Thursday 31 January 2019

Sticking to principles

Theresa May: You should come and talk to me about Brexit.
Jeremy Corbyn: Not until you rule out no deal.
TM: I can’t and won’t rule out no deal.  The only way to rule out no deal is to support my deal.  You should come and talk to me about Brexit.
JC: Not until you rule out no deal.
TM: I can’t and won’t rule out no deal.  The only way to rule out no deal is to support my deal.  You should come and talk to me about Brexit.
JC: Not until you rule out no deal.
TM: I can’t and won’t rule out no deal.  The only way to rule out no deal is to support my deal.  You should come and talk to me about Brexit.
JC: Not until you rule out no deal.
TM: I can’t and won’t rule out no deal.  The only way to rule out no deal is to support my deal.  You should come and talk to me about Brexit.
House of Commons:  We don’t like no deal.
TM: That’s non-binding and changes nothing.  I can’t and won’t rule out no deal.  The only way to rule out no deal is to support my deal.  You should come and talk to me about Brexit.
JC: Oh, alright then.

Wednesday 30 January 2019

When winning and losing look the same

The Prime Minster won a victory, of sorts, yesterday in the House of Commons, although there were probably few people as surprised as her.  It’s a curious sort of victory though which is achieved by voting against her own proposal, and demanding that her own supporters do likewise in order to support instead a position that she herself said was “impossible” just a few weeks ago, and which, apparently, the EU’s leaders had told her just hours before she encouraged MPs to vote for it was not going to be on the table.  Still, believing six impossible things before Brexit is the new norm in the Tory Party.  When she previously said that there was “no alternative” to her deal, it now seems that what she meant to say was that there was “no alternative other than the undefined one that is now the new one to which there is no alternative”.
She’s trapped in a parallel universe entirely of her own manufacture where every escape route back to normality is blocked by the inherent contradictions of her own party, reinforced by the results of her consistent inconsistency and refusal to accept fact.  She has given herself up as a hostage to a gang of zealots for the sole reason that her biggest red line is that she is determined to do the one thing that most of those zealots don’t actually give a damn about anyway, namely to control immigration from the EU, in the apparent belief that all those who voted for Brexit to stop immigration were really saying that they wanted more Indians instead of Poles. Some people feel almost sorry for her – that’s entirely misplaced.  The people I feel sorry for are the negotiators of the EU who are vainly trying to comprehend the apparent determination of the leaders of a soon-to-be ex-member to press the self-destruction button. 
Yet still the zealots persist with the fantasy that the EU will “blink and offer us better terms”, roll over, and give the UK what it wants despite the fact that that would mean abandoning the interests of a member state in favour of a non-member and risking the integrity of the single market which the UK itself did so much to help them create. 
There is a yawning gap in ideology and world view between the UK and the EU, and the hall-mark of any successful negotiation – recognising what the other side wants – has been completely absent from the UK’s approach from the outset.  The world view driving the extreme Brexiteers is based on competition and the notion that size and power determine outcomes and that the weak and small should be bulldozed aside in pursuit of that.  It’s compounded, of course, by a self-estimate of the size and power of the UK in the modern world which owes more to the 18th Century than the 21st; but they really can’t understand why the EU isn’t playing by the same rules.  From this perspective, Ireland is peripheral, just a bit of collateral damage as the big boys carve up the spoils.  The founding principle of the EU, on the other hand, was economic integration, driven by a determination that Europe – and most especially, France and Germany – could never tear the continent apart in another war if their industries were sufficiently interdependent.  The Single Market may well have been a UK-inspired idea, but it fits perfectly with that perspective.  And the idea that European states stand or fall together is an underlying driver of the determination to protect Ireland from the folly of its nearest neighbour.
There is no meeting of minds between these perspectives, although I suspect that the EU understand the UK perspective very well – probably better than the current UK government does.  The unicorn analogy to Brexit has been overdone – including by me – but the Independent came out with another interesting analogy yesterday, asking us to “imagine for a moment that the House of Commons passed a bill to repeal the laws of gravity, and ordered the prime minister to go away and implement it”.  In some ways it’s no sillier than what the House of Commons actually did yesterday, but the idea that they can do such a thing highlights the effect of a belief that sovereignty is absolute and indivisible and vested by God in one place.  This is the fiction at the heart of the UK’s unwritten constitution; Brexit has brought home to some of us the scale of the problems posed by a constitution founded on a fiction. Unfortunately, the opposition party in Westminster is as wedded to the fiction as the governing party, severely limiting the opportunity for reform whilst we remain hitched to Westminster.

