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The Last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

It has been suggested that Boris Johnson (who becomes the prime minister of the United Kingdom this week) is what you would get if Donald Trump had been educated at Eton and Oxford. Maybe, although there is a great gulf between Trump’s bombastic self-promotion and Johnson’s self-deprecating, rather shambolic persona.

There is such a thing as a national style, and Trump’s shtick would fail as badly in Britain as Johnson’s would in the United States. But questions of style aside, the two men are almost identical.

They are both inveterate, shameless liars. They are both what lay people call narcissists and the experts call ‘sociopaths’: men (they are mostly men) who accumulate numerous wives, girlfriends and children as they go through life, but never really engage with anybody. And neither of them has any real purpose in politics.

They are quite good at winning, and they target the same sector of the electorate: older, less well educated people, frightened about their economic future, and often racist. Some of those who support them are none of those things, of course, but the courting of white nationalists by both men is unmistakable. The shriek of the dog-whistles is deafening.

What Trump and Johnson conspicuously lack is set of objectives that goes beyond merely winning and keeping power. Trump’s determination to expunge every trace of Obama’s legacy (healthcare, the Iran deal, etc.) gives him a kind of agenda, but an entirely negative one. Boris Johnson doesn’t even have that. His only role in British politics is to save the Conservative Party by ‘delivering’ Brexit.

Johnson wouldn’t be in Downing Street today if there had not been an election in Britain two months ago. It was only an election for the European Parliament, but Britain had to vote in it because it still hadn’t left the European Union despite two postponements.

The EU election did, however, give British voters an opportunity to express their views on Brexit, and it was catastrophic for the Conservatives. On the whole the vote split pretty evenly between pro-Leave and pro-Remain parties, but the Conservatives came FIFTH, behind the Greens and just ahead of the Monster Raving Loony Party.

Panic at Conservative headquarters! Their traditional voters are mostly Leavers, and they are so angry at their party for failing to get the job done, three full years after the referendum, that they are abandoning it for Nigel Farage’s newly formed Brexit Party. If there is a national election in the UK the Conservatives will be wiped out – and given the deadlock in parliament, an early election is quite likely.

So where’s Boris when we need him? We all know that he’s lazy, feckless, insanely ambitious, utterly unprincipled and liable to make huge mistakes, but we desperately need to rally the troops and he’s the one they love.

Boris generously agreed to help the Party out, so they unceremoniously dumped Prime Minister Theresa May and set up a contest for a new party leader that Johnson was bound to win. That automatically makes him prime minister as well, but he may be the last prime minister of a genuinely united kingdom.

Johnson can only succeed by taking Britain out of the EU by October 31st. He swears that he can get a better exit deal than Theresa May negotiated (which parliament refused to pass three times), but the EU says no further negotiations are possible. He could try the traditional remedy of shouting loudly at them in English, but it may not succeed.

If that doesn’t work, he says he’ll take the UK out of the EU anyway, without a deal. That would inflict serious economic hardship on the British population, but true Brexiters reckon that’s a small price to pay for leaving an organisation they detest. Half the English population doesn’t agree – and TWO-THIRDS of the Scots voted Remain.

If a largely English government drags the United Kingdom out of the European Union and into economic misery, then the Scots will probably decide to leave the UK and stay in the EU. The Scottish National Party is already promising another referendum on the question.

What happens in Northern Ireland with a no-deal exit from the EU and a ‘hard border’ between the North and the Republic is harder to predict. The shooting and bombing could start up again, or there could be a bitterly fought referendum on a united Ireland, or hopefully something less dramatic than either of those options would happen. But it will not stay the same.

So there’s rather a lot at stake, including the 300-year-old Union, and the man in charge is the farthest thing imaginable from a safe pair of hands. “Boris is the life and soul of the party, but he’s not the man you want to drive you home at the end of the evening,” as Energy Minister Amber Rudd put it recently.

