Dead parrot Dave’s premiership ‘has ceased to be’

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Cameron: premiership marked by serial failures of leadership

It is remarkable to think that less than a year since his election victory we are already seeing the endgame of David Cameron’s premiership.

In the immortal words of Mr Praline in Monty Python’s Dead Parrot sketch: “’E’s passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! ‘E’s expired and gone to meet ‘is maker! ‘E’s a stiff! Bereft of life, ‘e rests in peace!”

Abandoned by a significant proportion of his own party – including key members of his government – Cameron is increasingly an isolated figure. Having spent so much time rubbishing Europe, his claim that Britain would be better off in Europe rather than out of it carries little weight.

We live in an era where authenticity is critical for political survival, and Cameron – the consummate PR professional – does not speak with an authentic voice. Boris Johnson may well be bonkers, but he has authenticity in spades. Michael Gove, the nerdish Lord Chancellor, too carries conviction when he speaks against the European cause.

Such is the poisoned nature of the British body poiitic, Cameron finds no comfort in the ranks of those who should be natural allies in his campaign to remain within the European Union.

With Labour unwilling to be seen in his company, and the Scottish Nationalists too viewing him as toxic, there is no grand coalition in favour of the European project.

If Cameron cannot rely on the whole-hearted support of those who believe that Europe is better united than divided, then who can he call on?

It is chilling that, at this early stage of a four-month process, the ‘out” campaign has seized the initiative. It has a cast that would disgrace the seediest Whitehall farce: in addition to Johnson and Gove, there’s the adjective-defying Nigel Farage, failed Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, and Respect Party leader George Galloway who meowed his way to infamy on the lap of actress Rula Lenska in Celebrity Big Brother.

The Scottish Independence referendum was nearly lost by the ‘no’ campaign because Labour – the dominant player – could not bring itself to whole-heartedly embrace the Union. It was embarrassed by the need to espouse the benefits of Britishness, and all that entailed.

Similar faint praise for Europe, and a refusal to recognise and celebrate the great achievements of the European enterprise will only encourage the electorate to sleepwalk its way into voting to come out.

One big difference between this referendum and Scotland’s is the position of the media. In the Scottish referendum the media was overwhelmingly in favour of the Union. This time around, the mood music is very different.

The press barons have created a bogeyman out of Europe. Their hatred is visceral, and right-wing commentators are using smoke and mirrors to exploit fears over economic migrants and asylum seekers, so-called benefit tourists, and the ‘imposition’ of European laws on a reluctant British electorate.

The reality is very different. Another Monty Python sketch springs to mind – a variation on a theme of “What have the Romans ever done for us”. The reality is that, for the past 40 years, British and Irish ministers, commissioners, and civil servants, have been joint partners in an enterprise with European colleagues that has benefited us all economically, socially, culturally and politically.

Europe has a voice in the world, a voice that draws on its strong traditions (albeit occasionally traduced) of democracy, civil and religious liberty, and the Enlightenment spirit.

The European voice has never been more necessary. We live in a world riven by political tensions. There is political instability in the United States (with a rampant red-necked right), Putin’s Russia is increasingly imperial and dictatorial, the Middle East is in free fall, and China is facing economic difficulties and a clash between its Communist roots and the desire of its people to better themselves through capitalism.

In the midst of all this Cameron opened the Pandora’s Box of a vote on Britain’s continued membership of the European club.

Where Cameron has been called on to show leadership, he has taken the coward’s way out. The referendum was a concession to bullies in his own party. His mishandling of Scotland nearly cost him the United Kingdom. He may yet destroy it. If Britain votes to leave, you can be sure its exit will be accompanied by Scotland’s from the UK.

Cameron may well become the man who destroyed the Tory Party, the United Kingdom, and Europe. The only way to stop him is to save him from himself.

  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on February 26 2016

Stop the world – I want to get off

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Donald Trump: Only in America could you attack the elite by voting for a billionaire

One of my favourite sayings is the observation that ‘it doesn’t matter who wins the election, the government always gets in’. The history of democracy is one of constant disappointment that votes for change at the ballot box result in more of the same once people get into power.

The classic example of modern times is the election of New Labour in 1997. Tony Blair swept to power on a tide of enthusiasm, and left office mired in scandal. Whatever his achievements in Ireland he will never shake off his association with a discredited American president and the shameful war in Iraq.

People here have seen precious little benefit from the shift to devolved powers. Chameleon like, the civil service has adapted to its new masters; while on the ground there is little evidence of a step-change in the quality of education, the delivery of an effective health system, or the establishment of an economy capable of addressing poverty and disadvantage.

Frustration with politics is showing itself across the globe. For now, the anti-establishment candidates for the US Presidency are in the ascendant. Donald Trump, the multi-billionaire, swept to victory in the New Hampshire Primary. On the Democrat side, Hillary Clinton – former first lady and US secretary of state – had her progress to the White House checked by Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders.

Socialist is a trigger word in a United States that has never really got over McCarthyism. Although Sanders is not a socialist in terms we would know – he’d sit comfortably with the centre left here – his success is a kick in the teeth for the establishment.

In the United Kingdom austerity, and a sense of injustice that the bankers got away with the scandals that brought it about, has also fuelled the anti-establishment vote. UKIP’s jingoistic populism generated some four million votes at the last general election. Labour, still toxic after Blair and Brown, failed to break the Tory grip on power. But the subsequent election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader – with the attendant surge in Labour membership – is another challenge to the status quo.

The chattering classes like to joke about the prospects of a Trump presidency and a Corbyn premiership. But more worrying is the prospect of Trump in the White House and Cameron in Number 10. As Bush-Blair demonstrated, British prime ministers need a close association with the United States to maintain their prestige.

Corbyn has yet to prove he has the capacity to reach beyond his core support. If he does, and that requires an enormous stretch of the imagination, he has the spectre of Alexis Tsipras to contend with. Elected by the Greeks on a massive anti-austerity vote, he has had to kow-tow to Greek’s international bankers and implement the very austerity he was elected to overturn.

If my “the government always gets in” theory holds water, it should not matter if Trump wins through. There should be enough checks and balances in the system to limit any damage he might do. But there is always the exception that proves a rule. And Trump might well be it.

We are a long way from the final presidential showdown, and it is all too easy to over-emphasise the importance of a single primary campaign. President Trump is still a nightmare rather than a reality. But his current ascendancy – alongside that of Sanders, Corbyn, the SNP in Scotland, and the leftist Potemos movement in Spain, among others – is a clear signal that conventional politics is no longer fit for purpose.

It might seem perverse that Americans are turning to a multi-billionaire property developer to challenge the ‘elite’ in Washington, but that’s the crazy world we are living in today.

Democracy is a blunt instrument. Ordinary voters don’t have many ways to influence the decision-making process, and we only have the undivided attention of those who govern us every four or five years.

We are at a stage in human history when there is a real desire for change, and a recognition that we cannot go on the way we are going.

We put our faith in the market and in materialism. But it has fallen short.

Consumerism does not bring us happiness and is not sustainable. The earth’s resources are being depleted, wealth is increasingly in the hands of fewer and fewer people, the world is being torn apart by conflict – in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt… the list goes on.

We know from history what happens when politics fails. Nature abhors a vacuum, and totalitarianism flourishes. Stop the world! I want to get off.

  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on February 12 2016