa May has proved herself incapable of commanding the respect even of her colleagues; the Tories have abdicated their position as the ‘natural party of government’; and a quirk of arithmetic has handed the fate of the country to a party that cannot be trusted to manage a minor green energy scheme. Brexit negotiations opened yesterday without the British side having a clue what it wanted – no agreed government position, no briefing papers, no mandate.

You have to respect the choice of voters, and Sinn Fein’s principled decision not to swear an oath of loyalty to the Queen. But if the SDLP had managed to hold onto it seats, how different things would be.

Now all I can do is rant and rave powerlessly on Twitter. Apart from the crippling RSI in my right arm I have discovered a few things about myself.

Firstly, the more frustrated I get, the more left wing I become. They say if you are not a socialist in your youth you do not have a heart, and if you are not a conservative in maturity you do not have a brain. By that analyse I should be complacently moderate at this stage in my life. But now I am somewhat to the left of John McDonnell who is somewhat to the left of Trotsky.

Secondly, the more I contemplate the rise in the DUP’s political fortunes, the more republican I become. Intellectually, you cannot dispute the DUP’s right to extract as much out of the British government (if government is the right term for this shambolic collective); but emotionally it seems so wrong that once again political opportunism is rewarded, and the future safety and security of this part of the world is put at risk because of a shoddy deal in Westminster.

 

Last rites for Britain as May triggers Article 50

The March madness of Theresa May

We are now just days away from one of those fateful moments in the course of history. On March 29 Theresa May will write a letter to the European Council and say it is the intention of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union.

The letter of intent will not come as a surprise when it lands on Donald Tusk’s desk. He has been waiting for it since June.

May cleared the final impediment to triggering Article 50 last week when she forced the House of Lords to recant and vote down its own amendments to the Brexit Bill.

Since then, Tusk, president of the Council, has been checking his letterbox on a daily basis.

It is clear that Britain doesn’t have a clue about the consequences of this momentous decision. It does not have a viable policy on international trade; it does not have a viable policy on its future engagement with Europe – the world’s single-biggest trading block; and it does not have a viable policy to deal with the inconvenient truth that there is still a border in Ireland.

As if that were not a difficult enough position to be in, May has picked a fight with her opposite number in Scotland over the future of the United Kingdom. May, who has risen to power without trace, is a canny political operator. But Nicola Sturgeon is cannier still.

Every time May opens her mouth more recruits sign up to the cause of Scottish independence.

The Scots are not hard to understand, they are proud and they are stubborn and they do not like being told what to do. A second independence referendum (IndyRef2 in the jargon of hashtags) will happen, and it will happen to Sturgeon’s own timetable.

Sturgeon faces an uphill struggle to win. She would have preferred to play a longer game, but win she can. She is less divisive than Alex Salmond, and will have learned valuable lessons from the first referendum. (Unlike, it must be said, Mrs May.)

Scotland has its fair share of inept politicians, but it can manage well enough without English Tories incapable of governing in the interests of everyone, and Labour apparatchiks like Jeremy Corbin who think opposition is about destroying their own party.

Now back to that letter. Once it arrives, the initiative passes to the European Union, an organisation much better prepared for the two-year negotiations than the British, and one capable of drawing talent (you can’t use the word experts anymore) from across its member states.

The Remainer in me hopes Europe will screw Britain into the ground as punishment for its fool-hardiness, its stupidity and its gross discourtesy and disrespect.

But revenge is better served cold. Europe’s day will come with the inevitable economic decline of a not-so-great Britain incapable of competing with its European neighbours.

What London has forgotten is that its role in the world post empire was secured only because it positioned itself as the bridge between the United States and Europe. The Brexiteers have burnt the bridge.

Decline and fall is inevitable.

Britain will be no use to the United States, no use to the European Union, and it is an irrelevance in most other parts of the world. Britannia might once have ruled the waves, her most famous naval vessel now is a yellow robot submarine called Boaty McBoatface.

