Indy 2

Nicola Sturgeon enters a fantasy world

nicola sturgeon 2 by TIMBritain’s first referendum was held on June 6th 1975 to approve or reject the EEC agreement reached 2 years’ earlier by Edward Heath. Clement Attlee said that referendums were “a device for despots and dictators.” In the 1970s, Mrs Thatcher thought Lord Attlee was probably right. Louis Napoleon (Emperor Napoleon III) used 2 referendums just over 12 months to overturn the fragile French Republic in 1851 and confirm his December coup d’état as legal and constitutional. Hitler held 4 referendums in 1933 (to leave the League of Nations),  1934, 1936 and 1938 (they were then banned for 60 years), so did Mussolini in 1934 (ostensibly an election, it was seen as “the second referendum of Fascism”) as did Pinochet in 1980 and Ferdinand Marcos (who used 3) and JR Jayawardene in Sri Lanka who used a referendum to prolong parliament by 6 years. Colonel George Papadopoulos and the Greek Generals seized power using a referendum in 1973 to legitimise their rule. Putting too much trust in Referendums, in other words, is to cosy up with some very disturbing bedfellows. We have just had two referendums in two years. Surely that is enough for now.

Today, when we might have expected the news to be dominated by the final stages of the Brexit bill going back through the Commons, the First Minister of Scotland said she planned to trigger Indy 2.

While I think there is a case to be made for a version of Brexit that recognises the 62% vote for remain in Scotland, and while I think a compromise approach may well give the UK overall some access to the EU, however we pursue Brexit, I also think that now is not the time to be discussing these details. More than that, Nicola Sturgeon demonstrates today that she is prepared to pick and choose which referendums she accepts and which she rejects. Either we accept in principle what is returned in a referendum or we do not hold a referendum at all. I am not a fan of the referendum as a concept-I think it is a very clumsy tool, but we cannot keep rerunning referendums until we get the result we want. Isn’t that what is done in Europe? Isn’t that why we have rejected Europe?

In 2016, Greece voted in a referendum by 61% to 39% to reject the Austerity measures. No one paid any attention. In 2008, Ireland voted against the Lisbon treaty by 53% but it was ratified nonetheless after Ireland held a second referendum (as it also did in 2001 when it rejected the Nice treaty and had to try again). The Lisbon treaty was a replacement for the TCE which was roundly rejected by referendums in France and the netherlands in 2005. Significantly, Lisbon was not the subject of a second French referendum.

As for the actual substance of Indy 2, this is very confused. The first Minister might have a case that the Brexit decision represents a “significant and material” change and chimes in with the SNP manifesto, but the practice of holding another referendum and getting the result she wants is by no means certain. More than that, even if she gained a “Yes” for independence, which is far from certain, there is no guarantee that Scotland would even be allowed to stay in or moreover re-enter the European family as a separatist state. The Spanish, for instance, mindful of their own Catalonian issues, might well be reluctant to reward such displays of independence.

The Immanent Gove

Michael Gove today penned a piece in the Times suggesting that he had access to Mrs May’s latest thoughts, indeed the very words she might utter in only a matter of days.Quite apart from the irritation of finding senior politicians jumping on the bandwagon of false news, his piece simply repeats arguments that were surely sorted out at about 8am on 24th June.

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I think much of what he thinks the PM will say will remain wishful thinking, but it is still deeply mistaken and misleading.

I think Mr Gove’s greatest mistake lies in a misunderstanding of what it means to lead the country, something he aspired to do and that Mrs May is now doing. Mr Gove thinks that what matters is “the truth”, but truth is a relative and constantly changing concept. What matters instead is “responsibility”, or “trust”. I think this is a single concept though expressed in two words. For it is not possible to have one without the other. It is something Mr Gove failed to earn and, moreover, a concept that is much bigger than the referendum and certainly bigger than Brexit. It is about doing the right thing at the right time and with confidence. Today, when Brexit is presented, a number of politicians, and certainly Mr Gove, seem to abandon not only reality and rational thought but also a belief in the primacy of Parliament for naive demagogy as if they are still not sure they won, and have to rehash the same arguments over and over again.

Put bluntly, has Mr Corbyn not been a sufficient warning to you?

