Making a souffle

 

Well, it’s done. The greatest act of British stupidity in two generations has been carried out, by a woman holding an expensive fountain pen in front of an expensive fireplace. Our man in Brussels, who replaced our previous man in Brussels, who resigned because no-one in Westminster listened to him, has delivered the Letter personally to Donald Tusk.

It will be a month before anything else happens. I thought this would be a good time to glance again at the Government’s White Paper on Brexit.1  I had the impression there wasn’t much in it.

There isn’t. Moreover it’s a strange creation, and gets stranger. However, it sets off bizarrely enough. How’s this for the start of Chapter 2, “Taking Control of Our Own Laws”?

Whilst Parliament has remained sovereign throughout our membership of the EU, it has not always felt like that” (2.1) (my italics).

What? We thought the whole point of the opera about “sovereignty” during the referendum campaign was that we had lost it to the EU! 2 Are you saying that we didn’t? (So can we have a re-run of the referendum?) And if we didn’t, what does the title of this chapter mean? And what on earth does “it has not always felt like that” mean? It seems to have slipped in from The Archers.

It is a document that seems uncertain what it wants to be. Each chapter leads with a paragraph about Brexit that reads as if written by an advertising agency. In the main text, thickets of factual data are surrounded by clouds of pious hope, virtuous intentions and bluster. Here and there a soundbite whizzes in, like a meteorite (“No deal is better than a bad deal”). The whole thing resembles a soufflé with lumps. The overriding aim is reassurance, the general tone is anodyne. If you poke it, it collapses:

“After all the division and discord, the country is coming together” (foreword by the PM). Really?

“Work is underway (sic) to define the Government’s trade policy” (9.8). Oh, good.

The Government is “committed to ensuring we become the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it” (8.41). By abandoning the EU and embracing Trump?

And it assumes its readers are ignorant of facts:

The Government “has engaged a range of stakeholders, including expatriate groups, to ensure we understand the priorities of UK nationals living in EU countries” (6.3). But those groups say they have not been consulted.

The reassurance is so hollow a baby could stick its finger through it, but the Government is talking to grown-ups and hopes they will not be so unkind. Thus, scientists are told they can still apply for EU research funding for as long as Britain remains in the EU (10.9). How long does the Government think scientific research takes? And when it praises the contribution of overseas researchers to British projects, doesn’t it know that many of them are already leaving? And that British scientists are being sidelined in new European research? When it reassures existing EU students they will still be eligible for loans (10.11), does it know their numbers have fallen? Not a word. On leaving Euratom, which includes arrangements for nuclear safeguards and safety, it says soothingly, “We will ensure this continues by seeking alternative arrangements” (8.31). Head-first back into the soufflé.

The White Paper, in other words, does not address reality. What is it for, then? This is a Government White Paper!  Well, it is a document wrenched out of a reluctant Theresa May in return for an undertaking by MPs that they would not vote against the Article 50 bill. Its underlying tenor is, “You’re forcing me to talk to you, so I’m talking to you, but I’m damned if I’m going to say anything.” Obliged to produce something or other, the Government has produced 72 pages of propaganda. Thus, it repeats unblushingly the often-made assertion that the EU exports more to Britain than Britain does to the EU (8.4), while omitting to explain that that is in cash terms: the percentage figures put quite a different complexion on the matter. Roughly 44% of Britain’s exports are to the EU; roughly 16% of the EU’s exports are to Britain. Who stands to lose from Brexit?

This mendacious flim-flam was not what MPs had asked for. They felt that the Government’s airy target of “the best possible deal for the British people” was unacceptable, that clearer targets needed to be defined, and that many would be difficult to accomplish because of the contradictions they would involve. They wanted these difficulties to be acknowledged. They wanted information and to know that the Government knew what it was doing.

Nothing like this was forthcoming. Acknowledge the difficulties? But that would cast doubt on the wisdom of the enterprise. Information? Oh yes, there is plenty of information, there are pages and pages of it, with lovely clear charts, but it is information about the wrong thing. It is information that everyone who has an interest in the EU already possesses – information about the flow of goods and services, about immigration numbers, workers’ rights, co-operation on policing and security, what the EU is and does, what we are leaving behind. At no point does it go up to a problem and grasp it.

