Category Archives: UK politics

#Itoldyouso

I was right. It gives me no pleasure.

Rather than offer my own advice this time around, I will just point you in the direction of Tim Garton-Ash.

I disagree with Garton-Ash on a couple of points. This is not an election like no other. The 2015 election was like this but with knobs on. Also, I’m not persuaded that a small majority for May is the worst of all possible outcomes. She is clearly a poor choice for leading the country through Brexit and if she were to be ousted for having made such a mess of the whole thing we might find ourselves with a more competent leader, which would be no bad thing, even if this were someone like Amber Rudd. (The risk of course is that we’d get someone EVEN WORSE.)

Out on a limb

It’s all about geography.

For most of their history, the states located on the British Isles have been peripheral and on the margins of their civilisation, that is to say Europe. To an extent, this has also reduced their exposure to that civilisation’s wars and allowed their societies and institutions to develop in more continuity than, say, Poland’s. This has bred a sense of exceptionalism and insularity.

For a brief period, as our civilisation perfected maritime travel, our peripheral states flourished as we exploited our geography to enrich ourselves. For a couple of centuries, this put us at the heart of our civilisation as opposed to its periphery. This brief period in our history is over, but many of us haven’t grasped that yet because it is still within living memory, just. This further feeds our sense of exceptionalism.

But the reality is that we are just another collection of European states, nothing special except insofar as that in itself is special. We are back at the periphery, and actively doing all we can to exaggerate our peripheral nature, isolating ourselves from the mainstream of our civilisation, limiting our influence and interest, turning in upon ourselves.

Geography can’t be changed. We were lucky in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. But this is the 21st and we’re back to where we’ve been for all the other centuries – out on a limb.

29 March 2017

Today the hammer falls and I feel sick. The decision to pull the UK out of the EU, and also the way in which the UK government has gone about it, leave me in a state of constant grief and anger. I am very bitter. I find myself with many of the symptoms of depression, but I’m aware of it and trying to tackle it. Writing this blog post is one of the ways.

I’m sure some people find it hard to comprehend how a political event like this could have such a profound effect on me personally. I’m quite sure that very many of the people who voted to leave last June took the decision very lightly without really giving it any much thought at all, or acting on the spur of the moment. Well, let me try to explain.

I’m both British and German, and I grew up in 1970s England. TV, comics, books, everything still seemed obsessed with the war. My parents and grandparents all had war stories, from opposing sides. At the same time, we thought we’d die in a nuclear holocaust when the Cold War went hot. (We really did.) My holidays were spent driving down to southern Germany and spending time with my family there. Europe, and Europe’s divisions, meant something very concrete and real to me, with heavy emotional significance. As I grew up and became politically aware, so European integration became an issue, the issue, that meant most to me. And, as a student, I watched Thatcher’s reign disintegrate over the issue. I joined the Young European Movement, I went to federalist conferences, I idolised Jacques Delors and dreamed of working for the EU one day. And I did it. I passed the famous ‘concours’. In 1995, I realised my dream and came to work for the European Commission in Brussels.

Like all dreams, it didn’t live up to its billing. It’s a job. I could rant for a week on ways in which things could be improved. But this is also, still, a vocation, and I believe in it as much as I ever did. I have no doubt at all that the people of Europe need to come together if they want to be more secure, and have a better quality of life. Effective government at the European level seems to me to be more important than ever, as I look around the world. So this monstrous idiocy on the part of the country where I grew up leaves me reeling. I still can’t really believe it, I don’t want to believe it. All this energy which should and could have been spent on making things better and instead it’s being used to destroy.

So here comes the uplifting closing section of this post. Here is what I’m telling myself. I know it’s true, and so it ought to help me deal with it.

The UK is leaving, but the EU is still here. This isn’t the end. Life for most of my colleagues continues more or less without interruption – I’m struck by how, for most people around me, Brexit is just another issue which is happening to other people, like Syria, or drought. Yes, there are implications for the EU, and we need to work up policy solutions, but already the UK is seen as something outside which is in big trouble of its own making but it’s not our problem any more, we just need to find ways to defend our interests. I don’t think they are being complacent, but they are being realistic, and they have a sense of perspective which I don’t. Brexit carries considerable risk for the EU but it also brings opportunities. We have a job to do to minimise the risk and maximise the opportunities. Meanwhile I have a cause that will occupy me in my home country for the rest of my political life. Theresa May wants the country to unite behind her as she rips the UK out of the EU. Not as I live and breathe will she ever get that wish. Never. No way.

A quick recap

So this is where we find ourselves:

1. This Conservative government currently has a majority of 16.

2. Investigations are underway in 20 Tory seats into alleged electoral fraud.

3. Without those seats, this government would not have had a majority to trigger the referendum (about which see point 7).

4. The Tories’ manifesto in 2015 said “Yes to the Single Market”. It also said they wouldn’t raise National Insurance Contributions. Breaking one promise could bankrupt thousands of businesses and put millions out of work. Breaking the other promise might raise a bit of much-needed extra revenue. They want to break both, but have u-turned on only one. Can you guess which?

