Radical reform must be the EU’s response to Brexit

epa05433688   Britain's new Prime Minister Theresa May (left) responds to a question as German chancellor Angela Merkel listens to a translation during their joint press conference at the Chancellery in Berlin 20 July 2016 ahead of their 'dinner talks' later this evening.  EPA/SOEREN STACHE

May and Merkel: both have a major headache to deal with. For Merkel Brexit means finding a new vision for Europe

Inspiration comes from the strangest places. A piece of graffiti gave one of the sixties’ most successful Broadway musicals its title; and it’s hard to think of a more appropriate sentiment for any sane individual today. “Stop the world, I want to get off” – not to be confused with the Arctic Monkey’s “Stop the world, I want to get off with you”. (Remember them? Political animals will know them as one of Gordon Brown’s ‘favourite’ bands.) But I digress.

North Korea is testing nuclear missiles, Turkey is using a coup attempt to crack down on free speech and free-thinking, motor vehicles are being deployed as weapons of mass and wanton destruction, we have just voted to turn our backs on 27 allies and economic partners, the pound is in crisis, the economy is heading for recession, the entire Russian sporting elite is suspected of cheating, Boris Johnston is in charge of Britain’s foreign relations, and the United States of America (the world’s last remaining superpower) is poised to put its future (and ours) in the hands of a megalomaniac property developer, serial bankrupt and TV celebrity with a Walnut Whip haircut and a wife who does poor impressions of Michelle Obama. (Students of journalism will note the 122-word sentence. Normally I advise no more than 20, but these are exceptional times.)

So please, stop the world. I want to get off. A spell on the international space station suddenly looks appealing.

I suppose one mustn’t forget we have been here before. There have been worse periods of history. O’Casey’s line: “Th’ whole worl’s in a terrible state o’ chassis” reverberates through the 20th century.

Journalists are castastrophists, and the papers are filled with stories pushed as far as they can go, and then a little further. Most things we should take with the proverbial pinch of salt. Things are never quite as bad as they seem, nor do events turn out to be as catastrophic as you first thought. Let us hope Brexit falls into that category.

After 9/11, people talked about the ‘new normal’. It’s an interesting phase. What was once unthinkable, becomes reality, we come to terms with it and get on with life. Human beings adapt. It is how we have survived as a species.

Difficult times need leadership to help us get through. Yet the political class is in a state of collapse. There is a vacuum in the US, it lasts until the end of January 2017; in the UK Labour has ceased to exist as a political force, Arleen Foster is in denial about Brexit’s implications for Northern Ireland (or her precious Union), even the sure-footed Nicola Sturgeon is in a dilemma. Is she now looking for Scotland in the Union and in Europe? That appears to be the case. As for the Republic – perhaps the single biggest casualty of the Brexit vote – government? What government?

Ironically, Theresa May appears to be the only one taking a grip on things. But her decision to play the long game on pushing the Brexit button only extends the period of uncertainty. The markets are cruel and hate uncertainty. The economic consequences are already being felt, they will get worse (trust the catastrophist on this).

And so we must look to Europe: that great union of nations, working for common goals of economic growth, cultural and social cohesion, and security. I have bought into the European dream. But I am not naïve enough to believe the EU is perfect.

While it might be tempting for the EU to think of this as Britain’s problem, it is clear the forces which rent the UK from Europe are at play in other nations too: France, the Netherlands, Poland, even Germany have their exiteers, now embolden by Little England’s victory.

The EU is broke – Brussels has to wake up to that fact. Significant reform is necessary. This is the time for a new vision for Europe – referenced not by the aftermath of the Second World War, but built on the needs of 21st century Europeans.

Europe’s founding father Jean Monnet believed that future wars in Europe would be averted by pooling sovereignty in a federation. The primary threats to Europe’s security are no longer from national rivalries. The primary threat is an erosion of trust between those who govern and the governed.

Where is the Jean Monnet of today? Reform might save Europe – and keep the UK engaged and an active participant in an alliance of common purpose. That is the true challenge for Merkel, Hollande, Junker et al.

  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on July 22 2016












Rise of the mob marks the end for democracy




Representative democracy is protection against the rule of the mob

It is a sign of desperation when a columnist reaches into history for inspiration. And desperate I am. Like many readers, I voted Remain in that noxious referendum.

In Northern Ireland, we are sensitised to the fact that our membership of the British family palatable only because it is subsumed within something bigger. The European Union was the key to peace in Ireland, and it took a man of vision like John Hume to realise it.

His search for peace was the single biggest act of statesmanship in twentieth century Britain or Ireland that I can think of. The Nobel Peace Prize was insufficient recognition.

Hume is a man who invested all his being in the power of politics to effect change, and he is a parliamentarian to his core. (It is remarkable how many Irishmen can claim to be among the finest performers in the so-called Mother of Parliaments: Burke, Parnell and Hume dominated in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries respectively.)

I don’t intend here to rehearse once more the pros and cons of continued membership of the EU, or to dwell on Northern Ireland’s chances of remaining within it. Arlene Foster is no Nicola Sturgeon.

I am more interested in what the vote and its aftermath, and the collapse of ‘normal’ politics, says about the structures of governance so essential to maintaining peace, security and stability.

The result is further evidence of the terminal decline of the democratic experiment. Winston Churchill, speaking in 1947, made one of his most celebrated observations:

“No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

There are many weak links in democracy. It is a system that depends on human beings behaving well, and putting the interests of others ahead of their own. It asks a lot of those who participate in it, the theory being that enough of us are wise enough to counter those who are not. That cannot be guaranteed.

The people are sovereign, but experience tells us they cannot be trusted completely. Many a despot has ridden to power on the back of the mob. Hitler used the ballot box to get his grip on power, and then destroyed it.

We know we need to be saved from ourselves, and for this reason the most successful political systems build in checks and balances to protect themselves from populism and its negative effects.

And here we come back to one of those great parliamentarians. Edmund Burke, educated in that crucible of Irish learning Trinity College Dublin, was one of the greatest political thinkers in these islands, and a parliamentarian par excellence.

He championed the cause of American independence, Catholic Emancipation and the shift of power and authority from the monarchy to parliament. But Burke had his concerns about the limitations of the democratic process. He knew that the power of the crowd had to be restrained.

There is within us all the DNA of the lynch mob.

For Burke, the protection came from the development of a representative parliamentary democracy.

He wanted Members of Parliament to understand the needs and desires of their constituents, but to act in their best interests rather than slavishly following their demands.

He set this out clearly when he said: “Your representative owes you not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

“Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole, where not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole.”

This speech, to the electorate in Bristol in 1774, forms the basis of one-nation conservatism, and it set the tone for parliamentary democracy in Britain and Ireland for the next 250 years.

The referendum was an abdication of the principles Burke set out. As a result (and this is not because I am a sore loser, which I am) politics has let us down by pandering to the mob.

If we continue to crowd-source decision making, the veneer of democracy will barely cover the nakedness of an elective dictatorship, and we will all lose out.

  • This article appeared in The Irish News on July 8 2016