For instance, on the huge question (Annex B) of how it is going to close the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland (because if it doesn’t there will be no way of stopping EU migrants from entering the UK from Ireland), and at the same time keep it open (because, if it closes it, it could re-ignite the Troubles) it devotes three pages to saying only that it is “firmly committed” to everything. It then, incredibly, states that the present cooperation between justice and security agencies in Ireland and Northern Ireland “exemplifies the sort of relationship we want to have with the EU post-exit.” Post-exit, it will be lucky to have it with Ireland.

David Davis, from whose Cloud Cuckoo Land this document issues, would say, “We cannot give away the Government’s negotiating position.” No-one is asking him to. You presumably want your Government to do its best, even if you think it is a crew of chancers led by a zombie. But to state your goal is not to give away your negotiating position, nor is admitting that your goal lies in difficult-to-attain territory. To state your goal is only inadvisable if your goal is criminal or exceedingly devious.  Or if you’re afraid of the press in the event that you fail to achieve it. Is Theresa May that craven?

This makes it clear, I think, that the White Paper is not the inert thing it seems: it does something. It throws sand in the eyes again. A bit more time is bought. We are all a bit more confused, and a bit more tired, and a bit more ready to accept whatever is coming.

And what is that?

One candidate is that, nine months in, the Government still does not know what it is doing. It is still saying, “I wonder what will happen if I pull this bit…” Let’s not forget that this White Paper comes from the office of the man who admitted to a Parliamentary Select Committee that he had no idea what would happen if the UK left Europe without a trade deal. He hadn’t done the figures. For some reason, they weren’t worth doing.

In that case, what is coming is the revelation of the Government’s utter ineptitude, and it is trying every trick in the book to put off the day.

The second possibility is that the Government knows exactly what it is doing, and what it is doing is very devious indeed. I shall come back to this at a later date.

A third possibility is that the entire Government is raving mad and thinks it is fighting the Second World War. This would account for the obsessive secrecy, the hostility displayed to all representatives of the EU, the ceaseless appeals to patriotic feeling, the routine use of propaganda, the equating of government negotiating tactics with national security, and the peculiar implacability of Theresa May’s countenance.  She is trying to look like a bulldog.

In that case, what we have to look forward to is either that the Government comes to its senses before Europe loses patience and blows us out of the water, or that it doesn’t.

 

The truly awful news is that another White Paper is on the way.

2 Good analysis of sovereignty, and much else, in  https://rationaldebateblog.wordpress.com/2017/03/29/a-dark-day-for-the-UK-and-for-europe/

 

Alice

 

 

“Muddle!” cried the Prime Minister triumphantly, reminding me of something or other. She was talking about the SNP, but she should have darted a look behind her.

Pity Theresa May. Everything she says about the wrong-headedness of Scotland’s leaving the United Kingdom also applies to the United Kingdom’s leaving the EU. She cannot talk about “a tunnel-vision nationalism” without raising caustic eyebrows, or refer to “the national security of the Union” without sending her listeners’ minds to places they should not be allowed to go to, or speak of the “remorseless logic that greater economic strength and security come from being united” without causing incredulous chuckles, or fits of rage, the length and breadth of the land.

This has been noticed. The mockery of a Prime Minister who cannot say anything without simultaneously saying the opposite lashed the Telegraph and Times into wild assertions that Nicola Sturgeon’s plans for a referendum on Scottish independence were “unravelling.” The evidence was otherwise. But some of the flak was nasty. “Off with her head!” screamed The Telegraph.

Sorry?

Oh, I see. It was a jocular reference to Mary Queen of Scots.

Mary Queen of Scots?

Ah. You didn’t mean Mary Queen of Scots, you were thinking of Alice in Wonderland.

Henry II, Thomas Beckett and Murder in the Cathedral might have been more to the point. But Alice will do.