Tuesday 29 January 2019


Yesterday, I referred to the version of Catch 22 in which the Prime Minister has managed to trap herself: she needs to persuade the EU27 that she’s mad enough to pursue a ‘no-deal’ Brexit, whilst not being quite so mad that it’s pointless trying to negotiate with her.  Just a very small box of frogs, then.  As Yossarian neatly put it, "That's some catch, that Catch-22". 
Meanwhile, in what looks like a determined attempt to convince the EU27 that she is incapable of negotiating in good faith, she is now demanding that Tory MPs vote for an amendment which would scrap part of the agreement that she herself has made with the EU, in the apparent belief that, if she only loses it by a very small majority, the EU will change its mind and reopen the Withdrawal Agreement for further negotiation.  Not only is she effectively asking the House of Commons to approve a different deal to the one she has agreed, but she is demanding that if the House of Commons only narrowly refuses to, then the EU will be obliged to accede to her request.  Oh, and for good measure, the request is for the now infamous backstop to be replaced by an alternative which is completely undefined because neither she nor the proposers of the amendment have the faintest idea what they’re actually asking for.
Once again, it’s a display of Anglo-British not-nationalism-at-all at its very worst, with the underlying assumption that the rest of Europe must come up with a magic solution which meets the UK’s demands, and putting the responsibility to define how it’s done on someone else.  Everything these not-nationalists-at-all say seems driven by that not-nationalist-at-all exceptionalism which assumes that the rest of the world is there to do as they say.  Thus, the problem caused by the border which the Anglo-British drew across Ireland, and the Good Friday agreement which they signed guaranteeing that that border became almost invisible – these are all someone else’s problems, not theirs.
If Ireland doesn’t like the situation, well, then the Irish should know their place – or even, in line with the crass question posed by John Humphrys, they should follow the UK out of the EU and re-join the UK.  Because joining the most successful union in the history (or not!) of humanity is the best route forward for an independent state.  Obviously.  This belief in the superiority of all things British, and the idea that smaller and weaker nations should bow down before the UK’s power, might be a throwback to another age but it is a major part of the driving force behind Brexit.  And only its adherents can seriously argue that it isn’t nationalistic.
Those independentistas who believe that being cast adrift in a UK dominated by this mindset offers any sort of opportunity for Wales are almost as delusional as the Prime Minister.

Monday 28 January 2019

The madness of Queen Theresa

Insofar as there is a discernible strategy behind the Prime Minister’s continuing refusal to rule out a ‘no-deal’ Brexit, it seems to be aimed at (a) convincing opponents of Brexit that her deal is better than the alternative, and (b) convincing the EU27 that she’s really, really serious about this, in the hope that they will cave in and throw the Irish (north and south) under a bus to give her what her own party’s extremists want.
The first problem with this, to date, has been that few people believe that she is really mad enough to do it.  Apart from a few swivel-eyed ideologues in her own party no-one seriously believes that no deal will be anything other than a disaster in the short to medium term, which means that both opponents of Brexit and the EU27 have had considerable difficulty in taking her seriously.  It hasn’t helped that there is clearly no parliamentary majority for taking such a step – and probably no majority in her cabinet.   Hiring a ferry company with no ships didn’t exactly help her credibility either.
I have a feeling, though, that perceptions might be changing.  A government prepared to waste billions of pounds on preparations for something which they claim they’re trying to avoid is not a government in control of its senses.  And when we learn that the military are stockpiling supplies on military bases at home and abroad and that the government is actively considering imposing martial law, it might be time to consider the possibility that she really is that mad, and it isn’t just a pretence.
That brings us, though, to the second problem with her ‘strategy’.  Supposing, just for a moment, that she succeeds in convincing everyone that she is mad enough to do it, why exactly would that make the EU27 decide to get rid of the backstop?  When dealing with someone prepared to renege on the UK’s treaty obligations, unilaterally break any agreement made, and lead her country into complete and utter chaos, surely the most rational response is not ‘let’s just give her what she wants’, but ‘there’s no point whatsoever in negotiating with someone like that’?

Thursday 24 January 2019

Protecting 'democracy'

I’ve noted before that one outcome of the Brexit process has been the way in which those claiming that the EU is ‘undemocratic’ have successfully, if entirely unintentionally, exposed the extent to which the UK’s democracy is far from being as complete as they would have us believe.  Yesterday saw another example.  An elected MP (in this case the member for the eighteenth century) has urged the Prime Minister (who we do not elect) to tell the monarch (who we do not elect) to suspend the House of Commons (which we do elect) in order to stop those who we do elect from over-ruling those who we do not.   And this, apparently, is to ‘protect democracy’.  And he did it – as he does everything – with a straight face.

Wednesday 23 January 2019

Subject to interpretation

One of the consequences of the UK’s membership of the EU over the past 40 years has been the extent to which English has become the lingua franca of all the EU institutions.  Although it’s a second language for most of the players, its international status (which actually, of course, owes more to the US than the UK) means that it is a popular and widespread second language across Europe, and indeed the rest of the world.  If the UK does eventually leave the EU, it will only be an official language in two smallish member states (Ireland and Malta), but notwithstanding that I suspect that English will continue to be widely used in the EU institutions.
There is a problem though for those who speak any language as a second language – they can all too easily interpret the words too literally.  Take this story, for example, reporting that EU diplomats were left in disbelief when, in phone calls to EU capitals after her crushing defeat in the Commons, and her widely-publicised promise to seek out alternatives, all the PM did was repeat her previous demands.  How can second language speakers of English be expected to know that sometimes words mean - and are intended to mean - the exact opposite of what they appear to mean?

Tuesday 22 January 2019

Equal members of the union?