Mr Gove sets the tune of his piece by referring to Ronald Reagan and Mrs Thatcher. Reagan’s plan for the cold war- “Simple — we win; they lose.” But that is not quite how it panned out, was it! Let’s look back a little further:

While France and America embraced revolution, Britain quietly changed from one leader to another. The “glorious revolution” may not be quite all it was cracked up to be, but it demonstrates a way of behaving that Mr Gove absolutely forgets. Revolutions, if pursued relentlessly, are out for blood and that has not been the British way. We want to forge a quiet rethinking of the status quo, and if possible, seemlessly merge from one form of rule to another, maybe, if absolutely necessary with a mild embellishment to the union flag.

Mrs May is quite right in repeating her mantra that “Brexit means Brexit” just as she is quite right in being tight-lipped about exactly how that will play out. Even if she triggers the process in a month, we still must wait two years for that act to play out, and during that time, much of the Europe we know today will have changed beyond recognition. Catalonia lingers, Le Pen lies in the penumbra of perceptual power and Germany smoulders with discontent to say nothing of Greece, badgered and badgered until it is made to feel like a poodle puddled in the Aegean. The only thing that we can be certain about is the Responsibility Mrs May has been given as our leader and the trust we place in her.

What I find most disturbing is the claim that we know what “the electors wanted” when they voted for Brexit. The fact is, we can never know just as we can never know what they wanted when they voted for Mr Corbyn. All we have is the result which in and of itself says nothing about immigration, control of borders, the single market, hard or soft Brexit. It is simply a mandate for leaving the current arrangement, a recognition that the EU as it stands is failing. A referendum is not a result in itself – it needs interpreting and circumstances will change. That is inevitable.

Also, though I hesitate to point this out, the Brexit vote was far from uniform throughout the country and a clever Brexit will allow for, and placate the 48% who voted to retain our place in Europe.

But I hope we are fast approaching the day when we will stop hearing what Politicians think the electors voted for. No one really knows. Equally the obsession with anticipating the way we leave Europe needs to stop. We need to leave the negotiating team to do its job.

The obsession, drummed up in part by people like Mr Gove and Mr Farage, about how we leave in fact allows Brussels to avoid the full force of the blow of that Referendum decision. Indeed, this obsession gives a platform to Mr Junker, who rather than falling on his sword as one of the architects of modern Brussels, can join Gove and Farage and pontificate about HOW we should be going. What folly for Junker to be mocking Milord, when his own house is burning down.

Mr Gove gave a tv interview a few weeks ago and demonstrated what a thoughtful, centred man he really is. I do not understand, therefore, why he needs to play to the gallery like this when what we really need is his keen intellect and analytic support at the centre of Government. What Mrs May does not yet say is that any form of Brexit means a re-ordering of Europe because she knows the European project is bigger than the EU. Because the future of Europe and the role it will play beside us is as much our concern as the manner in which Britain will be defined two years’ hence.

John Donne writes,

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No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.

As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:

Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

Dom Wolf

The Guardian thinks it is going to cause trouble by personalising an issue that I have mentioned a few times.

The story of Dom Wolf, a British born man of 32 who accidentally has a German passport, however, makes uncomfortable reading. He is not alone in finding himself embroiled in an expensive, frustrating and time-consuming battle with the Passport office. His story comes hard on the heels of Sam Schwarzkopf and Monique Hawkins, both of whom received rather aggressive form letters telling them to prepare to leave the country as far as I can tell because they had not included their original passport with the application form, an option, incidentally that was advised or at least permitted.

To be honest, the Passport office has already issued an apology to Schwarzkopf but it is not quite enough: this is what he was apparently told:

“My MP got involved in this, writing letters to the Home Office, and this was very helpful. At first they explained that this was simply the way they write their rejection letters, but eventually someone wrote back with an apology. More importantly, they said they would take this issue on board and consider changing the phrasing. From the story in the Guardian, it sounds that at least so far they haven’t changed it yet.”

The Monique Hawkins issue raised another anomaly which her husband explained:

“As a British citizen, I had the expectation that marrying someone from abroad would automatically give them the right to become a British citizen. That seems to be the case unless your wife happens to come from the European Union,”

The issue is not really about the chaos of the bureaucracy but about our failure to grasp the moral nettle. We should certainly not be waiting for the EU to decide whether British nationals can legitimately remain in EU countries after Brexit before we decide the fate of those EU nationals who have been staying here often for many years. We should take the initiative and leave the EU officials to play catch-up. It should not be a game of tit-for -tat and this is not the major negotiation we should be having with the EU. Success or failure on this point would be cheap and cruel. There are some issues that simply should not be up for negotiation- a line should be drawn in the sand and we should move on from there. If the EU does not agree, then the EU will be the one to look morally shoddy.