I traced the echo of the Prime Minister’s “Muddle!” to Lewis Carroll. The Alice books resound with cries of “Nonsense!”, “Hold your tongue!”, “Do you take me for a dunce?”, “What impertinence!” and “It’s my opinion you never think at all!” We could do with more robustness off that kind in Parliament. However, Alice is in Westminster already. What better metaphor could there be for the alternative universe the Prime Minister and her cohorts are inhabiting than a landscape where time runs backwards, words mean what you want them to mean, you can change your height and believe six impossible things before breakfast, chopping off heads solves all problems, and you get to where you want by walking away from it?

It’s in this light we should see Theresa May’s remark that at the recent meeting of EU leaders in Brussels she had urged them “to complete the single market in digital services, as that would be in the UK’s best interests.”

Does she know we’re leaving the EU?

Meanwhile, the stand-off between May and Sturgeon is providing riveting theatre. This is a power struggle between two perfectly matched opponents. It helps that they are both women. That means they will both be merciless. Nicola Sturgeon is clever and ambitious. So is Theresa May, but Sturgeon is younger by 14 years. Both have a vision of the future, but the visions seem to come from different generations, and May’s cannot quite rid itself of the boot stamping on the human face for ever. Both by now are angry, but Sturgeon’s anger is fiery, whereas May’s is rancorous. It’s May who holds the power. But it’s Sturgeon who has the charisma, the imagination, the ability to compromise. For these, Theresa May must substitute gravitas. Nobody likes gravitas much, and in May’s case there is a strong suspicion that it’s a manhole cover concealing a void.

Theresa May is skirting a trap. She’s so close to it that she must be getting that prickly feeling. It’s a neat trap: if she wields her power, she may lose it, but the more she abstains from using it, the more diminished it will be. In response, she has come up with a formula that is quintessential May: “You cannot hold a referendum until the Brexit negotiations are completed.” It sounds straightforward, but it isn’t. What does she mean by “negotiations?” What does she mean by “completed”? May says she means after Britain has left the EU, which should be in the spring of 2019. Before that, Scots would be voting “blind.” Sturgeon’s response was that, according to EU law, the negotiations of Article 50 should end six months before the cut-off date, i.e., in autumn 2018, the remaining six months being taken up by ratification by the 27 member states; in that gap, the referendum should be held.

Thus she raises, for May, the frightening spectre that Scotland might vote for independence in the few months when it is just possible that the prospect of losing Scotland would create an anti-Brexit backlash in the rest of the UK, and that the EU might, in pity, let us back in.

And it is just possible.

Therefore May has poured all her abundant contempt on Sturgeon’s demands, while not explicitly refusing a referendum, which would presumably make an eventual vote for independence certain. She is not setting a date for one, either. Everything, for her, depends on keeping all her options open and closing off as many of Sturgeon’s as possible. (Who said politics was not a game?) She is playing for as much time as she can get. But the danger of this is that the longer she refuses a referendum, the more she will stoke nationalist feeling across the border.  She must be desperately afraid that she will be the Prime Minister who loses Scotland. And that is Nicola Sturgeon’s strongest card.

How is Theresa May handling this? Off with Sturgeon’s head, to the Tower with the SNP. She did not reply to Sturgeon’s detailed document “Scotland in Europe,” which lays out several options for the way ahead including a compromise on the SNP’s starting position. Why not? Couldn’t she be bothered to read it? Sturgeon has signalled some flexibility on the referendum date. There has been no answering signal.

What’s odd is that Theresa May is perfectly capable of changing her mind. She did it several times in the early days of her premiership, notably on Chinese investment in a nuclear power plant. She did it on the EU,  for heaven’s sake: on June 23 she was a Remainer. She has just done it on National Insurance contributions. She is intransigent only until she crumbles.

So why won’t she budge on Scotland?

