Saturday, 23 March 2019

Should we revoke Article 50?

Should we revoke Article 50?

Perhaps the most notable failure of the 2016 Remain campaign, apart from the complacency of its supporters, was that it did not present the electorate with many reasons for remaining. The negativity of the campaign, focusing as it did almost totally on the disasters inherent in leaving the EU (almost all of which were based on truth and are staring us in the face – which to be fair is more than can be said for the ‘facts’ presented by their opponents in the Leave camp!), had a lot to do with the eventual result. However, a petition to ask parliament to revoke Article 50, and effectively ignore the referendum, has over 5 million signatures as I write this and is clearly on a roll. It effectively drives a cart and horses through the debate in parliament, which has in the main been respectful of the referendum result. It also offers a (rather appealing to many) opportunity to get out of our current parlous situation without more in-fighting, without depending on the EU for extensions and permissions, and without the perilous, time-consuming and expensive gamble (a gamble whichever view you hold) of holding another referendum. I suspect this is the secret of its success, as it was started in late February and has only in the last few days suddenly begun to snowball.

Rather than going back to the country - which now has a different demographic from three years ago, and which has had the opportunity to view (generally with dismay) the terrible mess Mrs May’s government has gotten us into, Stan and Ollie style - the petition organisers argue that it might be better to recognise that we are better in the EU fold than out of it, something which, as I have said, the Remain campaign largely failed to point out in 2016. For one thing, the poorer fringes of the UK (including some, like Cornwall, whose voters supported Leave) gained immense financial advantages from EU membership for infrastructure and business support, which they will almost certainly not receive from the UK government after Brexit. For another, Europe has the strength to counterbalance the US, China and Russia in world politics, particularly with the UK on board, where on our own we are minnows. And most importantly, the problem of Irish conflict may recur if there is a harder border in place – as there cannot fail to be, backstop or none, if we leave. The peace process in Northern Ireland was enabled by the common membership in the EU held by Eire and the UK, and it may well unravel without this essential cornerstone.

Quite apart from the advantages for Britain that came with EU membership, there is the very real prospect of a destabilisation of the world economy happening as a result of our exit from the EU. Austerity in this country and elsewhere, arising from the 2007/8 financial crisis, is already creating hardship for many, which will only worsen if Brexit disruption in Europe creates the conditions for a deeper recession. This is not a wild doom-laden prophecy but a very real prospect of concern to such bodies as the IMF and the World Bank, and something which in my view, taking an ethical perspective, we should not be ignoring as though Brexit was all about us and what we want.

Add to these points the growing evidence that in 2016 not only was the referendum process flawed (for example, 66% rather than 50% is the level of support needed for major constitutional change in most countries), but the Leave campaign broke electoral rules and presented as fact speculations with no real foundation (such as funding the NHS with fantastic sums) and thereby misled many, and it is not surprising that some are beginning to argue that slavishly following the result as a democratic watershed makes no sense at all – especially as parliament cannot agree on anything other than outright rejection of Mrs May’s agreement, which the EU have stated they are not willing to reopen and renegotiate. However, a new referendum would be unpredictable, as younger people in general supported Remain where the older generation supported Leave, and the demographic is changing, and many minds have changed in both directions over the nearly three years that have passed since the original one was held. It might also risk reopening the deep wounds inflicted on the social fabric by the 2016 campaign, which saw members of the same family on different sides of the argument - divisions which have in many cases remained (in my own family too).

