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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)’.

Brexit and Drugs

A drug bust can ruin your whole day, so it’s best to have a get-out-of-jail-free card ready. In the United States being white will usually make the police take a charitable view, but in the United Kingdom the best strategy is to say that you are planning to go into politics. (Although being white helps there too.)

These observations are prompted by last week’s scandal in the United Kingdom, where by Saturday seven of the ten candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party had been outed as former users of illegal drugs. This includes all three leading candidates for the job, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and Jeremy Hunt, one of whom will therefore almost certainly become prime minister next month.

The revelations were prompted by a just-published biography of Michael Gove, currently Environment Secretary, which revealed that he had used cocaine repeatedly twenty years ago, when he was still a journalist. Indeed, on at least one occasion in 1999 he hosted a party at his Mayfair apartment in London where the guests were openly using cocaine.

Now he says that “It was a mistake. Now I look back and think ‘I wish I hadn’t done that’.” Although mentioning it quite recently to his media coaches in what he thought was a private training session was his real mistake.

But he deserves to suffer. On the day after that party in 1999, Gove wrote a column in ‘The Times’ in which he condemned ‘middle-class professionals’ and ‘London’s liberal consensus’ for treating recreational drug use as a harmless peccadillo. In the trade, that’s known as working both sides of the street.

So Michael Gove wins the Hypocrisy Cup, but it was a highly competitive event. Boris Johnson, tipped to win the Brexit succession struggle after Theresa May’s resignation, hasn’t said anything about drugs recently, but journalists swiftly dug up a 2005 television appearance in which he said quite a lot.

“I think I was once given cocaine, but I sneezed and so it did not go up my nose. In fact, I may have been doing icing sugar.” Vintage Boris, but a) he did think he was doing cocaine, and b) in a 2007 interview he said that he had tried both cocaine and cannabis at university, but that they had “no pharmacological, psychotropic or any other effect on me whatever.” This is known as the ‘Bill Clinton’ or “I did not inhale” ploy.

And then all the other candidates for Conservative Party leader and British prime minister were asked the same question. Esther McVey said: “I have never taken any class A drugs [heroin and cocaine], but have I tried some pot? Yes, when I was much younger.”

Andrea Leadsom, Dominic Raab and Matt Hancock all said that they had smoked cannabis at university, but had never done ‘hard’ drugs. Jeremy Hunt was more creative, admitting that “I think I had a cannabis lassi when I went backpacking through India.”

Nicely done, that. Hunt didn’t really know it was cannabis, he’s been around a bit – and he dodged having to say what other drugs (if any) he had done.

And finally Rory Stewart, who explained that he went to a village wedding in Afghanistan when he was walking around the country. It would have been rude to refuse: “I was invited into the house, and the opium pipe was passed around.” And then the Bill Clinton defence: the family was so poor that they may have put very little opium into the pipe.

There’s nothing surprising about the fact that seven out of ten prime ministerial candidates have done some drugs. You could hardly have gone to university in the 70s or 80s in Britain – or anywhere else in the West – without sampling at least a few. It doesn’t seem to have done them any harm, except perhaps politically.

The shame and the hypocrisy lie in the fact that these men and women belong to a government that routinely jails other, less privileged people who have done exactly the same thing, or at least bans them from working in their chosen profession (as Michael Gove’s department did to teachers found to possess class A drugs, even at home, when he was education secretary).

Should we legalise all recreational drugs? Of course we should. They would no longer support vast criminal empires that exploit their illegality, and they would be less likely to harm people if their quality was monitored by the state. Some people would get addicted, just as with alcohol or tobacco, but that’s less a function of the drugs than of the individual’s vulnerability to addiction. Which particular substance hardly matters.

Legalisation of ‘hard’ drugs is not going to happen in this generation, because there is still too much political mileage to be gained by ‘fighting’ them. But here’s a consoling thought: the people who will finally decide the Conservative leadership contest are the party’s 160,000 paid-up members, who are socially conservative, mostly rural, and well over 60 on average.

