Sunday, June 26, 2016

Brexit legacy is a disunited kingdom

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is absolutely right in her intention to put the case for her country’s independence to a second referendum following the overall United Kingdom vote to leave the European Union.

The suggestion that Westminster would refuse to allow it because the 2014 independence vote was a ‘once in a lifetime’ event has been negated by the ‘once in a lifetime’ decision to leave the EU.

Circumstances have radically altered, especially as Prime Minister David Cameron stated in 2014 that Scotland’s best hope of continuing to enjoy EU benefits was to remain in the United Kingdom.

Scotland’s 62 per cent to 38 per cent vote for Remain is a clear expression of the Scottish will to be part of the European family. Not to allow a further question on Scottish independence so that it could take steps to attain that goal would be reprehensible to say the least.

Over the years I have spoken with many Scots who expressed irritation that their constant left-of-centre voting preferences were overwhelmed by those of much larger England. This latest slap in the face may be one too many.  

I note that Northern Ireland is also coming into the equation with possible overtures from Dublin to raise the question, once again, of a united Ireland. The north did indeed vote for Remain, although not quite as emphatically as the Scots, but I doubt that the Loyalist elements there are ready for such a radical departure.

The aftermath of the Brexit vote has also raised the question of the referendum itself. Britain is unused to this device, which it has only begun employing on a very much ad hoc basis in recent times.  

Countries that use referendums regularly as part of their governance structure often build in safeguards requiring a two thirds or three fifths majority in favour of change, or the status quo is maintained. That way if change is achieved it is with something approaching a consensus, avoiding what US Founding Father John Adams described as the tyranny of the majority.

This was not used with the British vote which saw Leave scrape through by just under four per cent. This has left a huge disenchanted minority, who are already making their feelings clear.

It has turned sections of the country against each other – London was solid in its support for Remain, the Midlands and large parts of the north for Leave. It has pitted Millennials who were strong for Remain against Baby Boomers who equally flocked to the Leave standard. Rich against poor, employers against employees.

It is, of course, too late to change the rules, the result stands, but the repercussions have only just begun.

England has made its bed, now it must lie in it.  

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Why the vote should be for Remain tomorrow

Shortly after the 1975 referendum in which Britons had voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union (then the European Economic Community) I spoke to an old friend of my parents on his reasons for his pro-European vote.

On the face of it, Wilfred Heggadon was an unexpected recruit to the European cause – a lifelong Conservative and a farmer at a time when the European Common Agricultural Policy was one of the most contentious issues on the national agenda.

His answer to me was simple and compelling: “I have lived through two world wars and I have no wish to see a third”.

Over many years since, whenever people have asked me: What has the European Union ever achieved? I have always answered first and foremost that since it has existed, no war has been fought within its borders.

This has often been greeted with incredulity. I have been mocked, told that the European peace since 1945 had nothing to do with the EU, that it was just the natural order of things.

Then I have invited them to consider the European situation before 1945 – World Wars II and I, the Franco-Prussian War, the Crimean War, the revolutions of 1848, the Napoleonic wars, the War of the Spanish Succession, the 30 Years War, the 100 Years War, back to the days of the Roman Empire.

Europe was ravaged by conflict, millions died, millions more lived in misery as the armies of one would-be conqueror after another tramped back and forth, burning cities, ruining crops, opening the continent to famine and disease. 

As Europe entered the 20th century the problems grew even worse. The nationalistic fervour of a few kings and potentates allowed the continent to sleepwalk into World War I, the most destructive war in history. The foolish triumphalism of the victorious nations at the Treaty of Versailles made World War II inevitable.

I have heard Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill quoted by those who think we should still be fighting on the beaches, but here is what Churchill actually said in a speech in Zurich,  just over a year after World War II had ended, in which he laid out his solution for a lasting peace: 

“Yet all the while there is a remedy which, if it were generally and spontaneously adopted, would as if by a miracle transform the whole scene, and would in a few years make all Europe, or the greater part of it, as free and as happy as Switzerland is today.

“What is this sovereign remedy?

It is to re-create the European Family, or as much of it as we can, and provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom.

“We must build a kind of United States of Europe.