One former Secretary of State for Wales has been sharing his pessimism about the future of his party this week.  Whilst I might share his view that his party could be about to tear itself apart, I see that more as a cause for rejoicing than pessimism.  Still, each to his own.
In the detail of his comments he made the observation that “When you go outside London as I was at the weekend you hear more and more people in the street saying we just need to leave without a deal.  I think we're in quite dangerous territory as a country where certainly a chunk of my party, a wing of my party is fomenting that kind of opinion. It's deeply, deeply irresponsible.” On that, I certainly do agree with him (although I wonder what has become of him that ‘going outside London’ seems to be exceptional).  And not just because of the potential economic consequences; the underlying attitude which allows people to hold such a view is deeply concerning.
It argues, in effect, that we can and should simply disregard the concerns of the Irish, on both sides of the border which the UK imposed on the island.  Indeed, May’s persistence in going back to Brussels to demand change to the backstop arrangements is part and parcel of the same attitude.  Egged on by Johnson, Rees-Mogg et al, she is effectively demanding that the EU sacrifice the interests of one member state in order to give a better deal to a non-member.  It shouldn’t surprise us; we already know that at least one senior Tory has openly been saying that “The Irish really should know their place”; and we know only too well that the UK government would willingly sacrifice the interests of Wales or Scotland (and the outlying regions of England too, come to that) in order to serve what they see as the ‘greater good’ but which we might choose to call ‘the south-east’.
I can understand how and why Anglo-British not-nationalists-at-all have become conditioned into such an attitude (although it’s rather more worrying that so many ordinary people are following them so readily).  They inhabit a world in which it is entirely natural that the biggest and richest get what they want and the interests of the smaller and poorer are brushed aside.  That is the way they would instinctively treat the outlying parts of their own ‘precious union’, and they really can’t understand why the EU is not simply putting Ireland in its place and doing the deal that the bigger countries want.  They don’t understand, in short, why the European Union doesn’t work in the same way as the British Union does. 
From the point of view of an independentista, however, the situation highlights, very starkly, the difference between the two unions.  A union based on historic incorporation and expansion is not the same as a union based on voluntary association by independent member states.  The latter, of necessity, will strive to protect and promote the interests of all its members when dealing with ‘third parties’ which is what the UK decided to become.  It could not be otherwise; if the interests of one of the smaller member states were to be sacrificed, the other small members states could no longer have faith in the whole and the enterprise would be endangered.  Just because the word ‘union’ is used in both contexts doesn’t make them the same thing at all.

Monday 21 January 2019

An election wouldn't get May off the hook

There has been a degree of speculation about Theresa May calling a snap election, with reports that some ministers have warned their local activists to be ready.  The Prime Minister has ruled it out and has already promised her party that she will not lead them into the next General Election, but given her record, neither of those are reasons to assume that she won’t do it.
Depending on the extent to which seats actually change hands, an election could certainly change the parliamentary arithmetic, but whether it unblocks the Brexit process is another question entirely.  It would force Labour to clarify its position in its manifesto, and a lot of questions have, rightly, been asked about what Labour’s manifesto would say about Brexit – whenever the next election comes.  Rather unfairly, considerably less attention has been given to the Conservative manifesto.  At one level, this is understandable: the PM writes the manifesto, and we can probably assume that it will refer to the implementation of her deal. 
But to what extent would any such manifesto actually bind the MPs elected on it?  Even if she were to win a working majority in such an election (itself very much open to doubt) is she really stupid enough to assume that Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson, Anna Soubry and Dominic Grieve would all suddenly feel themselves bound to support her deal?  An election might well make Labour’s position clearer, but it will do little or nothing to resolve the internal conflicts within the Tory party.  Those conflicts have driven the Brexit mess from the outset; they will continue to do so even if, by some strange chance, the PM were to win a majority of seats in a snap election.  
As far as Brexit and the Conservative Party are concerned, an election would resolve nothing.  It would, though, kick the can a bit further down the road and therefore meet the only discernible political objective which the Prime Minister has.

Friday 18 January 2019

The right to vote for a fantasy?

There was a report yesterday that the Electoral Commission is drawing up contingency plans for a second referendum on Brexit.  It’s a sensible thing for them to be doing, albeit that it’s potentially another example of the amount of time and money being wasted on Brexit which could be used more productively elsewhere.  At the moment, I’m not entirely convinced that there will be a second referendum – the Prime Minister hasn’t ruled it out enough times yet.  However, once she has ruled it out a sufficient number of times for us to be certain that it’s going to happen, attention will turn to the question to be asked.  
This is far from being as straightforward as many are assuming; whatever the chosen question, there will be those who will cry foul.  According to Craig Murray, Downing Street is working on a plan to use the alternative vote system, asking electors to rank three options in order of preference (ignoring any potential options other than no deal, no Brexit, or May’s deal).  Once the least popular (probably no deal) is eliminated, the votes of those supporting it would be allocated to the remaining two options.  Whilst holding such a referendum might look like a change of plan by May, it turns out that it’s just another way of getting her own way, the assumption behind it being that there would still be a leave majority which would end up coalescing around her proposal.  And if she’s got it wrong, and there is no longer a leave majority and Remain win the day, it lets her off the hook for cancelling Brexit since she can argue that she gave people the chance to support two alternative types of Brexit.
But the possibility that opinions have changed isn’t the only potential flaw in this putative plan.  It depends on ‘no deal’ remaining on the table despite the obvious parliamentary opposition to it.  That goes some way towards explaining her refusal to even countenance taking the option off the table to enable productive discussion with opposition politicians.  Yesterday, she went so far as to declare that it is ‘impossible’ to remove the option; a statement which did nothing to convince people on her own side, such as former Minister Nick Boles who is bringing forward a Bill to do precisely that.  Theresa May telling lies in pursuit of her own aims?  Surely not.
There is another point to bear in mind as well.  The results of referendums aren’t always easily predictable.  As Cameron found out, calling a referendum between the obvious ‘correct’ answer and an answer which he thought so unlikely that he couldn’t even be bothered to define it accurately doesn’t stop people from voting for the undefined.  And including an option (no deal) on the ballot paper the outcome of which would be a short-term economic disaster doesn’t stop people voting for it either.  It might look like an improbable outcome, but it’s not an impossible one.  There is currently no majority in parliament for a no deal Brexit, but any MP supporting the calling of a referendum which includes that as an option is implicitly committing to vote for that outcome if it’s what the electorate decide.  And a government which even proposes such a referendum would be acting wholly irresponsibly now that the implications are as well-known as they now are.  May’s refusal to rule out such an option may start out as a cunning ploy to get support for what she does want, but recent history tells us that we cannot depend on it not coming to pass.
That does, of course, raise another important question about the nature of democracy.  If the majority of people, in full knowledge of the potential consequences properly and authoritatively spelt out, want a no deal Brexit, why shouldn’t they be allowed to have one?  Of course, proponents of such a course of action will continue to lie and mislead, but don’t people have a right to believe the lies if they prefer?  At the extreme, if people want to vote for every household to be given a free unicorn, why shouldn’t they be allowed to do so?  That last might look like a silly question, but how different is it really to the fantasy for which some people were persuaded to vote in the last referendum?  I find this question of restricting the rights of electors to vote for whatever they want a difficult one in principle; in practice, the only answer that I can give is that no government should ever give the electorate a chance to vote for something which that government is not prepared subsequently to enact.  Cameron did it and left the mess for someone else to clear up.  I wish that I could believe that May will not repeat the same mistake - or, worse still, that she isn't prepared to enact a no deal Brexit.

