Friday, 3 May 2019

Brexit conciliation

The question of Brexit has proved very divisive and damaging to that feeling of unity and common purpose that carries a country towards progress. There seem to be two 'nations' living in one country, drawing apart in order to vilify each other. Most of the comment on social media is distastefully vituperative, scoffing, and exaggerated. Few participants seem to be aware that they will eventually have to settle down next to their fuming and mud-bespattered targets, to resume normal life; buying, selling, helping and being helped.

I am myself a natural Europhile, looking a little into the workings of the Union, at the Court, Council, Commission, Parliament, and Bank; wondering who was trying to improve its weaknesses; but generally pleased with its success in transforming and strengthening the Europe of which we are geographically and inevitably a part.

I noted two of today's tweets. Ash Sarkar (@AyoCaesar) bemoaned the lack of conversation and compromise, and asked whether Remainers had a plan for winning over people who voted Leave. Guy Dorrell (@guydorrell1), however, thought that the UK was now #Remain, what with the exploding of the £350m lie, and the introduction of 3-years' worth of fresh young voters since the 2016 referendum, not to mention unease about #darkmoney. No need, he thought, to change the minds of the ideologues. For Guy Dorrell, it would be enough to swing the opinion in the country to 51% remain:49% leave. It seems he would happily ignore the disappointed 16 million, but of course that would leave the country just as riven as at present, but heading in the opposite direction. Ash Sarkar (and I) would prefer a route that could be chosen by most or all of our 46 million electorate.

In the spirit of compromise and conciliation I tried to draft a few 'tweets' that might bridge the divide.
1. The idea that leaving the EU would save us £350m a week turns out to have been a deliberate lie; the truth is complex, what with Thatcher-rebates, EU-funded projects, grants, and collaborative research. Britain does make a small net contribution as Britain is of above-average wealth, but the intangible benefit is in bringing Europe towards a common standard; it is a laudable objective and it applies as much to Cornwall and the Scottish Highlands as it does to Romania.
2. We want the UK to benefit financially from the Common Market, buying and selling across frictionless borders. So, why choose to leave the EU table and lose the moderate degree of control that we are accorded by being a moderately large and moderately wealthy component of the EU?
3. We democratically elect members to the European Parliament, and this country elects its own representatives to Council and Commission. In terms of 'democratic control', the EU is not greatly different from our own government.
4. How could abandoning the regulations imposed by the EU benefit our citizens? That would likely lead to lowered standards of quality, and worker-welfare. It might enrich businesses, but impoverish our citizens.
5. UK retains sovereignty as long as, in the last resort, it can leave the EU. It has become clear that negotiating a sensible and orderly Brexit will require far longer that 2 years, even if we were all pulling in the same direction, and with enthusiasm. Nor is there a need for desperate haste, except in the minds of parliamentarians elected for 4-years.
6. Which of us realised that Brexit would mean severing Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom (leading maybe to a united Ireland)? It might be good for some and bad for others; but it was completely unforeseen.

Would it not be a sensible compromise to delay Brexit for 2 - 5 years, to let Parliament and the Civil Service think more about these complex issues, work out the costs and the benefits, and a plan of action?

Saturday, 9 March 2019

George Monbiot and Re-Wilding

Dear George Monbiot,
    I am a great admirer of your tweets and Guardian pieces. However, I agree with your suggestion that you still have some thinking to do on those novel and stimulating ideas about “Inter-generational Theft”, “Re-Wilding”, and “Commons”. I see now that you were addressing yourself to an undergraduate audience, and though the vice-principle sitting next to me said she welcomed the ‘mixed’ audience (meaning the greybeards like me), it may have been wrong of me to put my oar in. But that was my enthusiastic response to your provocative remarks. 
    Inter-generational theft: were you just pandering to a presumed younger audience? I find that concerned older people are quite as engaged as the concerned younger ones, and my bet is that the greediness of my generation will be well matched by the greediness of their descendants. Though I agree that we (current citizens of all generations) are polluting the planet that future citizens will inherit. 
    The idea of re-wilding Britain makes me think of Marie Antoinette playing Bo-Peep in the garden at Versailles. I am all for letting ecosystems evolve on their own without human interference. But where? There are too many humans; in England particularly. You asked, “Where are the Elephants that once roamed these English oak-woods?" Where indeed! They are endangered even in Africa where there are 42 humans per km^2; what chance in England where there are a hundred times as many humans per km^2? You mentioned wolves in Oxford. Well, there were plenty wolves in England at the time of the Norman conquest (human population 2 million), but they were hunted vigorously, and as the population of humans grew English wolves were exterminated; circa 1500 (population 3 million). There was no longer room for wolves and men. Since then the population of England has grown 20-fold to 55.3 millions. 
    In 1973, when I got married, the good causes around Cambridge were Greenpeace and Population Countdown. Where-ever has the latter gone? No! One does not need to kill people; merely educate and reward them. The fertility rate in Britain fell from 3.5 babies/woman in the early-modern period to under 2.0 in 1930 and is now 1.79. That of Nigeria today is 5.4, but is falling slowly. (Nevertheless, I think in vitro fertilization need not be offered free on the National Health Service.)
    You advocate “commons". In that case we should understand the processes by which the commons of early-modern England were enclosed and privatised, in order to know and neutralize the forces that will oppose you. Public and communal land is still passing inexorably into private hands; even ‘unalienable’ allotments. 
    Your first questioner seemed to be asking if the same forces that got us into this mess could not be used to get us out of it, which concept I applaud in the sense that we have to work with humans as they are — inherently greedy and (increasingly) desperate to survive. You wittily rebutted by quoting Einstein, that the thinking that produces a problem is not likely to get you out of it. But look at the Carbon Tax success in British Columbia where it has been shown greatly to reduce CO2 emissions, and even to boost GDP [].
    I am all for limiting CO2 emissions. I travel by public transport, and heat myself with renewables, wherever possible. I am not so worried in the longer run, as I understand that the Earth has been round this cycle several times before. Atmospheric CO2 levels varied cyclically from 0.02 - 0.04% (v/v) over the last million years, falling during each interglacial. Plants consume CO2 and do so faster when the climate is warm, and the CO2 levels high. But before that, levels were 10 times higher in the Cambrian period, till the laying down of the chalk in the Cretaceous, 100 million years ago. Before that, during the Carboniferous period (350 million years ago), temperatures (and CO2 levels) oscillated up and down a number of times, laying down a sequence of coal measures. I presume things will revert to ‘normal' once we get the human population back down to 1% of its present level. The Lovelockian view.

