The rise of Little England marks demise of UK

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Wrong call: Cameron will go down in history as one of the most calamitous leaders in British history

Electoral disappointment is an inevitable part of the democratic process. The United States politician Dick Tuck put it succinctly making a concession speech in 1966. “The people have spoken, the bastards.” Many a defeated politician has muttered those words sotto voce.

But in the case of the European referendum, it is not quite as simple as that.

Northern Ireland – now the frontier between the UK and the European Union – voted to remain. Scotland, already conditioned to the potential of independence, voted to remain. Almost half the United Kingdom voted to remain.

The fault lines are clear. They can no longer be disguised.

Let us be in no doubt, this vote marks the end of the United Kingdom as we know it. The Little Englanders (and their fellow travellers in Wales) might think they voted for a return to Britain at the centre of a world map coloured in red; but they have hastened Scotland’s inevitable exit from the Union and they have laid bare the fact that Northern Ireland has more in common with the Irish Republic than with this disunited kingdom.

It is hardly surprising that the UK lost its position as the fifth largest economy in the world within hours of the vote. Billions were wiped off shares and the pound nose-dived. The markets will be up and down in the weeks and months ahead, they are fickle and motivated purely by self-interest. But the long-term trajectory is down, I hope I’m proved wrong.

Cameron’s speedy departure – the only thing he has got right in this saga – will not be enough to halt the country’s slide to ruin. He made a brave face of it, but his legacy is a Britain crippled economically and politically.

By failing to stand up to the Tory right, Cameron has put intolerance at the heart of the political discourse, and single-handedly he has destroyed the notion of one nation conservatism.

This was a referendum we did not need to have. And this result is not just a disaster for the United Kingdom and for Ireland – partners in a peace process inspired in large part by Europe’s capacity to transcend centuries of conflict – but it is a disaster for the EU too.

There is now a crack in the European body politic that cannot be repaired; and Britain’s hubristic decision will fortify sceptics in France, Germany and across the continent. Robbed of one of its strongest, albeit truculent, members the European voice is diminished in the world.

I know it is futile to play the blame game – but blame must be apportioned. My list includes Cameron, not up to the task of being prime minister; Jeremy Corbyn and his party leadership team who gifted the Labour vote to Nigel Farrage; and the EU too, an institution that has clearly lost the trust of ordinary men and women.

Large organisations lose the capacity to listen, and the EU has been turning a deaf ear to scepticism across the continent for years, consequently it has opened its soft underbelly for attack.

Yes, I am angry about the lies and half-truths spewed out by the leave campaign; but this was not a battle where the facts played much of a part. It was clear that leave voters were determined to pursue their course in spite of the facts.

All’s fair in love and war, it is said. Leave executed its battle plan well, and with ruthless efficiency. It is a pity Remain did not do the same. It failed to find its voice until too late in the day.

From Northern Ireland’s perspective the top priority now must be to secure the peace process. Short-sighted unionist Brexiteers may have brought back the prospect of the border – but at the price of the union they say they cherish.

One thing is clear, this decision cannot be allowed to undo the hard work and determination of people and politicians here to transcend the divisions of the past. The pressure for a border poll is unsurprising, but fraught with risk. That boil will have to be lanced, but timing is everything.

An independence referendum in Scotland, and there will be one, should be the catalyst for a border poll – not this.

I am prepared to bet the next vote in Scotland will be a yes to independence. In Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP has a much cannier political operator than Alex Salmond, and a more persuasive one.

Independence Day or Armageddon? The wrong movies. Brexit is more a case of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

  • This column appeared in The Irish News on June 27 2016

It’s the beginning of the end for the United Kingdom

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Disunited Britain: bringing down the flag on UK as a nation

On the face of it, this was a vote on the European Union. In reality it was a vote on the Union of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The Brexit campaign, which pinned its colours to the mast of sovereignty and isolationism, may well have hastened the collapse of the UK as a world power.

Like Anthony Eden’s ill-judged adventure in Suez in the 1950s, David Cameron’s gamble on an EU referendum has blown up in his face. Both paid the price.

Within hours of the final count being announced, David Cameron was fighting back the tears in Downing Street as he revealed he was planning to step down. Yet another Tory leader tormented by his Eurosceptic right, Cameron’s career was destroyed by his own side – only a year after he had won a general election he was expected to lose.

John Major, who at least stood up to the ‘bastards’ in his party, left No.10 with his dignity intact, his fate decided by the electorate fed up with Tory infighting and ineptitude. Thatcher, Blair, Brown and now Cameron have each been forced out before they felt their sell-by-date was up.

The Queen, one of the few people in the country without a vote in the referendum, must have the tea and sympathy speech handy in the top drawer of her bureau in Buckingham Palace – marked no doubt by tears and stains of Earl Grey tea.