Europe’s priorities must be:

  • to secure the future of Europeans who have made their lives in the United Kingdom, and Britons living and working in Europe. It is unacceptable that ordinary people should pay the price for the idiocy of Brexiteers
  • to secure the peace process by dealing with consequences of the border Britain is re-imposing on Ireland (whatever the rhetoric)
  • to ensure Britain does not walk away without meeting its debts and obligations to its partner states in Europe. The lies of the Brexit campaign must be exposed. There is a cost to quitting Europe, and the UK must pay.

Europe must also use this period to reinvigorate the Union and to re-engage with people across the continent. Even those of us who opposed Brexit argued for reform of its bloated structures.

The founding vision for Europe was to secure peace and stability for its peoples in a world that is inherently unstable. It was vision that recognised we are better together than apart.

With Trump on one side and Putin on the other – the achievement of that vision has never been more important.

  • This article first appeared in The Irish News

Founded on a lie: Trump’s debt to George Washington

The finger of history: Donald Trump

Every nation needs its foundation myths. They are a way of communicating core values to succeeding generations.

The story of George Washington and his father’s cherry tree is revered in the United States. As the story goes, the six-year-old future president was given a hatchet as a present by his father.

Young George promptly took the axe to his father’s favourite cherry tree. When asked what had happened, George said: “I cannot tell a lie, I did cut it with my hatchet.” Rather than beat the boy, his father hugged him and told him that telling the truth was worth more than a mighty forest.

As the world prepares itself to witness the inauguration of Donald Trump as 45th President, we would do well to ponder the importance we place on truth in the modern age.

Trump plays fast and loose with it.

Some believe the grandstanding showman will present a new face to the world when he swears the oath of office next week.

Leopards don’t change their spots. As president-elect, Trump has behaved no differently to the obnoxious foul-mouthed carpet-bagger he was on the campaign. He will be the same in the Oval Office.

This will be a government driven by whim. Yes most politicians are self-seeking. But few take it to the level of Mr Trump.

Sigmund Freud, the celebrated psychoanalyst, believed our minds were controlled by three forces. The ego, the super ego and the id.

The id is untamed and instinctive, it is the wild child that sees the world only through its own eyes; the super ego is driven by convention and rules, it is the voice of our parents telling us to go to the naughty step. The ego is the bit that tries to find a course between the two extremes.

Mr Trump’s personality transcends ego and super ego.

Anyone who has spent time with a three-year-old child will recognize the signs of arrested development evidenced by the president-elect’s stream of invective on twitter, his abuse of vulnerable individuals who cross him, and his knee-jerk responses to perceived slights.

In his totemic Gettysberg Address, Abraham Lincoln talked about “government of the people, by the people, for the people” and he promised that it “would not perish from the earth”.

This weekend we stand on a precipice. The people have handed the keys of the free world to a man clearly unfit to hold office.

Trump’s term will be one of government by the id, for the id. The rest of us will not get a look-in.

The people who elected him will come to regret their ill-judged vote. But in the meantime, the American political system will need to find a way of minimizing his impact, and the world will have to work round him until the voters come to their senses and elect a president fit for office.

As for George Washington and his hatchet … well, the story was made up by his biographer Mason Locke Weems who knew what his public, hungry for information about Washington, wanted to read.

If anything was an omen of what was to come, the cherry tree myth (for myth it is) prefigured the post-truth society by a couple of centuries.

***

Apparently I once told Martin McGuinness that he looked cute. He had phoned the Irish News to complain that a picture – used to illustrate a story about him – was deliberately chosen to make him look like an idiot.

It is a common complaint of politicians, and truth be told journalists sometimes take pleasure in using a particularly unflattering photograph.

Telling him he looked cute in the picture was a feeble excuse, and disrespectful. (Disrespect is another journalistic trait.) And I apologize now. Given this was the early nineties, and the job he had then, it was also somewhat fool-hardly on my part. The then editor thought I was both brave and stupid.

