Gib

 

 

 

 

My father grew up in Gibraltar. At the beginning of World War I his father, an electrical engineer at Devonport Naval Dockyard, was sent to the Naval Dockyard at Gibraltar to work on an electrification scheme. The whole family went. I have a photograph of my father from that time, dressed up as a “Spanish fisher lad.” His smile is earnest and trustful. He believes in what he’s doing. It is a touchingly innocent scene and reeks of empire. It was 1917.

England “acquired” Gibraltar in 1704 by the normal means of invasion with the sword. It was part of the War of Spanish Succession, and the English force was part of an Anglo-Dutch army whose main objective was containing the power of France. English possession of this strategic rock jutting into the Mediterranean, eight miles from the African coast, was formalised in the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713. Spain has never been reconciled to the loss of it and in the 18th century made two attempts to re-take it by force.

In 1830 it became a British colony; Spain maintains that it still is, although Britain now classes it as an Overseas Territory. It played an important part in the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War and World War II, and is presumably vital to Britain’s intelligence and communications network in the Mediterranean region. None of this is an argument for hanging on to it at all costs if a workable arrangement with Spain can be reached, and one nearly was in 2002, when a shared sovereignty deal was agreed. It was presented to the Gibraltarian people, and they overwhelmingly rejected it. The British Government seems to have given up at this point.

Gibraltar resembles one of those mythical monsters that has the head of one animal and the body of another. Physically Spanish, politically British, a modern tax haven with a deeply conservative world outlook, and a working population that identifies as British but commutes constantly across the border with Spain. That border has to stay open for its economy to function. Spain can close it, and has done (Franco did for 16 years), or just make transit difficult, which it also does.

What would such a population want but membership of the EU with its single market and free movement of goods, people and services? And what would it fear, deep down, but government by Spain?

And thus they voted. To remain in the EU, 96% (in 2016). To remain under British sovereignty (in 2002), 98%. Only as long as Britain remained in the single market would these two be compatible.

And, thinking about this, you might realise, if you were in Downing Street, that only as long as Britain remained in the EU would Spain continue to be quiet over Gibraltar. Theresa May appears not to have done, although the Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, warned her that trouble was in the offing. She didn’t think the Rock deserved mention in her letter of farewell to the EU. The response to this omission was swift. Donald Tusk’s reply contained the following sentence:  “After the United Kingdom leaves the Union, no agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom.”

 

The news that Spain will not seek to veto any application by an independent Scotland to join the EU hit the airwaves shortly afterwards. For Theresa May, that is a near shot across the bows.  It was largely overlooked, however, in the hysterical reaction to The Sentence. The grammar was wobbly 1 but the meaning was clear: if the UK didn’t come to an agreement with Spain over Gibraltar, Gibraltar would be denied the benefits of any deal Britain had reached with the EU. Admittedly, at present it looks unlikely that a deal will be reached that anyone would want to be part of, so bargain-basement are this Government’s diplomatic skills. But, if it were, Gibraltar would be left out in the cold.

The gunboats weighed anchor at once. Admiral Lord (“something of the night about him”) Howard sailed straight for the enemy vessel and engaged it with a shot just above the waterline from his trusty ship the Maggie. He recalled the Falklands and said he was absolutely sure “our current Prime Minister” would “show the same resolve.”

Stirring stuff, eh? Get ready for another Task Force. Do you remember the dockside waving of handkerchiefs, the long voyage cloaked in secrecy (it was before GPS), the bombing of Port Stanley airfield by Vulcan bombers apparently risen from the grave, the breath-bated “I counted them all out and I counted them all back again”? Mrs T’s commanding “Rejoice at that news!” outside Downing Street on the surrender of South Georgia? It was all so exciting.

Well, Lord Howard seems to want to bring it back again. So do other people who should know better. God help us if, in Europe, they believe the nightmare vision of Britain that is evoked: thousands of grey-haired people sitting bolt upright in their recliner chairs fiddling with the remote, hoping to see a rerun of the Falklands War with another bunch of Hispanics.

Downing Street is embarrassed, and has distanced itself from its barking-mad Tory grandee. The Intelligence and Security Committee has tutted. Jack Straw, who worked on the failed 2002 agreement, has said, sensibly, that it is in the interests of Gibraltarians for a deal to be done with Spain “in the new circumstances”, which they didn’t vote for. But it is the fact that they didn’t vote for the 2002 shared sovereignty proposal that is the sticking point.

