Five Things

This is a bit of an experiment and, as such, I am not making any promises about whether it becomes a regular (or even an irregular) feature on this blog. The motivation comes from the fact that, as I trawl various corners of the internet, I often encounter articles that are interesting but about which I have little or nothing to add.

I don’t want to descend into writing endless posts that say no more than Look At This, so I plan on pulling them together so that I can say Look At These. We shall see how, or if, this works.

First up is the short story that started me thinking about this type of post. Compost Traumatic Stress by Brian Koukol explores a once-sterile alien world seeded by the blood and guts of battle and follows the traumatized veteran tasked with keeping this alien fauna under control. It’s an effective and often moving exploration of the aftermath of war and well worth a read.

Taking a quick look at the ongoing disaster that is British politics these days, Jonathan Calder is exasperated with Heidi Allen and Nick Cohen is horrified at the way in which party politics have been allowed to undermine representative democracy. Personally, I think Parliament should insist on a vote of confidence for whoever the Tories select as the next Prim Minister. Regardless of how a party picks their leader, if that leader can’t demonstrate that they have the confidence of Parliament then they shouldn’t be able to form a government.

If Asian cinema has ever appealed to you (and it should) Paul Bramhall has a fascinating article on The General’s Son trilogy and the birth of the modern Korean gangster movie. I really need to carve out some time in my week to start making a dent in my DVD pile.

And finally, Susan Biali Haas suggests that working with your hands does wonders for your brain, which is all the excuse I need to spend more time pulling up nettles.

Interesting times

Belgium went to the polls on Sunday and, this being Belgium, nothing is quite that simple. As well as the EU Parliament elections there was also a vote for the regional parliaments and the federal governments.

Overall the results were similar to those for the local elections last October, with the mainstream parties losing votes to the Greens and the far right Vlaams Belang. This is going to make for some fraught negotiations going forward.

Of the various elections, the European Parliament vote is probably the least interesting. Flanders returns 12 MEPs, of which Vlaams Belang returns 3, having taken one seat from each of the N-VA (centre right, separatists, now down to 3 seats) and the liberal OpenVLD (down to two seats). CD&V (centre-right), the Greens and the socialist sp.a are all unchanged on two, one and one seat respectively.

In the Flemish parliament, the Vlaams Belang have done frighteningly well to win 23 seats out of 124 (a gain of 17 seats) Both the Greens and the far left PVDA have both seen gains — coincidentally four extra seats for each, which puts the Greens on 14 seats and the PVDA on four, and in Parliament for the first time.

That said, the N-VA remains the largest party by far and a three party coalition with them, the CD&V and the OpenVLD would have a comfortable majority.

In Brussels, the one place in which both Flemish and Francophone parties campaign, the Greens are the big winners. I am not going to attempt to guess at what sort of coalition ends up running the city, but I suspect that we can look forward to fewer cars and a more pleasant walk to the station.

And then there’s the federal parliament, which is where things really do become interesting. Again the Vlaams Belang and the Greens are the big winners at the expense of the more mainstream parties. It’s generally the case that Flanders tends to vote centre-right and Wallonia tends to lean to the left and this is reflected in the fact that the largest and second largest parties are the Flemish N-VA and the Francophone Parti Socialiste (PS) respectively. And now they have to form a coalition.

In the last parliament we had a four party coalition of N-VA, CD&V and the Flemish and Francophone liberal parties. This time around, though, the size of the Vlaams Belang prevents these four parties from achieving a majority.

It should be safe to exclude the possibility of the far right getting into government as long as the cordon sanitaire holds — which it should. Gwendolyn Rutten of the OpenVLD has already ruled out any sort of agreement with the far right and I don’t see either the socialists or the greens being willing to do a deal with them. The N-VA have been a bit more equivocal about the far right, but if no-one else is willing to let the Vlaams Belang near at the levers of government then any hopes they they might have are dead in the water. As such, the size of the far right contingent merely adds to the complexity.

Being the biggest party, the N-VA will get first crack at forming a coalition. But the francophone parties don’t trust them — to the extend that the PS have said that they won’t go into coalition with them at all and several members of the francophone liberals of the Movement Reformateur (MR) saying that they don’t want anything to do with Theo “Thickie” Francken.

It’s possible that the N-VA might be able to bring around the MR and hammer out a coalition of with the liberal parties, green parties and the CH&V. An agreement between the N-VA and Greens is unlikely, but not completely outlandish — these two parties tried to form a coalition in Antwerp after the 2018 local elections, although the talks eventually fell apart — but any such agreement would take a long time in coming.

