A Poisoned Chalice

A Draft Reply from Jeremy Corbyn to Boris Johnson, dated 25th October 2019

Dear Boris,

Thank you for your long and rambling letter.

In it you are implicitly accepting that your “great” Brexit deal will not get parliamentary approval because it is deeply flawed. You also accept that the prolonged Brexit process is hugely damaging to the country and that we need to bring it to closure. You suggest that the solution is to hold an early general election and you ask me to support this idea.

The Conservative party and you, in particular, have got us into this mess.

  • David Cameron should never have called a national referendum to strengthen his position within his own party but which addressed an issue which, at the time, was of little concern to most British citizens.
  • Driven by your personal ambitions more than by your convictions you ran a campaign in which you combined your oratory and the brain-washing power of social media to convince voters that membership of the European Union was deeply damaging to British sovereignty and our position in the world. To win votes you portrayed an Utopian future for Britain, freed of its European ‘shackles’, deliberately stirring up passions that have left our country, its political parties, communities, families and age groups horrendously divided.
  • Theresa May negotiated a Brexit deal which might have been acceptable to the country but which was killed off largely by members of your Conservative party and the DUP whose support had been bought with public money.
  • You have accentuated the divisions by using the threat of Britain leaving the EU without a deal by the end of this month as a cudgel for getting parliamentary approval for a deal that is worse than May’s failed deal. In spite of your call to ‘take back control’ from Brussels, you are in the absurd situation of condemning the actions of our parliament – the main locus of British sovereignty – and are doing your best to undermine the credibility of MPs who oppose you.

The only way out of this unfortunate situation is to bring the whole Brexit debate to an early close. Neither a general election nor another referendum will resolve the problem. They would simply prolong the agony and deepen the divisions which ultimately will threaten the unity of our Kingdom and the peaceful coexistence of its citizens.

The answer is quite simple but will require the kind of courage and statesmanship that your mentor, Winston Churchill, would have displayed when finding himself cornered.

You must admit that you deliberately misled voters during the 2016 Referendum campaign about the benefits of leaving Europe. You must also admit that, ever since then, the Tory government  has tried to hide from the general public all the knowledge that you and cabinet members have on the extent of damage that your Brexit – on any Brexit – would have on the integrity of the UK ,  the economy, our livelihoods, our capacity to address neglected domestic issues, and our ability to deal with matters that require well-orchestrated actions between neighbouring countries – such as security, climate change, travel, migration, research and, above all, the nurturing of peace in and beyond Europe.

We now have a much better understanding of European institutions than we had in 2016. We know that reforms are needed and we also know that we can better influence the direction of reform from the inside rather than the outside.

The time has arrived for you, I and the leaders of all the political parties to admit in all honesty that there is no possibility of finding an early Brexit solution that is truly good for Britain at this stage. We have all done our best to find a way of responding to the referendum result but have to accept that we have hit the buffers and that the longer we keep searching for an answer that does not exist in reality, the more harm we shall cause.

My response to your letter is, therefore, to propose that we – the leaders of all political parties – meet together as early as possible to agree on a joint strategy for ‘coming clean’ with the British public on the true impacts of Brexit and to announce our  intention to call on parliament to bring the Brexit process to a close by revoking Article 50 before 31st October.

We should also agree in principle on joint arrangements for a way forward that would avoid any early election or further referendum but enable an ambitious programme of domestic reform to move forward quickly and give time to introduce badly needed electoral reforms.

I very much hope that, as Prime Minister, you will convene this proposed meeting and offer the kind of leadership our country now needs – a leadership that places Britain’s needs above personal or party ambitions.

Yours sincerely,

Jeremy

Protecting Democracy. What Britain can Learn from Italy

How to change the government without an election

 

We are British citizens who live in Italy. We don’t normally follow Italian politics closely, but over the last couple of weeks I and my wife have taken special interest in the way in which Italy has effectively changed its government without holding  an election.

Briefly, following the March 2018 general election, an awkward governing alliance was formed between the strongly rightist League, led by Matteo Salvini, and the more centrist Five Star Movement, led by Luigi Di Maio. Given the divergence of the two parties’ policies on many issues and the incompatibility of the two leaders, it is surprising that it lasted for almost 18 months, largely thanks to the skill and patience of the independent prime minister, Giuseppe Conte.