Whatever you think of Mr McGuinness’s politics and his past, there can be no question that he has served the people of this island – nationalist and unionist – well. He was a distinguished Minister for Education, and he has performed the role of deputy First Minister to the best of his ability in very difficult circumstances.

Nationalists are well used to slights. But in refusing to work with him, the DUP has done its own people and its country an enormous disservice. So much could have been achieved with good will. Ten years on, all the DUP has to show for its tenure is a pile of ash.

The article first appeared in The Irish News on January 13 2017

It’s farewell to the Year of the Celebrity Cull

 

Death where is thy sting: Carrie Fisher

The New Year is something I hate with every fibre of my body. While most of the world is celebrating, I prefer to take to my bed with a hot water bottle.

One of my least cherished memories of my teenage years is being unwillingly dragged from my bed by my father, just past midnight on January 1, and forced to join in a rendition of Auld Lang Syne.

I’ve never much liked Robert Burns, and this particular ditty is a song I would happily consign to Room 101.

I don’t know whether my intense dislike of this hedonistic festival is down to a desire to hold on to the past, or a refusal to embrace the future. It may be both.

Now well into middle age, I have too much of the former and not enough of the latter.

New years mean uncertainty, and somewhere inside this moderately intelligent being, there’s a catastrophist struggling to get out – a little mad merchant of doom capable of believing the crackpots who claim the end of the world is nigh.

The world was supposed to end last July – the 29th to be exact – when End Time Prophesies (a YouTube channel dedicated to doom and gloom) claimed a megaquake would destroy the planet.

If it did, I didn’t notice. But maybe I just wasn’t paying attention.

***

Democracy is a funny thing. It is now clear that even if she lost the election, Hillary Clinton won the vote. She ended up almost three million votes ahead of Donald Trump.

If 100,000 votes had gone the other way in just three US states, she would have won. Yet it is the Twitter-mad billionaire who will be inaugurated President of the United States next month.

Now if ever there was reason to believe the end of the world is nigh, this is it. In office many leaders go mad. He has a head start. Trump has already hacked off the Chinese, the Mexicans and most of Nato.

Vladimir Putin, a Cold War throwback, appears to be a soul-mate. I suspect Trump will do a deal with Putin to carve up the globe, replacing embassies with a string of casinos built by Trump and run by Russian oligarchs.

My nerves are steadied only by the memory that we have been here before.

Ronald Reagan was once seen as a threat to global stability. He is now regarded as one of the finest presidents in US history (largely I suspect because he believed in doing as little as possible.

While there were scandals, not least the Iran-Contra affair – the illicit support of rebels in Nicaragua, it is also the case that the tyranny of communist dictatorship was reversed during his watch.

Marx (who has a lot to answer for) once observed that history repeats itself, once as tragedy, twice as farce. The farce is about to begin.

****

I’m glad I am not a celebrity. If it becomes known for anything, 2016 will be known as the Year of the Celebrity Cull.

As I write, the world has moved on from grieving George Michael. I have never watched Star Wars, but I warmed to Carrie Fisher when she appeared on the Graham Norton show earlier this month.

A heart attack carried her off on the way back to the States. She was a mere 60 years old. Then her mother Debbie Reynolds followed suit. Like Michael, Fisher had been through the mill. (There is always a price to pay for celebrity.)

I am sure celebrities have died in previous years. But this is the year it became fashionable: David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, the Artist formerly known as Prince, Gene Wilder, Alan Rickman, Jean Alexander, Muhammad Ali, Andrew Sachs, Victoria Wood and Ronnie Corbett to name just a few.

The tear I shed was for Liz Smith, nana in the Royale Family (the creation of Caroline Aherne who also died this year). Nana was not a celebrity but the embodiment of the generation that made me and mine: hard-working, working class women who put others before themselves.

***

One thing I can confidently predict for the new year is that the Renewable Heat Initiative at Stormont will continue to be a feature in 2017. The 108 Assembly members will continue to produce copious supplies of hot air at a cost of more than £40 million in the coming year. Most of it will disappear into Ian Paisley’s mythical ‘blue skies of Ulster’.