Spain is flexing muscle – newly-acquired, and that’s Britain’s doing – but is only pursuing its legitimate interests (how would we feel if the positions were reversed?), and warned Britain a long time ago that a British exit from the EU would re-awaken the Gibraltar issue. The more intractable problem is that the Gibraltarians will not accept reality and that the British Government is, again, refusing to shoulder its responsibility to take responsibility when “the will of the people” yields an outcome that is contrary to common sense and sound politics. It thinks it can make capital out of outraged “patriotism,” whipped up by politicians of yesteryear who do not take responsibility for anything either.

Seventy-five years after my father came home from Gibraltar, I heard him say something in Spanish. He had never done this before, in my hearing, although he had often mentioned “Gib.” As it happened, I was learning Spanish myself. His accent sounded perfect. I thought of my hours spent wrestling with the use of the subjunctive in a conditional clause in which the condition has not been fulfilled. I asked him why he hadn’t kept his Spanish up after he came home; he could have spoken it with his brothers. He shook his head. The other boys at his school in Plymouth had laughed at him and called him a “dago.” He was deeply sunburned; he looked Spanish. As soon as he could, he dropped everything that identified him with that foreign place; the language went first. But he hung on, devotedly, to his memories of it. Gibraltar became, in his mind, Eden.

Did it have to be like that? They needn’t have mocked him: they could have helped him settle back in. He would have rewarded them: he had things to talk about of which they knew nothing. He would have felt validated. He might not have retreated, in later years, to the entrenched positions over which my mother sighed and I fought him.

But none of this was going to happen in England in 1920.

I think now: when is this country going to grow up? When is it going to stop hating foreigners? When will it accept that the empire is gone?

Until it does, it has no future. All it has is a past, and even that past is not the past it thinks it is.

 

 

1 “Without agreement between” would be OK. “Without an agreement between” would be OK. “Without the agreement of” would be OK. “Without the agreement between” is not, because it supposes an actual agreement which does not exist. Unless it is referring to the agreement of 2002, but then it would say so.

 

 

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.

 

Subtle unsoundness

 

 

Blair’s back.

Two weeks ago I said he could not return to British politics. There you go.

It takes chutzpah. But then, he has that. We never doubted it.

There has been plenty of hostility. The pro-Brexit press was red-eyed at the weekend. Boris – Boris! – accused him of insulting the intelligence of the electorate. It is not possible to defend his record on Iraq, and although the good things he did should be remembered – the Good Friday Agreement was a singular feat of statesmanship, which Brexit threatens to shipwreck – that war shadows him still. It is not just that he led us into it on false pretences. It is also what happened when the war stopped: the looting of Iraq’s national treasures, the torture at Abu Ghraib, the turning of the occupation into a money-machine for giant corporations, the economic devastation….. The list of horrors goes on and gets lost in the sands.

Then there was what happened after that. What exactly was he doing in the Middle East as the Envoy for Something-or-Other? Making a lot of money, it was unkindly suggested. The rumours went on for longer than anyone with a skin of normal thickness could have borne. Then, one day, there was ISIS, the Iraq war’s psychopathic godchild. He had nothing to say about it, any more than he’d had anything to say about anything else.

“Never apologise, never explain.” But people don’t forget. It’s hard to forgive without an apology. It’s harder still in the absence of an acknowledgement that there might be anything to forgive.

Now back he comes. And how he has timed it! There seems to be no-one in the country capable of leading  a movement against the looming catastrophe that is Brexit. The voices raised in protest are isolated and not unanimous. MPs have allowed themselves to be castrated by a mind-numbing chant about the will of the people, the Leader of the Opposition is not a leader and the Opposition is not an opposition. Remainers’ need of an effective leader is desperate, and in desperate situations one cannot be choosy.

But, Blair?

It’s a hard one to swallow, and some people will not be able to swallow it. They have hated him for fourteen years, they would like to see him in the dock of the ICC, and they will not sup with him if they have a spoon a hundred miles long. It’s very likely they stopped voting Labour because of him, and it’s partly on that account that the Labour party is now incapable of mounting a coherent opposition to anything. This is why Blair’s intervention could be a disaster for the Europhile camp: it will split it further, and set up a perfect target for its detractors.