This arrangement collapsed in August when Salvini, buoyed up by his apparent increasing popularity in the opinion polls, announced a motion of no confidence in the prime minister, probably as a precedent for calling for an election which he hoped would reinforce his power.  Conte resigned, claiming that Salvini had “triggered the crisis only to serve his personal interest”.  This was immediately followed by the Democratic Party (which came third in the last election) opening exploratory discussions with the Five Star Movement with which it had not been on good terms. These consultations led to an agreement on a joint agenda based on pro-Europeanism, green economy, sustainable development, fight against inequality and a new immigration policy. With the blessing of Sergio Mattarella, the President, a new government, composed of the Democratic Party and the Five Star Movement, has been formed under the leadership of Conte. Salvini has been effectively consigned to the opposition.

There seems to be every reason to follow a similar process of changing government in Britain without holding either an early election or even a vote of confidence. In the last week, the opposition parties and ‘rebel’ Conservatives have demonstrated their capacity to combine forces to soundly defeat Boris Johnson’s government on 4 occasions. If they can stick together and find a common platform, the opportunity exists for them to become a de facto coalition government which could systematically block all legislation proposed by the present government, rendering it powerless and presumably leading eventually to the resignation of the prime minister.

What has driven this cross-party group together is their common determination to preserve genuine democracy in Britain at a time when the prime minister has tried to by-pass or over-ride parliament in his self-determined quest to take Britain out of Europe without an agreed deal by the end of October.  Beyond this is the fear amongst the adherents to the group of the risk that an election, if called soon without effective laws in place to protect proper electoral conduct, could lead to a sharp shift to the right within parliament. Finally, there is the widely voiced view that Johnson is untrustworthy and motivated more by his personal ambitions than any respect for improving the livelihoods of his fellow citizens.

If the broad goal of protecting democracy and especially the sovereignty of parliament is to be achieved, this will require concerted action in the style of last week for a long period, ideally until 5th May 2022, the mandatory date for the next general election.

This period would be used for moving ahead with a raft of overdue legislation on domestic issues on which there is a large measure of cross-party consensus.  These would relate, for instance, to health and care, education, environment and climate change, infrastructure, equality, social security.  Special commissions would be set up to engage the public in guiding the government on migration policies and the UK’s future long-term relationship with Europe.  A similar approach could be adopted on the reform of electoral policies (including proportional representation, lowering voting age, votes for UK citizens living abroad, social media codes of conduct, penalties for infringement of electoral law etc.).

To explore whether such an approach is feasible, I would suggest that MPs who have voted against the government and others who want to come on board, should take full advantage of the prorogation of parliament, decreed by Johnson, to meet with the aim of creating a long-term Pact for Democracy. If there is a consensus that it should be possible to sustain a parliamentary majority in the medium term, then this should be followed by the formation of a cabinet-in-waiting (including an interim chair), charged with immediately outlining legislative goals for inclusion in an early Queen’s speech.

The most divisive issue will clearly be Brexit and even within the “Pact” a parliamentary majority for a withdrawal plan or for staying in Europe is unlikely to be attainable at the moment. Until the government is able to define the kind of relationship that the country should have in the long-term with Europe and build public support for this, there is no basis for negotiating any agreement with the EU.  We should face up to reality and admit this, initiate a consultative process and request the EU to allow us to stay as full and active members for at least 2 more years, during which a referendum could be held.

Let Italy’s democratic success be an inspiration to all British MPs who now know what it takes to protect the sovereignty of parliament that Johnson has tried to hi-jack “to serve his personal interest” like his fellow-populist, Salvini.

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From Surrealism to Pragmatism

 

Surrealism was a word that emerged quite recently to describe art forms that seek to represent the subconscious.  We now come to use surreal in relation to the bizarre or irrational behaviour of individuals and institutions. When applied to institutions, surreal often implies a short-lasting uncharacteristic aberration from what we would expect to be their normal ways of operation.

The Brexit process has spawned an epidemic of surreal institutional behaviour because there is no rational explanation for continuing to pursue a process which our own government tell us will make our country – and many of us – less well off; that will rob Britain of the fiscal resources required to make badly needed public investments in the better services and infrastructure that voters want; that already puts at risk the unity of our Kingdom, and that wounds the institutions that have successfully nurtured the longest period of peace that Europe has enjoyed for centuries.