Thursday 17 January 2019

Breaking the log-jam

Insofar as the last few days and weeks have clarified anything, it is that there are two major obstacles to making progress in any direction on Brexit.
The Irish ‘backstop’ isn’t one of them.  The backstop itself isn’t something which some people who should know their place, aided and abetted by Brussels bureaucrats, are unfairly and unjustly imposing to fetter the freedom of a great global power; it’s the inevitable outcome of previous international agreements and a series of contradictory demands laid down by the UK government.  It’s a hole which is entirely of the UK’s digging.
The intransigence of Brussels isn’t one of them.  The withdrawal agreement which has emerged is, again, the inevitable outcome of a combination of previously agreed commitments and the red lines laid down by the UK Government.  And the Political Statement on what happens next is as vague as it is because there is no known way of squaring what the UK is demanding with what the EU can ever give without destroying itself in the process, but they had to put something down on paper anyway.
The fact that the House of Commons contains a majority of ‘Remainers’ isn’t the problem either.  Some of them might do so reluctantly, but if they were presented with a deal which meant that the UK left the political institutions of the EU whilst remaining in the single market and customs union, I remain convinced that a majority would probably support it.  The Brexit extremists would argue that it isn’t really Brexit at all, and it might well destroy the Conservative Party (it's an ill wind...), but the only decision taken by the referendum was to ‘Leave the EU’, and in legal and constitutional terms, such a deal would honour that result.  It wouldn’t honour all the wild, contradictory and fantastic claims made by pro-Brexit campaigners, but those claims weren’t on the ballot paper.  Such a deal might really have been “one of the easiest in human history” (© Liam Fox), and had it been presented to parliament within a few months of triggering Article 50, I suspect that it would have sailed through with the support of Remain MPs still shocked by the result.
No, none of these are the real obstacles to sensible progress.  Both the obstacles are actually people – two individuals who are, as it happens, both in the position which they occupy more by accident than design, and who are both incapable of applying flexibility and common sense to adapt to changing circumstances and revise their stances.
The first, obviously, is the Prime Minister herself.  Here is a person who is forever claiming to be ‘listening’ but without hearing a word that is said to her.  If Plan A loses by a huge margin, then Plan B is to explain to the opponents once again why they are wrong to oppose it.  And discussing alternatives must be limited to discussing alternative ways by which Plan A can be pursued.  Even many in her own party realise that this won’t work, and members of her cabinet, including the Chancellor, are actively briefing a completely different approach to that which she is pursuing.  The ‘red lines’ on which she refuses to budge are her interpretation – and her interpretation alone – of the result of the referendum.  They are not an inevitable part of any agreement except in the circumstances where she is directing the negotiations.
The second is the leader of the opposition.  Here’s another individual who is forever claiming to be listening; in his case it’s the claim that it is the members of his party who make policy, not him, and that he is pursuing that policy.  He does, though, seem to be in a tiny minority of members who believe that what he is currently saying reflects the opinion of the membership.  He, too, is suffering from open disagreement by those around him who are saying something very different to him.
Brexit has led to a log-jam in UK politics and in parliament in particular.  It seems to me that the only way to break out of that log-jam is to remove the two individuals most responsible for it.  I honestly don’t know exactly what the outcome of that would be, but I suspect that it would be a rapid and dramatic change in the dynamic.  If – or when – either happens it’s likely to be quite sudden.  And, based on their history of ruthlessness towards leaders in pursuing and retaining power, I expect the Tories to get there first.  If Labour are not to be totally wrong-footed, they will need to follow rapidly.

