Friday, May 19, 2017

Dangerous times in the rush to the Brexit

It isn’t a good time to be a public servant in the United Kingdom. As the General Election campaign enters its final weeks, with the ruling Conservative Party still well ahead in the polls, the rhetoric is becoming increasing aggressive towards anyone who dares to question the Government’s main election plank — its headlong rush to exit the European Union.

‘Do you stand with Britain or with the EU?’ was the question in one newspaper headline, demanding that the nation “rally behind Brexit”. The right-wing media is encouraged by an increasingly authoritarian Prime Minister and Ministers who, according to some insiders, are treating senior public servants more like hired hands than trusted advisers.

This is not because the various Permanent Secretaries and other senior officials are seeking to derail Brexit; rather they are simply pointing out the pitfalls along the way and the requirement for additional resources to fill them — not unreasonable considering cuts to the Public Service over the past seven years that have left it smaller than at any time since World War II.

While Prime Minister Theresa May persists in saying it is ‘she’ who will be going to Brussels and that ‘I’ will be conducting the negotiations, in reality it is the Public Service who will be doing the heavy lifting and if the whole Brexit mess disintegrates, it is the hopelessly over-stretched service that will be fingered for the blame.

Much of the problem lies with the increasing influence of ‘special advisers’ to Ministers who are supplementing and even supplanting the advice that was once the prerogative of Permanent Secretaries. It is a trend that has been going on for decades, but has been taken to a new level in the current administration.

The stories going the rounds in Whitehall are that May listens only to her two senior advisers, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, who have been given the power to slap down any public servant who dares to warn of dangers ahead.

The spin they pump out is that in the face of a triumphant Prime Minister strengthened by a resounding election win, EU negotiators will fall over themselves to give the UK a favourable trade deal almost before the ink on the final exit documents is dry.

That is nonsense of course and senior bureaucrats past and present know it, but the fantasy is ruthlessly pursued and should the Government get the majority everyone is forecasting there will be no more stoplights on the road to ruin.

One only has to look across the Atlantic to see an example of what happens when a leader goes rogue. President Donald Trump went to Washington promising to “drain the swamp” but in less than four months is fast sinking into a swamp of his own making.  

Trump is facing the reality that it is one thing to deliver slogans to adoring audiences in a school hall in Indiana, quite another to produce legislation that makes any kind of sense in the world of realpolitik.

If good comes out of the continuing catastrophe of his administration it should be the demise of the myth beloved by the Tea Party right that Governments can be run like businesses and that it only needs good, solid business sense to solve all the problems of the world. 

In France, which has a more sophisticated electorate than in many Anglo-Saxon countries, the so-called rise of the right received a severe and deserved setback.

While he likes to portray himself as an outsider, newly-elected President Emmanuel Macron knows the reforms he plans can only be worked through with the support of knowledgeable and talented functionaries in the various Ministries that make up the continuing system of government.

That lesson has come too late for Brexit. What happens in Washington in the days, weeks and months ahead, is anyone’s guess.

Friday, May 12, 2017

UK political games and the media

One of the more alarming developments of the current United Kingdom election campaign is the increasingly heavy handed treatment of the media by both major parties.

While the management of news has been a feature of campaigns since the 1990s, never has the control been so rigid and journalists treated with such distain as in the last few weeks as both leaders race around the nation, anxious for photo opportunities at every stop, while denying access to any newsperson who might start asking awkward questions.

Prime Minister Theresa May has been regularly shunning local media, with regional outlets often barred from even filming or photographing her when she does the routine rounds of their factories, hospitals etc.

Reporters who did get to speak to her at an industrial estate in Helston, Cornwall were allowed two questions each with no follow-ups before the Prime Minister was ushered away.

The representative of a website, Cornwall Live, was not even allowed this access with the inexplicable reason given by a minder: “We consider you print media”.

The editor of Hampshire Life magazine, Simon O’Neill, said this was nothing new: “It happens everywhere she goes,” he said.