We need to “man up” and seize the moral high-ground here because the longer we wait to see whether “brexit means brexit” on this particular issue, the uglier it will become.

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Sir Ivan Rogers

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Whether Sir Ivan is a pro or anti-Brexiteer matters very little, he remains a man of consummate experience and his departure today is a very sad comment on the way debate and negotiations about our future with Europe are so-far progressing.

Sadly, I think in many Brexiteers’ minds, Sir Ivan is inextricably linked to his two mentors Sir Kenneth Clarke and Tony Blair but there is a big difference between what his private views may have been and what his public office represented. With so many years at the top end of the civil service and our ear in Brussels, his will be a very hard act to follow and he will be a tough man to replace.

If he was pushed, it is likely that it was a result of his leaked and pessimistic forecast that it would take 10 years to leave the EU whether a few EU officials may have thought otherwise or not. But it is highly unlikely that he himself was behind such a leak.

Should Sir Ivan have resigned months’ ago when Brexit was announced? Probably not. This is a man who successfully served two different parties as a senior civil servant. He was well-placed to execute policies he may not have liked- but frankly, we do not even know that. All we know is that he gave ministers his honest assessment that completing negotiations in a two year time-frame was over-optimistic.

He was due to resign in Autumn. It’s a shame he was not allowed to wait till then.

When we abandon dignity and kindness, we can all but abandon hope.

I hope we have not got to that point: it would be good to hear at some point that senior UK officials tried to persuade him to stay. So far, there has been nothing reported to suggest that was the case. Quite the contrary.

The Olds have it! the Olds have it!

The ‘wiser’ generations, generally speaking, have a keener ear for nonsense. The EU, no doubt, a mushy construct of liberal ideology, bureaucracy, and hubris, must register on their radar with the footprint of some alien mega-spaceship – the stuff of Independence Day. The babbling of the ‘young’ can be dismissed as endearing but deluded naivety. So the grey voters crowded into the voting booths, walking sticks and all.

The tragedy is that now, in the wake of ‘having it their way’, this wiser generation has apparently paused, ‘realized’ its terrible mistake and, equipped with a wandering index finger, on the closest keypad, and in half an hour, has found an ‘online petition’ and signed it. Today, that petition is upwards of 3 million votes.

The most irresponsible part of this process is the lack of conviction.

Meanwhile, the lacklustre response that we have had from the EU means that they are still bureaucratic. The fact is that Juncker hasn’t yet resigned and that Merkel is still throwing her weight around as if nothing had happened, while Hollande and Tusk wallow in repeating useless platitudes;  and instead of begging the UK to sit at the table and discuss reasonable demands, these lords of Europe remain as supercilious and hubristic as ever. The fact that they claim to have looked at all options, mock Cameron for failing to prepare for Brexit, and yet have no contingency plans in place and that they insist on walking blindfolded to a political crisis of epic proportions means that they are as liberal and self-obsessed as they have ever been.

But the EU’s moves are being carefully watched by those young economists and young social commentators who voted stay, but who are now starting to think they might have voted the wrong way.

 Those working for the markets wonder, what country will follow Britain’s exit. Greece? Portugal? Italy? Will we see the partitioning of Spain with the Catalonian vote only 3 weeks away? How will the EU negotiate further fiscal consolidation between the Eurozone members, when each member can now play the Exit card?

juncker

Those with more of a cynical edge who write blogs wonder- how will a divided EU stand up to Russian aggression and export its principles of democracy beyond Europe? Can Europe really afford or allow the break-up of the United Kingdom? What happens to the UK’s seat as a permanent member of the UN Security Council? Should the UK’s permanent membership, in any case, or in the near future, be substituted for England and would Scotland, independently have its own claim?

There is, of course, the matter of greed: France and Germany, jealousy watched London become the financial capital of the World and profit from the riches that came with it. The French sacrificed their national pride to keep Paris beautiful, unharmed by German planes – so why aren’t American Investment banks flocking to Paris or to Frankfurt for their European headquarters? The answer is that investment bankers too have a keen sense for nonsense.