Wednesday 16 January 2019

May may not be as safe as she looks

I’ve posted previously on the way in which our own priors can colour our interpretation of facts and events; such interpretations can never be entirely objective.  Whilst to most of us, yesterday’s vote in the House of Commons was a resounding defeat, there are those around the Prime Minister who seem determined to interpret it in a rather different way.  
What to one person might appear to be an enormous Tory rebellion might well look to another as having successfully flushed all the rebels into the open where they can be picked off.  And it is indeed plausible that at least some of those 118 Tories who voted against the deal might be persuaded to vote for it when, as seems likely, it (or something very similar) is re-presented to parliament.  There is a slight flaw in that analysis, however; amongst the 198 Tories who voted for the deal, there will undoubtedly be some who did so out of a sense of loyalty to their government, knowing that it would be defeated anyway.  They may not feel the same obligation again and keeping all of them onside next time round is as big a challenge as winning round those who voted against the first time.
Would May really be silly enough to present essentially the same package to parliament again?  All the signs are that that is exactly what she proposes to do.  It’s clear that her offer to talk to her own backbenchers as well as opposition MPs on the next steps is largely limited to asking them what assurances they need before they will support the deal; she has already made it clear that her own red lines are not up for negotiation.  I used the word ‘asking’ – given her style and approach to date, it’s more likely to be an imperious demand that they fall into line and do as she says.
The Brexiteers continue to live in that fantasy land where the Irish know their place and the EU27 over-ride the interests of a member state in pursuit of the interests of German car makers, despite the fact that those car-makers themselves have already made it very clear that, if push comes to shove, they value the achievement which the single market represents more than they value the reduction in sales to the UK.  David Davis continues to push the line that the EU always manage to find an acceptable deal at the last minute.  He’s right of course; but he overlooks the fact that this is in relation to deals between the members where the interests of all need to be accommodated somehow, and not in relation to deals with outsiders where it is the interests of the EU member states which will always be paramount.
None of us knows what happens next, but a new election looks unlikely – and would resolve nothing anyway.  If Labour were to swing behind the idea of a second vote, the dynamic could change, but Corbyn still looks like a major obstacle to that.  Personally, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the PM were to resign and her party move quickly to the election of a new leader who could shake off the restrictions of May’s red lines.  She may be feeling secure after having seen off the vote of no confidence by her own MPs, but no PM in history has ever seen his or her central policy rejected like this and been able to carry on.  And the Tory party’s history of leadership changes owes more to men in grey suits operating behind closed doors than to democratic votes of confidence.  Enough members of the Cabinet may yet decide that any progress now depends on her removal.

Tuesday 15 January 2019

Who elects the government?

There’s nothing at all unusual about the way in which politicians have reacted to the apparent rewriting of the rules by the Speaker; those who are happy with the outcome of the vote which he allowed are praising him, and those dismayed by it are criticising him.  There’s something less than entirely honest about supporting whichever process gives the ‘desired’ result, but it’s a natural tendency.
Some of the responses seem to be more than a little ‘over-the-top’ but are all the more revealing for that.  For me, the idea that allowing MPs to amend motions placed before them is some sort of ‘coup’, and ‘threatens the ability of the Government to govern’ exposes just how supine the elected legislature has become.  It also illustrates just how arcane the procedures of parliament have become - and the idea that some motions are ‘unamendable’ and that the government controls the timetable of the legislature both serve to limit the power of the legislature.
It’s worth bearing in mind that, in the UK (and the National Assembly in many ways apes this approach), we do not elect a government, only (part of) a legislature; the government is then drawn from that legislature by whoever the monarch appoints as Prime Minister (usually, but not necessarily, the leader of the largest party).  In effect, for most government activity, ministers then exercise their powers on behalf of the crown, not parliament; they only need parliament to approve their budget and any changes to the law – and a government can, in theory at least, govern for years without changing any laws if it so wishes.  What the Speaker has done has handed back some power from those we don’t directly elect to those we do directly elect, and he’s been able to do so because so much of the procedure of parliament depends on ‘precedent’ rather than on formal rules – the idea that decisions on process taken by one Speaker bind his or her successors for eternity.
More importantly, the row exposes to examination the curious relationship in the UK system between the Executive and the Legislature, and I, for one, don’t much like what I see.  There are several reasons why parliament has allowed itself to become the servant rather than the master of the government – it’s an arrangement which has suited governments of all parties, and because the Executive is drawn from the Legislature there are always plenty of ambitious legislators eyeing a role in government.  There are a lot of aspects of the US system which I don’t like, but in principle, the idea of electing the Government and the Legislature separately has a lot of attractions.  In many ways, the UK system has become much more ‘presidential’ over the years, but in an essentially undemocratic fashion.  Why not go the whole hog and separate the Executive branch completely from the Legislative branch?  We could call it something like ‘giving back control to parliament’.

Monday 14 January 2019

Inaccurate comparisons

Apparently, the Prime Minister is planning to compare Parliament blocking or changing the nature of Brexit with the referendum on devolution in Wales in her speech later today, asking people to “Imagine if an anti-devolution House of Commons had said to the people of Scotland or Wales that despite voting in favour of a devolved legislature, Parliament knew better and would overrule them. Or else force them to vote again”. 
But the scenario she presents is not one where a country’s parliament over-rules the result of a consultative referendum held in that country, but rather one where parliamentarians from one country over-rule the people of another, which is quite a different thing.  Parliamentarians from England over-ruling the expressed wish of the Scottish electorate for devolution would, as she says, be unacceptable - although she seems to have no qualms whatsoever about the idea that parliamentarians from England should over-rule Scottish wishes on Brexit.  Neither, as we saw in relation to the Brexit legislation clawing back powers from Wales and Scotland, does she see anything wrong with over-ruling the wishes of the Welsh and Scottish electorates on the details of devolution when it suits her.
One obvious flaw in her argument, of course, is that an “anti-devolution House of Commons” would never have legislated for a referendum on devolution in the first place – indeed, anti-devolution members of parliament did their utmost to prevent the question being put at all.  And we all know that the nature of “devolution” under the supremacist idea of sovereignty which underpins Westminster is that the UK Parliament has the absolute right to change the powers of the National Assembly any time it so wishes, as it has already done in relation to Brexit.
The second obvious flaw is that after the first referendum on devolution to Scotland and Wales, parliament legislated for a second when it became clear that opinion had changed; exactly what she is so strongly opposing in relation to Brexit.  Admittedly, there was a gap of 18 years rather than 3 between the 1979 vote and the one in 1997, but the principle and precedent for holding another vote if opinion appears to have changed is clear enough.  Setting an arbitrary time limit somewhere between 3 years and 18 is just that, arbitrary.  The principle to be considered can only be whether there is sufficient evidence to suggest that a decision taken today in different circumstances might lead to a different result, especially when an overwhelming majority of parliamentarians believe that implementing the original decision would be an unprecedented act of self-harm.
As a result of the utter folly of the Prime Minister herself in calling an unnecessary election in 2017, the parliament which we have today is not the parliament which legislated for the original Brexit referendum in 2016; and it is a key tenet of the UK constitution that no parliament can hind its successors.  There is nothing unconstitutional or undemocratic about a new parliament taking a different view on an issue – indeed, if there were, there would be little point in holding an election. 
A more relevant argument is that both the largest parties in the House of Commons fought the election on a manifesto committing them to implement Brexit, and that failing to do so is a breach of faith with the electorate.  That is a valid argument, and a good reason why it would be wrong for parliament to simply cancel Brexit and ignore the result of the referendum; but it surely can’t compel legislators to simply plough ahead when, in the light of additional facts, they come to see that what they promised is undeliverable in the form in which they promised it.