Why is it that, rather than face up to reality – to call a spade a spade – both of Britain’s major parties engage in a phony battle, indulging in endless fantasies, fudges and ambiguities? This is because the leave/remain divide slices through their parties and so their leaders cannot afford to alienate either remainers or leavers as this would endanger their chances of winning the next election.

While this behaviour might make sense from a narrow electoral perspective, it is a dangerous game that is bound to eventually betray voters and MPs on one side or the other within each party when negotiations on our future relationship with Europe move tardily into a decisive phase.

The call for a People’s Vote is a strong expression of voters’ lack of confidence in the Tory and Labour parties’ capacity to reach a deal with Europe that is in the best interests of people in all corners of the Realm. It is also an admission that what was the will of the people in June 2016 may no longer be so, now that we have got to know the scale of the problems to which we would be exposed by leaving the EU, especially in the case of a “no deal”.

Both May and Corbyn know that all the evidence accumulated since the June 2016 referendum tells them and us that the disengagement process has already made the country poorer than it would otherwise have been and that any Brexit, soft or hard, will compromise our long-term growth. It is abundantly clear that there is no way that either party could negotiate a deal that would be better than the present arrangement, even if this is not perfect. There is an urgent need to break the stale-mate and to put an end to pervasive uncertainty.

The only honest way out of this surreal situation is for Corbyn and May to grasp the nettle and jointly admit that, even if their hard-liners will scream and punch the air like spoilt children, they agree that the only realistic option now facing us is to revoke Article 50. This requires great courage on their part but to do anything different seems bound to lead us into the disaster of either a bad deal or no deal, no matter which main party would be in charge.

To endow it with legitimacy, this move could be made subject to confirmation by a People’s vote which seems bound to be favourable if the “revoke” option is championed by the leaders of all parties except for UKIP. And May and Corbyn would be able to live with a clear conscience, having acted bravely in the public interest rather than given in to the ceaseless bullying of party extremists.

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Has your life been damaged by EU Laws? The Scots don’t seem to think so

The last time that I wore my kilt was a couple of months ago in celebration of our baby grand-daughter’s christening. I like to wear the kilt on such occasions, having been born in Scotland and feeling proud of my Scottish ancestry. Hugh Trevor-Roper, the historian, may be right in claiming that today’s kilts are a relatively recent invention, but whether this is so or not doesn’t really matter: kilts and bagpipes are recognised around the world as symbols of Scotland, its history and its people!

Some 62% of my fellow Scots voted in the June 2016 EU referendum to remain in the European Union. Almost two years earlier, a somewhat smaller majority of Scots (55%) voted in another referendum against Scottish independence. This could suggest that Scottish people are generally happier about their relationship with Brussels than with Westminster.

It would be going too far to claim that both these results are entirely related to how Scots interpret the issue of sovereignty but this clearly played an important role in determining voter behaviour.

Sovereignty

“Sovereignty” is an ancient word which has been given a new lease of life by the EU referendum campaign. The reclaiming of sovereignty was portrayed by the proponents of the “leave” campaign as a highly desirable outcome because it would enable Great Britain to “take back control” of all aspects of government that it had “surrendered” to the European Commission. The implicit assertion was that the bureaucrats in Brussels had somehow usurped our sovereignty and so we had lost control over our own affairs.

Although “sovereignty” conveys a sense of absolute authority, such as that clamed by the supreme leader of North Korea, it is now normal for most modern governments to share elements of their authority with other entities when they consider that this is in the best interests of their citizens. Sovereignty is the power and authority of a government to do things and is only useful so far as it is used. Every time a government enters into a treaty or power-sharing agreement it uses that power and binds itself for the future. The UK is a member of possibly 3,000 international bodies, each of which it entrusts to take actions on its behalf.

The concept of sharing of sovereignty is central to the British government’s devolution of certain of its powers to Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland (as in the case of local government or education) while retaining authority over such issues as defence and foreign affairs which all parties agree can best be handled at UK level.

When Britain joins an international agency, it effectively endows it with a slice of its national power for the purpose of engaging with other countries on an equal footing to create and sustain shared institutions which carry more weight than single countries working alone. This can be exemplified, for instance, by the UK’s membership of NATO whose Military Committee effectively assumes command of part of Britain’s armed forces when it engages in joint operations or exercises.