And if the N-VA can’t hammer out an agreement, the PS will have a go at forming a coalition. The numbers are there for a six party coalition of socialists, liberals and greens but whether such a coalition will manage to survive a full five years is anyone’s guess.

Maybe it wouldn’t need to.

After the 2010 election, the Belgian parties took 589 days to form a government. This time around, they may well take longer.

Quote of the Day: He’s going to be prime minister, isn’t he.

The Official Secrets Act, surprisingly not a Jacqueline Wilson book but actually a serious, government-level agreement, surely only exists to spell out the importance of basic confidentiality to cretins who aren’t in the room on merit, but apparently it wasn’t clear enough.

Ryan Priest on Gavin Williamson, the former defence Secretary who was sacked for leaking confidential conversations.

That petition

At the time of writing this post, the petition to Revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU has reached 5.84 million signatures and the Government has responded. Unsurprisingly, the Government response is the usual stream of nonsense and platitudes:

This Government will not revoke Article 50. We will honour the result of the 2016 referendum and work with Parliament to deliver a deal that ensures we leave the European Union.

In the opening sentence the Government reveals itself to be either delusional or dishonest by claiming that they will work with Parliament. This government has done everything it can to avoid working with Parliament, culminating with last week’s rant from Theresa May — the world’s worst populist — in which she tried to portray herself a tribune of the people in opposition to Parliament.

If she wasn’t so incompetent, she’d be dangerous.

It remains the Government’s firm policy not to revoke Article 50. We will honour the outcome of the 2016 referendum and work to deliver an exit which benefits everyone, whether they voted to Leave or to Remain.

An exit that benefits everyone? I would be interested to know what such an exit would look like because, so far, every form of Brexit that has been proposed leaves the UK worse off than before. And, with the approach the government has taken so far, Brexit is already making people worse off.

People who were already rich enough to have money to shift around offshore accounts (hello, Jacob Rees-Mogg) may well benefit from Brexit. For everyone who needs to earn an income, life is going to get a lot harder.

Revoking Article 50, and thereby remaining in the European Union, would undermine both our democracy and the trust that millions of voters have placed in Government.

What trust? Only 7% of voters think the government has handled Brexit well. Nearly two thirds of voters think the government’s deal is a bad one. Whatever trust that might have been placed in this government has been well and truly squandered by their incompetence, evasiveness and outright dishonesty.

As for undermining democracy, I’m tempted to suggest that the Honorable Members of Her Majesty’s Government may need to apply for remedial lessons in Understanding the Constitution.

Britain is a Parliamentary democracy and one in which referenda are not a normal part. Indeed, Clement Atlee described referendums as “alien to all our traditions” and Margaret Thatcher described them as “a device of dictators and demagogues”. Britain has no tradition of using referendums and no process for dealing with the results.

Parliamentary sovereignty means that power, ultimately, rests with Parliament. When a government’s attempts at implementing a policy are so abysmal that companies are having to stockpile food and medicine, it is not only reasonable for Parliament to call a halt to the disaster, but Parliament’s job.

The Government acknowledges the considerable number of people who have signed this petition. However, close to three quarters of the electorate took part in the 2016 referendum, trusting that the result would be respected.

52% of nearly three quarters of the electorate. That’s 39%.

In countries where referenda are used, this would not be a sufficient majority to implement a change such as this. Hell, in the UK, a majority like this isn’t even sufficient for a union to call a strike. So why the insistence that it’s enough to crash the economy?

This Government wrote to every household prior to the referendum, promising that the outcome of the referendum would be implemented. 17.4 million people then voted to leave the European Union, providing the biggest democratic mandate for any course of action ever directed at UK Government.

To paraphrase something said to me in the run-up to the referendum: “I’m thinking of voting leave just to see the back of that smug bastard [David Cameron].”

People voted leave for a whole range of reasons, not all of which had much — or anything — to do with Britain’s membership of the EU. Tellingly, the Government has made no attempt to understand or address the reasons that people voted the way they did. Instead, they have decided that the sizable minority that voted remain don’t matter and that all leave voters fully agree with the most extreme parts of the Conservative party. And that really is bad for democracy.

British people cast their votes once again in the 2017 General Election where over 80% of those who voted, voted for parties, including the Opposition, who committed in their manifestos to upholding the result of the referendum.

If you have a choice between two parties, both of which are promising to implement the same policy, then it’s not much of a choice. Labour’s failure to offer an alternative cannot be taken as proof of support for the only option on offer.

It’s also worth noting that manifesto commitments are not set in stone. They can’t be. No-one can know what other events will happen over the course of a Parliament or what new information may or may not emerge.