Friday 11 January 2019

Duplicity isn't strong enough

Faced with what still looks like certain defeat next week, I can understand why the Prime Minister is desperately trying to find a form of words which bridges irreconcilable propositions, but this is surely a step too far even by her own standards of twisted logic.  The agreement with the EU which she is putting before parliament includes a commitment that the so-called ‘backstop’, under which the north of Ireland remains aligned with EU rules, automatically comes into effect under certain pre-agreed conditions but is a purely temporary arrangement until such time as certain other pre-agreed conditions are met.  The problem she faces is that she, like everyone else, understands perfectly well that the second set of pre-agreed conditions can never happen unless and until the UK Government drops its red lines.
So, in order to get the House of Commons to accept the ‘only possible agreement’ (© Theresa May), the Government has accepted an amendment which means that the backstop doesn’t automatically come into effect under the agreed pre-conditions unless MPs vote for it at the time; that while it is in effect the UK (after consulting with a Legislative Assembly which is currently suspended anyway) can unilaterally reject any and every EU rule; and that the UK Parliament can unilaterally end the backstop arrangement at any time.  Even if this were enough to get the agreement through the UK Parliament (although that currently looks extremely doubtful), it would no longer be the agreement which she agreed with the EU, but a completely different beast.
One can only assume that she believes that agreeing something different domestically will strengthen her hand in going back to the EU and demanding either that the Irish know their place, or else that 26 members of the EU abandon the 27th in favour of a deal with a troublesome departing member, something which would surely come close to destroying the cohesion of the EU since no member could ever trust the organisation to look after its interests in dealing with outsiders in the future.  And that’s without even considering the question about whether asking parliament to ratify a deal which differs from the one she’s agreed with the EU can ever really be considered to be negotiating in good faith.
If that weren’t enough, she’s trying to persuade Labour MPs and the trade unions to support a deal (which is no longer the one agreed with the EU) by making half a promise to consider retaining EU employment rights post-Brexit.  Leaving aside the question of who would ever trust anything she says given her record, any promise she makes can only be good for as long as she remains Prime Minister, under the convention that no government can bind its successors – so about six months, then, at best.  Any Labour MP foolish enough to swallow that one would deserve deselection – not for failing to follow the party whip, but for being too stupid to be in the job.

Thursday 10 January 2019

A case of theft

It was Proudhon who argued that all property is theft, although Marx pointed out that the idea of theft itself presupposes the existence of the concept of property.  Whatever, in common everyday language, we all have an understanding that theft is the unlawful removal of one person’s property by another.  If a thief breaks into my house and makes off with my property, or if a conman turns up at my front door purporting to be someone he is not and persuades me with lies and deception to part with my property, most of us would understand that to be theft.  And any attempt using lawful means to get that property back would be regarded by most of us as entirely legitimate and reasonable.
On today’s newsstand, I noticed the banner headline in the Daily Express claiming that “They really do want to steal your Brexit”. 

It’s not the only time that I’ve seen the claim that any attempt to reverse Brexit is ‘theft’; and it isn’t only the Express which makes the claim.  I can understand why those who have spent many years campaigning for Brexit will feel dismayed and let down if their referendum victory is somehow ‘stolen’ from them; but something can only be ‘stolen’ from someone if it were that person’s legitimately obtained property in the first place.  Recovering stolen property by lawful means cannot itself be theft.  And there was more than one conman involved in the initial theft.
It doesn’t matter here that the Remain campaign may not have had entirely clean hands; there was a great deal of hyperbole and exaggeration (although, as events are turning out, perhaps rather less than I thought at the time), and a certain unwillingness to address the future direction of travel of the EU.  But none of that can excuse a campaign which those involved have subsequently admitted was based on direct and deliberate lies – some of which are still being repeated.  Returning to the question of who stole what from whom, that means that the ownership of the property in question is, at best, disputed.  And that in turn means that a means of arbitration and judgement is required.  There is no better way of meeting that requirement than an honest debate about the real facts before a further and decisive vote.