***

Whatever 2017 brings, let’s hope we survive it. Happy or crappy, have a good one.

  • This article first appeared in The Irish News on 30 December 2016

Is Europe ready for the Great British Cake-Off?

may

Theresa May: the Marie Antoinette of Brexit

Pity Marie Antoinette. She was born to greatness, but she has gone down in history as a spoilt woman indifferent to the struggles of her people.

Utter the phrase “let them eat cake”, and Marie Antoinette springs immediately to mind. The original is: “Qui’ls mengent de la brioche.”

Brioche is what they eat in Mayfair instead of a white sliced loaf.

It is one of the inconveniences of history that stories like this often don’t stand up to scrutiny. It is unlikely the French queen uttered the phrase.

Long before her silken shoes touched French soil, the philosopher Rousseau had already attributed the saying to another princess.

Who said the post-truth society is a modern invention?

There is another story that suggests she was merely reminding people of an existing law. If there was no bread for the poor, bakers had to provide brioche at the same price. Try that out in Marks and Spencer if they run out of Nutty Crust, and see how far you get.

As you can see, European politics and cake go back a long way.

The British, being more pragmatic than French consorts, had a different perspective on cake. For much of the past 500 years the advice has been: “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”

Somehow or other, in recent months the phrase has been turned on its head. In a manner emblematic of the debate over Britain’s place in Europe, the negative has conveniently been dropped.

It is now government policy that you can have your cake and eat it. All round Whitehall, ministers are stuffing their faces with Mr Kipling’s Bakewells, fondant fancies and Battenbergs.

I grew up in a world where there were consequences. We don’t seem to live in that world anymore.

We were promised there would be no negative consequences of a vote to leave European: we were promised millions for the NHS; we were promised an end to low-pay jobs; we were promised we would be safer and more secure.

And now we have been promised all the cake we can eat.

This level of hubris has not gone unnoticed in Europe. They have made it clear you cannot enjoy the benefits of the club while paying reduced fees.

Every mention of having cake and eating it, stiffens the resolve of Europe to drive a hard bargain when Britain finally triggers Article 50.

I always thought Rule One of any negotiation is don’t antagonize your opponent. Rule 2 urges you to go for win-win.

But Britain does not think the rules apply to it. Vaingloriously clinging to its imperial past, Britain believes it is ‘too big to fail’. We’ve all heard the clap-trap: ‘Europe needs us more than we need it”; “We can enjoy the benefits of a free market without free movement of peoples”; “The world will beat a path to our door.”

Rule Britannia, Britannia waives the rules.

As Theresa May learned to her cost in India, the world has moved on. India was unimpressed by the prospect of closer economic ties to Britain. The economic sun is setting on the west.

The future belongs to India, to China and, if it gets its act together, to Africa. Protectionist America under Trump will only hasten the decline.

Mrs May presents herself as reason personified. But the truth is that she has yielded to the lunatic right, championing the Royal Prerogative over the primacy of parliamentary democracy.

With the breathtaking arrogance we have come to expect from this unelected government, this week Mrs May held two fingers up again to her European allies during a carpet-bagging trip around despotic regimes in the Middle East.

Speaking in Bahrain – a state which makes Cuba under Castro look like a model of democratic rectitude – Mrs May dismissed talk of hard and soft Brexit. “What we should be looking for is a red, white and blue Brexit.”

As a citizen of this disunited kingdom, I know I have a vested interest in there being a successful negotiation that minimizes the damage to the economy.

Yet there is something in me which hopes that Europe makes Britain pay for its arrogance, its hubris and its act of political selfishness.

The UK has holed itself below the waterline. Am I prepared to go down with the ship? I might be, just to see the smug smile wiped off the face of the captain and her crew as they sink below the waves.

Now pass me the fruit cake – no, not Boris you fool.

  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on 9 December 2016