As it happens, the situation in Europe is changing, just as our demographic is. Our rejection of the EU in the 2016 referendum has focused many minds in Europe and its leaders already realise there is a need to balance centralisation with individual countries’ freedom to put in place laws that are right for them. In other words, a future in the EU might be very different from our experience in the past. There might be more chance of a reform of the CAP and the fishing quota system, for example, and we would need to work to ensure, for everyone’s benefit, that the core of the EU doesn’t dominate the political agenda to the detriment of newer members – something we have been and would be uniquely placed to do, being outside the euro and independent of the EU core of six, and therefore able to counterbalance the power of France and Germany. There is little doubt that our revocation of Article 50 would be met with enormous relief in Brussels and other European capitals. Britain represents a significant proportion of the EU economy, not to mention hosting one of the major financial centres of the world, and is the major trading partner for many EU members. The gap we would leave, with or without a Brexit deal, would be enormous. It is the EU realisation of this, and of the chaos that would ensue from a No Deal Brexit, that is driving their willingness to extend the Article 50 deadline, albeit with conditions (for they too are weary of the argument and wish to push us to some resolution quickly, and who can blame them?)

We therefore have an opportunity right now to rejoin, or rather return to, the centres of power in Europe with goodwill, though it would need firm leadership (and from whom are we to get this, I wonder, among our current politicians?) first of all to recognise that the 2016 referendum result is dead in the water, and secondly to make sure that those in the EU who are not so well disposed towards us do not use our current embarrassments to humiliate us. This would benefit no one, but I note that Donald Tusk is trying to make at least friendly-sounding noises towards us even at the moment, which is encouraging. But should we take it?

Such an action would of course in the short term create an enormous outcry from the hard-line Brexiteers both in politics and in the country. That is to be expected and must be borne. But they have had their chance, and a fine mess they have made of it. There could have been a deal which would have commanded cross-party support, and which Remainers such as myself would have been prepared to go along with. We cannot always win the argument and the point of democracy is that those who have lost respect the majority and come to terms with the result of votes. The whole problem with Brexit has been precisely that this has not happened, either in parliament or in the country, because it has been clear all along a) that the referendum result was flawed; and b) that Mrs May’s priorities have been to keep her own party together and negotiate a deal that they would be willing to support. These priorities were politically wrong in the first place and have failed to deliver even what they were designed to do. The Conservatives will never agree on Europe, whether we are in or out of the EU. It is a running sore that may end by destroying them. But must the world be destabilised, as well as Europe and the UK, in an attempt to keep the Tory party together?

I’ve come to believe that in the national interest, if for no other reason, it is time to revoke Article 50 and rebuild our relationship with the European Union. But it is now or never. If I have convinced you, please sign the petition at https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/241584.


Friday, 8 December 2017

The blessings of compost

Reading today that Guy Watson, entrepreneur and impresario of the wonderful Riverford Organic Vegetables, from whom we buy 90% of our vegetables for the table, has recently embraced the joys of composting, I thought I would add my own mite to the mix. I can honestly say that for the last ten years almost nothing organic has gone from our household to landfill. Either the guinea pigs eat it, or we compost it (mainly garden weeds and grass clippings as out here in the wilds on the edge of Bodmin Moor we have lots of rats who are encouraged by composting any food waste, and which have to be kept down, to my great regret, with poison), or if all else fails the wormery gets it, and the worms will eat almost anything. 

I’m not a terribly good composter - sometimes it all goes down quite quickly and can be put on the vegetable garden or at the roots of any new plant I’m putting in the garden, but sometimes it seems to take forever in the compost bins. But I persevere, on principle. It simply isn’t right  that organic material should go in the bin. It  fuels greenhouse gases in the form of methane, for one thing, and it is a waste of good organic material for another. The principles of composting are simple - green and brown matter mixed in together (the green is literally green, as in freshly harvested weeds, grass clippings, cut flowers etc., and the brown is anything dry such as dead leaves, brown paper, or very small twigs), turned occasionally, not too wet, not too dry, and Bob’s your uncle, at least most of the time. I put in cold ash from the fire, too (the sharp alkalinity keeps the rats from nesting in the compost bins) - not sure whether that counts as brown or whether there’s a separate category of grey? But it seems to work. 