Even more blatantly, her visits are coinciding with four-page wrap-arounds in local newspapers, giving the impression that the publication is endorsing her in the election.

The wrap-arounds, which have the headline Theresa May for Britain, are of course paid advertising — and that is confirmed in a tiny banner at the top of the page, but the fact they appear on the news-stands covering the newspaper’s actual front page gives the appearance of a news story.

Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn is taking an opposite approach on his travels. He tends to shun the national press and broadcasters following his campaign, but opens up at length to local media.

At a recent stop in Bedford only local journalists and one member of the Press Association were invited to his media conference at which he concentrated on Labour’s promise to save a hospital in the town.

The strategies are clear enough. May wants the campaign to be fought on the overriding issues of the UK’s impending exit from the European Union, its management and its aftermath. She does not want to be bogged down with parish pump-style issues.

Knowing his past Brexit performance has been less than scintillating, Corbyn wants to concentrate on subjects which he believes are closer to the hearts of everyday Britons such as health, education and infrastructure, while keeping the largely hostile national media at arm’s length. 

Political correspondent of the online website Buzzfeed, Jim Waterson says the tactic worked in Bedford at least.

“Look at the coverage he got. The Bedfordshire local news story was about Corbyn backing a local hospital rather than responding to the national agenda. That’s the sort of stories his team wants,” Waterson said.

One of Corbyn’s election promises is to hold a national review into local media amid concerns about the declining number of journalists, but it does not take an inquiry to understand what is happening, and why politicians can take such liberties with journalists which they would not have dared to do even a decade ago.

Traditional media is in decline in most Western countries, but more so in the UK where news about redundancies and closures are a weekly occurrence.   

With people increasingly turning to social media and online news sites for their information, and print media readership plunging, politicians can safely play fast and loose with those journalists who remain, feeding them media releases they can safely assume will never be followed up or questioned.

The wrap-around saga is a case in point – newspaper proprietors throwing ethics overboard in a desperate grab for revenue.

How this plays out in the turbulent times ahead is anyone’s guess.  

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Why we need establishment insiders

In the lead up to the second round of voting in the French Presidential election, both contenders have been going to great lengths to paint themselves as “outsiders” who, if successful will shake up the “establishment”.

Nothing unusual about that: Almost every candidate in modern polls says exactly the same thing as they make their pitch to voters. Over the years it has been considered electoral suicide to be in any way connected with the established order. To be effectively labeled an “insider’ was courting political death.

And yet, how many aspirants to high office in recent times can truly claim to have come from outside the governing establishment? Almost none in most Western democracies. The very fact they are in a position to run in the first place means they have connections which have promoted their cause, helped them along the way, given them a leg-up when it mattered  most.

There have been some individuals who were more of an outsider than others, but when they achieved their leadership positions, their records have been particularly grim.

The 39th President of the United States, Jimmy Carter had some claim to be an outsider. Certainly he was hardly known outside his home state of Georgia until he snatched the Presidency in the wake of public disgust over the Nixon era Watergate scandals.

Carter’s four years in office were marked by a stagnant economy, plunging public confidence, high inflation and his bungling of the Iran hostage crisis. When the next election came round, many Democrats, sensing annihilation, tried to deny him re-nomination, putting up rank insider Ted Kennedy in an attempt to salvage the party. It failed and Carter deservedly went down to a landslide defeat against Ronald Reagan.

In the United Kingdom Parliamentary system it is impossible to rise to the top without being an insider, given that leaders are chosen from among members of the House of Commons who have served their time there.

But if anyone can claim outsider status it is the current Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, who was elected straight from the backbenches, having never had a Ministerial or Shadow Ministerial appointment.

Since then his Labour Party has collapsed in opinion polls, he has suffered a walk-out of 23 of 31 Shadow Cabinet Ministers and it looks likely his weak, vacillating leadership is going to condemn his colleagues to long years on the Opposition benches.