Immigration/the single market, disdain for SNP pretensions and fear of the Tory right are all part of it, but the primary – atavistic – reason is that, in Nicola Sturgeon, Theresa May knows she has met her existential foe. Their positions are not just opposed, they are mutually annihilating. Sturgeon wants freedom for Scotland (never mind how she defines it). May does not want freedom. It is impossible to say what she wants, but it is not freedom because, if it were, it would sing in every speech. Sturgeon demands dialogue as a way of doing politics; May refuses dialogue, and has always refused it. Sturgeon’s motivation is (she says) justice; May’s is keeping the United Kingdom together – but it was she who imperilled it.

Sturgeon’s position is coherent, May’s is incoherent. Sturgeon can say, sincerely, that she wants what is best for her country, even if it should turn out not to be best. May cannot, because the course she is pursuing is not best for her country and she knows it. Hence every deafening silence, baffling conundrum and perplexing twist of policy that has followed her since July. This is a terrible position to be in, but she is made of stern stuff and will doubtless stick with it, probably long after she has forgotten why.  However, it is taking its psychological toll. We can see it, in the rigidity of her political stance, in the strange lapse of attention over the digital services, in the compulsive, unconscious mirror-speak to the SNP.

In the stand-off, it is May who carries the axe. But she has become used to being able to push Parliament around, and the same tactics won’t work with Scotland. She senses it, without knowing what else to do. Everything she says about her opponent is a statement about herself. This means that everything she does will rebound on her. Both the Looking-Glass world and Wonderland were dreams that, at the end, turned into nightmares. Alice got out of them by waking up. Theresa May will not be allowed to.

 

1 All three quotes are from the Prime Minister’s speech in Glasgow to the Scottish Conservatives’ Spring Conference.

 

Another Place

 

 

Ping! went the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill from the House of Commons to the House of Lords. Pong! went the same Bill, amended, from the House of Lords to the House of Commons. Ping! it came back smartly, and angrily, from the House of Commons to the House of Lords, since the peers were not supposed to amend it and Theresa May herself sat on the steps of the throne to tell them so.

There was never any doubt that the Commons would win. It is the Elected Chamber. In any case, it passed a law in 1911 saying it must always win. The only question was how quickly. Would the Lords have the temerity to pong!  this unlovely scrap of legislation (it is hardly longer than its title) back to the lower house a second time, prolonging a battle which it could not win, and threatening Theresa May’s precious timetable for we-all-know-what? We all know now that it didn’t.

How have we come to such a pass that thousands of law-abiding Britons were praying that the Unelected Chamber would do just that? In spite of being threatened with a constitutional crisis,  no less, and by the BBC,  no less, if that were to happen.

I found myself uncertain what constituted a constitutional crisis, and when we last had one. I consulted Wiki, which defined it as “a situation which a legal system’s constitution or other basic principle of operation appears unable to resolve.” I didn’t find that very helpful. Wiki added that it can lead to “government paralysis, collapse, or civil war.”

There have been, says Wiki, six such crises in these islands. The earliest was the tussle between King John and the barons which resulted in Magna Carta. Later there was Henry V’s break with Rome. Then Charles I quarrelled with Parliament, lost his head and we got Cromwell. So far, so 1066 and All That. Afterwards came the Glorious Revolution, which in reality was a rather inglorious invasion, the Lords’ refusal to pass the People’s Budget which led to the legislation of 1911 (see above), and finally – home and dry – the Abdication crisis of 1936, which turned out to be not a bad thing, since Edward’s VIII’s attitude to Hitler was not unlike Theresa May’s to Donald Trump.

Perhaps, I thought, a constitutional crisis might not be such a bad thing now? It would give politicians something to think about, and broadcasters something to talk about, other than Brexit, and this would be a great benefit to public health. Would it make much difference to ordinary life? Probably not. The buses would go on running, in so far as they do, water would go on coming out of the taps and grubby tenners out of cashpoints. There would be interminable legal argument, pinging between this court and that, while Brexit languished on the twig and finally fell off into the long grass and was eaten by a cow.  A Belgian constitutional crisis in 1990 was resolved in a particularly inspired way. It was over the King’s refusal to assent to a Bill legalising abortion. He was temporarily declared insane, the Bill was passed – quite legally – by the Council of Ministers, and he was declared sane again. There’s so much you can do with a bit of imagination.