That is the political argument against him. The other is the moral argument. Can he be trusted? A generation decided he couldn’t. “Bliar.” “Teflon Tony.” He aroused a hatred as visceral as Thatcher did, and a moral condemnation even more profound. Can he be trusted now? Can he be forgiven? Should he be forgiven?

There has still been no apology, no real acknowledgement.

And that suggests that there is still no self-knowledge, no humility.

Is there perhaps something flawed in him? In Lord Jim, Conrad’s tale of a disgraced ship’s officer, the narrator, Marlow, brilliantly alludes to the “subtle unsoundness of the man.” This exactly catches the widespread sense of something adrift in the very building blocks of Blair’s psyche. “There was not the thickness of a sheet of paper between the right and wrong of the affair,” ruminates Jim, trying to unpick the calamitous moment of his cowardice. Tony Blair has been assuring us of just this for many years.

And yet…

The speech he gave on 17 February to Open Britain was a superb one. It said everything that needed to be said about Brexit, and said it lucidly and with passion. Such a speech has not so far been made on this tortured subject in this riven and intimidated island, and it was needed like rain in a drought.

His sincerity need not be doubted. You may say that nevertheless he is using the issue as a way of getting back into mainstream politics; to which I reply that there is no contradiction between that motive and sincerity, and do we want a saint?

I will go further and say that the last thing we want is a saint. It is just possible (for they come in all guises) that in Jeremy Corbyn we have a saint, and Jeremy Corbyn is for all practical purposes useless. We want a politician. An experienced, canny politician who believes in his cause and can argue it fiercely. Well, here is one.

But, Blair?

It would help if he apologised for Iraq. But he can’t. What he did, the almost unthinkable magnitude of it with all its still-unfolding consequences… what form of words would be adequate? It is so terrible and so enormous that only a howl would do. But that is not really the point: it is so terrible and so enormous that he cannot think about it at all. This is what all his behaviour since 2003 indicates. It exists in a locked room of his skull. He cannot go there.

Nevertheless, here is the speech, and it calls on us to “rise up.” This is an odd choice of words, conjuring memories of John Major on a soapbox croaking “Wake up!” at shoppers before a General Election. It evokes barricades, and, however awful Theresa May’s Government, this is not yet Tsarist Russia.

What do we do? If we accept the message but condemn the one who bears it, isn’t this going to set up a clamour in the head which most people cannot live with for any length of time? Is it even possible, realistically, to make the distinction? Isn’t the message contaminated by the messenger? The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the sacrament is unimpaired by the moral condition of the priest who administers it. Clearly it must say that, or chaos would ensue; and it is talking about salvation, not politics. Nevertheless it is essentially the same distinction, and is not generally cavilled at, as far as I’m aware.

But this is politics, and in politics character is all. Profumo. Thorpe. Aitken. None of them recovered politically. None of them tried to, and this is yet another mud-pie to be flung at Blair. How dare he? He should have gone into the wilderness and stayed there.

He would say he is trying to serve his country. It is probably true. Some would say that he is doing it the greatest disservice possible. That may be true, too.

It is very difficult and it may turn out to be very important. Are we being offered a chance or an illusion? Should the decision be a moral or a pragmatic one? If it’s moral, the moral choice is unclear. If it’s pragmatic, it’s worse than unclear: it’s impenetrable.

“My enemy’s enemy is my friend”, that ultimate piece of pragmatism, can turn out well or ruinously. Alliance with Stalin enabled Britain to emerge on the winning side in World War II. Alliance with a band of Spanish adventurers against the Aztecs in1519 caused the Tlascalans to deliver the whole of Mexico, Central and Southern America into the hands of Spain and Portugal.

Yet Blair is surely right in that only a rising-up of some kind will stem our lemming-rush to the edge. And, once a certain amount of rising-up has taken place, the resemblance to Tsarist Russia is likely to increase exponentially.

John Major won that election.

 

 

Truth: 1. Ducks and quarks

 

 

 

Here are two versions of the same story.

A king goes down to the seashore with his courtiers to demonstrate that he is so powerful he can hold back the tide. He is unsuccessful and his feet get wet.

The same king, sick to death of the flattery of courtiers who tell him he can do anything, drags them down to the beach to demonstrate what happens when he tries to hold back the tide. His feet get wet.

