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

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.

 

 

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