Also it just feels so good to be recycling organic material the way you recycle paper, metal cans or plastic bottles. The consciousness of virtue is part of the joy of it. I hate waste, and in our modern society we tend to be so wasteful, what with plastic packaging (don’t get me on to the plastic island in the Pacific ...) and polystyrene (which ought to be outlawed, as however good it is at packing items for transit, you can’t do anything  with it except put it in the landfill). It isn’t very long (a generation or two, no more) since even people in towns re-used pretty much everything. A definite decision seems to have been made to discourage this - definitely a wrong turning, rather like Dr Beeching’s railway cuts which are only now finally being reversed (in a few places, at least - I’m looking forward to a railway station at Okehampton).

The wonderful thing about compost when it’s finished, all crumbly and brown, is that it’s the very best fertiliser for your garden, improving soil texture as well as adding plant nutrients, and no risk of getting the balance wrong as there is with artificial fertilisers, or contaminating water courses with chemicals. 

So, my friends, get composting!

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

The North Korean Question

As I write this (with our elderly Tonkinese cat tucked under my arm to stop her from sitting on the keyboard), North Korea seems a very long way away. But the problem it poses to the world community has become one of those international ‘questions’ that bedevil world history, on a level with the Balkan Question (one of the flashpoints of European history that led to World War One) or the Near Eastern Question (which dates back to the same period but is essentially still with us).
         The problem is two-fold. First there is the undoubted threat to world peace that North Korean aggression poses, although for the moment at least that takes the form of missiles and rhetoric, not armies on the ground. But more insidiously there is the problem of the regime itself, which deifies its ruler (and brainwashes the North Korean people to do the same), allows its people to starve while directing all its resources into its military programme, and stamps out every dissident opinion without any regard for human rights or freedoms. Since the inconclusive Korean War in the 1950s this regime has squatted in its corner of Southeast Asia, glowering and spitting defiance at the rest of the world. We would love to see regime change there, but have been resigned to impotence. Until 2017.
         What has changed? Mostly, I think, it is leadership style. The new young ruler Kim Jong-Un seems to be determined to develop his predecessors’ nuclear programme, which grows ever more ambitious, and to carry on their verbal battle with the world, and particularly with the United States. In that country too there is a new leader, and he is impatient of diplomacy and peaceful rhetoric and believes that a show of strength will cow Pyongyang.
         There is more than an element of gamble in both positions, as indeed there has been in the North Korean one for more than fifty years. So far their gamble has worked. A nuclear programme which threatened no one very much has been allowed to morph into one that poses significant danger for the region, and even possibly for the far west of the US. Sanctions placed on a country that a) does not care for the economic sufferings of its people, b) is indifferent to public opinion both domestic and international, and c) is perfectly capable of finding illegal ways to make money, really cannot work properly. Trump is now offering a gamble of his own, believing that North Korea does not really have the appetite to start a full-scale nuclear war that it would be bound to lose since the stockpile capacity of the West is much greater than that the North Koreans currently have. Stand up to Kim Jong-Un, Trump says, and North Korea will go back in its burrow.
         It is easy to see the attractions of this position. It is generally acknowledged that historically appeasement of tyrants has led them to become more aggressive, not less. Standing up to the bully is a standard piece of advice in school playgrounds (though nowadays actually punching the bully is discouraged), and Trump delights in schoolboy rhetoric. The gamble might also, if the North Korean leadership were sane and followed the normal rules of human logic, be successful. But this is a dangerous assumption. Saddam Hussein continued to sabre-rattle until removed from power forcibly, an action which turned out to have unpredictable consequences and did not lead to greater peace and stability in Iraq as the anti-Saddam coalition had hoped. Trump is gambling with the lives of the Korean people, north and south, and when you gamble it is always best to be certain that you can afford to lose your stake. Since his style is much more the instant tweet than the measured discussion and memo, I wonder whether this reckoning has been done. True, his announcements even on serious issues are often more hot air than reasoned policy, but in this situation the rhetoric matters.
         So, what is to be done? Is there mileage still in the existing sanctions? Or do we need a completely new approach?
         The key, it seems to me, is China. China supported North Korea, as a fellow-communist state, in the 1950s and has favoured a softly-softly approach to the rogue state ever since, although the two regimes are now poles apart in most respects. China is also very much the dominant power in the region, not least because Japan has no post-war history of defending itself and is heavily (though reluctantly) dependent on the US. China will not allow the West, and particularly not the US, to dictate Southeast Asian policy, nor will it stand by while non-Asian nations get involved in military action in the Korean peninsula. Thus, the North Korean Question is not so much about North Korean relations with the West, which have always been bad and are unlikely to change for the better anytime soon, but about Chinese relations with the West. China does not really approve of Kim’s regime, and as southeastern China actually borders North Korea the threat to Chinese security from a nuclear conflict is immense, but at the same time Peking cannot possibly be seen to collude with the US in destroying it. American recognition of the importance of China’s handling of the region’s politics, and a willingness to discuss the problem of North Korea privately with China in the light of that recognition, would go a long way to resolving the tensions between those two great powers, and thus open the door for China itself to be more firm with North Korea.
         At the same time, sanctions could be applied more rigorously and directly to military targets. There is good evidence that North Korea is getting round them and purchasing military hardware illicitly, which the international community could do more to prevent. China would be unlikely to oppose this, and it would not need new UN resolutions to implement. There does seem to be a new level of determination in this area, but there is also the real danger that it is already too late for this to make much difference.