The UK will undoubtedly face economic consequences. It is widely expected that asset prices will fall, starting with house prices. The housing market has received two shocks this year, firstly, when Osborne (welcomingly) increased stamp-duty for second-time buyers, which so far has led to a 5% downward correction in house prices and secondly, with the Brexit vote. Real Estate Funds like JJL and CBRE have already started postponing their planned UK investments. CBRE only invested £180 this year, compared to £650 in 2013. Many leading investors are predicting a correction averaging 10% in the commercial real estate sector, particularly in London.

 The DAX, CAC and FTSE, which are all very good indicators of economic expectations, have dropped to 2011 prices. The pound and Euro are both taking a beating against the dollar and other currencies, while bonds yields have dropped to record lows; which together with an appreciation in the price of gold, indicate investment is drying up.

 It is perhaps too early to tell how the general economy will react, but a correction downwards in GDP figures is widely expected. The low exchange rates might improve exports, but that is expected to more than be countered by the fall in investment and consumption.

However, this isn’t all bad news. The fall in asset prices will provide much-needed relief to some social anxiety. Housing might, in this way, become cheaper for first-time buyers. Wages in the lower thresholds will probably increase as unskilled European labour goes home. The NHS will have fewer patients and doctors may have an easier time working, maybe only 10 hours a day. Parents will scarcely have to worry about getting places in schools.

The real losers might still be the EU. The money that was flowing out of depressed continental assets and into the UK, won’t stop flowing out. Switzerland and Norway will probably have their hands full in the near future. The hostility to investors remains a core principle of French liberalism (thus the EU); simply ask Emmanuel Macron.

Greece remains a troubled asset, (property of the German state – before Tsipras came along, whoever knew you could actually buy a country?) and fiscal unity seems to claim exponentially more of Draghi’s seemingly infinite life-line. The EU may just survive Brexit and is determined to do so; it may even survive another shock like Brexit (should we call that Catalonia?), but it won’t be able to avoid a third shock.

DONKEY

Nothing is written in stone. The will of ‘the people’ might change and a second referendum, whether Blair proposes it or not, may become a political necessity given the weight of the UK in the global political arena. However, rather than turn around and backtrack, we should be further convinced that the outcome of the referendum was the right one. If the EU buries it’s multi-headed self in the sand and refuses to acknowledge that we didn’t leave on a whim, let the olds have it; the olds have it.

Cameron gets his place in history

cameron.jpgNot a triumphal end to Cameron’s tenure sadly, but there are many things we can be proud of- not least the fastest growing Western Economy and his social vision which saw Gay marriage pushed through despite the whinging of many backbench MPs in the party who saw fit to misquote scripture (see my previous blog on this!). Against the odds, Cameron won the last election and secured Scotland in the UK. Triumphal! It now falls to someone else, maybe, and I hope, Boris, to patch up the problems left behind. A great man who has achieved great things leaves behind a problem that is perhaps even bigger than any of his successes.

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I am inclined to think that, despite the serious wobble with the pound as Brexit hit the headlines, we can still work with Brexit. And, moreover, I think there is a future outside the EU. The debate certainly puts issues firmly on the table, and now I hope Europe will also take these same issues seriously, because if the EU fails to reform under this pressure, then we have made an even bigger miscalculation and we have given even more backbone to the monster growing on our doorstep or at least across the channel! Let’s be frank, the EU has had and has ignored warnings in the past- Greece should have been a wake-up call, but the response from Merkel and her cronies was arrogant and wrong. Brexit is altogether a bigger thing and cannot or should not be so lightly tossed off. Barking orders at Britain, as she barked at Greece, will simply not do. (And we thank God we do not have Varoufakis to make a case to Merkel, the man who might have a charismatic presence but who thought Game theory should ever be taken seriously).

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The negative legacy that Cameron leaves behind is the one, however, that will probably enter the history books, particularly if Nicola Sturgeon follows through- Cameron will be the man who fractured the EU and who broke up the United Kingdom. The double whammy in union-break-ups! Going back a bit to the infamous “purring” story, there is a hint of hubris in this story that must be evident to a man like Boris steeped in the classics. I hope that was partly in his mind when he was paying tribute to the PM yesterday. Nobility will emerge! And I wonder whether there is room to consider a salvage operation that leaves Scotland and Northern Ireland in the EU? As nothing is clear, nothing can be ruled out!

