Toying with Britain’s future: strong on symbolism, low on substance


Christmas is full of symbolism, traditions and rituals – carols, holly, mistletoe, trees, turkeys, puddings, mince pies, brandy butter, Brussels sprouts and an extravaganza of presents. It is all good fun and it brings momentary happiness to many families and groups of friends.  However, perhaps the indulgence and consumerism associated with contemporary British Christmas celebrations has become too much of a good thing, distracting many of us from contemplating the significance of the simple birth of Jesus in Palestine that the feast commemorates.

Reflecting on this, I felt fairly certain that Father Christmas claimed much more attention than Jesus around 25th December. It then struck me as strange that Father Christmas has come to be regarded as so British. The very fact that he is popularly perceived to reside at the North Pole and drives a sledge drawn by reindeer implies that, if he is seen in these parts, he must be a short-term seasonal immigrant. His reindeers are likely to have evaded pet passport controls. Fortunately, even if his English is confined to just one thrice-repeated word of one syllable, he receives a great welcome! He is lucky not to have been consigned to an immigration removal centre. Ho! Ho! Ho!

Symbolism plays an important part in the celebration of Christmas but also touches on many aspects of our daily lives. As we grow older, we may find ourselves increasingly nostalgic when we invoke memories of the “good” old days. The “bad” aspects of old days are conveniently forgotten and the “good” ones tend to be burnished. In normal times, such looking back is quite harmless and even soothing, but when it leads to calls for “turning the clock back” it can easily obstruct progress or, as we are now seeing, divert attention from addressing the more fundamental issues affecting our future.

Given the government’s failure over the past 18 months to come up with a consensus on the shape of Britain’s future relationship with Europe – devoting just less than an hour and a half of Cabinet time to resolve the complex set of issues – it was no surprise that the Prime Minister couldn’t resist pressing the “blue passport” button before going off to celebrate Christmas. It was easier for her to toy with symbolism than to face up to reality.

In committing herself to replace the present burgundy-coloured British passport with a look-alike of the old blue one, Mrs May played on the nostalgic instincts of older voters towards the trivial matter of the look of a routine travel document. Although our passports are issued by the British government, not by the EU, and EU member countries have been free to select their cover colour, the dark blue cover has somehow acquired the status of an “iconic” symbol of British nationalism. In announcing her decision, May reinforced these nostalgic perceptions by claiming “The UK passport is an expression of our independence and sovereignty – symbolising our citizenship of a proud, great nation”. The implication of her statement – that we must leave the EU to take control of our passport colour – is misleading as the EU that has never obliged us to use burgundy passports, any more than to drive on the right or to join the Euro!

Far from being an innocent gesture, however, her action distracts public attention from her continuing inability to come to grips with the many substantive and urgent issues affecting the future capacity of British citizens to travel, work and trade without impediment around Europe as well as between the two parts of Ireland.  Changing passport colours is a sop to nostalgia and fake nationalism which will cost millions and may simply leave us last in the customs queue – a queue that would not exist if Britain were to stay in the single market and customs union or even (dare we suggest?) remain in the EU.

The Prime Minister calls on us to trust her to negotiate on our behalf, but can we really give her our confidence if she still can’t tell us where she is heading on the really big issues that will impact on our children and grandchildren – who have never known a blue passport – for the rest of their lives?

Maybe her next move will be to call on Santa Claus to dress in Tory blue rather than Labour red if he is to be allowed visa-free entry to the UK after March 2019.

Ho! Ho! Ho!

Categorised as General

Of Chests and Cabinets

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!



Categorised as General

If only David Davis would act in line with his own analysis!

The Rt. Hon.David Davis, 26th November, 2002. (Parliamentary debate)



“There is a proper role for referendums in constitutional change, but only if done properly. If it is not done properly, it can be a dangerous tool. The Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, who is no longer in the Chamber, said that Clement Attlee—who is, I think, one of the Deputy Prime Minister’s heroes—famously described the referendum as the device of demagogues and dictators. We may not always go as far as he did, but what is certain is that pre-legislative referendums of the type the Deputy Prime Minister is proposing are the worst type of all.

Referendums should be held when the electorate are in the best possible position to make a judgment. They should be held when people can view all the arguments for and against and when those arguments have been rigorously tested. In short, referendums should be held when people know exactly what they are getting. So legislation should be debated by Members of Parliament on the Floor of the House, and then put to the electorate for the voters to judge.

We should not ask people to vote on a blank sheet of paper and tell them to trust us to fill in the details afterwards. For referendums to be fair and compatible with our parliamentary process, we need the electors to be as well informed as possible and to know exactly what they are voting for. Referendums need to be treated as an addition to the parliamentary process, not as a substitute for it.”


Categorised as General

Mindless Brextruction: £500,000,000 down the drain as a sop to politicians’ vanity – and nobody turns a hair!

Mindless Brextruction: £500,000,000 down the drain as a sop to politicians’ vanity – and nobody turns a hair!

