Of Chests and Cabinets
For the last few days I have been making a chest as a Christmas present for our grandson. He will soon be 6 years old. He likes to make things, to draw and to paint, and to collect interesting items like fossils and strangely shaped stones.
The chest started 5 days ago as a thick 3-metre long board of rough-hewn cherry wood that had been lying in my workshop for years. Cherry is a hard pinkish wood but it is quite easy to work with accuracy. It is often used in furniture-making, probably because it has a very decorative grain and is easy to polish.
The result looks better than I had expected. The lid, which makes a comfortable seat, opens upwards, displaying the tool compartment. Below this are two drawers, one for “treasures” and the other for “art things”, like paper, paint-brushes and pencils. We hope that he will like it, especially when he discovers the secret compartment!
The crazy thought struck me that, now that my cabinet-making project is accomplished, I am doubly entitled to “get some things off my chest” about the increasingly chaotic state of the Brexit process, which is driven in ambiguous mode by a Prime Minister being bullied and torn apart by the fractious Cabinet that she appointed.
Unlike my chest project for which I set a clear goal from the outset, we have a government which has embarked on a negotiation process without any clear or consensual vision of its objectives, still less a strategy for getting there. We learnt a few days ago, thanks to the Chancellor’s indiscretions, that, 18 months after the referendum, the Cabinet has not yet discussed the scope of our future relationship with Europe. The Minister responsible for Brexit also admitted that his Department had not looked at the potential impacts of various Brexit options on the economy and had no intention to do so. As soon as his boss had negotiated an end to first phase of the divorce process, he then undermined her credibility by describing the agreement as only “a statement of intent”! At the same time, the executive arm of government is doing its best to deny parliament the right to approve or reject any deal that it may eventually reach.
What this means is that we are being asked to place our faith in a rudderless government that doesn’t care if its Brexit wrecks the British economy and makes us all losers. Please ask yourself how can we realistically trust them to deliver a Brexit that will be good for us, if even the Cabinet cannot agree on where we are heading? Instead of the mantra that “Brexit is Brexit”, we now seem to be in a situation where “Brexit is Wrecksit”, but our MPs are being branded as “mutineers” if they dare to question what the government is doing.
This is a government that is driven by unfounded illusions of British greatness, naively believing that it can dictate the terms of its future relationship with the other 27 European nations. It has refused to accept the EU’s warnings that there is no room for “cherry picking” and “bespoke” arrangements. Once Britain is out of Europe, it will have no special status and will be treated, when it comes to trade negotiations, on a par with other non-member governments.
The credibility of our government is further diminished because it is constantly betraying the very values to which it claims to subscribe.
It vaunts the advantages of free trade but then – even before negotiations start – backs out of the biggest and best free trade market in the world, while telling us that Europe is bound to agree to a new trading arrangement that will give Britain all the benefits of the existing single market without requiring it to stick to the conditionalities attached to it.
It calls for reclamation of “sovereignty” but then does its best to challenge the decision-making responsibilities of parliament and to deny parliamentary scrutiny of the actions that could have a fundamental impact on the lives of British people for many years to come.
It says that it champions British democratic values, but withholds vital information on the possible implications of its actions from public scrutiny. Unable to win a parliamentary majority, it uses a thousand million scarce pounds of public funds to buy the support of another party in votes that could determine its survival.
It says that it is listening to the devolved governments and young people, but it persists in ignoring their positions on their preferred future relationships with Europe.
It claims to subscribe to the idea of a frictionless border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, but does not know how to deliver on this and has already started to renege on May’s early morning commitments of last Thursday.
It tells us that Britain will save money when it leaves the EU and use it to support our NHS, and then signs a cheque for forty thousand million pounds just to buy an EU exit permit, with no guarantees about future trading arrangements with Europe. This must be the most expensive pig in a poke that has ever changed hands.
It does not seem to have worked out how, if no longer a member of the EU, it will be able to take advantage of the work of the 40 decentralised agencies that have done so much to facilitate intergovernmental coordination on issues of common concern between neighbouring countries.
But what we have found most disturbing is a general hardening of attitudes towards foreigners since the referendum. Over the last few weeks, we have learnt that our country, while quick to criticise other governments for locking up British citizens, is effectively imprisoning immigrants – without trial – in Immigration Removal Centres. We cannot believe that any people who subscribe to “British values” can condone the idea that asylum seekers are being thrown into what amount to “concentration camps” while their claims are being evaluated, or that people who came to Britain more than 50 years ago are being placed in these centres to await deportation because they cannot get their paper-work right. This inhuman system of detention without trial was championed by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary and continues with her as a Prime Minister who claims to respect the rights of European migrants in Britain.
The time has come for an honest and pragmatic approach to Europe that starts from the idea that, except for a few extremists, none of us has ever had a real dispute with Europe. The extremists have fanned the idea that our liberties are being infringed by EU membership. But if we reflect on our own lives, I think that we shall see European institutions as the great drivers of change for the good over the last 20 years.
As we see it, Britain has much more to gain from staying ’in’ Europe than getting out. It should cultivate European markets by staying engaged, while harvesting the ideas of the young on Britains’ future with its nearest neighbours.
Now that this is off my chest, I can turn my thoughts to another cabinet-making project!