Which do you find more convincing? Yes, I know you’ve heard the first version all your life, but which do you believe now? Which occurs more frequently: a king so stupid that he really believes he can rule the forces of nature, or a bunch of  sycophantic courtiers who don’t expect their boss to set a trap for them?

I would think the second. It’s also worth considering who witnessed this embarrassing scene. Probably only the courtiers. What would they say?

Lastly, what else do we know about Canute? Quite a lot, it turns out. Wiki is full of information. He was a wise king, although with a cruel streak; he was a Viking; he was a lawgiver.

No, I can’t see him on the seashore telling the waves to go back. I can see him making a fool of his courtiers, though.

King Canute (Cnut) died in 1035 and you may say that it doesn’t matter what he did. However, what it tells us about the stories we listen to and the way we listen to them does matter. We like the first Canute story more than the second because the second is boring. We know all about courtiers who will say anything to keep their places. But the first story: ah, that’s a story! The hollow pomp, the complacent monarch on whose face the smile is slowly fading… we love it, we feel vindicated, we have vague memories of the Emperor’s new clothes.

So why ask questions?

The French have a word for a story that becomes rooted in popular belief but is false. They call it a canard. Canard means “duck”. Many ducks are harmless. The belief that the Great Wall of China can be seen from outer space is a duck. So are the beliefs that Marie Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake”, that ostriches stick their heads in the sand, and that Polish cavalry charged German tanks with sabres in 1939.

Oh, what a pity.

Yes, well, there you are.

Some ducks are not so harmless. They haven’t just grown up in popular belief, they have been planted there. Of these, many are half-true, half-fantasy, like the one about bananas. The EU – yes, we are in modern times – would not accept the natural shape of the banana. They wanted bananas to be straight, so they could be more easily packed. Or perhaps it was tomatoes. Tomatoes had to be square. Regulations had been issued about the compulsory shape of bananas, or tomatoes, and bananas, or tomatoes, found to be non-compliant would be punished.

It’s very like the Canute story, if you look at it. In one, the target is a stupid and arrogant monarch who thinks he can defy nature; in the other, it is a stupid and arrogant bureaucracy that thinks it can defy nature. In both, the story is deeply attractive to ordinary folk on the emotional and political levels. However, the banana story is an exaggeration ad absurdum of a real EU directive that said bananas should be “free from abnormal curvature.”

Simple: just remove one word.

People believed it.

There is no borderline between ducks and propaganda: there is a large overlap. Propaganda ducks are usually quacking all over the place when a war is about to break out. A very successful one was hatched just before the first Iraq war, claiming that Kuwaiti babies had been thrown out of incubators by Iraqi troops. It worked because it was dramatic, it transfixed every mother in the land, and it was pictorial. We could see it happening. The more clearly we can see something, the better it works. Somalis in luxury housing, Turks massing on the borders of Europe: easily visualised. Racism thrives on these images. Propaganda must strive not to be abstract unless it already has a firm basis in belief, in which case it will count as “further information.” Once it is recognised as propaganda, it’s dead. Nobody accepts propaganda. “Do they think we’re stupid?” No, they think we’re easily fooled.

Why does this stuff get by?

Because it appeals to our prejudices, including those we don’t like to acknowledge we have. Even better if it seems to explain something we didn’t understand. And, usually, it is cleverly presented (by whom and why? this is crucial, but most people don’t have the resources to investigate it). Finally, the stories are good stories, and we are story-hungry animals.

“Truth may perhaps come to the price of a pearl, that showeth best by day, but it will not rise to the price of a diamond or carbuncle [ruby], that showeth best in varied lights,” wrote Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626). “A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure.”

Sir Francis knew what he was talking about. As a lawyer, he advised Elizabeth I’s favourite, the Earl of Essex, but turned counsel for the prosecution when Essex fell from favour. As Lord Chancellor under James I, he amassed a fortune. He was up to his neck in truth and lies. His essay Of Truth betrays its age only in the beauty of its language: he could be writing about today.

“It is not only the difficulty and labour that men take in finding out of truth, nor again that, when it is found, it imposeth upon men’s thoughts, that doth bring lies in favour; but a natural, though corrupt, love of the lie itself.”