If anybody is going to punish these hypocrites, it’s them.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5, 10 and 13. (“But he…street”; “Nicely…done”; and “The shame…secretary”)

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)’.

Brexit Chicken

9 January 2019

There’s no need to practice bleeding, as the soldiers say, but the British government didn’t get the message. On Monday, it paid 89 truck-drivers £550 each ($930) to simulate the immense traffic jam that will happen in Kent if Britain crashes out of the European Union without a deal at the end of March.

The drivers had to bring their vehicles to Manston, a disused World War Two-vintage airfield in Kent, where the government is planning to park 4,000 big trucks if a ‘no-deal Brexit’ on 29 March leads to new customs checks on trucks heading for Europe. Every extra two minutes’ delay at customs, say the experts, would mean another 15 km. of trucks backed up on the roads leading to the cross-Channel terminals.

So the drivers parked their trucks on the airfield, then drove down to the port in convoy while the traffic-control experts measured…what? This wasn’t the 10,000-truck gridlock jamming the roads that might happen in late March. It was a single file of 89 trucks driving sedately along an uncrowded road. It looked like an exercise in pure futility, a Potemkin traffic-jam.

Yet it did have a rational purpose – a political purpose. It was being staged to persuade the British public, and especially the British parliament, that Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative government really will take the United Kingdom out of the EU without ANY deal if parliament does not accept HER deal.

May’s deal is almost universally disliked. The Remainers hate it because they don’t want to leave the EU at all, and the Brexit hard-liners in her own party hate it because it keeps Britain too closely tied to the EU.

Never mind the details – they are almost theological –but the upshot is that May cannot get parliament to pass the exit deal she made with the EU, which would at least keep the trade flowing. She just doesn’t have the votes. And she can’t get the EU to amend the deal either.

The opposition to her deal in parliament is so strong that she cancelled a scheduled vote on it a month ago because she was bound to lose it. She is now committed to holding the vote on 15 January – but she still doesn’t have the votes. So she is threatening to jump off a bridge, and take everybody else with her, if they don’t back her deal. It has become a game of Chicken.

The charade in Kent is part of a government show-and-tell campaign to prove that she really means it. So are the predictions that the chaos at the Channel ports will be so bad that Britain will have to charter planes to bring scarce medicines in, and that supermarket shelves will be bare (Britain imports 30% of its food from the EU), and that zombies will rule the streets. (I made that one up, but you get the picture.)

The problem is that nobody believes her. May has manipulated the parliamentary rules and schedules to make it appear that there are no legal alternatives except her deal or a catastrophic no-deal Brexit, but she just doesn’t convince as a suicide bomber. Indeed, there was a vote in parliament on Monday night that blocked the government’s ability to make tax changes connected with a no-deal Brexit without parliament’s “explicit consent”.

That doesn’t actually mean that it cannot happen, unfortunately. Parliament can block her deal, but unless it can agree on some other course of action Brexit happens automatically on 29 March – without a deal. And that really would be nasty.

How nasty? William Hague, a former leader of the Conservative Party, summed it up well in the Daily Telegraph: “I don’t know what will follow a rejection of [May’s] deal…a constitutional shambles, a second referendum shambles, a no-deal exit shambles, a Corbyn [Labour government] shambles. I just know that it will be an abysmal shambles.

“People who say that the deal is the worst of all worlds haven’t understood how bad things might get,” Hague concluded. As May herself admits, a no-deal Brexit is “uncharted territory.”

So what will really happen when parliament starts voting later this month? There will almost certainly be more than one vote, as the 650 members of the House of Commons, no longer constrained by party loyalty – it’s too important for that – swing this way and that. But there may not be a majority for any specific course of action, in which case parliament will probably end up voting for a second referendum.

May has sworn that she will never allow that, because it would be a betrayal of the 52% who voted ‘Leave’ in the first referendum in June 2016. But in the end she probably will allow it, because she is not a suicide bomber.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“How…territory”)