Such selective pooling of elements of sovereignty by member governments is fundamental to the smooth operation of the 28-nation European Union. If the European Commission could not count on all its members to adopt similar standards when trading with each other, in managing environmental or health threats that are not confined by national borders, or in imposing sanctions on other nations, it would achieve very little.

The extent to which power has been shared in this way with other EU members is defined in the Treaty of Rome and its amendments.  Sharing of authority can add to the aggregate power of an individual country to safeguard the interests of its citizens, for instance through protecting their health through applying agreed standards on food safety or enabling us to have ready access to free health services across the region.

EU Law

For the EU to function smoothly and fairly, it approves regulations and directives. Most of these relate to the functioning of the single market and to matters with cross-boundary dimensions. They emerge from a thorough consultative process involving all member governments, represented by the concerned ministries. They are usually subject to the approval of the European Parliament in which all member governments are represented by democratically elected MEPs. Once issued, governments are required to implement EU laws and to bring equivalent national laws into line with them. Members can, however, challenge them if they can show that they are not consistent with EU treaties or plead for exemptions. Thus, the UK retains its independent currency and is not part of the Schengen Agreement that cuts border checks on people moving between signatory countries.

Any free trading arrangement between countries – whether it is the EU single market or one of the bilateral deals that the present British government aspires to negotiate with other countries – is necessarily based on agreed standards, not related only to specific goods but also to the conditions under which they are produced: this is to assure fair play. Trade agreements also require dispute resolution procedures to make sure that the parties adhere to the agreed rules. In the case of the EU, disputes are handled by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) from which the “leave” campaign proposed withdrawing. Yet, if Britain aspires to continue trading freely with Europe after Brexit, as the Government has stated, surely it will have to either rely on the ECJ (but probably without being able to appoint a judge) or create a similar parallel mechanism at considerable inconvenience to the remaining EU members.

The Case for Regulation

Most of us have mixed feelings about accepting and conforming with laws wherever they originate. Populists like to play on our natural tendency to resent regulation. In practice, we tend to be law-abiding unless we feel confident that we can get away with minor infringements. Many of us are happy to exceed the speed limit when we think that we won’t get caught, but, when we are warned of a speed camera, we take our foot off the accelerator! Few of us, however, would call for the abolition of speed limits or indeed of many of the other regulations that together contribute to the rule of law.

Whether we remain in the EU or leave it, our history and geographical juxtaposition as well as our desire for lasting peace make it of paramount importance that we maintain a benign and trusting relationship with our neighbouring European countries. The European Union has constructed, with our full engagement, a complex but generally effective institutional framework for managing this relationship, which necessarily must be protected by rules overseen by a jointly operated system of justice.

Scotland strongly welcomes the current arrangements with the EU and does not feel threatened by excessive regulation.  Now, more than two years after the referendum, there also seems to be a growing recognition amongst the majority of English voters that the bulk of EU law as applied in the UK is benign and tends to reinforce fairness in individual and corporate behaviour.

Perhaps the best way to arrive at a personal verdict on whether the EU has intruded unduly on our sovereignty is for each of us to ask ourselves whether we have actually experienced any instances in which we feel that our own lives have been negatively impacted by an intrusive reach of EU law into the UK. Similarly, can we point to specific UK-related cases handled by the ECJ in which we sense there has been a miscarriage of justice?

Irreverent Afterthoughts

One of the oddest things about Brexit is that those who have called most loudly for the reclamation of British sovereignty, have been the first to seek to avoid the engagement of parliament – where most of us would claim our sovereignty resides – in the process of disengaging from the EU. They have also sought to brush aside the objections to Brexit that have been raised by the devolved administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast – a disdain that seems bound to fuel latent separatist tendencies and hasten the break-up of our United Kingdom.

If Brexit should eventually happen, one could imagine that a vindictive prime minister might be tempted to decide that the Scots must be punished for their disloyalty, perhaps by forbidding us from expressing our nationalism through wearing our kilts!

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Time to chumble some numbles?

Time to Chumble some Numbles?

Brexit’s crumbling.

Voters are grumbling.

Discord’s still rumbling

May is stumbling.

Corbyn and Starmer are mumbling.

Vince? Just jumbling.

Boris is egocentrically bumbling.

Raab is incompetently drumbling.

MPs for ever are fumbling.

Meanwhile Sterling is tumbling.

For Britain it’s all very humbling.

To put it briefly, we can’t trust  present leaders to act in the public interest. It’s high time for a People’s Vote.