         Human beings never seem to learn that diplomacy and peaceful sanctions are always to be preferred to war, whose consequences are very often worse than the situation military action was employed to tackle. If North Korea does actually attack the US or Japan, the situation may then have gone too far to avoid actual conflict. But the US should be warned: pre-emptive strikes are liable to be counter-productive in the long term, however tempting they may be to the self-confident nation. See Japan (Pearl Harbor 1941) for details.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Donald Trump and The Apprentice

I’ve just learned (by a circuitous route which I won’t bother you with) that Donald Trump invented the format so successfully used both in the US and over here in Britain for The Apprentice, and was its American host. I have always hated the British version with Alan Sugar, and never understood why it should be popular, as it seems to make a virtue out of treating subordinates rudely, crassly and ruthlessly. Do we really want our business leaders to behave like this? What came of the idea of bullying in the workplace and its negative connotations? 

Now that I know this about Trump his success as a Republican front runner for the presidential nomination makes much more sense. He is already known to a large number of the public through presenting this show. His ethical stance is familiar, and no doubt admired because it is forceful and confident (and many folk are like sheep, who wander aimlessly unless driven by a stronger personalitiy, whether it be shepherd or border collie; they feel safe in the hands of someone who has the confident authority to tell them what to do). But his values are all old-fashioned Red Neck ones. They may be appreciated by Republican hardliners, but I cannot believe that America as a whole will be taken in by them. I sincerely hope not, like most folk this side of the Atlantic. Trying to be in any kind of ‘special relationship’ with a leader like Trump would be next to impossible, as David Cameron is discovering. It would be Bush and Blair all over again, probably with similar disastrous results.


Of course, if our people are foolish enough to fall for Brexit rhetoric (which God forfend), we could actually need the special relationship, out in the cold bleak world as we then would be. I don’t hold with eurozone policies, and the European Union (particularly the Commission) has many faults, but I’d much rather have Merkel and Co than Trump. Still, maybe Hilary Clinton will get her just deserts, finally, and hold the presidential reins that as wife she relinquished twenty years ago. I don’t agree with everything she says or does, by any means, but she is at least an experienced, mature politician (and person) with a responsible party behind her. Perhaps Trump’s ascendancy will work for her, if they are the two selected representatives in the race for the White House, as the contrast will then be more obvious. I hope so. But of course so much depends on how strong anti-establishment feeling is at the moment.

Meanwhile, we have our own decisions to make, where anti-establishment feeling may also be playing its part. I would like to see the Better Together (wrong referendum, I know, but same idea) group being more positive. We don’t want to hear about how awful it would be if we weren’t in the EU. Let’s hear more positive reasons to stay. There are quite a few ….