The EU debate had been going on even before Cameron entered politics as an advisor, but he witnessed the damage it did at first-hand to the tail-end of the Thatcher Government and throughout the Major administration. Blair had a better ride but some close calls from Europe too, especially in 2006 when other EU countries acted fast enough to spare Blair his own Referendum chaos; Blair was lucky in power in a way that the last two Conservative Prime Ministers have not been but I hope, and I presume, nevertheless, that Cameron, like Sir John Major, and in contrast to Blair, will mature into a Statesman of stature once he leaves office. To this end, Cameron sent a letter round today with the following, which I think makes it clear he already has his eye on the bigger picture:

The British people have made a choice. That not only needs to be respected, but those on the losing side of the argument, myself included, should help to make it work.

Federalism vs Nationalism

As I write, I note that Lord Feldman is stepping down as Chairman of the Conservative party at the same time David Cameron quits in October. Their successors will have quite a juggling act ahead, because whatever Britain does next, the mess in our own backyard across the channel shows no signs of going away. They are victims of something that has been going on for about 20 years now.

andrew-feldman

Today’s BREXIT news is just one example, albeit a dramatic one, of the collision between Federalism and Nationalism that has been building up for a few years now across the EU, and looks set to continue with the Spanish referendum, as well as calls in France for a referendum and a revival in Greece of GREXIT ambitions as a third bailout inches forward.

We could try some cod-psychology and say that the rise of Nationalism is a response to some wider global phenomenon, but the truth is that we have no way, at the moment, of judging where it comes from, except that across Europe and beyond, there is a genuine wave of far-right activism, seen most strikingly in the recent Presidential election in Austria, while Jobbik has had tremendous success in Hungary (where it organises a uniformed guard to police Roma areas), as has Poland’s “Law and Justice” Government which came to power in October, the Swiss People’s party, Marine Le Pen’s Front national, the “Freedom party”in the Netherlands, and the Danish People’s party scoring 21% in the last election- Then there are “The Finns”, the Sweden Democrats and down in Greece, the abominable Χρυσή Αυγή as well as our own UKIP here in the UK. I am not sure about how Nationalist is “Our Slovakia” but it did quite well in the last election, and, of course, Germany has its own Nationalist party called “Alternative for Germany” AfD, led by a fairly ferocious woman called Frauke Petry who thinks it is legitimate to shoot refugees (“the use of armed force is there as a last resort”) and that women (I assume she means German women) should have at least three children. there are less successful but equally vocal right wing movements in Italy (the Northern League), the IRL in Estonia, the LDPR in Russia, Slovak Nationalists, Attack, Svoboda, Serbian Radicals and the HČSP, otherwise known rather worryingly as the Croatian “Pure” Party founded by war criminal Ante Pavelic which currently says it is against “NATO, the EU and Gay Marriage”.

ivan HCSP

There has also, oddly, at about the same time, been a surge in committed socialism as seen in the rise of Tsipras and Corbyn, two people who I am sure mean well but who manage power with a spectacular mix of arrogance and incompetence. The arrogance comes from the size of the  popular vote that thrust them into office (we should be careful not to confuse legitimacy with popularity) and the incompetence- well, that is clearly a natural gift in each case. Both have a certain charm. I might enjoy having these men round for tea, and I am sure their conversation would be tremendous fun, but I would not trust either to run my country. Indeed, I think neither Tsipras nor Corbyn ever expected to be elected and so both could offer all manner of promises and absurdities to their respective electorate that they now have to make good and neither was fully prepared for the job. Today, both men seem mostly committed to dithering or forgetting to wear a proper tie.

Modern Europe has also seen a rise in political idealism, what I imagine Mrs Thatcher would have called “Federalism”, most notably in the personnas of Tusk, Jean-Claude Juncker and of Frau Merkel, all of whom, I think, are deeply mistaken in the way they see the European project and their own roles within it. Of course, with hindsight, I am sure they might have surrendered more to David Cameron in the months before the Referendum, but that is the problem with so many of these people- they are locked into a belief that their own ideology, and their own authority moreover, whether European, far Right or far left, is of paramount importance to their overall identity. People are bigger than these passing belief structures, and the only way to tackle such ideologues is to be big enough to bend slightly. The EU was defeated by BREXIT because it was perceived to be undemocratic and inflexible, which quite bluntly is a valid belief.

I think it does not automatically now fall to others within the EU to sort out its future. We still have a role to play in what happens, and we have an interest in the way our neighbours operate. It can no longer be “business as usual” and it is not just about our future!