Friday, June 16, 2017

Macron throws UK a lifeline

French President Emmanuel Macron has dropped a thinly veiled hint to the United Kingdom electorate that the exit from the European Union need not be a given and the door stood open for a change of heart.

German Foreign Minister Wolfgang Schäuble chimed in on cue. “If they want to change their decision, of course they would find open doors,” he said in an interview.

Macron, still bathing in his twin triumph in presidential and parliamentary polls was meeting with UK Prime Minister Theresa May, hanging on by her fingernails after her election went horribly wrong. Interestingly, she did not rebuff the invitation outright, choosing instead to stick to her prepared address.

But as I said, Macon and Schäuble were not speaking to her, but to a UK electorate more divided than ever over Brexit. Despite their overtures, prominent Remainer, Sir Andreas Whittam Smith, writing in the Independent newspaper, drew little comfort from the development.

He points to the fact that both the still ruling Conservatives and the resurgent Opposition Labour Party have Brexit as part of their official policies, and that an opinion poll taken before the election showed that support for Remain had sunk from its level of 48.1 per cent at last year’s referendum to 45 per cent.

First that opinion poll: It was taken in the wake of a steady drumbeat from the Brexit dominated Government Front Bench that the issue was settled; it was all over and that nothing could halt the advance to the EU exit. Given that, it is not surprising that some disappointed and disillusioned Remain supporters felt like throwing in the towel.

However, that same poll showed just 47 per cent would still vote to Leave, down from 51.9 per cent at the referendum — a bigger slide in support for Brexit than for Remain and indicating a small but significant number, around eight per cent, were now considering their options.

On Sir Andreas’ other point: That at the General Election 80 per cent of those voting chose one of the two main parties that support Brexit. This skates over any consideration of Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s actual commitment to the cause.

Through most of the campaign he tried to ignore the issue, preferring instead to concentrate on domestic policies such as re-nationalisation and education reform. He did say that if he was in charge of the Brexit negotiations he would not leave without a deal — a certain degree of ambivalence which suggests that if the deal were not good enough; not in the country’s best interests, he would consider his position.

We should also consider the question of whether the mood of the electorate has changed, and might change further.

Of course there will always be the rabid, UKIP-supporting Brixiteers who would rather sing about Britannia ruling the waves as the ship of state sinks beneath them, but there are others, who bought the false arguments that the UK would be better off outside the EU with more money for the National Health Service and an opportunity to widen the country’s trading interests.

These are people who might be regretting their initial decisions — the eight per cent who might like to change their vote, but see no opportunity to do so.

They should take heart. There is two years to go before the UK has to fall through the trapdoor. In a 650-strong Parliament run by a minority Government there will inevitably be by-elections, disagreements between partners and factions on the way forward. There will be anything but the stability May so fervently desires.

We must continue with the negotiations demanded by the Brexit referendum, but as Liberal Democrat Leader Tim Farron has long maintained, that vote was for a journey, not a destination.

The people of the United Kingdom deserve a chance to vote on the terms of exit when they are fully known and understood and not obscured by flag-waving nationalists. There must be a second referendum.  

Saturday, June 10, 2017

What does the DUP demand of May?

One of the most surprising results of the arrangement between the United Kingdom’s Conservative Party and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland following the indecisive General Election was the speed with which it was put together.

Apparently it took just a telephone call between Prime Minister Theresa May and DUP leader Arlene Foster to cement the relationship. Contrast this with similar situations in the past — in 1974 and 2010 — when days of negotiations and horse trading were required before an outcome was reached.

While the DUP has much in common with May’s Conservatives, most importantly for her a desire to leave the European Union, it is inconceivable that it would not just give away this position of strength. The speedy resolution suggests only one thing — whatever the DUP wants, it will get.

As it happened I was present at the genesis of the party, on a hot midsummer night in 1970 when Ian Paisley swept aside the sitting Ulster Unionist Member for North Antrim to enter the British Parliament.

As a journalist covering the event, I duly reported that Paisley had put his win down to the “hand of God” at work in the electorate.

Its early name of the Protestant Unionist Party was changed to give it wider appeal and it gradually overhauled the Ulster Unionists, who had dominated Northern Ireland politics for decades.

Paisley remained at the DUP’s head for more than 35 years and while the hardline stance to power sharing with the province’s Catholic minority has softened, other positions — anti-same sex marriage, dismissive of climate change, opposed to abortion, opposed to international family planning programs — remain in place. It has in the past campaigned against the liberalisation of homosexuality laws.

Perhaps the greatest concern is over the future of the delicate power-sharing arrangements that have brought peace and a degree of prosperity to Northern Ireland for the past quarter of a century.