There is so much in that paragraph. It’s hard to get at truth, he says. It is. It wasn’t difficult to get under the shell of the Canute story, using basic tools, but most propaganda is constructed by experts. We don’t have the range of knowledge, the expertise, perhaps the education, the will to question authority; we don’t have the time. All we have is a Swiss Army knife and our lunch hour. And he is quite right that the truth “imposeth upon men’s thoughts.” Once you’ve got it, it puts an obligation on you. Is that welcome?

As for “the natural, though corrupt, love of the lie itself”… Anyone for Trump?

We are all capable of lying but, in Trump, surely we see the man with a natural love of the lie itself. (He is also the only man I can think of who might sit in a chair and try to turn back the tide.) Trump’s lies are ridiculous and childish; this is inevitable, because they arise out of a bruised ego. He does not seem to be in control of them: they spill from his mouth. The latest and not the least risible, as I write, is that his chaotic administration is “running like a well-tuned machine.” When we have stopped laughing, we are again appalled, because this supremely powerful man seems to have not the slightest respect for the truth. Yet he does respect it – he is afraid of it – because he denies that his lies are lies. They are “alternative facts.”

Now, there’s a phrase. Whoever thought of it should be instantly promoted to whatever high office of state is currently vacant, probably Vice-President by now. It’s clever, with its conjuring of alternative universes and its invocation of quantum mechanics, relativity and unreliable narrators.  Just for a moment, it stops us in our tracks. For, after all, what is a fact? Isn’t it as unstable as… well, anything else, a quark, say? And don’t we all know that if a quarrel breaks out over dinner and there are four people sitting around the table, there will be four versions of that quarrel next day? And which is the true one?

The inference is that there is no true one.

We protest, we see through it, and yet somehow, in the moment that it stopped us, it has disempowered us. There is just enough truth in it, important truth, un-dismissable. And it’s all around, this destabilising discourse. Relativism. Post-Truth. Anything is as true as anything else. To put it another way, the authority to say what is true has gone.

But this is not true.

Please consider that last statement for a moment. You may think you don’t agree with it, but I assume you understood it.

If you understood it, you agree with it.

We cannot manage without the concept of truth and a word for it. In the paragraph starting “We protest,” above, I used the word “truth” twice in a sentence, with its normal meaning, because I had no choice. I doubt if you even noticed.

That means that the concept of truth is still valid currency. And, since truth has a unique claim on our belief (or what are our criteria for belief?), it means that the truth is still the only valid currency.

A philosopher would not accept this. I have not observed the right procedures or filled in the right forms. I don’t care. They have been talking about truth for two and a half thousand years and are still arguing. This is urgent.

The boot has to be put into this quantum-babble, because it may be the science of the future and it may be great fun in a film, but in everyday life it is nothing but destructive. We cannot do anything, on the macro level, with that perception of the cosmos. Time as we experience it may not exist, and if it doesn’t, everything is predetermined, including these words, but we cannot live as if it were. Try it. In any given court case, it may be impossible to decide what really happened, but if that principle is followed there is no law. Try that. Try engaging in any argument with another person without appealing, very quickly, to the idea of an objective reality or truth which both of you recognise. Then come back and tell me how far you got.

This is a strange situation, because it means that we at the same time accept that the ground we stand on is shifting sand, and build everything on it. It’s all illusion, say Buddhists, and they are surely right; but the illusion, I think they would also say, has to be respected. It’s the reality we are given, and if you reject the theological assumption that seems implicit in that statement, you must agree that it is the reality given us by our senses. We cannot go beyond it. That is, we cannot go beyond it and live in the realm we get to.

Our reality, in other words, is us.

This accounts, I think, for the religious aura which tends to cling to truth. At bottom, we have a vague but fierce intuition that if the truth goes, everything goes. The gentle and rational Houyhnhnms in Gulliver’s Travels have no word for lying because they do not understand it. It is “saying the thing which is not.” Who would want to do that? It is sullying the spring from which everyone drinks.

But if it is the spring from which everyone drinks, then… what is it? For we are not talking literally about water.

I cannot answer this. Of course I can’t. And Sir Francis, although he starts his essay with the question, doesn’t answer it, either. However, he points in a certain direction, and the direction has a deep, familiar tug.

Truth “showeth best by day,” he says.  It is “a hill not to be commanded, and where the air is always clear and serene.”

 

Someone should tell her

 

No-one should have believed her for a moment. When did she ever mean anything she sounded as if she meant? If she means something, she doesn’t say it. When she says something, it’s what she wants you to think she means.