Current US President Donald Trump, the businessman who was going to “drain the Washington swap” is looking ever more isolated and ineffective, unable to get a single piece of major legislation through Congress despite his Republican Party having a majority in both Houses (at the time of writing his healthcare package had still to pass the Senate).

Trump has been reduced to firing off salvos of executive orders, some already facing challenges in the courts.

Carter is a thoroughly decent man who has done great work with his Foundation since leaving office, winning him a Nobel Prize. Corbyn has been an undoubted campaigner for the less fortunate, both as a volunteer working overseas and as a union official. Trump is a highly successful businessman.

All three found and are finding that running or aspiring to run a country is a far different matter from the success they had in fields more suitable to their talents.

In today’s ever more complicated world, grand gestures and posturing are fine on the campaign trail, but there it ends. Reforms can come only from the inside, and only when able and experienced people work to assist their passage.

The ‘Establishment’, ‘elite’, call it what you will, is not going away, because it is indispensable to any elected leader. It comprises the bureaucrats, academics, think tanks, and commentators who provide the smooth engines of continuity and, where necessary enable adaption to sensible change.

It has been the case since the days of the Chinese emperors and always will be, simple because the alternative is chaos and anarchy. 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Macron — the EU’s unlikely champion

On the night of his narrow win in the first round of the French Presidential election Emmanuel Macron thanked his supporters in front of two huge flags — one the tricolor of France, the other the 12 stars on a blue background the symbolises the European Union.

The next day his opponent in round two, Marine Le Pen, announced she was stepping aside from the leadership of her hard right National Front Party because she believed that as a presidential candidate she should be “above partisan issues”.

The battle-lines have been drawn and the overriding issue in the campaign will be the future of France in Europe.

Macron’s belief in the European experiment is total. The EU, he says, should be at the heart of French politics — he would seek closer cooperation between its members in finance, defence and immigration.

That does not mean he accepts the current state of the union, but he is passionate about reform coming from within and, if the United Kingdom is to leave, to be driven by its two remaining large members, France and Germany.

Le Pen, on the other hand, makes no secret that she would be happy to see the EU implode and a return to independent nation states — a system that has repeatedly plunged the continent into war over the decades and centuries before the Treaty of Rome.

She knows she has the job ahead of her, and is well aware that in 2002 when her father, Jean-Marie, managed to sneak into the second round after a split in the leftist vote, he gathered hardly any extra support and was trounced by the Gaullist, Jacques Chirac. 

Distancing herself from the National Front is not only an attempt to lure voters from centre-right parties but incredibly, to woo the far left of La France Insoumise which has absolutely nothing in common with her except a distaste for European integration and globalisation generally.

The speed with which the extremes of ‘right’ and ‘left’ can merge into each other is on display in Russia. Who would have imagined that the former apparatchiks of the Soviet Union would be toasting the fortunes of a hard right Marine Le Pen, as happened quite publically in the Kremlin at the weekend? 

Macron’s initial strong showing follows defeats for nationalists in Austria and the Netherlands — an indication the right’s gleeful prediction of an EU demise is premature. On the face of it the former investment banker and public servant is an unlikely champion to lead the fightback against populism, but then again, these are unusual times.     

Friday, April 21, 2017

May’s dangerous grab for more power

A few days ago United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May stood outside her residence in Downing Street and gave a series of reasons for her spectacular about face in calling an early General Election for June 8.

She said that although the country was coming together after last year’s vote to leave the European Union, Parliament was not.

Labour had threatened to vote against a deal reached with the European Union.

The Liberal Democrats would grind the business of Government to a standstill.

The Scottish National Party would vote against the legislation that formally repealed the UK’s membership of the European Union.

The “unelected” House of Lords had vowed to fight Brexit “every step of the way”.

Every one of these statements is wrong — a series of red herrings put up in an attempt to disguise the Prime Minister’s real agenda — a blatant grab for more power.