The supporters of British exit from Europe put it about that she was hostile to the EU (and on demographic evidence alone that’s a fair bet), but even she must have understood the implications of the divided vote for the unity of her kingdom: Queen of England, the second Elizabeth; Queen of Scots, the first; and Queen of Northern Ireland, Wales and – god help us – Gibraltar.

Scotland and Northern Ireland both voted to remain – pretty solidly. England and England alone wanted out dragging Northern Ireland and Scotland with it.

Northern Ireland is a bit of an oddity – a province not a state – and a contested place. Unionists look east to Britain and nationalists south to the Irish Republic. Its adherence to the union is not cut and dried.

But it is the also the only piece of the United Kingdom that shares a land border with the United Kingdom.

It should not be forgotten that the European Union was instrumental in the success of the peace process, demonstrating it was possible for previously implacable enemies to work together in common cause.

Eradicating the border was key to securing the support of nationalists for the new political dispensation. Reimposing it – as must be an inevitable consequence of Britain ‘taking back control’ – threatens peace in the short, medium and long term.

Scotland is more clear cut. A country with a separate legal and political system that sees itself increasingly as a sovereign nation, it has all the trappings of a state.

It has a monarch who claims direct decent to the Scottish Crown before the Crowns were united in 1603; it has a parliament with substantial powers, with its own government and a prime minister in all but name; its own state Church, its own judiciary, education system and a university system that stretches back to the middle ages.

Just two years ago it flirted with independence. In the aftermath of a tighter-than-expected vote the Scottish National Party tightened its grip on the body politic. It is the dominant political force in Scotland; and now this unnecessary UK-wide referendum has demonstrated once again the fault line that exists between Scotland and England.

Every council district in Scotland supported remain.

That fact alone is enough to justify First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s assertion that she now has a mandate to secure Scotland as a sovereign nation within the European Union. In spite of all the hurdles, I suspect that she is capable of securing the majority she needs for Scotland to go it alone.

Although it could be seen as the single most significant act of national self-determination in recent British history – the referendum has also demonstrated the democratic deficit that fatally flaws British politics.

For the first time in modern history, a nation within this awkwardly bolted-together super-state is saying ‘not in my name’.

Having once conceded the Scots have a right to determine their own future, Westminster cannot now turn around and say ‘you cannot have another vote’. The timing will depend on the UK negotiations with the EU, but within the course of the current Scottish Parliament’s term the country could vote to leave the UK, and claim continuing membership of the EU.

Robbed of Scotland, with an economy hampered by its decision to turn its back on its biggest market, and governed by a right-wing elite seen as isolationist, power and influence will continue to seep away.

America will find other and more meaningful special relationships, and England will have little support from other major powers for privileges such as a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Little Britain will have become a reality and the leave voters will rue their heady decision to give two fingers to the tide of history.

 

 

In or out – Cameron must get boot after referendum folly

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David Cameron on the campaign trail with Labour mayor of London Sadiq Khan

Whatever the result of this week’s vote on the United Kingdom’s place in Europe, one man will emerge from the ruins of this referendum with his reputation in tatters.

David Cameron, for it is he, will either have been responsible for the single biggest disaster in British politics since Sir Anthony Eden engineered the invasion of Suez; or he will be the man who put the future of the United Kingdom, and its place in the world, in mortal danger.

Win or lose, he is a busted flush. He will go down in history as a spineless and weak prime minister who chose the path of political opportunism rather than principle.

He has pretentions to be the leader of ‘One Nation’; instead he has opened up rifts in the body politic that will take generations to heal.

Cameron’s culpability is manifold. First off, he should not have conceded the referendum. Across the political spectrum there is broad consensus that we are better in Europe than out of it. His duty as prime minister – an office that transcends party – is to act for the greater good. He should have managed this critical political issue by building and maintaining that cross-party consensus. True he had the irritation of the unreconstructed hard right – a block of MPs who have consistently opposed Britain in Europe. But nothing will ever satisfy them. They are bullies and the only way to deal with bullies is to see them down.

Cameron, a party apparatchik for most of his adult life, chose to kick the hard right problem down the road rather than confront his opponents head on. In doing so he allowed them time to lay a trap, and into it he has naively walked.

His second mistake was to set too high the expectations of his renegotiation with Europe. He talked big, he made much of his own Euro-scepticism, he made much of his red lines. If he had come back with Angela Merkel’s head on a plate it would not have lived up to the promises he made. Even those of us who vehemently support continued membership of the European Union know that he came back with his nakedness covered by a fig leaf. His opponents see his embarrassment all too well.

And then we turn to the referendum debate itself. Here it was to be hoped that reason would prevail. The arguments for continued membership – social, economic and philosophical – are unassailable. After centuries of warfare, the European Union has provided an unprecedented period of peace and stability. Not only have countries flourished economically (even in the face of the recent financial crisis) but wealth has spread to areas – including in this country – that were incapable of lifting themselves out of poverty.

But few of those arguments have been made during the course of this debate. The political discussion has been more about the future of the Tory Party rather than the future of the United Kingdom in Europe. We have had lies, damned lies and Brexit statistics; the race card has been played in the most divisive way; blind prejudice has been presented as fact.