She aims off, as a hunter does. Don’t look where the gun is pointing, look where it hits. That was the target.

Labour jubilation on Tuesday that the castle they had been besieging had apparently fallen was followed after a few moments by stunned silence when it was realised that no such thing had happened. Then there were howls – of rage, presumably, since they are used to a lot of things in the Chamber but they are not used to being made fools of.

Essentially, the Government announcement was a two-sentence statement of which the first part said, “MPs will be given a vote on the terms of the Brexit deal before it is signed,” and the second part said, “If you don’t like the terms you can jump off a cliff.”

This sort of thing is normally called an ultimatum.

What takes some explaining is that not all the Opposition was outraged. Before the day was out, people who should have known better were calling this insolent piece of sleight-of-hand a “concession.” That of course is exactly how the Government presented it, but never can a wolf have looked so unconvincing in its fleece.

No matter: the people who needed to be convinced were convinced. Mrs May feared a revolt on her back benches before the Article 50 vote. This duplicitous announcement, a smile followed by a bite, was intended to buy the rebels off. It worked: the vote went through by a large majority. Why it worked is a mystery, since it is clear that once you add the second sentence, the first is meaningless. A vote is not a real vote, as a choice is not a real choice, if the alternative proposed is unacceptable. The alternative, in case you missed it, really is a cliff. It’s nothing, nada, it’s the outer darkness, in which faintly glimmers the vast holding net of the WTO trade rules.

The WTO is probably an excellent organisation which is doing its best for the peoples of the world. A set of international trade rules is better than piracy, dumping, unfair competition and economic warfare. Yes, I know that we have these anyway, but there would be more of them. And it is true that the WTO strives to bring down tariffs and simplify non-tariff barriers, but it has not got there yet and the latest round of negotiations, Doha, having been stuck for years like a boot in cement, has now been abandoned.

It was partly the complexity of international trade relations that led to the creation of the EU. Inside the single market there is a single set of rules. Outside it, there is the jungle. Norway, if it wants to export to the EU, must supply a mass of paperwork proving either that its products are made inside the European Economic Area, or that they comply with up to 500 different rules specific to whatever product it happens to be.

Well, we’d better not export to the EU, then. What’s that? It’s 44 per cent of our export market and it’s on the doorstep?

There’s Trump.

Why are we doing this at all?

Let’s set aside, for the moment, the unpleasant combination of bullying and dishonesty that characterises this Government, and ask why MPs so tamely put up with it. Someone should tell Theresa May to be careful. There are precedents concerning arrogance. Blair lost his reputation and cannot return to British politics. Charles I lost his head. However, Nemesis travels slowly, and meanwhile the present House of Commons does not seem capable of setting a mousetrap, let alone standing up to an overweening Prime Minister.

Many reasons for this spinelessness are adduced. They include the fact that pro- and anti- Europe sentiment cuts across all parties, which confuses everyone; that the only party aside from the SNP  that has a clearly-articulated anti-Brexit policy is the Lib Dems, who are few in number and alienated multitudes of potential voters over tuition fees; and that Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition cannot, apparently, make up its mind whom or what to be loyal to.

That’s the first clutch of reasons. Here come another couple. Yes, a majority of Labour MPs would oppose Brexit in the House if they were free to follow their consciences, but they are not because they represent constituencies that voted Leave. Or because (Diane Abbott, where are you? come out, come out, it’s quiet now) they support a party leader who, while not actually sure what he thinks about Europe, has imposed a three-line whip as if he were.

And, finally, the big one. This cannot be dealt with adequately here because it demands a post to itself, but it underlies everything and is the one nobody can get beyond. There was a referendum. The Government is implementing “the will of the people”, so there is no point in Parliament’s being consulted at all. This is the bludgeon that lurks, ultimately, behind the Government’s insulting behaviour towards MPs and their powerlessness to respond.

Quite a package, isn’t it? No wonder, poor things, they just have to lie down and take it.

Does something occur to you? Too many reasons?

Here is an answering shot from the woods. The real reason why most MPs who know that Brexit is a disaster do not vote against it is that they are afraid of losing their seats. This is one of the problems with democracy and nobody has solved it. The argument about representation is sound as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. Nor does the universal baa-ing about the will of the people.