Firstly, the country is not coming together on the issue of leaving the European Union. It is true that a recent poll put support for EU membership slightly down from the June, 2016 referendum total of 48.1 per cent, but this is hardly surprising given the stream of Brexit rhetoric that has been spewing from Ministers in the months since

“It’s all over”; “there’s no going back” has been the steady drumbeat from the Government, backed by hysterical headlines from the pro-Brexit media, more or less accusing anyone of treason for daring to question the wisdom of what is happening.

In view of this shameful harassment, it is surprising that the pro-EU lobby still stands solid at around 45 per cent.

As the main Opposition party, Labour has constantly said that it respects the referendum result, but reserves the right to criticise and seek to amend aspects of the final negotiated deal, if it feels that it is not in the country’s best interests.

That is what opposition parties do in a democracy, and it would be a disgrace if Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn were to meekly accept in advance whatever outcome is negotiated in Brussels.

The Liberal Democrats have indeed said they want to examine the final EU exit deal line by line, but with nine members in a 650-strong House of Commons, they were hardly in a position to hold up the legislation for long.

And anyway, is it not right that the most historic (and dangerous) decision taken by Parliament since World War II should be debated at length. What are days or even weeks of delay against the years of regret that a wrong decision would inevitably bring?

This same reasoning applies to the Scottish Nationalists who rightfully must represent their constituency that voted strongly to remain in the EU only to see its vote overwhelmed by England. The party currently holds almost all the Scottish seats and given the anger over May’s refusal to grant an independence referendum, then announcing a General Election they did not want, nothing is likely to change.

Finally to the House of Lords: May stressed it is an unelected chamber as if she had just found that out on the way to the podium. The Lords have been unelected in all the centuries of their existence. They are a good deal more democratic now than in the days when membership was the hereditary right of a privileged few.

Membership today is mostly through appointment by the Monarch on the recommendation of the Government. People of many walks of life are members — politicians, judges, academics, scientists, sports people, public servants.

Its task is to act as a house of review of Government legislation and it can recommend amendments, but in the end it has to bow to the will of a determined lower House of Commons.

Thus it is completely false for May to blame the Lords and the Opposition parties as the reasons she called a General Election. There was absolutely nothing that could not have been achieved though her current majority of 17 in the House of Commons.

What she and her shadowy coterie of advisers did see was the main Labour Opposition locked in a civil war over its leadership and trailing the Conservatives by something like 20 per cent in the polls — and the chance of a landslide victory that would make Parliament almost an irrelevance in future negotiations with Brussels.

There are some disturbing features emerging about May’s leadership — her constant use of the personal pronoun “I have a Government to run”; “I will take this to Brussels”, and the possessive “my Government” used endlessly.

It was present even in her election announcement: “Every vote for the Conservatives will make me stronger when I negotiate for Britain with the Prime Ministers, Presidents and Chancellors of the European Union.”

It should be remembered that only a Supreme Court ruling stopped the Prime Minister from by-passing Westminster completely and then only after a vigorous defence of this patently anti-democratic position during a failed appeal.

Supporting Remain during the referendum campaign, May switched sides with all the fanaticism of a convert and has relentlessly rammed home the Brexit message ever since. With a substantially increased majority on June 8 she will be able to ride over the opposition on any deal she could make, however rigorous the terms might be, as she hurries towards her place in history as the leader who took the nation out of the EU.

Of course history will judge her, and in the fullness of time that judgement might be harsh, but like all politicians, as opposed to statesmen, her vision is myopic and she cares only for the moment. 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Figuring a case for uniting Ireland

Statistics from last year’s census in the Republic of Ireland have emphasised three main points: The country is getting older, the number of people that can speak Irish is declining, and the Catholic religion is losing its hold on the population.

The first two developments are not surprising. Ageing populations are affecting most developed and many developing countries as people put off having children either to accumulate wealth or as a matter of simple survival.