Yours, Cawstein

Friday, 8 March 2019

Monarchy and despotism

Round a Mexican dinner-table, recently, a young economist was maintaining that the monarchy in Britain serves no purpose and is therefore a big waste of public money.  I found myself retorting as follows.
"Do you not think President Trump has too much power?" I asked. "Yes", she replied.
"And do you think President Putin has too much power?" I asked. "Yes", she replied again.
"What about Maduro in Venezuela, al-Bashir in Sudan, Lopez Obrador in Mexico?". "Same thing", she agreed, "and in many other places".
"Well then, perhaps we British are inclined to underestimate the benefit of our monarchy. The role might be a passive one, in that it obviates the need for a president."

I had a feeling that I had at least scored a point. 

A few days later I read a chilling article [1] by Seymour Hersh in the London Review of Books claiming that George HW Bush, as vice president to Reagan, organized a private task force bypassing the CIA and Congress, which engaged in 35 covert operations aimed at curtailing the power of the Soviet Union. 'Covert' here means 'illegal', The organizers knew that the public would cry "foul". President Reagan was kept largely in the dark (we were told) from fear that he would blurt something out that gave the game away, but nevertheless took some criticism over the 'Iran-Contra Affair' [2], the operation that did leak out.)  Hersh, who relies on contacts and 'smell', made a convincing story, but a shocking one. We caught a glimpse of how easy it would be for the levers of power to fall into the hands of one man. 

No one can visualise the present Queen, or the Prince of Wales, playing such a role. 

[2] Ruled to be in breach of International Law by the International Court of Justice.

Saturday, 23 February 2019

Is Parliament Confused or Ossified?

 Ed Wilson, in a recent tweet (@eddwilson) asked if Parliament was too weak to stop this agonising stasis that sees us drifting (with what feels like gathering speed) towards a 'no deal Brexit'.

I suppose Parliament has the power it thinks it has, or believes it has, or can persuade us that it has; "Possunt, quia posse videntur".  So what is the problem?  

° Are MPs too polite? Are they deferring to the high office of the Queen's first minister? Of course it is a very difficult job, and perhaps we should let her have another shot? But no! This is too serious.
° Or perhaps parliamentary procedure has got ossified in its own tradition, and there is no-one to grab the mace (so to say). No-one dares to put forward a motion that could command a majority, because "it is the governments job to initiate legislation"? And the Government is waiting on the Prime Minister. 
° Or is Parliament simply confused, like the rest of us? The Prime Minister spent 2 years negotiating a deal, presented it to Parliament, which duly rejected it. Then the following Vote of Confidence was passed! But..... But surely.....? 

Was this craven? MPs voting simply to keep their seats, rather than on the issue of the deal, and the confidence of the House in that deal. Not quite! Because, of course, some MPs probably thought the deal too 'Brexity', while others thought it not 'Brexity' enough. 

I hope someone, before the 29th March, has the courage to propose that Article 50 be revoked, or delayed for a good long time, to give the country a chance to see where it is heading. 

Monday, 18 February 2019

An historian's view of Brexit.

The many views on Brexit.