Lastly, I could be wrong about Nemesis. Sometimes I think I hear a distant noise: is it a clattering of wheels? I heard it on Tuesday when John Bercow declared that he would not, as Speaker, invite President Trump to speak in Westminster Hall. The right piled in to condemn him for violating the neutrality of the Chair, but it was too late. A spark had flared in the place where it is most needed. It wasn’t the first: at the weekend, the streets had blazed up like a firework.

Inadvertently, Theresa May has roused a sleeping dragon. Sleeping? It was thought to be dead, its memorials a show of flags at football matches, its name a prisoner of the far right and the fondly-deluded.

It is not dead, it is not a delusion, and it is not anyone’s prisoner, least of all this Government’s.

See, here it comes, lumbering a bit and looking surprised, but steady on its feet, and that is real fire.

Be careful, Theresa.

 

 

Sphinx

 

Theresa May is a puzzle. For a start, what does she want?

Not “the best possible deal for the British people.” We already have the best deal we are ever going to get. If she thinks she can blackmail, schmooze or bully a deal that is almost as good out of 27 EU member states which have a vested interest in denying it to her, she’s a fool. Which does not seem to be the case.

While talking of the “best possible deal”, she is going for a brutalist one. Out of the single market, which means “no” to free movement of peoples among other things. Goodbye fruit pickers, hello low-wage labour. Farewell, already, the advance cohorts of several banks.

Is she reckless? Hardly. Even recklessness needs to be coherent. In any case, observe the deliberate calm, the mantle of unflinching resolution, the watchful eyes (though there is more to be said about the eyes). Reflect on her choice of subject at university: Geography. Does it stir the pulse? Yet the course is reckless.

Could she be playing a deep game? At the beginning of this sorry saga, there was a theory afloat that she had set Davis, Fox and Johnson up to fail. If she had, that would explain the hard Brexit. The fact that Boris has not yet imploded, and that the wheels have not yet come off the chariot although it is rocking alarmingly, does not prove this hope groundless. However, over the months it has ceased to convince. The reason for this is rooted in May’s character. It would take courage and a difficult kind of integrity, qualities appropriate to a spy working under cover, to carry through what May is doing if she secretly wants Brexit to fail. And the suspicion is that she simply isn’t up to it.

But, undeniably, she is working like Boxer in Animal Farm. “I will fly harder,” one imagines her saying over her cocoa. The first thing she did after becoming Prime Minister was go to Edinburgh to see Nicola Sturgeon. This was sensible enough, given the distinct possibility that if Britain left the EU, Scotland might leave Britain. But then came Berlin, Paris, The Hague, Rome, Belfast, Dublin, Warsaw, Washington, Ankara, Malta… she is in ceaseless motion like a hamster on a wheel. Such to-ing and fro-ing is reminiscent of Kissinger in the 1970s. But Kissinger was America’s fixer-in-chief and there was a nuclear war to prevent. There may once again be a nuclear war to prevent, but May’s shuttling between European capitals will not prevent it. And she is the Prime Minister. Frankly, it’s starting to look undignified. It’s a bit embarrassing. Can’t Boris do some of it? He must be good for something.

Why do people work as if under the whip? Some are, of course. Of those who aren’t, it may be they have a remorseless work ethic. It seems likely Theresa May has. After all, she is a Vicar’s daughter and may be expected to have a strong sense of duty. Yet somehow, on inspection, this reason doesn’t fit quite as well as one thought it would. It slips sideways, like the wrong saddle on a horse. Duty is a straightforward thing. There is a transparency to it. Through the effort, one can see the goal.

There is no transparency in Theresa May. Since taking office as Prime Minister, she has perfected opacity. She started by iterating, and reiterating, a tautology which, although widely mocked, was successful in that it reduced thought to baffled rage: “Brexit means Brexit.” She further announced that she would give no “running commentary” on Britain’s talks with the EU, thus simultaneously refusing legitimate requests for information and insulting her questioners. She honed the habit of dropping what sounded like hints of policy and retracting them immediately afterwards. She used plain language (to masterly effect, sometimes), but behind the language there was nothing. She intended to say nothing. Everything she said, in effect, was a riddle.

She is still speaking in riddles. She is still saying that she intends to deliver to the British people something which she knows is not on offer and working inhumanly hard to achieve it. Meanwhile, she is playing dice with the economy and Britain’s future, and throwing herself figuratively and almost literally into the arms of the last man on the planet who should be allowed to have any influence over her country.