While it is regrettable that Irish is less spoken (despite the valiant attempts of the Government) it is hard to argue with the simple desire of people, especially among the young, to concentrate on a means of communication that will be understood across borders.

Irish, like Welsh, is unlikely to die out completely, but may well be relegated to a boutique tongue used principally among linguistic enthusiasts.

What is most interesting is that in a population of 4.7 million almost half a million told the census they had ‘no religion’. This is now the second largest group behind those who declared themselves Roman Catholic (3.7 million — a fall of 132,220 since the last census in 2011).

The number of non-Irish citizens, at half a million, was more or less steady, but dual Irish nationals showed a significant rise to 104,784, up 55,905.

This suggests that the Ireland of today is more cosmopolitan and outward looking than at any time in its history. It is also potentially richer. The crash of 2008 that hit the country harder than most others in Europe has now been largely surmounted and the economy is well on the way to a full recovery.

These are statistics that will not go unnoticed north of the border where the people are contemplating a United Kingdom embarking on a course that will take them out of the European Union — something which they voted solidly against in last June’s referendum.

The fear in Northern Ireland is that Brexit will mean the reinstatement of a hard border with the south, ending the free movement of the people that is one of the major features of EU membership.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May has said only that free movement would be a “desired” outcome of Brexit negotiations — a clear message that it could be bargained away during the talks.

Another outrageous suggestion, that the soft border be retained with a hard border between the island of Ireland and Great Britain, has disgusted even the staunchest Unionists.

There is, of course, another possibility – the full reunification of Ireland and continued EU membership for the north, something which would have to be accepted in referendums on both sides of the border.

When I worked in the north more than 40 years ago such talk would have been tantamount to treason in some communities, but today Ireland is no longer the “priest-ridden banana republic” of Ian Paisley in full flight.

In the end Paisley’s attitude softened; the Irish Republican Army put away its weapons. Faced with the unpalatable outcome of a Brexit they did not want, the people of the north might be ready to make their own historic choice.     

Friday, April 7, 2017

China’s Dali Lama protests rebuffed

The Dalai Lama’s visit to the north-eastern Indian State of Arunachal Pradesh brought angry and entirely predictable protests from Beijing, which calls the area “disputed territory” and has even produced maps showing it as ‘Southern Tibet’.

Chinese State media warned of the usual “severe consequences” in bilateral ties, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs weighing in with “grave concerns” and “serious damage” to Sino-India ties.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said that by approving the Dalai Lama’s visit there “India has harmed the India-China relationship and fuelled tensions”.

The Buddhist leader was unfazed at the outpouring of hostility. “No problem; it’s normal”, he was reported as saying.

What wasn’t so normal was New Delhi’s vigorous defence of the visit, a significant change from its past polite indifference to the protests.

In a reply, Junior Home Minister, Kiren Rijiju, essentially told Beijing to butt out of India’s internal affairs.

Stating that the visit was a religious one with no political significance, Mr Rijiju said Arunachal Pradesh was an inseparable part of India and China had no right to interfere.

Another official went even further on the matter. “The Dali Lama does not need our approval to visit Arunachal Pradesh. This is a free country”, the official said.

Speculation in New Delhi over the Government’s hard line stance centred on a response to Beijing blocking India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group last year. “I think this sends a clear message that if China affects our interests then we are going to bite back,” one source said.

The Dalai Lama has been a thorn in Beijing’s side since, as a young monk, he fled across the border from Tibet to escape invading Chinese forces. His first refuge on Indian soil was the Tawang Monastery in Arunchal Pradesh which he intends to visit during his current tour.

Later the Indian Government offered him a base in the hill town of Dharamsala, where he set up a Tibetan Government in exile.

Now 81, the Dalai Lama insists he is more interested in providing spiritual guidance to his followers rather than fermenting Tibetan nationalism, but he remains a powerful symbol to Tibetans bridling under the Chinese yoke.

He has already visited Arunchal Pradesh and the Tawang Monastery several times during his period of exile.