The referendum has been run like an extension of the Oxford Union – varsity chums ragging one another and scoring cheap debating points by being loose with the truth.

But this is not play-acting. The matters at stake here are the stuff of real life. Whether we will have enough jobs, whether we will have the resources for health and social care, whether we will be able to bring the collective will of hundreds of millions of Europeans to bear on the global challenges we face.

Yes Europe needs reformed; yes its leadership has become disconnected from the people they serve; yes it could do more to improve the lives of its citizens. But much the same could be said for Westminster; indeed much the same could be said for Stormont, and in Northern Ireland no-one is more than an hour-and-a-half from the centre of power.

But the best way of getting the best out of Europe is by being in it: making compelling arguments for change, building consensus, working with fellow Europeans to improve the lives of people in all our communities.

When he connived in the invasion of Suez Anthony Eden was a sick man and drugged up to the eyeballs. Cameron has no such excuse. The unintended consequences of his political gamesmanship could result in the return of the Irish border, the disintegration of the United Kingdom, and the decline and fall of the European dream – a bad day at the office indeed.

Whatever the outcome of the vote, Cameron should go.

  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on June 16 2016

 

 

Who slurs wins: dirty politics in Britain and America

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Boris Johnston and the man he wants to replace David Cameron

As we have seen with the internecine warfare in the Tory Party over Brexit, often the bitterest political battles are within parties rather than between them. In the main, parties are broad coalitions, but even those focused on a single issue, or formed around an individual, have their moments.

You don’t have to look far for examples: patricide with the ejection of Ian Paisley as leader of the DUP, matricide when the Tories dispatched Maggie Thatcher. The SDLP in its prime was riven by tensions between its tribal chiefs: Hume, Mallon and McGrady; and as we have seen recently, it is not slow to dispatch a leader it believes is past his sell-by date.

In most political systems, much of this power play goes on behind the scenes; erupting only when party discipline breaks down or an individual loses the run of him or herself and goes public – Boris Johnston’s Brexit buffoonery is a case in point.

If the stakes were not so high, the Blue-on-Blue Brexit battle would be entertaining. There’s some entertainment to be had in hearing members of the Government rubbishing its own policies, turning on their Prime Minister, and deriding the competence of bodies such as the Treasury and the Bank of England.

These ghosts will come back to haunt them when the vote is passed.

Winston Churchill, who knew the value of political insurrection, once observed: “The opposition occupies the benches in front of you, but the enemy sits behind you.” Jeremy Corbyn would agree with that.

In Britain and Ireland these tensions bubble to the surface like magma oozing out of an active volcano, with the occasional eruption. The United States does things differently.

It has institutionalised internecine political warfare with the primary elections system – the blooding of presidential candidates by their own parties. The primaries have dominated US politics for the past 18 months or so. We still have to get through the conventions before the general election proper begins – but we now have a clear idea about who will be battling for the presidency.

The American system is designed to introduce a degree of paralysis into the body politic. Members of the House of Representatives go before the voters every two years; the President’s powers are checked by Congress and the Supreme Court; and even a two-term president, such as Obama, becomes a lame duck once the primaries begin and the focus shifts to the next holder of the office.

The primaries are always been a blood sport; but this time round the level of invective has been particularly unedifying. It has brought the political process into disrepute.

Billionaire Donald Trump’s rise has shocked the Republican establishment, and his party ‘colleagues’ have been unsparing in their condemnation of his racist and misogynistic comments. Like the Brexiteers he has not been afraid of twisting the truth to suit his narrow political ends.

Hilary Clinton, unquestionably one of the best-qualified candidates to challenge for the presidency, has also had her own challenges with the doggedly determined opposition of Bernie Sanders. Like Trump, Sanders has played the anti-establishment card, and his campaign has done all it can to hole Hilary below the waterline.

But this week Clinton secured her grip on the nomination. That in itself is a milestone. She is the first woman with a credible chance of becoming President. But Sanders and his supporters continue to undermine her candidacy, to such a degree that you would imagine they’d prefer to see Trump in the White House.

Politics is a rough and dirty trade. Not for the faint-hearted.

Those in favour of the system say it tests the candidates for the ordeal to come. Those who cannot stand the heat are weeded out; political arguments are honed, and the electorate gets a chance to ‘test’ the candidates to destruction.

That is all well and good. But a system that allows an individual like Trump to rise to the surface must be deeply suspect, as is an electoral process that sends into the final phase of a campaign, two candidates handicapped by wounds inflicted by their ‘own’ side.

On the Democrat side, the primaries have ensured the right result. Clinton is a class act, with all the potential of being a first-class president.

But the Republicans have failed their country by their inability to contain a populist demagogue, worse they have failed those of us who have no vote in the election, but who will be directly affected by the decision made in the coming November elections.

  • This article first appeared in The Irish News on June 9 2016