I further thought: if there’s a constitutional problem that can’t be resolved, doesn’t that suggest that there’s something wrong with the constitution?

Perhaps there is. Could it be that the thing is nowhere to be found, since there is no written form of it? Or could it be the regrettable existence of the House of Lords itself?

It is always robustly denied that the first is a problem. The Constitution does not need to be written down, we are told: it is perfectly fit for purpose and relies on precedent. Some people are not impressed by this – they are used to seeing important things put in writing – but others enjoy it. These are people who like Old England to be quaint. It brings in tourists. Some of them think Jacob Rees Mogg is a national treasure.

The existence of the House of Lords has been a problem ever since the creation of the House of Commons. The Commons cannot forgive the Lords for its feudal origins, and from time to time threatens to abolish it. The last time was a couple of weeks ago. The relationship between the two Houses is eloquently expressed in the way they refer to each other: “Another Place.” One imagines it hissed. It is like theatre people saying “The Scottish play” instead of “Macbeth.” There are many fewer hereditary peers in the Lords than there were (92 out of an over-large total of 804), but the image of the upper house as being composed of superannuated relics who stand in the way of parliamentary democracy is still alive. You would not know from the thundering of the Daily Mail that many of them are dedicated public servants, and some are not old at all, and most of them are there because the Government of the day has put them there, usually for its own convenience.

The real reason for the hostility of the Commons to the Lords is not that it is undemocratic, it is that it works. It is supposed to speak truth to power, and it does. It is supposed to suggest improvements to legislation, and it does. It performs these tasks with efficiency, proficiency and, generally, tact, and is able to do so because its benches are filled with men and women who know what they’re talking about and do not have an axe to grind. This is a point worth considering. They are not elected, so they don’t have to worry about being re-elected. They can give their minds to the issue in front of them. The price that has to be paid for this huge advantage is, precisely, that they are not elected. Successive governments have been unable to confront this tricky situation. With supreme hypocrisy, they milk it instead. They use the Lords, and berate them.

And the Lords are inestimably useful in helping the Government – any government – smooth out its legislative drafts, which, by all accounts, are often pretty rough. In any other line of business, you would pay excruciating sums for that level of consultancy. All they have to do is send it down the corridor, and the taxpayer foots the bill. Grateful? Theresa May’s government has been snarling, uncivil and contemptuous towards “Another Place.” It was nervous, of course. It needed to hurry Article 50 through before the nascent opposition to Brexit put on more substance. It thought the Lords might get in its way. The tragedy is that the Lords might have done.

If this were a more honest country, we would admit that we have a crisis already. What else can you call it, when half the electorate is bitterly opposed to the views of the other half, when elected representatives of the people are lying in their souls because they are afraid their constituents will vote them out if they follow their consciences, and when the House of Commons is allowing itself to be driven like a flock of sheep in a direction it knows to be disastrous in obedience to an ideology it does not believe in, while condemning an upper House for trying to do what it does believe in on the grounds that it has not been elected and therefore has no right to do anything, whether it believes in it or not? This is by any definition a crisis, although another word would be “chaos.”

On Monday night the amendment on guaranteeing EU citizens’ rights in the UK was defeated in the Lords by 274 votes to 135. The amendment on giving Parliament a meaningful vote on Brexit was defeated 274-118. Both amendments went down largely because Labour peers had been ordered by the party leadership to abstain; 25 honourably rebelled. The Lords, in other words, did not bend the knee to a mistaken idea about where democracy resides; they were thwarted by a craven narrow-mindedness that has taken hold at the top of what should be the Opposition.

There is something wrong with our political system, but it is not in the Constitution. The Lords should have been free to hurl Theresa May’s pig-in-a-poke back down the corridor so hard it frightened the woodworm.

 

 

 

 

 

The will of the people

 

 

The people have spoken. 16,141,241 of them said the same thing. 17,410,742 said 17,410,742 different things. That is 16,141,241 and 17,410,742 out of the 72.2% of the electorate who voted, you understand. We are told that the margin of 1,269,501 votes for 1,269,501 different things constitutes an overwhelming majority and a mandate for the Government to implement whichever of the abovementioned different things it fancies. This is Punch and Judy politics.

