Arrogant Britain must repent over Brexit decision

Theresa May is wrong over Brexit… she needs to stop lecturing Europe and start listening

I admit it. I am a bad loser. Nothing in the past year has done anything to reconcile me to Britain’s exit from the European Union. It is a mistake of monstrous proportions, and must be reversed.

Brexiteers would call me a ‘remoaner’, as if it is a condition of democracy that, having lost a vote, you turn your back on what you believe. If democracy means anything, it is about people arguing for what they believe and trying to persuade those who oppose them of the rightness of their cause.

If the vote had gone the other way, Brexiteers would by now have regrouped, ready to fight on to leave the Union. Why shouldn’t those who believe last year’s vote was an act of self-harm on a grand scale, do the same?

Britain is supposed to be a parliamentary democracy, but it has ceased to operate like one. There is little point in picking over the entrails of David Cameron’s decision to hold the referendum. It was an abdication of responsibility of the highest order. But the vote was always ‘advisory’ only.

We elect members of parliament to make the right decisions, not necessarily popular ones. Edmund Burke, the Irish parliamentarian, understood well the dangers of an elective dictatorship. An MP, he asserted, was not a delegate slavishly following the electorate’s whim. Voters “wishes ought to have great weight with him”. But an MP did not surrender his “enlightened conscience”.

In a phrase that should be required reading for all elected to office 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.”

With every day that passes, the scale of the damage done to Britain, and the wider world, becomes clearer. We have already seen a reversal of economic fortunes, a worsening of household incomes, and a rise in hate crime. And in Ireland, we know Brexit will mean the reimposition of the border. Soft or hard, it matters little; it will be there. And no amount of fanciful thinking in Dublin or London will wish it away.

At the end of last week, EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier warned there could be no such thing as a ‘frictionless border’ post-Brexit.

Barnier’s words are worth examining. “I have heard some people in the UK argue that one can leave the single market and keep all of its benefits. That is not possible.

“I have heard some people in the UK argue that one can leave the single market and build a customs union to achieve frictionless trade. That is not possible.

“The decision to leave the EU has consequences and I have to explain to citizens, businesses and civil society on both sides of the Channel what those consequences mean for them.”

Britain’s arrogance in expecting EU benefits without EU membership is quite simply astonishing.

If the ‘border’ between Britain and the continent is not frictionless, you can be sure that the very real border between Northern Ireland and the Republic will not be either. While the DUP continues to prop up the May government, we must assume that it is content with that scenario too.

While it would be wrong to overplay the risk to the peace process of such a scenario – we must all hope and pray that the commitment to use peaceful means alone to effect constitutional change is absolute – the simple truth is that the return of a border will hamper economic development, and undermine prosperity for unionists and nationalists alike.

To paraphrase the Prime Minister, the Tories got us into this mess, and they need to get us out of it. Within the parliamentary party there remains a majority who understand that Brexit is a disaster, though sadly they lack the will to use what power they have to fight their corner.

The fact that this is a Tory mess does not excuse Labour. Jeremy Corbyn has reinvigorated the voice of the left in British politics. But it is clear that his agenda is a hard Brexit too – whatever the emollient words of Brexit shadow spokesman Sir Keir Starmer.

Labour needs to face up to the fact that exiting the European Union will damage the very people it claims to represent. Until it does, the party will continue to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

  • This article appeared in the Irish News on July 11 2017

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

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

Stop the world I want to get off

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It’s a sad state when unelected and unaccountable judges step up to defend Parliamentary sovereignty

You couldn’t make it up. The loony right successfully outmanoeuvres a weak and spineless prime minister to secure a vote on Britain’s future membership of the European Union.

It wins with a promise that the electorate will be able to ‘take back control’ from faceless bureaucrats. The EU referendum is all about sovereignty, they claim.

But Theresa May’s definition of sovereignty is any act that bypasses parliament – using instead the royal prerogative to impose her will.

May’s determination to ignore MPs – denying them the right to vote on triggering Article 50 to leave the EU – was anti-democratic in the extreme. The leader of a tin pot dictatorship would have been embarrassed to try that trick.

Enter the judiciary – robed and bewigged – to stop her in her tracks.

It says something about the state of democracy in the UK that it takes three unelected high court judges to leap to its defence.

And then the loony right turns on them. Incandescent with rage, Nigel Farage said: “I worry that betrayal may be near at hand.”

Let us hope so.

The Government says it will appeal to the Supreme Court. If it looses there it can always try the European Court I suppose.

The Brexit vote was an act of madness. The consequences are already making themselves manifest. Even the price of Marmite is on the rise as a result.

I respect the vote in June. But there’s nothing that says stupid decisions cannot be re-examined and overturned. Pro-Europeans have every right to use whatever tools are at their disposal to ensure Britain stays in Europe.

I’d like to preface my next observation by saying that some of my best friends are political journalists. I don’t know what the collective noun for them is. I suspect it is something like ‘A Conspiracy…’

They are always putting two and two together and making five. And I have the suspicion that often they are writing for one-another. (I am sure I do them an injustice.)

For some reason, right-wing journos are always more entertaining than those on the left. Comrades are not allowed to laugh. The New Statesman, for example, with its socialist roots, is deathly dull. The Spectator, on the other hand, once edited by Boris Johnson, is invariably good for a laugh.

This week it held its annual parliamentarian of the year awards. Gone are the days when Northern Ireland members were in contention. I’m sure their day will come.

This year May picked up the top award. But it was Boris Johnson who inadvertently let the cat out of the Brexit bag with a Freudian slip of monstrous proportions.