Monday, 6 July 2015

Go with the drachma

 Amazing scenes in Greece this morning, though perhaps the celebrations may be short-lived when it dawns on them that saying “No” to European bailout conditions may not actually help them to escape the even more grinding austerity which they very understandably wish to avoid. I’m glad to see that some commentators are now laying the blame as much on the Eurozone and the IMF as on the Greek government, as seems only fair. The comment by a Manchester University professor on the BBC this morning, that it represented “a catastrophic failure of strategy on both sides” seems a most apt description.


However, where now? I can’t help feeling that if the Eurozone leaders could swallow their pride and consult with British finance ministers (after all, we have managed to prosper within the EU but outside the Eurozone, without any particular desire or prospect of joining the euro in the foreseeable future), we might see some new ideas. Why should the Greeks not go back to the drachma, for example, thus giving them much more freedom of manoeuvre to manage their own financial affairs and more sense of national sovereignty, and yet stay in the European Union? They would still be heavily in debt, and bankruptcy is not an option one would wish on anyone (see Iceland for details), but at least they would no longer be locked in to European-imposed policies that clearly do not have the support of the Greek people, and which just as clearly are not working (a five years’ austerity programme really should have shown dividends by now if the policy was going to succeed, it seems to me). There would be something to aim for, and it is clear that Greek independence and desire for dignity is an important factor that perhaps the EU has failed to take into account.

But will the Eurozone let them go? Not willingly, it is clear. Failure for Greece would probably make it more likely that other countries currently on or fairly near the brink would also fall out of the zone, and that increases the risk that the euro itself would finally fail. What that would mean no one quite dares to think. Not to mention the fact that once free of their eurozone shackles the Greeks might cozy up to dangerous players such as Russia, whose restive unpredictability the EU fears perhaps above all else.

Interesting times, certainly! Whatever decision is taken by the Greeks, there are dangers both for them and for others. But that is always true, at all times and in all circumstances. I wish them well.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Charles Kennedy - In memoriam

I was very much saddened to hear of the death of Charles Kennedy yesterday. Whilst he fell from grace with the general public - and did his party no good thereby - when he had to resign as leader, at his best he was a good, honest politician whom we shall be the poorer without. I particularly remember him leading the opposition to the Iraq War in 2003. It was a principled stand and one which I admired, running as it did against the established convention that all political parties stand united at a time of national conflict or threat. But Kennedy correctly saw that the threat was non-existent and the policy one of opportunism and expediency, where other possible options such as supporting the UN-led pressure on Iraq existed. I agreed with him, but more than that I thought it took a great deal of guts and political acumen to stand up for something that he and much of the party believed in, and which he thought important for our country. Many would say that he was right, and that the situation we now have in the Middle East is a direct consequence of the instability we in the West created when we removed Saddam Hussein from power without properly considering the consequences of doing so. Iraqi people embraced the idea of liberty from tyranny, but democracy needs to grow rather than being imposed, if people are to be able to sustain it.

It must have been a terrible blow to Charles when he lost his seat to the Scottish Nationalists in the recent general election, as for so many Liberal Democrat MPs who had worked hard for our country in Coalition only to be deserted by their partners and by the electorate. Not to mention the role played so clearly by our broken and skewed electoral system that does not deliver representative government across the country. Let us press to change that in memory of Charles Kennedy.

Rest In Peace

Friday, 8 May 2015

Reflections on the 2015 election

Anyone who read my blog yesterday, or who has passed my house here at Trevadlock Cross and seen the Lib Dem poster supporting Dan Rogerson, our now-defeated MP, will understand that I am truly gutted by what has happened in this election. Far from rewarding the Liberal Democrats for their efforts to keep the Conservative right-wing from dragging the Coalition further from the centre, or for their many good ideas and hard work in government, it appears that they have been punished, while their erstwhile colleagues have got all the credit for the Coalition’s successes. To a degree, that is clearly true, though it is most unfair. But why?