Wednesday 9 January 2019

Strange outcomes

The nomination of the Counsel General as Brexit Minister raises a number of questions, not least about the definition of a ‘minister’.  Given that Brexit is not a devolved issue; that he has no statutory responsibilities in the role; and that he will not be taking any decisions, the title ‘minister’ looks more than a little out of place.  He looks more like a monitor to me.  That’s by the by though; the criticism of the appointment seems to boil down to two issues.
The first is that it creates a potential conflict of interest, in that as Counsel General he is charged with giving impartial legal advice to ministers and can hardly give impartial legal advice to himself.  I’m not convinced on this one.  In the first place, if he really does have no decisions to make in the role, what exactly would be the purpose of any legal advice that he gave himself?  But secondly, I find the idea of an expectation that a politician appointed to a political post as a member of the Welsh Government by the First Minister would give entirely impartial legal advice to the government of which he is a member to be a strange one.  Yes, there are aspects of his role which require him to act independently of the government, and he is duty-bound to uphold the law; but that is not the same as saying that he must be politically neutral when it comes to policy issues.  There are sound political arguments both for and against him combining the two roles, and whether it is a ‘good’ thing or a ‘bad’ thing is an entirely legitimate topic for political debate between parties.
The second is that it is in direct conflict with the primary legislation establishing the role of Counsel General which specifically requires that the incumbent shall not be a minister.  Arguing that he isn’t really a ‘minister’ because he has no duties or responsibilities is an attempt to create wiggle room around the legislation (although it would have been much easier to give him some other title), but it looks more like an open-and-shut case to me.  What’s curious, though, is the politics of it.  This restriction on a dual role isn’t anything which the Assembly has discussed and voted on, it’s a result of primary legislation in Westminster.  It’s a rule imposed on the Welsh Government and the National Assembly from London, in effect.  And I find it strange that it’s a unionist party trying to find a creative way around the restriction, whilst those who are nominally independentistas are demanding total compliance with the letter of the imposed law.  Politics produces some odd outcomes on occasions.

Tuesday 8 January 2019

Proving the opposite

Yesterday’s ‘dry run’ for post-Brexit chaos at the ports turned into farce as those involved pretended that 89 lorries could adequately demonstrate the impact of 6000.  There were supposed to be 150, which isn’t much better, but only 60% turned up.  It’s tempting to assume that the other 61 were hired from a start-up haulage company which doesn’t actually have any lorries yet, but that might just be too close to the truth.
It wasn’t the complete disaster as which some have painted it, though; it’s just that the lessons learned weren’t the intended ones.  I thought that it demonstrated rather well the potential impact of contracting out transportation to companies which don’t have any lorries or ships – a significant percentage of the planned traffic will never arrive.  If only they’d planned it better, they could also have allocated specific pretend loads to each of the 150 lorries, and then modelled the impact on business and consumers of 40% failing to arrive in time, or even at all.  That would have taught us all much more about the potential impact.  I suspect, though, that the government would really rather we didn’t know the answer to that one.
Still, it showed those EU types the level of organisation and planning which the UK government is putting into no deal planning, albeit rather more accurately than intended.  Letting them know how ready we are is supposed to frighten them, but after yesterday’s performance they’re more likely to die laughing than of fright.

Monday 7 January 2019

Symptoms and causes

Before Christmas, it did seem quite certain that parliament would be voting on the Brexit deal next week.  However, the PM has said today that it will ‘definitely’ happen, and one of the few near-certainties in politics is that anything that she says at least three times will ‘definitely’ happen won’t.  Her spokesperson has also used similar wording today, so the probability that the vote will be pulled is steadily increasing.  With the current PM, everything is always definite right up until the moment when it isn’t.  ‘Definite’ is, for her, a time-limited concept rather like what she would wish the ‘backstop’ to be.  It is this flexible and time-limited approach to the meaning of words which also enables her to insist that nothing has changed since she said the opposite thing yesterday.  It’s another of those things about which she is ‘very clear’.
She’s concentrating her efforts on trying to wheedle the EU into agreeing a form of words on the Irish ‘backstop’ which will enable her to say that she very clearly hasn’t agreed to what she very clearly did agree in December 2017 and again last year.  But her increasingly plaintive, not to say desperate, pleas to the EU to cut her some slack seem doomed to failure; it’s hard to think of anything that the EU can say or do which will get her off the hook on which her own peculiar combination of intransigence and consistent inconsistency has placed her.  Even worse, she seems to have got it into her head that if only she can get some legally-binding form of words saying that the backstop can only ever be temporary, then her problem is solved.  But the existing form of words already makes it entirely clear (albeit not in the vague and uncertain May sense of ‘clear’) that the intention is for it to be temporary, and to be in force only until such time as it is replaced by a shiny new agreement on trade which keeps the border open.
The problem is not the form of words used to describe ‘temporary’ but that the PM has not the faintest idea about how she can negotiate an agreement with the EU which achieves that underlying aim.  And even if she could, her most fractious backbenchers would not support any deal which achieves that aim because there is no deal available which simultaneously allows complete regulatory divergence between two trading areas and an open border.  Seeking reassurances about the meaning of the word ‘temporary’ is addressing the symptom, not the problem.