“In this way only will hundreds of millions of toilers be able to regain the simple joys and hopes which make life worth living.”

It is hard to go to war when you are sitting around the same table.

The European experiment is still a work in progress and far from perfect, but it is so much better than the alternatives.

The choice is to strive to improve it or to give up and walk away. For all our sakes vote Remain tomorrow. 

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Why Brexit is so wrong on immigration

In the last few days before the referendum on whether the United Kingdom should remain or quit the European Union, those in favour of leaving, or a Brexit, as it is popularly called, will continue to play what they see as their trump card – immigration.

They will say that without sovereign control over its borders the UK will be swamped by millions of Turks; there will be unacceptable strains on public services such as health and education; there will be no control over an influx of murderers, rapists, and terrorists to its cities, the crime rate will soar, the streets will not be safe.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

We have heard this call down through recent history (remember Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood?). Every time the opposite has been the case. Britons should know this because they have seen waves of immigration in the past – West Indians, Indians and Pakistanis, Ugandan Asians, and indeed from the EU itself.

In all cases these new arrivals have actually been net contributors to the economy, paying more in taxes than is spent on them. Overwhelmingly, they work hard at whatever jobs they can find — often at jobs the indigenous population rejects. Check the hospitals and schools: Health and education could not function without their contribution and those of their sons and daughters.

There will be no ‘Islamic invasion’ from Turkey. That country needs to carry out a mountain of internal reforms before it is eligible for EU admission and until then visa restrictions will still be in place. And yes, under current EU rules the UK can keep out criminal elements – rapists, murderers and terrorists included.

The other leg of the Brexit case is an appeal to blind patriotism: ‘Give us back our country’; ‘make Britain great again’; ‘Let’s stop being dictated to by faceless Civil Servants in Brussels’. I have even heard Winston Churchill being quoted (perhaps Brexit supporters should look up his ‘United States of Europe’ speech delivered on 19 September, 1946 in Zurich).

The thrust of these slogans appears to be that the United Kingdom can roll back the clock to the days when the mother country presided over a Commonwealth where the sun never set and that Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the rest will immediately jump to replace the EU as trading partners.

Sadly for this simplistic philosophy, the world has moved on from the 1950s and 60s. Australia’s main trading partner is China, followed by Japan. Canberra is far more interested in what happens in Shanghai and Tokyo than it is in London or Manchester.

Australia no longer looks to the mother country or regards the UK as ‘family’. Its population has undergone change as its own waves of immigration have brought Vietnamese, Chinese and latterly Indians to its shores, complimenting earlier arrivals from immediate post-war Europe – people who have little or no interest or enthusiasm for a renewed British connection.

The Economist newspaper states that almost half of the United Kingdom’s exports go to Europe. To find new markets for these Britain would need to replace the dozens of trade pacts that it benefits from by being in the EU. The process would be slow and frustrating, as President Barack Obama has pointed out, because the UK, on its own, would be a weaker (and inexperienced) negotiating partner.

In the meantime, the standard of living of ordinary Britons would decline, the pound would lose value; the cost of all imported goods would rise. I do not hold with the forecast that the results would be catastrophic (blood in the streets etc.) but it is inevitable that the country and its people would be worse off — considerably worse off — than they are today. 

These are facts that should be considered by Britons as they go to the polls on Thursday – not the obfuscations, half-truths and downright lies pedalled by Brexit.

Britons can vote to leave the EU, but they cannot vote to leave Europe. The continent has provided the UK with its partners, its allies, its foes and its battlegrounds throughout history. This week Britons have a choice between the pursuit of prosperity with these traditional neighbours and the uncertainties of an inhospitable and indifferent world.  It should really be no choice at all.    


Thursday, June 16, 2016

Putin’s gleeful silence over Brexit

Over this long British referendum campaign, world leaders have been queuing up to plead with Britons to vote to stay in the European Union.

The message, from United States President Barack Obama to Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has been clear: It’s for Britons to decide, but they should weigh the Brexit consequences carefully.

Of course there is a degree of self-interest here, as has been demonstrated by the jitters in global markets as Brexit moves ahead in the public opinion polls. A radical shift in direction for the world’s fifth-largest economy is bound to have international reverberations, especially as London is one of the great financial centres.

