Is Europe ready for the Great British Cake-Off?

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Theresa May: the Marie Antoinette of Brexit

Pity Marie Antoinette. She was born to greatness, but she has gone down in history as a spoilt woman indifferent to the struggles of her people.

Utter the phrase “let them eat cake”, and Marie Antoinette springs immediately to mind. The original is: “Qui’ls mengent de la brioche.”

Brioche is what they eat in Mayfair instead of a white sliced loaf.

It is one of the inconveniences of history that stories like this often don’t stand up to scrutiny. It is unlikely the French queen uttered the phrase.

Long before her silken shoes touched French soil, the philosopher Rousseau had already attributed the saying to another princess.

Who said the post-truth society is a modern invention?

There is another story that suggests she was merely reminding people of an existing law. If there was no bread for the poor, bakers had to provide brioche at the same price. Try that out in Marks and Spencer if they run out of Nutty Crust, and see how far you get.

As you can see, European politics and cake go back a long way.

The British, being more pragmatic than French consorts, had a different perspective on cake. For much of the past 500 years the advice has been: “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”

Somehow or other, in recent months the phrase has been turned on its head. In a manner emblematic of the debate over Britain’s place in Europe, the negative has conveniently been dropped.

It is now government policy that you can have your cake and eat it. All round Whitehall, ministers are stuffing their faces with Mr Kipling’s Bakewells, fondant fancies and Battenbergs.

I grew up in a world where there were consequences. We don’t seem to live in that world anymore.

We were promised there would be no negative consequences of a vote to leave European: we were promised millions for the NHS; we were promised an end to low-pay jobs; we were promised we would be safer and more secure.

And now we have been promised all the cake we can eat.

This level of hubris has not gone unnoticed in Europe. They have made it clear you cannot enjoy the benefits of the club while paying reduced fees.

Every mention of having cake and eating it, stiffens the resolve of Europe to drive a hard bargain when Britain finally triggers Article 50.

I always thought Rule One of any negotiation is don’t antagonize your opponent. Rule 2 urges you to go for win-win.

But Britain does not think the rules apply to it. Vaingloriously clinging to its imperial past, Britain believes it is ‘too big to fail’. We’ve all heard the clap-trap: ‘Europe needs us more than we need it”; “We can enjoy the benefits of a free market without free movement of peoples”; “The world will beat a path to our door.”

Rule Britannia, Britannia waives the rules.

As Theresa May learned to her cost in India, the world has moved on. India was unimpressed by the prospect of closer economic ties to Britain. The economic sun is setting on the west.

The future belongs to India, to China and, if it gets its act together, to Africa. Protectionist America under Trump will only hasten the decline.

Mrs May presents herself as reason personified. But the truth is that she has yielded to the lunatic right, championing the Royal Prerogative over the primacy of parliamentary democracy.

With the breathtaking arrogance we have come to expect from this unelected government, this week Mrs May held two fingers up again to her European allies during a carpet-bagging trip around despotic regimes in the Middle East.

Speaking in Bahrain – a state which makes Cuba under Castro look like a model of democratic rectitude – Mrs May dismissed talk of hard and soft Brexit. “What we should be looking for is a red, white and blue Brexit.”

As a citizen of this disunited kingdom, I know I have a vested interest in there being a successful negotiation that minimizes the damage to the economy.

Yet there is something in me which hopes that Europe makes Britain pay for its arrogance, its hubris and its act of political selfishness.

The UK has holed itself below the waterline. Am I prepared to go down with the ship? I might be, just to see the smug smile wiped off the face of the captain and her crew as they sink below the waves.

Now pass me the fruit cake – no, not Boris you fool.

  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on 9 December 2016

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

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