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

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

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.



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