Amid all the commentary there has been one cone of silence. Nothing, absolutely nothing, has been said on the issue by President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

That does not mean Putin doesn’t have an opinion. He simply feels it is in his best interests to refrain from comment.

Of all world leaders, Putin wants Britain out of the EU. In fact he will be dancing a jig next Thursday if Brexit prevails over Remain in the referendum. That is because he has one equation in mind: A British exit equals a weaker EU equals a stronger Russia.

Possibly also because a much weaker and friendless Britain would eventually be forced to cosy up to Moscow, providing Putin with a dagger pointing straight at the heart of the Western European democracies he so despises.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, one of the few Western political figures who sees Putin for what he is and is not afraid to say so, summed it up recently when he said: The only country, if the truth is told, that would like us to leave the EU is Russia — and that should tell us all we need to know.”

We can expect Putin to keep his silence, at least until the campaign is over — I doubt that Brexit would want the active support of the man who sends his agents to London to poison British citizens — and it has been left to a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, to trot out the stock denial.

“Russia has nothing to do with Brexit at all. We’re not involved in the process. We have no interest in this field,” Ms Zakharova said.

Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she?

In the last few hours a man, apparently shouting “Britain First”, murdered Labour pro-EU MP Jo Cox in the street near her office in Yorkshire. My heart goes out to her husband and two young children.

It can only be hoped that this is an isolated incident, the work of a deranged individual, and not a sign that political life in Britain is descending to the level of that regularly experienced in some, less fortunate, societies.         

Monday, June 6, 2016

Brexit retreats to the immigration ‘safe ground’

With the vote on whether the United Kingdom leaves the European Union less than three weeks away there has been a less than subtle change in the Brexit campaign, away from economic arguments and onto the emotive issues of refugees and immigration.

The move was inevitable. For weeks now business leaders, economists, academics and senior public servants have been all but unanimous in their warnings of the consequences that a United Kingdom would face outside Europe.

Everything from a loss of markets for the country’s exports, to falling investment, to the possible loss of millions of jobs currently linked with, and to a certain extent dependent on, membership.

These serious questions have largely been answered by slogans and statements so unsubstantiated by the facts as to deserve to be dismissed as voodoo economics.

A typical example is the latest comment by Brexit boss Boris Johnson that the UK would face a “triple whammy of woe” should it remain in the EU, with an extra £2.4 billion ($A4.7 billion) bill to pay for Europe’s “stagnation, unemployment and lack of growth”.        
As has often been the case during the campaign, these figures are plucked out of the air with no substantial backing. While EU growth remains modest it is at least heading in the right direction and certainly does not deserve Johnson’s self-serving, doom-laden forecasts.
Could Britain exist outside the EU — of course it could. Its security would be more difficult to police; its trade would suffer from being cut off from a market of 500 million people on its doorstep , and it would have much work to do arranging its own economic ties with nations such as the United States, Japan and Canada which it currently enjoys through EU membership.
Yes, the UK could survive, but is it really worth sacrificing these current advantages for nebulous claims about “loss of sovereignty” or “taking back our country”?
The economic message has been resonating so Brexit is retreating to what it sees as the safe ground of immigration.
But even that ‘safe ground’ is shaky, and here is one example: Brexit claims that that Australian and New Zealand nurses and doctors will be forced out of the National Health Service to make way for EU citizens. This ignores the fact that overseas candidates from anywhere must pass an English language examination known as the IELTS test, which rates them on a scale of one to nine, before they can work in the country’s health centres and hospitals.
Of course nurses and doctors must have a firm grasp of English. To allow anything else would be courting disaster. The test requires candidates to score a seven in the areas of speaking, listening, writing and understanding. Obviously people from English-speaking countries have an in-built advantage.
That is not to deny many EU citizens will also be fluent enough to pass the test, but figures clearly show they will never be present in sufficient numbers to displace staff from English-speaking Commonwealth countries.   

The flood of refugees from the Middle East and Africa is a clear challenge, not just for the EU and Europe, but for the world. The UK can be far more effective working towards a comprehensive plan within Europe rather than hauling up its drawbridge and pretending it is someone else’s problem.