First of all, it is the common experience of minor partners in a coalition (evidenced from across Europe where coalitions are common) to be slaughtered in a subsequent election. But two further factors are significant, I think. One is that if you look at the voting patterns across England in particular, there has been a shift to the right represented by the good performance of UKIP (thankfully not translated into seats) and the victory of many Conservatives in Lib Dem-Conservative marginals – for example, the whole of the south-west, from being a Liberal Democrat stronghold, has gone blue. Second, the Liberal Democrats' core supporters were alienated by their involvement in the Coalition, which seemed to many (though not to me) a betrayal of principle. The notorious U-turn on tuition fees, which the party acknowledges to have been a mistake on many levels, made this worse, and the press put the nails in the coffin, making the Liberal Democrats appear to be perfidious and unprincipled losers – not the kind of image you want going into a close general election! Paddy Ashdown has bravely said that they will be back, and that Liberal values are needed more than ever, and although I am not a member of the party, I agree that their particular contribution to the political scene is important and I hope they will take courage. Nick Clegg may seem an obvious target for blame, but a leadership change may not be the best thing at this stage, particularly as the party has lost many of its key leadership figures, including those who held ministerial posts in the Coalition. Clegg is at least in parliament, and I would imagine his position is secure at least for the moment – more than can be said for Ed Milliband.

Which brings me to the most salient lesson that has come out of this most surprising election – that is, apart from the fact that pre-election polls may not reflect the way people vote on the day, and that BBC exit pollers can deliver accurate predictions! The Labour party ought to have won this election, or at least to have been the largest party, and they should have done much better in Scotland. An unpopular government, an austerity programme that may have improved our debt position and may have turned our economy around for the present at least but in the process has reduced large numbers to penury, amid grave doubts as to whether the Conservatives are truly a One Nation party, whatever their rhetoric, should not have delivered an increased number of Conservative seats, matched by a few percentage points increase in the general vote (based on trends – the final results are not all declared as I write this). That it has done so casts enormous doubts on the quality of the Labour leadership, some of whom have lost their seats. Their failure has been not to deliver coherent policy ideas so as to make a real alternative to the simple and obvious stance of their opponents. This must stand as a huge reproach to them, and the Labour party must address not only the question of the leadership but also where the party is going, and where it wants to place itself on a spectrum that now includes support for the left-wing Greens, whose greater share in the vote has returned its one and only MP to parliament with an increased majority.

The spread of votes set against the balance of seats – with the two major parties winning the vast majority of the one-person constituencies that currently make up our parliamentary democratic system – must raise again the question, in voters’ minds if not in Westminster, as to whether the first-past-the-post system is delivering any real democracy. Internet activists such as 38 Degrees, Change.org, and their local one-issue counterparts have found ways to influence policy outside the ballot box, which is to be welcomed. Yet the composition of the Westminster parliament is still of enormous importance. The country voted against the particular version of proportional representation that it was presented with in that referendum conceded by David Cameron to the Liberal Democrats as part of the Coalition agreement five years ago (how long ago it now seems!). But the question must be debated again. The first-past-the-post system protects us from extremist minority parties gaining a foothold in parliament, and many will feel it has protected us in this instance from UKIP, who came second or third in a large number of constituencies and must have gained a significant proportion of the vote, but only one or two seats. The disaster for the Lib Dems would have been on a smaller scale with PR, since the loss of their popular vote looks to have been around 12-15%  (bad enough), but the loss of seats far higher. In a PR system they would have ended up with about 50 seats, my rough calculation suggests, rather than the 8 or 9 they actually have.


Lastly, by talking up the SNP as an election manoeuvre to encourage people to vote for the Conservatives rather than Labour - whom they represented, probably misleadingly, as ready to set up a Labour-SNP coalition in the event of a hung parliament led by Labour - Cameron has landed himself with a real constitutional problem. Will we see greater regional autonomy across the UK, perhaps even some form of federalism? Or will the Scottish Nationalists merely make a nuisance of themselves at Westminster and demand another referendum on Scottish independence? Something needs to be done and quickly. Let’s hope that Cameron has the guts and determination, and the following in his own party, to do it.