The trouble is, the stage on which it is happening is not a wooden box in front of fifty bored children at the seaside. This is Britain, and we only have one of it. This is Europe, and we only have one of it. And the show will not be repeated every weekend throughout the summer. We have one go at it. Then it’s over.

All the more reason, you might think, for immense care. All the more reason to keep all options open, including the possibility of retreat. All the more reason to scrutinise minutely the arguments for continuing on our present course.

Not a chance. This Government is as open-minded, as careful, as scrupulous, as four teenagers crammed into a Dodgem. Bang goes this, crumple goes that, splinter go the windows in the EU greenhouse. What does it matter, thinks the Government. Hostility in Europe and disdain for the “elite” at home will strengthen its arm. Behind it, it has the mighty Will of the People.

We need to stop this hooliganism before it smashes up the shop.

The referendum of June 23 was advisory, not mandatory. If David Cameron promised that the vote would be implemented, that was his problem: his promise is not binding on Theresa May. She has chosen to make it binding. She has entirely political reasons for that. It is her only hold on the premiership. If she stopped driving Brexit forward, she would cease to be Prime Minister within five minutes.

The margin by which the Leave campaign won was slender: 3.8%. The actual percentages were 48.1% to 51.9%. (Of 72.2%, be it remembered.) Remain was 1.9% on the wrong side of 50. That margin is hardly the “stunning” majority claimed by Government spokesmen and invoked to justify treatment of Remain voters as a pathetic and deluded remnant left behind by the shipwreck of a discredited idea. Perhaps Government spokesmen do not understand percentages. Quite likely. They certainly don’t know much about population statistics. The percentage of males in the general population is 49%, which is also a minority just on the wrong side of 50 but is not, as far as I’m aware, commonly used to suggest that men are a pathetic and deluded remnant, although it is true that the three ministers responsible for Brexit are all male.

The bar set for the vote, 50%, could not have been lower, and the slenderness of the majority should be seen in this context. Many countries would regard 50% as absurd for a constitutional change: Japan, Italy and the USA require a two-thirds majority, France and Turkey three-fifths; and it is worth noting that, since the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, Westminster has to return a two-thirds majority to demand an early General Election, suggesting that the British government is less bothered about leaving Europe than about protecting whatever clique is in office.)

Still, this referendum is touted as an exercise in democracy par excellence. “The people” voted. More of them voted than normally vote in General Elections. What more stirring demonstration could one want of the popular will? If you reject the vote, you are not a democrat. Since it is not possible decently to be anything else, that means you are scum. This line of talk has so terrified MPs and a great many other people that free expression of opinion has become stifled and any hope of a truly free vote in Parliament looks dead.

It is hogwash. There is no democracy without a free press, because how can an uninformed electorate vote intelligently?  It is an open question whether we have a free press at the best of times, when so much of the media is corporately owned, but the referendum was not the best of times, it was the worst. The pro-Brexit press behaved like a dog pack with rabies. The BBC attempted “balance” but, as usual, had no idea, beyond following two minutes of A with two minutes of B, what a true balance might mean.  Serious argument there was none. Facts were hysterically denied as soon as they poked their heads out. Boris clowned. What should have been a national debate was a national disgrace and, in the middle of it, democracy, far from flourishing, was being tortured in a cave.

Worse: “the people” were not merely denied the information they needed, they were systematically fed false information. The most notorious lie, the £350 million per week that was paid to the EU and would be given by a future British government to the NHS, was withdrawn by Farage the day after the vote. There never were 70,000 Turks ready to storm British borders. It is untrue that vast sums of money are paid annually to Europe from the British exchequer 1, that Britain ceded some of its sovereignty to Europe 2, or that Brussels demanded bananas be straight 3. There is much more like this.