A few days ago, the European Union decided to move the European Medicines Agency (EMA) from London to Amsterdam so that it could continue to operate without any damaging interruptions after 29 March 2019 when the UK plans to leave the EU. Britain will be held liable for the relocation costs, estimated at around £500 million. Presumably this counts towards the much bigger Brexit bill, now under negotation,

The future annual income losses will also be very big. The Agency has an annual budget of around £300 million, much of which is spent in the UK. There will be an immediate loss of 900 well-paid EMA jobs and of over 30,000 short-term visitors to London each year to attend events convened by the Agency. It is likely that pharmaceutical companies will also shift their staff who interact with the EMA on a regular basis to Amsterdam.

The EMA was founded in 1995 and, with strong support from the British Conservative government of the time, London was selected for its headquarters.  Its overall responsibility is for ensuring that all human and veterinary medicines available in the EU market are safe, effective and of high quality. It acts as a central point of reference for national regulatory bodies such as the UK’s Medical Health Regulatory Agency.

It seems perverse that the same politicians that have been claiming that leaving the EU would allow the government to increase the effectiveness of the NHS are deliberately leaving an Agency that contributes importantly to better health in Britain. Apart from upholding medicine safety, the EMA’s work brings new medicines to those who need them more quickly, cuts the costs of putting new products on the market, supports pharmaceutical research and promotes innovation especially by small and medium-scale industries. In future Britain may be excluded from EU-wide clinical trials and have to spend more of its already tight health budget on creating and running an expanded national medicines approvals service. British-made medicines will become less competitive if they have to go through separate EU and UK approval processes.

When governments commit large amounts of public money to new projects, they normally weigh up the costs and benefits. In this case, the costs of abandoning the EMA are mind-boggling and there are no tangible benefits whatsoever. The only benefit that Mrs May and her fellow-Brexiteers can claim is that it allows them to continue to crow that “Brexit is Brexit” and that they are acting in line with “the will of the people”. It would be better if they were to commit themselves to act “in the national interest”!

Like so many other aspects of the Brexit process, withdrawing from the EMA is an expensive exercise in national self-harm – in this case damaging not only to the economy but also to people’s health. It is hard to believe that those who voted to leave the EU sought such outcomes.

What is amazing is that, now the damage of the decision to leave the EMA is becoming starkly clear, there has been only muted public criticism. Perhaps the branding of those who criticise the government’s blatantly bad handling of the Brexit process as “mutineers” has created a situation in which opponents fear to raise their voices. It is easier to lie low and not turn a hair.

Hopefully public attitudes will shift, as the material damage caused by our exit from each of the 40 EU specialised decentralised agencies, becomes clear – but, as the EMA process shows, any second thoughts may come too late.

Categorised as General

U-turns should be easy for a lame duck

I often wake up in the middle of the night and become prisoner to a stupid idea that just won’t go away, however much I try to dispose of it. Last night I had the crazy vision of a lame duck, with one leg shorter than the other, finding it easy to make u-turns!

There seems to be growing consensus in all UK political parties that Theresa May is not up to the job of Prime Minister. At the same time there is little appetite, at least in her own party, for her to go, largely because there is no obvious successor in view.  All “possibles” carry high risks. Tories fear that there is a high probability that her departure would trigger another general election and lead to a Labour-led government.

Now, with the leaking of a “secret” letter to her from Johnson and Gove, we can see that she is being blatantly bullied by two of the Ministers that she appointed. They tell her to stick to their hard Brexit line – or else!

If May was to leave office now, she would go down in history as the Prime Minister who, contrary to her own better judgment, deliberately assumed responsibility for leading Britain into a belittling future in order to satisfy her long-held aspirations for high office.

She now has access to a vast amount of information and analysis which shows her that the Brexit process has already caused massive economic damage to the country and peoples’ livelihoods and promises much worse in future. However, by rushing into evoking Article 50 before having an exit strategy in place, she has locked herself into a negotiating process which prevents her from responding rationally to all the emerging signals of impending disaster. She is being forced at gunpoint by the same people who lied to referendum voters about the land of milk and honey that would result from leaving Europe to drive Britain down a road that will leave it poorer, more divided and more isolated.

Now is the moment, when she is most enfeebled – the lamest of ducks – to show her real strength by chucking the bullies out of her cabinet and offering the country a future that puts national interests rather than the personal ambitions of her bullying cabinet ministers first.  She must have the courage to articulate her own interpretation of what is really best for Britain, now that she knows full well the extent of harm being inflicted by a hard Brexit.

She knows that, if Britain leaves the single market and customs union, it will be unable to negotiate as good a future trading deal on our doorstep, and that the Irish border will again become a problem; she knows that Fox is pipe-dreaming about advantageous trade deals with the rest of the world; and she knows that Britain’s fiscal revenue – so necessary for funding better health and education services – will shrink as London loses its role as Europe’s pre-eminent financial services centre. And she must be questioning whether it makes sense to pay £50 or 60 billion simply to be able to claim that we have “taken back control” when – if only for geographic reasons – our future must be deeply bound to the European mainland. Hopefully, she will also have come to see how important Britain’s membership of European institutions is to the nurturing of continued peace in a region that fell into devastating wars twice in our parents’ lifetimes.

By making such a U-turn now, and offering true leadership towards a constructive relationship with Europe, not excluding a “remain” option, May could still redeem her future reputation and be ranked high amongst our prime ministers.

Categorised as General