I think that most people understand that a manifesto can only ever be aspirational at best and that it is insane to stick to a commitment when all of the available evidence points to it being a disaster that will only get worse.

This Government stands by this commitment.

See above.

Revoking Article 50 would break the promises made by Government to the British people, disrespect the clear instruction from a democratic vote, and in turn, reduce confidence in our democracy. As the Prime Minister has said, failing to deliver Brexit would cause “potentially irreparable damage to public trust”, and it is imperative that people can trust their Government to respect their votes and deliver the best outcome for them.

The person doing most to damage public trust is Theresa May with her inept populism and the best outcome for people is for Brexit to be cancelled.

Parliament is due to debate this petition on 1st April. Now would be a good time to let your MP know what you think.

Brexit: All heat and no light

The media yesterday were full of Theresa May’s “crunch vote” on her Brexit deal — the same deal that was rejected earlier this year. And to no-one’s great surprise, it was rejected again, this time by 149 votes.

The press today is full of commentary as to what this all means, and so much of this is just noise.

Parliament will vote today on whether they want to exit the EU without a deal, and the expectation is that a no deal Brexit will be rejected. This amounts to little more than empty posturing and won’t change the fact that the UK is due to leave the EU on March 29th and, if no deal is agreed, the UK will crash out of the EU with no deal.

Tomorrow, assuming Parliament votes against no deal, they will all get together again to decide to request an extension to the Article 50 negotiating period. The rest of EU are already asking what would be the point of such an extension given that the UK is still unable to decide what it wants to achieve. And if there is no point to delaying Brexit, no delay will be forthcoming.

Since the Withdrawal Agreement was signed off, there have been three options on the table: Ratify the Withdrawal Agreement, crash out with no deal, or revoke Article 50 and cancel Brexit. This was the case in January, it was the case yesterday and it will still be the case tomorrow.

The ongoing mess that is Brexit has already damaged the UK. Firms are leaving the country, jobs are going to be lost and the fantasy trade deals promised by the Government aren’t going to come close to replacing any of this. If Brexit goes ahead, with a deal or without, Britain will become smaller, poorer and forced to accept any conditions imposed by any potential trading partner.

And it still won’t be over, because leaving the EU isn’t the end of this mess, it’s the start of the next one in which the UK continues to fail at everything (trade, travel, security, etc.) that could, until now, be taken for granted.

The only way to stop the mess, limit the damage and bring this whole screaming clusterfuck to an end is to revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU.

The latest Brexit shenanigans explained

I was going to post about the latest bout of slapstick in which the UK’s comedy government has been engaging. But since nothing has actually changed, and I don’t want to sit here endlessly repeating myself, I shall leave it to the satirists at NewsThump to sum up the current situation:

So right now, we’re essentially we’re waiting on an unelected ‘expert’ to decide if Theresa May’s revised deal will mean that some foreign judges in an international court could allow us to unilaterally leave a backstop that was our own idea in the first place. And if he decides it does, then the dinosaur-deniers who think gays are an abomination will help the government make it so by getting haunted Victorian apparition Jacob Rees-Mogg to support them.

Now would probably be a good time to apply for a Belgian passport.

The Independent Group

For the past couple of years, the media has been endlessly excited about the idea of a realignment of British politics. Articles keep on appearing pontificating on how Brexit is the new political divide and speculating about how a new moderate party might emerge and capture all the votes available now that both the Conservative and Labour parties have decided to march off to their respective extremes — just as the Liberal Democrats have failed to do.

It was no surprise, therefore, that this excitement reached fever pitch on Monday when seven Labour MPs announced that they had quit the party and would now be sitting as a group of independents.

There have been plenty of comparisons to the SDP/Labour split in the 1980s, some of which are relevant but most not. The SDP was launched as a distinct political party with a Social Democratic agenda and set of policies. While this centre-left alignment appealed to disaffected Labour voters, not many Tories were convinced and the SDP ended up being accused of merely splitting the Labour vote and keeping the Tories in power. Unfairly, in my view — the likelihood of the very left wing Labour Party led by Michael Foot actually winning an election was close to zero, regardless of anything the SDP did or didn’t do.

The Independent Group, on the other hand, is being very careful to not describe themselves as a political party and their statement is the sort of blandly aspirational stuff that is difficult for anyone to disagree with. I am assuming that this vagueness is a deliberate attempt to encourage moderate Conservatives to join them before they start committing to actual policies. It’s also possible, of course, that their action is driven more by frustration with the many failures of Labour under Corbyn and they don’t really know where they want to go from here.