We are talking about 3.8%. But we aren’t really. We are talking about that percentage halved. If 1.9% of the voters had realised they had been lied to and switched their vote from Leave to Remain, the referendum would have resulted in a dead heat. And there would be no Brexit, because the situation would have reverted to the status quo. Is it really credible that the campaign of disinformation mounted by Leave was as unsuccessful as that? How many spin doctors are begging on the streets?

All parties exaggerate in an election campaign, say the Brexiteers, smiling. This is disingenuous. It pretends that the referendum vote was like any other vote. It wasn’t. If you vote for a party at a General Election and you then don’t like what it does in office, you can hope to get rid of it in five years’ time. The referendum vote was for ever.

And, as is often remarked, the Leave voters didn’t know what they were voting for. How could they, when no-one had soberly laid the information before them, there was nothing on the ballot paper to help them, and the incessant voices in their ears were all demanding that they feel something rather than think? They were left to pick out from the chaos what most mattered to them. The NHS. Immigration. Jobs. Bankers’ bonuses. Two fingers up to the Government. Housing. Benefit cuts. Fishing quotas. Underpasses for newts. The past, which was better than the present. Globalisation. Most of this had little or nothing to do with the EU, but they had been encouraged to think it had. The cross in the box was an answer to a question that was not on the ballot.

Should all this be respected? It seems to me that the only element of it that should be respected is the honest effort people made in going to the polling station.

Brexit is going to be the great car crash of our time, and if “the people” had been given reliable information, if they had not been lied to, and if the bar for the vote had been set at a reasonable level, it would not be happening. It has to be stopped.

MPs who are Remainers but are afraid to vote that way must find the courage to act (as they are expected to) in what they believe to be the country’s interests. That does not mean timidly putting forward an amendment to soften the impact of this or that. It means rejecting the referendum result lock, stock and barrel. Nothing else will do. To attempt to “respect it but get the best possible deal” is useless: it is to sell the pass.

The vote was not honest, it was not fair, it was not democratic. It is time to stand up and say so.

 

1 “In 2015 each EU citizen would have paid an average of 278 euros to the Union, a fraction of what he or she pays in national taxes.” The Routledge Guide to the European Union, Leonard, D. and Taylor, R., Routledge 2016.

2 Theresa’s May’s White Paper admits as much.

3  See earlier blog post, Truth, 1: Ducks and quarks.

It’ll be fine

 

I hope John Le Carré’s writing about this.

It is hard to know what motivates Donald Trump, other than the desire to be King Kong on the Empire State Building. His speeches are so swaggering, the approach so scatter-gun, that the guiding sense is difficult to unscramble. But a few facts have emerged like rocks in a raging sea, and they are: (1) he favours a rapprochement with Russia; (2) he hates and fears China; (3) he dislikes and wants to break up the EU; (4) he has threatened to re-think America’s commitment to NATO. To these may be added, (5) Russia also would like to see the break-up of the EU; (6) Russia would like to see the disintegration of NATO.

In view of all these, it really makes no difference whether, as alleged, the Russians have dirt on Trump and are in a position to blackmail him, because he is not behaving like a man who needs to be blackmailed. He is behaving like a willing partner. Or, perhaps, like a man so entranced by himself that he needs only to have his self-delusion fed. However, it’s clear that he has to shoot down the dossier story (“Fake news!” “Enemies of the people!” “Pile of garbage!”) because it is simply too dangerous, and too shameful, even for a man of his brazenness. Never mind golden showers, this is alleged treason.

Nevertheless, his administration’s links to Russia are proven, and so are both Trump’s and Putin’s hostility to the European Union. That would be bad enough. Conspiracy theorists are much derided, but if this isn’t a conspiracy already it could become one at any moment. Factor in the mutual approval between Trump, Putin and the far-right nationalists trying to get elected in Europe,  and you have what looks like a fifth column being prepared in situ. For what? A conflict of ideologies, at the very least.

Add to that the rumblings about pulling out of NATO – now soft-pedalled, but for how long? – and the implication is that Trump would not fire a popgun to stop Europe fragmenting into dictatorships under, probably, Russian influence.

