Sunday, 20 October 2019

Where Next for Brexit?

We have come a long and weary way from the referendum of 2016, when I think both Leave and Remain voters were amazed at the result – Leavers full of unexpected exultation, Remainers full of gloom and doom and ‘how on earth did this happen?’ Unfortunately, three years later we have not actually arrived anywhere (yet). All but the most committed Remainers are, I think, heartily sick of the process and most of all want it to end as quickly as possible, but is this the best scenario for us as a country?

The options I can see are these (and there may be others I haven't thought of):

1. We leave on the 31st October, as Boris and the extreme Brexiteers want us to, whether or not Parliament have agreed to Boris’s new deal, and whether or not (even if they have) the legislation is in place to make a smooth transition from EU membership to fully managing our economic affairs. A bumpy ride, in this Brexiteer book, is better than no ride at all. Most commentators view this as courting disaster of extreme proportions and it is not clear that we would be properly prepared for it, as leaving the EU is a much more complex process than most people realise, even now.

2. We are granted by the EU the short extension for which Parliament has mandated the PM to ask (but which he seems to be trying to find clever but childish ways to avoid asking for). It should be noted that this has to be a unanimous decision: only one EU member has to veto this to have us willy-nilly back in the No. 1 scenario above. This extension would at least give us time to get legislation in place to smooth the way for an orderly Brexit by the end of the year (always assuming Parliament agrees to Boris’s deal tomorrow – which is not by any means a foregone conclusion).

3. The deal agreed by Boris is rejected by Parliament and any extension the EU allows us has to be a longer one, to allow for another referendum (the so-called People’s Vote) or a general election – the result of either of which is extremely uncertain. Pollsters are now saying that voting patterns are extraordinarily volatile and hard to predict. The Lib Dem leadership, for example, report that there are now hundreds of seats across the country that they could win if the Remain swing continues. If Boris does manage to get his Brexit deal through parliament a general election might of course involve a Boris Bounce that would increase the Conservative vote, particularly with respect to those voters who would otherwise have voted for the eponymous Brexit Party. Of course the EU could, as with my point No.2, simply refuse us an extension and we would be stuck with No.1 as before! But most commentators seem to think this unlikely, at least for the immediate future – though I think the European Commission is understandably becoming impatient with us for our continued vacillations.

4. The deal agreed by Boris is rejected by Parliament, and there is then a vote of no confidence leading to EITHER a) a caretaker government which will ask in much more sincere and possibly contrite terms for a suitable extension during which we might have a People’s Vote which includes the current Boris deal as well as the option to Remain; OR b) a general election in which Remain/Leave is the major issue. The Conservatives, Brexit Party, Scottish Nationalists, Greens and Lib Dems are by far the most likely to benefit from this because of their clear stance, while Labour continues to try to ride both the Leave and the Remain horses at the same time. This apparently suicidal Labour endeavour is in fact a natural outcome of their mix of supporters from both camps combined with Jeremy Corbyn’s liking for Brexit with a Customs Union – something which the general public finds difficult to comprehend as it lies somewhere between the clear Out or In options that Leave and Remain offer.

5. Boris’s deal is rejected by Parliament, and the EU refuse to grant us an extension. Parliament’s absolute refusal to allow any kind of No Deal Brexit could then only be implemented by an emergency revoking Article 50. This might have to come with the promise that if a new People’s Vote delivered a reiteration of the Leave majority of 2016 a better deal could then be negotiated for a final departure from the EU in 2022 (since a new invoking of Article 50 would carry a two-year negotiating period as before).

6. A new Parliament to which a general election had returned a Remain majority unequivocally revokes Article 50 without either starting the whole Leave process again or holding a new referendum, or both. The Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson has in fact undertaken to do just that if they were returned to power, which on the face of it seems a far-fetched possibility (but in these wild and unpredictable political days, who knows?). And goodness knows what fences there would be to mend with the EU, anyway, not to mention the fury of frustrated Brexiteers, who undoubtedly feel that the 52% gained in the original referendum (however flawed as a piece of democracy) entitles them to Leave as soon as possible. A general election or a People’s Vote would at least give us a clearer sense of what people actually now want – every politician interviewed in the media thinks they know, but do they actually?

So clearly there is a whole political multiverse out there, in which any of these scenarios could play out. Some seem more likely than others, but as the Brexit entertainment staggers from one unlikely and melodramatic scene to another, nothing can be ruled out. We the public watch open-mouthed and speechless or with head in hands as the outlandish events through which we are living unfold. What most of us want more than anything else is for it to be OVER. For many, even the prospect of a calamitous and financially disastrous No Deal has the secret attraction of certainty, and Boris’s deal, which at least does something to protect the Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland open border status (even though his erstwhile allies the DUP do not like the solution), even more so. No one among the electorate really understands the detail of the Withdrawal Agreement, which apart from the Irish solution is to all intents and purposes the same as Theresa May’s ill-fated deal. We hope it will be all right, and many of us (even those who voted Remain) are willing to give it a go if it will mean that this protracted, acrimonious divorce will become a decree nisi on which we can base further negotiations, trade deals and the rest. We are tired of being neither Out nor In, tired of being stuck somewhere in No Man’s Land among the mud, the shellholes and the barbed wire.

More than that, we are all conscious that for more than three years we have been split by an issue that divides the nation from top to bottom, through constituencies, communities and even families (my own included). The continued failure to resolve it means that the divisions are as raw and sharp as ever, the two sides as polarised as they were when the referendum was voted on in June 2019, except for a kind of creeping Brexit fatigue that would fudge the issues, neglect the detail, surrender the principles … anything to bring the whole sorry business to an end. For, as one Remain leader recently put it in my hearing, the issue is ‘sucking the oxygen’ out of everything else that matters. The NHS is under severe pressure, austerity has reduced far too many people to dependence on food banks, homelessness and despair, corporate greed and personal debt are as serious now as they were before the financial crisis of the previous decade, and other pressing social and economic issues have been swept so far under the carpet that they are almost forgotten except by those directly affected.

So what should we do? Some take to the streets, but it is hard to see what good that will do in the present juncture, for politicians on all sides feel so strongly (though with little agreement between them) that there is precious little that public pressure can do to affect the outcome – especially as views on the street are just as divided as those in parliament. Until we are given the chance to vote, either in a general election or a new referendum, we ordinary folk can do nothing, and most of us are growing too confused, despondent and weary even to talk or think about it intelligently. We can only hope that tomorrow’s vote will move us on, in one direction or another, nearer to some kind of destination. Standing in a bog, sinking steadily, is a poor way to conduct the business of a nation.


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.