The rise of Little England marks demise of UK


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

In or out – Cameron must get boot after referendum folly


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


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

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


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

Jeremy Corbyn and the decline and fall of British Labour


Jeremy Corbyn: accidental leader of the Labour Party

So what is to be made of the Right Honourable Jeremy Corbyn: accidental leader of the British Labour Party, champion of unpopular causes; and a meek-mannered vegetarian surrounded by carnivores?

There is no doubting the scale of Corbyn’s mandate. It’s huge. As his minions keep repeating, no other party leader has been elected with such a groundswell of support.

In the main, electoral systems are designed to ensure moderates (within an acceptable range) get in.

This has worked effectively enough for Labour in the past. The middle ground – represented by Wilson, Callaghan, Kinnock, Blair, Brown – has held sway. The donkey-jacketed left wing intellectual Michael Foot was the exception that proved the rule.

But the fratricidal Ed Miliband changed the rules ‘in the interests of party democracy’. Under his somewhat bonkers electoral system anyone with three quid spare could sign up as a Labour supporter and get a vote, and many on the disenfranchised left did just that.

That in itself would not have been enough to see Corbyn through. MPs are the gatekeepers to getting on the candidates’ list and, as we have seen in recent months, Corbyn does not have a natural majority there.

He effectively blagged his way onto the leadership ballot with the borrowed votes of some idealistic MPs (such as Margaret Beckett) who thought the left should have a voice in the leadership debates, but never imagined people might vote for Corbyn.

This, of course, is history. But understanding the nature of Corbyn’s ascent is critical to understanding the intricate power politics currently being played out in the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Corbyn is perplexing because he does not play by the rules. In a parliamentary system that prizes loyalty above principle, he is a serial rebel. Indeed, it is reckoned he has voted against Labour more times than current Tory Premier David Cameron.

He abhors the theatrical cat and mouse game of Prime Minister’s Question Time, and raises issues on behalf of Joe and Jo Public. And he is suspicious of ritual and kow-towing (as well you might be if you, like him had attended a private school and endured its hierarchical ravages).

All this, of course, is part of the reason why he was successful in the leadership ballot. People don’t like career politicians (and who can blame them). Today we respond positively to ‘authenticity’, and Corbyn has managed to transcend his privileged upbringing. He is not afraid to call a shovel a spade.

On the face of it, he seems to be an awfully nice bloke. Even his political foes agree.

And there are those of us who believe that someone who has attracted the enmity of The Sun, The Daily Mail and Tony Blair cannot be all bad.

Among a certain class of people – let’s call them the contrarians – Corbyn is a good thing for politics, for parliament and for the democratic cause. As the course of Irish history has shown, great injustices are done when people refuse to defy the accepted wisdom. Corbyn’s record on issues of peace and justice is not what some would paint it.

But politics is not just about principle, it is also about power. Without power, you can achieve nothing – as the Liberal Democrats and Labour are learning to their cost.

Many in the parliamentary Labour Party have memories fresh enough to know what power tasted like, and they miss it. Corbyn has never had it, and wants it only on his terms. And there lies the fault line in Her Majesty’s so called Opposition.

It rift is not just between MPs and their leader, but between the parliamentary party and the party in the country – the hundreds of thousands who voted Corbyn as their leader, and who expect him to deliver a new style of politics: old Labour politics, stripped of the centrist trappings added by Blair and Brown.

Corbyn’s new year reshuffle was designed to tilt the balance in the direction of the party in the country. But it backfired. Hillary Benn – the primary target – proved to be untouchable. The leader in waiting, an effective parliamentarian with all the street cred of a Benn, remains Foreign Secretary.

And in resorting to the traditional black arts of spin and counter-spin, Corbyn’s aides cemented the notion that the reshuffle was a botched narrow-minded political putsch rather than a confident statement of intent by a strong leader.

Of course every mistake he makes is magnified by a hostile press. They are out to get him. But at the moment, Corbyn and his aides seem to content to write the Tory Press’s story for them, and the result of their ineptitude will be to put off even further the day when Labour regains a hold on power.

  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on January 8 2016