How would getting out of Europe help him? He is not interested in saving money for its own sake, because he is boosting the military budget by 10%. But it would play well at home, with the sort of people who hate foreign aid. And it would free his hands. Because, if you add to the above scenario one in which Trump’s hostility to China is untrammelled by ties to Europe, while Russian ambitions have been directed westwards towards a Europe that has lost its political identity, you are looking at the perfect springboard for an attack on  China.

None of the above is fanciful. The pieces are all there on the chessboard, and the opening moves have been made.

What follows is not an argument for NATO, but an argument for facing realities. Trump’s attitude to NATO is, on the face of it, both reasonable and consistent with his isolationism. He has said the European members must pay their way. All American presidents have said that since NATO was formed, but this one has found a new tone. America spends 3.6% of its GDP on NATO; of the other 27 member countries, few (the UK is one) put in even the 2% that is asked for. One might think that “Pay up or lose it” is fair enough if we all want to benefit from the presence of American bases, American bombers and missiles, American troops, American radar, American satellite and listening stations, American nuclear weapons…

Do we? There is a view of NATO which points out that it is an expansionist alliance, that its advance into former Soviet territories in breach of a promise made to Gorbachev by the Western powers in 1989 has hardened Russian attitudes to the West, and maintains that the USA uses Europe as its aircraft carrier. The internet is shy of saying how many US bases there are in Europe, but the Campaign for the Accountability of American Bases lists ten in Britain.They are ambiguous entities: accepted but not by all, and both visible and invisible. There is a vitally strategic NSA communications station at Menwith Hill, which is shrouded in secrecy in spite of the fact that its enormous white golf balls can be seen for miles over the Yorkshire Dales. Nobody talks about it, and if you ask you will be genially told that it is an RAF base. And indeed there are RAF personnel there.

The USA has the largest military in the world and aims to keep it, because it may soon not have the largest economy in the world. To imagine that America has been pumping dollars into the North Atlantic alliance as an act of altruism towards a part of the globe of which it is sentimentally fond is…well, sentimentality. Every American base outside America is a bridgehead, and every Supreme Commander of NATO (SACEUR) has been an American.

If America withdraws from NATO, what is going to happen to all those bases, all that hardware, all those weapons? It is inconceivable that any President, and particularly this President, will abandon his bridgeheads. Trump may not want to point his missiles at Russia any more, but he isn’t going to ignore Iran. In any case, it wouldn’t sit with what else is happening. New bases are being constructed or updated for cyber warfare. The “intelligence fusion centre” at Croughton, near Milton Keynes, is one; it hacked Angela Merkel’s phone.

So is America advancing, or retreating into isolation? In Asia it is advancing like a forest fire: China is encircled by newly-built bases off Korea and Japan.  So let’s suppose the most important European bases stay (no-one is going to ship Menwith Hill home, if only because it is perfectly located for radio communications; then there is the radar at Fylingdales, incorporated into the US National Missile Defence system). If the smaller ones are repatriated, that leaves a network of military installations across Europe that are essential to US strategic interests but of no benefit to the host countries. No benefit, because the link that bound America to the defence of Europe is broken.

This sort of arrangement is usually only seen in an occupied country. However, that is beside the point. The point is that every military base is a military target. If you leave the target there, but withdraw its protection…

No, no, that can’t happen.

And even if it does, we have our own independent nuclear deterrent.

Forget it. It is not independent. It can’t be used without the guidance system, which is American-controlled.

And Europe, of which Britain is geographically a part, whether Brexiters like it or not, will be in the eye of the storm.

What are Britain’s leaders doing about all this terrifying stuff? Withdrawing from the EU. Kicking and sulking, as they always have, at any mention of a combined European defence force. Protesting anxiously at the possible break-up of NATO without saying anything remotely intelligent about it. Continuing to vow friendship with the strongman in the White House, which will not save Britain because it can’t, but can and will further alienate Britain’s European allies. Continuing to stick the knife into the EU in any way possible: if divide and rule is not an option, then divide and confuse, divide and hurt, divide and perish if necessary, but always divide.

Well, it worked in the past.

It’ll be fine.