Friday 4 January 2019

Chasing the succession

One of the problems which results from having a lame duck Prime Minister who everyone knows is going to resign at some point in the comparatively near future is that those around her are inevitably focussing more on how to put themselves in the best position to succeed her than on anything else.  In the same way that Brexit itself has come to dominate the PM’s every waking hour (and quite a few of the sleeping ones as well, I wouldn’t be surprised), and destroyed her domestic agenda (insofar as she ever had one), so the timing and nature of her departure and the succession have come to dominate the time and thoughts of the host of backstabbers loyal allies around her.
Over the past week, the threat to Sajid Javid’s chances of succeeding Theresa May posed by a handful of migrants crossing to the UK from France has clearly caused him a great deal of concern.  Far more concern, in fact, than the fate of the people involved.  Apparently, he believes that those MPs (and, if he gets into the final two, the party members) who will make the choice of leader will be suitably impressed if he is seen to be tough on migration (I’d be tempted to add the Blairite rider ‘and tough on the causes of migration’, except that I don’t believe he cares a fig about those).  In this, he is deluded; those involved are less concerned with whether he is or is not tough on anything than about whether they can spin a story that he is simply not up to speed with what is happening.  It’s not about the substance of either policy or action; it’s about finding a way of discrediting him.  The migrants are just what the military might call 'collateral damage' in the continuing internal Tory intrigues.
But mistakenly believing that the facts of the situation are of any relevance at all to that small electorate which he is targeting, he is tying himself further in knots with every utterance.  He has managed to suggest an approach which is illegal in international law, and his determination to work closely with the French to uphold the EU rule that asylum-seekers must apply for asylum in the first country which they reach appears to ignore the fact that the government of which he is a part is actively seeking to extricate itself from any obligation to follow the relevant EU rules.  He seems to be assuming that just because the UK is no longer going to be part of the relevant agreement, that’s no reason for the French not to abide by it and accept that it is somehow ‘their’ problem.
His claim that those involved are not ‘real’ asylum-seekers makes him sound more like a railway company blaming ‘the wrong type of snow’ than a government minister seeking to address the reasons why people put themselves through a perilous journey to reach these shores.  I struggle to understand why an attempt to escape poverty in some way makes people less deserving of our assistance than an attempt to escape war – particularly when both poverty and war are largely caused or facilitated by countries such as the UK in the first place – yet it’s a distinction which trickles casually from the mouths of people like Javid, who would prefer to send people back into poverty and an early death than do anything to address the problems which provoke people into migration.  Labelling the victims as the ‘wrong type of migrant’ is a shameful distraction from the real issues.

Thursday 3 January 2019

Reality is slipping even further away

If there was one positive thing that I had hoped might come out of Brexit, it was that Anglo-British nationalists would finally be forced to face up the fact that the UK’s place and status in the world aren’t as they have believed to date.  Perhaps it will still happen; but at the moment it almost seems as if the whole process is having quite the opposite effect.  They seem to be just doubling down on their fantasy view of how the world is.
This week, we’ve had the Defence Secretary telling us that, post-Brexit, the UK could build new military bases in the Far East and the Caribbean, becoming once again a global power.  There is, of course, nothing about membership of the EU which prevents the UK from building such bases now; the link with Brexit is tenuous to say the least.  The prime obstacle to building and maintaining such bases is the same reason given for closing such bases in the 1960s and 1970s – the disproportionate cost in relation to the perceived benefits.  The attempt to pretend that the UK was still a global power was a drag on the economy.  That cost issue hasn’t gone away; and the non-existent Brexit dividend has already been spent at least twice over.  Still, there’s always that magic tree in the garden of number 10.
What military forces would be deployed to such bases?  We discovered last week that there are no proper warships available to send as far as the Black Sea, let alone Singapore.  Still, for a country that is building aircraft carriers without aircraft, and hiring ferry companies with no ships, there is, I suppose, a certain consistency in building military bases with no military presence.  And paying for those imaginary forces with imaginary money looks almost coherent in that context.
The most delusional part of all this is the statement that these new bases will enable the UK to “play the role on the world stage that the world expects us to play”, because, apparently, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Caribbean states and nations across Africa will be looking to the UK for “the moral leadership, the military leadership and the global leadership”.  Really?  Comedy leadership, maybe; showing others how to engage in serious self-harm, definitely.  But only an Anglo-British exceptionalist could really believe that those former colonies are all waiting with bated breath for the UK to resume the ‘leadership’ which it showed them in the past.  Just what does it take for reality to sink in?

Wednesday 2 January 2019

The power of words

Just after Christmas, the Home Office published this advice to ‘EU citizens’ about the requirement to register if they want to stay in the UK after Brexit.  
The wording is very clear – “If you are an EU citizen living in the UK and want to stay in the UK after the 31 December 2020…”.  I’m not alone in spotting the problem with the use of words here, because I think that I – along with the overwhelming majority of the UK’s population, fall into that category (although I’ll admit that I do sometimes start to wonder about the ‘want to stay’ part given the trajectory on which the UK government has placed us).  But I’m unquestionably an EU citizen as things currently stand.
Professor Richard Murphy has already blogged on this, suggesting that we should all follow the UK Government’s clear advice as EU citizens and register our desire to stay after Brexit.  It’s an interesting form of protest, and it’s hard to see how the UK Government can really complain if millions of those of us who are currently EU citizens simply comply with their poorly-worded demand that we should register.
But underlying this is a rather more general, and slightly sinister, misuse of terminology to describe people.  Here’s another example from Parliament’s website, talking about the proportion of NHS staff who are EU citizens.  It claims that 5.6% of NHS staff are EU nationals but goes on to say that all but 12.7% (i.e. 87.3%) are UK nationals.  But at what point did that 87.3% cease being EU citizens?  The answer is that they did not – they might cease to be such on 29th March, but as of today, and at the time that this research report was published in October, the proportion of EU citizens working in the NHS was 92.9%, and there was and is effectively no legal distinction between those who happen also to be UK nationals and those who happen to be nationals of other EU member states.
These are far from being the only examples; the BBC and media are full of reports about ‘EU citizens’ which invariably, it seems, is a reference only to non-UK EU citizens.  Does this blurring of terminology matter?  At one level, of course not.  I know what they are trying to say and understand why they are drawing a distinction when talking about the situation which will exist post-Brexit.  But at another level it does matter, partly because (as Prof Murphy pointed out) it’s about creating difference and ‘otherness’ where none currently exists, but also because it diverts attention away from what the government is actually doing here.  The truth isn’t that we are not currently EU citizens, it is that that citizenship is going to be stripped from us at the end of March by deliberate government action.  The form of words which has gained widespread currency treats all other EU citizens as though they are the odd ones, when the reality is that it’s UK nationals whose status is changing the most.