If parliament can stop Johnson from doing a no-deal Brexit, of course, then none of this comes to pass. But it’s not at all certain that parliament can do that. The British are living in interesting times.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 14. (“They…deafening”; and “What…same”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

The Brexit Cult

Oscar Wilde described fox-hunting as “the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible.” Brexit may be similarly defined as the unhinged in pursuit of the infeasible.

Unhinged how? The last two men standing in the contest to replace Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party, and therefore Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, are Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt. Both of them have now promised to take the UK out of the European Union without an exit deal on October 31 unless the EU bows to their demands.

A ‘no-deal’ exit would be an economic catastrophe, for the UK’s foreign trade is currently conducted in accord with the myriad trade deals that the EU has negotiated over the decades on behalf of its members. Crash out and Britain would have NO trade deals in place, even with Europe.

Both contenders know that there would be huge economic pain, and still they press on. On Sunday Jeremy Hunt said he would willingly tell people whose companies went broke after a no-deal Brexit that their sacrifice had been necessary, although he would do so “with a heavy heart.” Boris Johnson simply says “F**k business.” (I am not making this up.)

Yet these two men belong to the Conservative Party, for almost two centuries ‘the party of business’. Unfortunately, that ship sailed some time ago. The party first became a vehicle for rabid English nationalism, and has now morphed into a secular cult that treats Brexit as the Holy Grail.

Conventional calculations of national interest no longer count. A recent YouGov poll found that 63% of Conservative Party members would be willing to see Scotland leave the Union in order to achieve Brexit. 59% were prepared to see Northern Ireland go too, and more than 60% were willing to accept ‘significant damage to the UK economy’. And it has to be the hardest, most damaging Brexit imaginable.

So yes, the Conservative Party has become unhinged – even though a perfectly sensible exit deal from the EU already exists. Theresa May signed it last November.

It’s not a great deal – you don’t have much negotiating leverage when you are walking out of a club with 27 other members – but it would preserve Britain’s ability to go on trading at advantageous terms with the rest of the world. However, May could not get her deal through because she has only a tiny majority in parliament, and the extreme Brexit wing of her own party would not vote for it.

Johnson and Hunt both vow to junk May’s deal and ‘renegotiate’ a better one, but that truly is infeasible. The EU has said plainly that May’s deal cannot be ‘renegotiated’, and repeats it almost weekly. Neither Johnson nor Hunt can make all 27 EU countries change their position by sheer force of personality.

They must know this, but they must pretend otherwise because the 160,000 members of the Conservative party who will decide between them – an overwhelmingly white, male and very prosperous group, average age 57 – believe with an almost religious faith that Johnny Foreigner will always crumble if you shout loudly at him in English.

It is the purest fantasy, and only a madman would want the job that Johnson and Hunt are vying for. As the fantasy collides with reality round about October, all things will become possible: a no-deal Brexit, the collapse of the government, the disintegration of the Conservative Party, a new election, or even a second referendum that sweeps all the nonsense of the past three years away. (56% of British voters say they would now vote ‘Remain’.)

Whatever the outcome, this is a delusional and destructive way of doing business. The latest round of gurgling insanity in Britain was brought about by the collapse of the Conservative vote in the otherwise unimportant elections for the European parliament in May: they came fifth.

The Conservatives panicked, rightly concluding that they will be toast in the next UK election if they don’t ‘deliver’ Brexit to their voters beforehand. Hence the defenestration of May and the search for a new leader who can somehow make the delivery before the party has to face the voters again.

Brexit now means a no-deal Brexit, since the EU is not going to abandon the existing deal. But the arithmetic in parliament has not changed either, and parliament has repeatedly rejected a no-deal exit. Johnson and Hunt have therefore both said that they would shut parliament down temporarily, if necessary, to get no-deal through. So much for democracy.