Accepting the award for Comeback of the Year he said he was sure the Brexit negotiations would be “a Titanic success”. Cue Celine Dion. May buried her head in her hands as guests screamed out: “It sank.”

Talking of awards, it’s good to see Glamour magazine fighting the good fight for equality with its Women of the Year awards. And well done Bono – a worthy recipient. Bono is “grateful” for the recognition. What next? A reality TV star as President of the United States? Don’t be so silly.

I was once at an opera production where, when the lights went up, a patron was found dead in his seat having passed away in the final act.

I’d love to go out like that, slipping away quietly while the soprano spends 10 minutes telling us she is just about the draw her last breath.

But I’d have been pretty hacked off if I’d been at the matinee performance last weekend of Rossini’s William Tell at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

The building was evacuated at the interval when the orchestra received a light dusting of white powder. Dandruff always looks worse on a black jacket. In this day and age, we always expect the worse, and instead of calling for the Head and Shoulders, Homeland Security was brought in instead.

The opera was cancelled, as was that evening’s performance of the Italian Girl in Algiers.

The cause was not an opera-loving IS terrorist wielding anthrax, but mild-mannered Dallas music lover Roger Kaiser. Kaiser was fulfilling the wishes of a much-loved friend who had asked for his ashes to be scattered at the Met and other opera houses.

I was reminded of the late Sir Paddy Mayhew’s ill-judged remarks on arriving at Castleward Opera to be told there had been a grenade attack in Belfast. “Well, nobody is dead,” he said. “At the end of this opera, everybody is dead.” Now it’s a case of it ain’t all over until the fat lady is incinerated.

And finally, on Tuesday it’s the US Presidential election. Aided by the ever-suspect FBI, Trump is making a comeback. Let us pray.

  • This article appeared in The Irish News on November 5 2016

May: an illegitimate prime minister with no plan

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May speaking before she enters Downing Street as PM

I really can’t be having Theresa May. By one of those quirks of history she has been handed the keys to No.10 Downing Street – by accident almost – and is now the unelected author of our misfortunes.

She makes much of her “Brexit is Brexit” mandate. But she has no such mandate. She may not have been that obvious in the referendum campaign, but she was still on the losing side. A remainer, she lost the vote, she has no mandate from the referendum.

But then there’s the general election win.

In normal circumstances Mrs May could point to the Conservative Party’s victory in the 2015 poll for proof of her legitimacy. In the UK people vote for parties, not prime ministers, and Tories won.

Although elections are becoming increasingly presidential in nature, there’s much to be said for party politics. As the United States’ presidential race has shown, personality politics is an open invitation to egomaniacs.

We have a few head-bangers and egomaniacs on this side of the Atlantic, but nothing on the scale of Donald Trump.

Anyway, back to May and that corrupted mandate. Since replacing David Cameron she has done everything possible to renege on the pledges made on the manifesto he took to the country.

Economic policy has been turned on its head and she has broken with the consensus that selection has no place in children’s education. Across Whitehall May’s ministers are ripping up policies her party ‘sold’ to the country as its agenda for the next five years.

So May has no electoral mandate. Honeymoon apart, and she is enjoying a bit of a honeymoon, history suggests she will not be able to sustain herself in office when things start getting tough.

Alec Douglas Home’s premiership lasted barely a year; Jim Callaghan left office with the stench of unburied bodies and uncollected rubbish in his nostrils; and Gordon Brown was destroyed by his own demons and his association with boom and bust economics.

None of these three had a mandate, and they paid the price.

But, I hear you say, May was at least crowned leader of the ruling party and that gives her the aura of legitimacy. However she wasn’t elected. The way was cleared for her.

Theresa May’s path to power was unimpeded – in the same way a mafia don walks uninterrupted through a crowded square in Sicily, she walked up Downing Street and into her grace and favour apartment.

The warning bells started ringing for me with her grotesque speech on the steps of Downing Street where she spoke of the plight of working men and women who had been let down by society.

She spoke of the “burning injustice” of the poor who die nine years earlier than the rest of society; black people ill-treated by the criminal justice system; white working class boys and pupils in state schools denied a decent education; and women earning less than men.

I don’t know about you, but I am fed up of listening to Conservative politicians and multi-millionaires speaking on behalf of working people.

When the voice of the people is articulated by the likes of former stock-broker Nigel Farage, Eton-educated buffoon Boris Johnson, and property developer Donald Trump, the world is turned on its head.

This past week May has been in Europe, rubbing her partner leaders up the wrong way. Her arrogance will secure for Britain the worst deal imaginable.

British prime ministers treating European leaders a thing or two at Euro-summits is one thing. There’s form there. “No, No, No,” said Maggie Thatcher.

But it is a different thing altogether when they show contempt for the electorate.

Unelected and without legitimacy, Mrs May is set on pushing for the hardest of hard exits from the European Union – without allowing parliament a vote on Britain’s negotiating position.

The truth is that the Brexiteers’ slogan “taking back control” means by-passing a so-called sovereign parliament and giving control of the future destiny of some 60 million people to Liam Fox, David Davis and Boris Johnson.

And it means giving an unelected prime minister a free hand to alter the course of people’s lives without any electoral legitimacy.

The phrase “elective dictatorship” describes well the inadequacies of the first past the post system and the power it bestows on majority governments.

In a country said to house the ‘mother of parliaments’, I had thought there was little worse. Yet now, in this second decade of the twenty-first century, we have been cursed with an ‘unelective dictatorship’ of the most pernicious kind.

  • This article first appeared in The Irish News