On the face of it, a centrist party that is able to attract moderate voters from both sides of the divide should be able to make an electoral impact. It worked for Macron and, in the UK, polling suggests that around 40% of voters think that neither of the two main parties represent them and a new party would be a good idea. The acid test, of course, will be when this not-yet-a-party starts hammering out actual policy positions and asking voters to support an economically and socially liberal agenda.

This is where we hit on the problem with that word, “Centrist”, because it can mean different things to different people. Nick Barlow touched on this back in September and Flip Chart Rick has expanded on the point more recently. Both posts are worth reading but the shorter version is as follows.

Most people don’t spend too much time thinking about politics. Most people who don’t think much about politics would describe themselves as centrist, is asked. When asked about specific policies, however, most people’s opinions are not opinions that the commentariat would describe as centrist.

That said, I am cautiously optimistic, especially with yesterday’s news that three Conservatives have joined the group of (now eight) Labour MPs.

If any issue is big enough to break the sclerotic state of the UK’s electoral system, it’s Brexit. If there’s a time to try, it’s now when both of the main parties are embracing their extremes and leaving many people disenfranchised. But it’s not enough for the Independents to tell us what they are against or to remain vague and expect to pick up votes by default.

If they want to succeed as a party, The Independent Group will need to take a leaf from the Macron playbook and not only develop a positive, outward looking agenda that addresses actual concerns and about which people can start to feel enthusiastic. They will then need to go out and sell this vision and to convince people that their ideas are worth trying in and of themselves, and without reference to what the other parties may be doing or saying.

Britain’s first past the post electoral system makes it difficult for new parties to gain any traction, but not impossible. The Independent Group has a challenging future ahead of them, but I hope that they do manage to make a difference — the country needs it.

High on Brexit

So on Tuesday evening, Theresa May won the backing of Parliament to renegotiate an agreement that isn’t up for negotiation.

I have been avoiding Brexit news a bit recently — May is still pandering to the fantasists in her own party, the rest of Parliament is refusing to engage with reality and it’s all going to go horribly wrong — but Rafael Behr came up with such a good analogy that I can’t resist:

British politics now follows the tortured pattern of addiction. Inside the addict’s head the most important thing is getting to the next Brexit fix, scoring the best deal. But from the outside, to our European friends and family, it is obvious that the problem is the compulsive pursuit of a product that does us only harm. On Tuesday night Theresa May thought she had scored: a slender majority in parliament voted for an imaginary agreement in Brussels, stripped of the hated “backstop”. Tory Eurosceptic ultras and the DUP pledged conditional allegiance to the prime minister if she delivers “alternative arrangements” for a seamless border on Northern Ireland. But no one has any idea what those might be and the EU has already ruled out a renegotiation on terms that might satisfy the hardliners. The transient buzz of Tory unity will yield to the chilly comedown of Brexit reality, as it always does.

Understanding what the political class thinks it’s doing with regards Brexit has become pretty much impossible. Politicians argue among themselves over procedural manoeuvrers and clever ploys all designed to ensure that their preferred unicorn is the unicorn everyone will receive just as soon as Britain completes its trade deal with Narnia.

The press is not much better, reporting on the Westminster soap opera almost entirely in terms of who has what advantage in which party, and completely ignoring any wider consequences.

It’s not all Parliamentary fun and games. As Chris Grey points out:

Whilst all this is going on, there is some really serious damage being done. As has been planned for a while, the European Medicines Agency has moved from London to Amsterdam. With it will go not only 900 jobs but a central part of the ecosystem of the pharmaceutical and biomedical industries – which are strategically crucial for the UK and in which the UK has been a leading global player. It’s worth recalling that in April 2017 the first Brexit Secretary, David Davis, opined that there should be no reason why it couldn’t stay in Britain post-Brexit. Like so many other Brexiter claims, it was known to be nonsense by experts but their knowledge was dismissed and mocked.

We now have companies spending huge amounts of money on stockpiling goods in warehouses in case of there being no deal, and almost every day brings news of another company moving its Headquarters out of Britain. The entire P&O fleet is to be re-registered in Cyprus. A group of leading food retailers has written a letter to MPs warning in stark terms of the dangers of food shortages. In any other time that would be seen as extraordinary. Now, it barely survives one day of the news cycle. And, of course, as with every other warning it is immediately trashed as Project Fear or, with the cynicism of the unworldly, as an excuse by supermarkets to unnecessarily raise prices.

Meanwhile, in Europe, Margot Wallström sums up what is increasingly the attitude of the rest of the EU to the UK’s antics:

She called Britain’s approach to the issue “dangerous” and “badly handled,” adding “I just think that they’ve made such a historical mistake and they’ve really created a problem for all of us.”