Should anything in the DUP’s demands concern major changes to this arrangement then a return to the ‘The Troubles’ — the sectarian violence that plagued the province for a generation from the late 1960s to the mid-1990s, would be more than possible.    


Sunday, June 4, 2017

UK’s chance to pull back from the brink

Later this week Britons will vote in an unnecessary election they did not want, called by an opportunistic Prime Minister who thought she could turn a modest majority in the House of Commons into a landslide.

Theresa May had checked the calendar and realised that if the Parliament had run its full course, she would face the electorate just months after having pulled the United Kingdom from the European Union when the results of that disastrous decision where beginning to bite home.

May’s Conservative Party would have been destroyed in a 2020 election and she knew it.

Instead she reasoned that by putting that date back a couple of years Britons would have time to get used to their new situation and she would be in a position to pull off yet another victory, cementing her place in history as the Prime Minister who delivered Brexit and survived.

It is a measure of May’s monumental arrogance that she truly believes she can do it — but this is not about an election in 2020 or 2022. Later in the week there is an opportunity to reflect on the course the nation is taking under the current leadership and consider whether that course is the wisest one.

I would encourage a vote for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, or in constituencies where it would do more damage to the incumbent Conservative, support for Tim Farron’s Liberal Democrats.

The best possible outcome would be a Labour minority Government, supported by the Lib-Dems on condition that the country has another chance to consider the terms on which it will exit the EU once the negotiations under Article 50 have been completed.

The referendum result of last year resulting in a 3.9 per cent majority in favour of leaving the EU must be respected and if he becomes Prime Minister, Corbyn must see it through, but Britons deserve a second vote when the facts of exit are confirmed and not obscured by nationalist slogans and jingoistic flag waving.  

It is not without some soul-searching that I urge this outcome against a party of which I was once a supporter and a member. When I was a boy Winston Churchill was still Prime Minister. I was born on the same day that Churchill, in a speech in Switzerland, advocated a “United States of Europe” as insurance that the continent would never again be plunged into a ruinous war.

And I was in the press gallery in Westminster when Edward Heath put his career on the line in a decision over whether the UK should except the terms negotiated for EU entry. “Without a vote in favour this Government cannot reasonably continue”.

Now I look at the current front bench — Johnson, Hunt, Leadsom, Davis — a medley of mediocrity, talent-challenged timeservers led by an opportunist with an inflated ego who would rather bring the country to ruin than consider compromise.

Electing Corbyn will certainly be a leap in the dark, better that than a plunge into oblivion.   

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Authorities move against cow vigilantes

Authorities are finally moving against the rising tide of ‘cow vigilantism’ in India after a train was attacked and railway staff beaten at Bhubaneswar Station in the Eastern State of Odisha.

Some 20 cows were being transported on the train to Meghalaya where they had been ordered by the State Government for dairy farmers, and there was no question they were destined for slaughter, authorities said.

“However, youths of a right wing organisation raided the parcel van suspecting cattle smuggling. Without knowing the truth, they unloaded the cows and attacked those who were tending the cows,” an official said.

The cow is a sacred animal for India’s majority Hindus, but use of the animal for dairy products is permitted.

After the Bhubaneswar incident Railway Police have opened a case against the youths, alleging railway staff and those tending the cows had been manhandled and the train delayed for 90 minutes. Interfering with the railway system is a serious offence in India.

A senior official of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) distanced the Government in New Delhi from the vigilantism.

Former President of the BJP, Nitin Gadkari said overseas news sources had tried to link the party with the incidents, simply because its majority support was among Hindus.  

“It seems that every saffron clad person who appears on television is automatically associated with the BJP. Violence committed in the name of protecting cows is not part of our agenda. These people are not our people,” Gadkari said.

“The Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has condemned these attacks. Our Government does not discriminate towards cast, creed and religion. Our fight is against poverty hunger and disease.”

Even so, the violence is increasing. Last month in the village of Jaisinghpur, 90 kilometres from New Delhi, a Muslim dairy farmer was beaten to death by cow vigilantes who accused him of slaughtering his animals, something that has been denied by his family.  

Authorities in Jammu and Kashmir have detained 11 suspected vigilantes after similar incidents there.

Human Rights Watch says 10 Muslims have been killed in cow vigilante attacks over the past two years.

Tensions between Hindus and Muslims have existed since the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 and outbreaks of violence have plagued the country ever since. There is a perception, especially in more remote areas, that the BJP is a party that favours Hindus and regards Muslims as second class citizens.

If this were true India, which has the second largest Muslim population in the world, could not function. However, as Gadkari pointed out, poverty, hunger and disease have still to be eradicated and while they continue to exist provide fertile ground for those who wish to promote discord.   

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.