You can see how the British got into this mess in terms of cause and effect, but the sheer ignorance, incompetence and cowardice of the political class, and especially of the Conservative Party, is still stunning. It makes Donald Trump’s White House look well run.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“Whatever…again”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

A Funeral in Ireland

Yesterday (Wednesday) the Taoiseach (prime minister) of the Republic of Ireland, Leo Varadkar, and Prime Minister Theresa May of the United Kingdom, both showed up in Belfast in Northern Ireland for the funeral of a young woman called Lyra McKee. So did the president of the Republic, Michael Higgins and UK opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn. It’s quite possible that none of them had even heard of her a week ago.

She was a promising young journalist, already well known in the small world of Northern Ireland for her political journalism and her LGBT activism. She was killed a week ago by a New IRA terrorist while covering a riot in Derry, the British province’s second city. It was a mistake, of course: the terrorist was probably trying to kill one of the police officers who were standing nearby.

The funeral was held in Belfast’s main Protestant cathedral, St. Anne’s, although McKee had grown up Catholic. Both Catholic and Protestant clergy conducted the funeral service, in a joint rejection of the sectarian violence that is creeping out into the open again in Northern Ireland. That is why the prime ministers and other high dignitaries were there too – but it may be too late.

Lyra McKee described herself as a ‘ceasefire baby’. She was only eight years old when the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, ending thirty years of ‘The Troubles’, a terrorist civil war between Protestant and Catholic extremists that killed over three thousand people in a province whose population is less than two million. But the war wasn’t actually about religion.

The Protestants were loyal to Britain (and resentful about losing the absolute dominance they once enjoyed in Northern Ireland). The Catholics were ‘nationalists’ who looked forward to the day when they would be the majority in Northern Ireland (thanks to a higher birth rate), and then to the great day when all of Ireland will be united and the ‘Prods’ of the North are reduced to a tiny and helpless minority.

They fought each other to a standstill, and in 1998 they signed the Good Friday Agreement, which created a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland and put an end to the killing. Most people realised it was a truce, not a final peace settlement, but many hoped that given enough time it could grow into something more. Generational turnover has solved a lot of the world’s problems.

In the meantime, the deal allowed a generation of young people like McKee to grow up in a relatively peaceful place. It might still be a place with a hopeful future today if the English had not voted to leave the European Union three years ago in the ‘Brexit’ referendum. (I say ‘English’ deliberately, because both the Scots and the Northern Irish voted for the United Kingdom to stay in the EU.)

The problem with Brexit is that the Good Friday Deal depends on a completely open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. In fact, an invisible border: no police, no checkpoints, little visual evidence that it even exists. That, plus the right to have an Irish passport instead of a British one if they chose, was what persuaded the North’s Catholic nationalists to settle for a draw in the war.

Everybody in Ireland saw the problem with Brexit: if the UK withdraws fully from the EU – no customs union, no ‘single market’ – then the ‘hard’ border will have to reappear in Ireland. The more extreme nationalists will see that as a betrayal, and the guns will come out again. But the insular idiots promoting Brexit in England weren’t even aware of the problem.

They’re aware of it now. The Republic of Ireland remains a member of the EU, and it got the other members to insist that protecting the ‘soft’ border must be part of the British withdrawal agreement.

Last November Theresa May signed that agreement, which says that all of the United Kingdom must stay in the customs union until some UK-EU trade agreement is signed that still allows free movement of goods (and people) across an invisible border.

That could be a long time from now, or even never, in which case the UK never really leaves the EU. It just loses any say in the EU’s policies. So the outraged British parliament has spent the last two months rejecting not only the withdrawal agreement May signed, but every other proposal for leaving (or staying) that has been put before it. Pathetic, really.

Meanwhile, the first terrorist attacks are getting started again in Northern Ireland. The ‘dissidents’ who formed the Real IRA in 2012 are nationalists who never accepted the truce. They have been waiting for an opportunity to reopen the revolutionary liberation war that they imagine was betrayed by the Good Friday Agreement, and Brexit is giving it to them.

There was a car bomb outside the courthouse in Derry in January, and last week the New IRA tried to kill a police officer and shot Lyra McKee instead. As Will Francis, her literary agent, said (quoting William Faulkner): “The past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.”
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10, 11 and 12. (“They’re…really”)

The Brexit Border Backstop

The other Europeans are not laughing at the English for the most part. They are looking at them with pity and scorn. But also with a great deal of impatience.