5. Both the official and the unofficial Leave campaigns are being investigated for breaking electoral law. Oh and by the way both Leave campaigns lied incessantly, as a matter of recorded fact.

6. We had a referendum in 1975 on whether to join the EU. The UK chose to join, by 67% to 32%. The people had spoken.

7. But for 40 years a group of europhobic extremists refused to accept “the will of the people” and campaigned constantly for the UK to leave the EU. In 2016, they finally got their way. The 2016 referendum was all about appeasing the far right fringe of the Conservative Party, afraid they’d lose activists to UKIP. This is no way to make serious decisions about the future of the country.

8. Leave won by 51.9% over 48.1% on a 72% turnout – so only 37% of the electorate voted to Leave. Young people, overseas British voters, non-British UK resident taxpayers were disenfranchised and could not vote, despite the enormous implications for these groups.

9. Leading Leave campaigners said “this would be far from over” if Remain won by 52% over 48%. The same campaigners, having contested the last referendum’s result for forty years, call us traitors for refusing to accept this – I’m searching for the right word here – “shitshow” and try to silence us.

10. Modern democracies typically demand a two-thirds super majority as a necessary and sufficient condition for significant constitutional change.

11. This government (see point 3 for its legitimacy) says “no deal is preferable to a bad deal” but says it has not costed the impact of “no deal”.

12. The government (see point 3) refuses to give the British Parliament a vote on the final Brexit deal. (Note that the oh-so-undemocratic European Parliament will get a say on the final Brexit deal. But not the UK’s parliaments, national or regional.)

13. The government (see point 3) refuses a second referendum to let the people decide on whether to accept the final deal.

Still think the UK is a model of democratic good governance?

Why I will be campaigning for Scottish independence

My British half is, as far as I know, purely English. But I am rooting for the Scots to vote for independence in their next referendum. It would be good for Scotland. It would be good for Europe. And it would be good for Britain.

I consider myself a patriot. My patriotism is not some arbitrary attachment to a flag, or to a piece of earth, or to a person descended from a Dark Ages robber baron; my patriotism is a love of community, society, and an attachment to a set of values. To me, patriotism is multilayered and fuzzy at the edges. I have a romantic fondness for the England of Arthur Ransome and E. Nesbit, I feel a connection to Marylebone Station and Tottenham Green Lanes, I’m moved by the music of Bach and Boccherini and the architecture of Durham and Rouen and Ulm. These emotional responses give me roots in my culture and they bring a sense of security and continuity which is an important component of human wellbeing. They are the foundations and load-bearing walls which support the practical, rational manifestation of my patriotism: my public service, my campaigning for our values, my politics. There is no inconsistency in my loving England, and Britain, and Germany, and Europe; and in my feeling contempt for the British parliament after what it did on the evening of 13 March 2017. On the contrary, anyone who loves our society and its values must necessarily feel rage at how these have been challenged and weakened by the very people whose job it is to protect them.

Scotland would be better off outside the UK but in the EU. Scots are not represented by Westminster nor have they been for a long time. I don’t see how Scotland’s interests can be adequately represented by Westminster without a fundamental reform of how British government works. After the 2014 referendum, the Scots were promised meaningful devolution. This has not happened and it is obvious to me that it won’t happen, because exceptionalist Westminster cannot understand the concept of meaningful devolution. The very existence of the West Lothian Question proves this, as I’ve argued. To have meaningful self-governance within a meaningfully federated governance structure, Scotland must leave the UK and remain in or rejoin the EU.

Europe would be better off with an independent Scotland. Scotland is European, and belongs in the family. (So does the rest of the UK, of course.) Scottish independence within the EU would be a demonstration of belief in Europe, in our values, in multilateralism, and a rejection of the binary zero-sum nationalism advocated by Putin-backed populist movements in England, France, the Netherlands, etc.

The United Kingdom would be better off if Scotland chose independence. British society is irredeemably broken. We might argue how we arrived at this juncture, but to me this is self-evident. Westminster’s exceptionalism means continued centralisation of power in national government at the expense of effective subsidiarity whether that means Brussels, the regions, or local government. And national government has shown itself to be unfit and captured by toxic special interests. Brexit is the proof. A ruling party captured by zealots for whom no lie was too much, any means justified the end, the end being a corruption of patriotism resulting in its polar opposite: the impoverishment of the country, its decline in status and influence, the undermining of its security, and the destruction of its citizens’ quality of life. Time and again we have seen that Westminster will not reform itself. Only a seismic shock can deliver change, and it’s hard to see what such a seismic shock could be short of civil discord unless it’s the actual break-up of the United Kingdom. A velvet divorce might be the greatest gift Scotland could give to English patriots.

To me, the choice Scots face is clear: they could stay in a dysfunctional United Kingdom ruled from Westminster, unable to rein in a contemptuous and entitled elite who have proven themselves guilty of serious and serial misgovernment; or they could emulate Europe’s other smaller countries which have thrived as independent states within the EU, enjoying higher standards of living and a better quality of life. For Scots, it’s what you’d call a no-brainer. But it should be welcomed by the rest of us, the citizens of the United Kingdom they’d be leaving behind. Because we like the Scots and want the best for them; and because it gives us a chance to mend what is broken in our own system.