And she knows that, too. Look at her body-language as she walks with Donald Trump down the White House steps, her hand in his hand. Her face is a mask, her body is silently screaming.

Why is she doing this?

Theresa May is sane and stone-cold sober. But look at the face again. Refusal to communicate has turned it sphinx-like. Occasionally there is a flash of panic in the eyes.

The sphinx asked a riddle. It said nothing else. It was always the same riddle, and not particularly interesting, but no-one could answer it. Until someone answered it, the sphinx was clearly going to go on doing what it was doing, which was terrorise Thebes. The riddle was eventually answered by Oedipus.

There’s another way of telling this story. It wasn’t that the sphinx refused to communicate. It wanted very badly to communicate but it could only ask its riddle. Oedipus released it.

What is imprisoning Theresa May? For something is. It feels as if she is waiting for someone to break open her silence. Waiting for someone to stop her destroying Thebes – because she, now, cannot stop.

You find this too poetic? She is, after all, a woman made of prose.

But it’s either that, or that she will do anything, anything at all, to stay in power.

Take your pick.

 

 

 

 

Don’t worry, here comes Trump

 

We should be grateful to Donald Trump.

At a stroke, he has made clear what Brexit really means. Short-cutting through the maze of tariff barriers, customs unions and WTO rules, ignoring the confusion diligently fostered on this side of the pond as to whether access to the single market and being in the single market are the same thing, avoiding the various nauseating fudges offered up by Theresa May, he rips aside the curtain and reveals… himself.

Brexit means Donald Trump.

And here, suddenly, we are on ground that feels a lot firmer: any heaving that is experienced will be located in your stomach, not the landscape. For we know what Donald Trump means. He has told us. He told us every time he encouraged his supporters to chant “Jail the Bitch!” at rallies. He told us when he told an acquaintance that if you were a celebrity you could do what you liked with women. He told us when he sneered at the mother of a Muslim American soldier killed in Iraq. He did not need also to say that he was going to build a wall to keep out Mexicans and pass a law to keep out Muslims, that he liked nukes and wanted to break up Europe and would put America first: he had already told us who  he was.

Well, that’s who he is. And he is President of the United States.

This poses an agonising problem for millions of Americans and a very worrying problem for the rest of the world. (If you doubt this, listen to Atom Man, an interview with former Presidential advisor William Perry in Analysis, BBC Radio 4, January 30th.) However, it poses a particular and particularly acute problem for us British. These islands have voted, narrowly (the result of the vote is invoked ad nauseam, the narrowness of the margin is never mentioned), to leave the EU.  The EU accounts for nearly 50 per cent of our exports; we account for 16 per cent of its. For 40 years it has funded our cash-strapped farmers, our needy infrastructure, our top-flight scientific research, and poured money into community centres, sports halls, study abroad for British students and cultural institutions which the state neglects. In its embrace, the City has grown to be one of the financial hubs of the world and London has put on the glitter. The EU has done much more, including prevent further war between the European powers, but never mind that. It’s the money that matters, isn’t it?

It’s the money that matters, and we have turned our backs on it. A cold wind is blowing through Theresa May’s government; it is noticeable in the occasional shakiness of the Prime Minister’s tone. Somebody has just taken the roof off and kicked the doors and windows in. What are we going to do?

But don’t worry, here comes Trump.

It has always been obvious that a Britain leaving the EU would have to seek friends elsewhere and seek them fast. It has also been obvious that the prime candidate would be the USA. The Commonwealth is too distant, too disparate, too scattered, too – frankly – eccentric in a rather British way. What wasn’t obvious was that by the time we needed a hand to hold, that hand would be the unappetising hand of a loose-mouthed, pussy-groping, racist, narcissistic bigot with less than a child’s grasp of foreign policy.

There are times to be ashamed to be British. One was Munich. Munich feels uncomfortably close now, because it was a betrayal of a European nation towards which we should have felt goodwill. This, too, this frenzied rush to a Brexit that will hurt everyone involved and that is against reason, is a betrayal. It betrays comradeship and community, and it betrays them, as did Munich, into the mouths of wolves.

Munich was redeemed. In blood, but by then nothing else would have served.

Perhaps it is not too late. Trump is showing us, in his lurid fashion, the path we must not take. Perhaps it is not too late.