The rest of the EU is fed up with Britain and the way in which the British political class has behaved over the past two years. They are exasperated and exhausted and are reaching the point — if they haven’t reached it already — of telling Britain to stop wasting any more time and just go.

Tellingly, the rest of the EU is also a lot better prepared for Britain crashing out with no deal than Britain is.

Whatever you think of Brexit, the way that both of the major UK parties have approached it has been both incompetent and dishonest and has reduced Britain to a laughing stock. And still, too many MPs and too many commenters are unable to bring themselves to admit that the country is wilfully rushing towards an utter disaster and that none of these Parliamentary shenanigans will do anything to avert this.

Personally, I think that Article 50 should be revoked and the whole mess brought to a halt. Alternatively, you can recognise that the withdrawal agreement negotiated by Theresa May is the only deal available given the red lines that May herself has drawn.

These are the only options and Parliament needs to recognise this and make a decision. Preferably sooner rather than later.

Change the default

With Brexit looming ever closer, the prospect of Britain crashing out of the EU with no deal looks increasingly probable. MPs keep on saying that they don’t want to crash out, but as things stand this is the default position: Britain leaves the EU on 29th March and if, as looks likely, Parliament fails to make a decision then that exit is going to be both disorderly and extremely damaging.

Spinning Hugo suggests, therefore, that the most vital step now is to change the default.

The government cannot rule out no deal Brexit, that requires legislation. Further as a matter of Parliamentary tactics it may wish not to do so as the only way of applying pressure to obtain more support is to leave no deal Brexit as the default.

However, unlike all other options, there should be a majority in Parliament for an amendment to the European Union (Withdrawal) Act along these lines.

X. Duty to revoke notification of withdrawal from the EU

(1) If Y days before exit day no approval of the outcome of negotiations with the EU has occurred in conformity with section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, the Prime Minister shall notify the European Council of the United Kingdom’s revocation of its intention to withdraw from the European Union under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on the European Union.

(2) Upon such notification, the sections of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 specified in schedule Z shall be repealed

Schedule Z

1 For the purpose of section X(2), the relevant sections are [all of them except 13].

This would make Remain the default result. This should obtain the support of all those who favour a Labour led Brexit, a referendum, and May’s deal over no deal Brexit. It enables all those who favour the only Withdrawal Agreement there will ever be to say “I backed the government’s deal to achieve that” whilst avoiding a no deal Brexit.

Clearly, neither the Government nor the opposition will table such an amendment, so it falls to the saner backbench MPs in Parliament to propose and support such an amendment as a matter of urgency.

This could well prove to be Britain’s only way out of this mess.

On Brexit

I was listening to the radio this morning and, inevitably enough, they were discussing the prospect of Theresa May’s deal passing and the consequences of it being rejected. The (Labour) MP being interviewed was asked if he was worried about rejecting the deal leading to the UK crashing out of the EU with no deal.

His answer was symptomatic of a fundamental problem with all of the Brexit discussions in the UK in that he blithely asserted that a no deal wouldn’t happen because Parliament doesn’t want it to happen.

This is all well and good but the MP in question appears to have no comprehension that the UK is not the only party in these negotiations. The other EU member states, as well as the European Parliament all have their own priorities and concerns and are not going to offer anything that crosses their own lines.

Parliament can demand that the Prime Minister goes back to Brussels to ask for more, but there is nothing else on the table and no matter what she does, May is going to come back empty handed.

If May’s deal is rejected, no deal is the default option and Parliament would need to decide to do something in order to avoid it. And quickly.

As things stand, the UK will leave the EU on 29th March regardless of whether a deal is agreed it not. This leaves only two months to either revoke the Article 50 notification or ask for an extension of the negotiation period.

Just asking for an extension doesn’t mean that it will be granted. The EU27 have been quite clear that the current agreement is the only one on the table. They are not willing to reopen negotiations — especially given that Britain still doesn’t know what it wants to achieve. Not to put too fine a point on it, the rest of the EU is thoroughly fed up with the behaviour of the UK and have reached the point at which they just want the whole sorry mess to be over.

EU countries are preparing for a no deal Brexit.

An extension to ratify the deal or run another referendum may be possible but even here, time is limited.

The European Parliament Elections are in May and the new Parliament will meet for the first time in July. If the UK is still chasing it’s own tail at this point the EU will have to deal with the legal difficulties arising from the UK being in the EU but with no MEPs.

The UK’s approach to Brexit so far has been defined by isolationist and wishful thinking. If — as looks certain — May’s deal is rejected, MPs and the press will need to recognise that, because of the incompetent manner in which the UK has approached this, the available options are now very limited indeed.