    When the dust has settled, historians will begin to study and debate what happened in the momentous years 2016 — 2019, when Britain was racked by the question of whether or not to pull out of the European Union, and parties, elites, families torn apart.
    The referendum forced us into two great camps: that of 'Leavers', and 'Remainers'. But in truth there are many little camps, all rather isolated from each other, and in many cases having little internal communication. (In pubs and cafés, talking about Brexit is taboo for it is easy to cause offence, and impossible to sway minds. Apart from family and a handful of journalists and politicians, I know few who think as I do. I would love there to be a Remainer's café where I could hang out and discuss strategy.)
    Eventually a party will have to form, a coalescence of groups supporting a single course of action. In the meantime some think Brexit will make them better off, others think the opposite; some would cosy up to USA, others prefer Europe; some think that Britain can make better laws on its own, others that EU laws are better. 
    Let me try and define your particular group. Perhaps:
(1)  You wish to achieve maximum national and personal sovereignty, trading as and when circumstances allow, but contributing as little as possible to world peace, stability, or culture: "little Englanders".  (Perhaps Rees-Mogg?)
(2)  Or you want to "take back control", mistakenly believing that the European Court consistently or repeated over-rules British laws (actually 72 times out of 34,000 and then on good grounds
(3)  Perhaps you prefer an alignment with the USA, to one with the EU (dominated as it is by Germany and France).
(4)  Perhaps you think Brexit will allow Britain to trade freely, and gain an advantage over others by lowering standards or loosening restrictions. (Perhaps David Davis?)
(5)  Perhaps you think that Brexit could be a ticket to leadership of the Tory party. (Perhaps Boris Johnson?)
(6)  Perhaps you acknowledge that Brexit looks bad commercially, but believe that it is the duty of Government to deliver a form of Brexit that few (or no-one) voted for. (Perhaps Thersesa May?)
(7)  Perhaps you think that Britain is not ready for the degree of monetary and political integration that is the trend in Brussels, but would nevertheless vote Remain to retain our present position at the European table. (Perhaps George Monbiot.)
(8)  Or you think that Britain benefits financially and culturally from the EU, and you welcome both the supply of labour from the East and the meticulous law-making of 'Benelux'.
(9)  Perhaps you voted remain because you see a united Europe as a potential superpower more akin to British tastes and interests than the combative, exploitative, and increasingly isolated USA. 
(10) There will be those who see Britain as being (for at least the last 1,000 years) consistently and essentially a part of Europe, sharing its history, culture, religion, fighting its wars, exchanging monarchs, migrants and refugees, skills, trades, diseases. Admittedly, this point of view might be restricted to those who speak Latin or two or more of the core European languages. But King George I was a German, even if you did not know that.
    If I have not grasped your position on Europe I would be most grateful if you would tell me, so I can add it to my list. 


Saturday, 19 January 2019

Should Parliament decide, or "the people"?

Dear  Member of Parliament,
     It is not my position — “that it should be the people, not the politicians, who decide on Brexit.”  After the fateful referendum of June 2016 it did seem, for a while, that the only way to overturn a plebiscite, might be another plebiscite; that the only way to stop Brexit might be to ask "the people” again, in the hope that some had changed their minds. It is a shallow piece of nonsense to pretend that it would be “disrespectful" to ask a second time; flattering rather. But (I think) it was a mistake  in the first place, and it would be a risky gamble to ask the people to vote again on the same question – 'in' or 'out'. But there are other questions.
    If there were to be another referendum, I am beginning to think that my favoured question would be something like: “Should the question of Britain remaining in (or leaving) the European Union be decided by Parliament, or by Referendum?”  I would hope that some voters might have concluded that there is necessary information that they lack; and a responsibility that they are unprepared for. 
    I do believe in (representative) democracy —  as the least bad form of government, and on matters of morality; but not on matters of fact.  I would not try to determine the population of France or the GDP of Germany by asking the electorate.  The butler Stevens, in Ishiguro’s “Remains of the Day”, was asked by a sneering house guest if it was his opinion that Britain should raise or lower bank rate; he wisely answered that it was not his place to have an opinion on that matter. Nor would it be my place to decide that; the best we can do is to elect an honest banker.
    I thought John Major spoke well this morning (19th Jan) on BBC radio 4, advocating a series of ‘free’ votes in the House of Commons.

   Yours sincerely, Ian West
(Middleton Cheney, South Northamptonshire)

Monday, 14 January 2019

The Role of the Speaker

To the Editor of the Telegraph, 
Dear Sir,

One of your letter-writers* yesterday (i.e. 10th Jan) wished that Speaker Bercow had followed Speaker Lenthall who, in 1642, replied to King Charles I:
May it please your majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this house is pleased to direct me whose servant I am here; and humbly beg your majesty's pardon that I cannot give any other answer than this to what your majesty is pleased to demand of me.
But they surely missed the point: that Bercow was indeed following Lenthall, in using his initiative to follow the will of the House (not that of the Monarch or his Government).

Yours sincerely, Ian West
(* And doubtless several of your readers were equally indignant.)