On Tuesday the British parliament rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s ‘deal’ for Britain’s exit (‘Brexit’) from the European Union, painfully negotiated over more than two-and-a-half years, by an overwhelming 149-vote majority.

It was the second time parliament, including a large chunk of her own Conservative Party, rejected the deal she made with the EU last November. And the main reason both times was the so-called ‘backstop’: a commitment by May’s government to avoid a hard border in Ireland at all costs.

Today (I am writing on Wednesday), the British parliament will also reject a proposal that Britain just leave the EU without a deal. ‘Crashing out’ would mean instant customs barriers at the United Kingdom’s port, airports and land borders, with immense disruption of trade including food imports and industrial supply chains. It would be an economic disaster.

On Thursday, once that option is foreclosed, the British parliament will vote on asking the EU for a postponement of the departure date (currently scheduled for the 29th of this month). That vote will almost certainly pass, but neither the government nor parliament can even agree on how long a postponement to ask for.

If your local daycare was this feckless, you’d move your children at once.

The EU will probably grant the United Kingdom a delay to avoid a ‘no-deal Brexit’, but there will be no more negotiations: the delay would only be to give May time to sort out the politics of getting her deal through. It will be a long delay, not just a few weeks, because nobody believes she can do that quickly (if at all). And it will require the consent of all the EU’s 27 other national leaders.

It’s all about the ‘backstop’. That’s why parliament won’t pass May’s deal, and it’s why the EU refuses to re-negotiate it.

May’s November deal with the EU promised that the United Kingdom would stay in the existing customs union with the EU, and also remain closely aligned with the ‘single market’ that guarantees the free movement of goods, capital, services, and labour across the whole EU – until and unless the two parties negotiate an alternative arrangement that keeps the inter-Irish border unpoliced and almost unmarked.

If you drive the 500-km. border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, the road crosses it dozens of times (there are 270 vehicle crossings). The only way you know you have crossed the border again is that speed limits are posted in kilometres in the republic, but in miles in the North.

But for 30 years during the ‘Troubles’ (1969-1999), which saw 3,000 people killed in a province of less than two million people, the border was a war zone. British soldiers, of whom hundreds died there, called it ‘bandit country’.

The killing ended with the ‘Good Friday agreement’ of 1999, which managed to achieve a compromise between the Protestants of Northern Ireland (who feel British) and the Catholics (who mostly identify as Irish). There would be power-sharing at government level, and the border with the Republic would become invisible. The Irish nationalists in the North could even have Irish passports instead of British ones.

Brexit is almost entirely an English nationalist project – Scotland and Northern Ireland both voted to remain in the EU – and the Brexiteers just ignored the fact that leaving the EU would sabotage the Good Friday deal by creating a hard border in Ireland. There would have to be customs officers and passport checks, or else there would be huge amounts of smuggling and an uncontrolled flow of illegal migrants.

But a hard border would bring the war back, even though most people don’t want it. The population on the UK side of the border is overwhelmingly Catholic, and any attempt to control the border without putting officials on it will fail: the local people will just destroy the cameras and other sensors.

But put in customs officials, and you will need police to protect them – and soon enough you will need soldiers to protect the police. Welcome to the Troubles, volume two.

So the Irish government demanded that the border stay open and invisible. It is and will remain a member of the EU, so that became EU policy. Which means Northern Ireland (and therefore all the rest of the UK) must stay in the customs union until someone comes up with a magical method for controlling the border invisibly.

That’s why the ‘backstop’ was necessary, and Theresa May accepted that when she signed the deal last November. But she cannot sell it to her own party’s hard-line Brexiteers, let alone to the other parties in parliament. Magical thinking still rules, and the arrogance is as breathtaking as the ignorance.

What happens next? Nobody has any idea.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 1 and 7. (“The other…impatience”; and “The EU…leaders”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.