In last year’s US presidential election, there was a clear choice on offer. Both parties offered a pretty distinct social platform, and each an economic platform that had some differences. In the UK general election in May 2015, the European question will mean that voting for one party over the other will probably have a profound difference on what sort of country Britain will be post 2017 referendum, if it happens. The point is that the results would shape daily life.
The same cannot be said of an Irish general election. In the last 36 months we have experienced life under Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour. We can also see, looking North of the border, what life under Sinn Fein would look like, and it does not look that radically different than like life down here. Sinn Fein will of course claim that a govt south of the border has greater room for action, being a sovereign state. This is true. But the reality is that Sinn Fein is moving towards a policy centre which will make it pretty much where Labour are now. Talk to people in Donegal or Kerry or Monaghan about their Sinn Fein representatives, and they will tell you that aside from waving the tricolour they no more want to frighten the horses than your average Fianna Failer. Radical socialists they are not, as their bitterly disappointed leftwing voters will discover. Life under a Sinn Fein coalition will not even be as left wing as France under Hollande.
Of course, says you, there’s always the Greens and the People’s Front of Killiney. True, but the Greens, despite their best intentions and efforts, showed just how resistant the rest of the Irish political establishment is to reform. As for Joe and the gang: Jaysus, they couldn’t even run a parliamentary group of seven people without splitting four ways. They are populist panderers, not even socialists, so don’t be holding your breath.
So just don’t vote? Surely that’s a cop out/Is this what the Men/Women of 1916 stormed a biscuit factory for, etc? Not really. I’d still vote in a referendum, and if they reform the Seanad and elect the panels I might vote in that. But even that would be purely for the sport, that I enjoy a good election count and the transfers and all the rest. But would it change much. Nah. This country, and here’s the thing, does not want change. We are actually a politically content people. The fact that a majority of our voters support FF or FG in polls confirms that. So move along, there’s nothing to see here.
Kerry County Council yesterday passed a motion by Cllr. Tommy Hardneck (Ind Fianna Fail) to make drink driving compulsory in the county. Addressing the world’s media yesterday, Cllr. Hardneck declared “Firstly, this is a road safety issue. Look at the statistics. When was the last time you heard of two drunk drivers crashing into each other? The problem is caused by sober drivers panicking at the relaxed but controlled manner of a fella who has had a few jars to calm his nerves. If everybody was as relaxed as that on the roads, we’d have far less fatalities. Secondly, there are the economic benefits. Requiring everyone to drink more will create jobs, in the same way that Clare used to kidnap American tourists flying from Dublin to the States, make them land in Shannon and force them to buy Foster and Allen’s Greatest Hits DVDs. This is the drink version of the Shannon Stopover.”
The councillor was speaking from an upturned 1994 Toyota Camry “resting” in a ditch, and attacked the EU for insisting on ditches and draining around the country and how it was the ditches that were turning Irish roads into death traps, not drink.
Listening to David Cameron’s speech on the EU, I was reminded of that scene in “Blazing Saddles” where sheriff Bart threatens to shoot himself to avoid being shot by the townsfolk. The problem he faces is that the threat Cameron is making is not greater than the threat major concessions would cause for other leaders of other EU countries. Imagine anyone of them coming home to tell their home parliament that they had agreed to letting Britain undercut their home businesses by freeing the UK from EU employment legislation?
There is also an issue which has been raised by über blogger Jon Worth: if there is a referendum between leaving the EU or signing up to a Tory negotiated right wing version of British membership, what will progressive pro-Europeans in the the UK do? At least in every Irish referendum there is the option of voting for the status quo, a choice that Cameron will deny the British people. Labour and the Lib Dems could always promise that if they were returned to power they will just opt Britain back into social rights, I suppose.
But what of the nightmare scenario? What’s that, you ask? The ultimate nightmare, that Cameron loses the 2015 general election and so the referendum is called off, and we spend another ten years listening to British Eurosceptics banging on about the evils of the EU? Oh lordy. I think I’d prefer if they left.
This was originally written in October 2009, when Gordon Brown was Prime Minister.
Dateline: London, United Kingdom, May 2013.
Six months ago, the embattled British Conservative prime minister David Cameron announced plans for a plebiscite on membership of the European Union. This followed foriegn secretary William Hague’s informing of the House of Commons that it was impossible to negotiate a new treaty to transform the EU from a political union into a single market. Hague had spent the previous year in negotiations with other EU member states, and whilst the other member states had been willing to make minor concessions in line with Mr Cameron’s famous “Never Again” speech of November 2009, including the restoration of the British opt-out of the European Social Chapter negotiated by the Major government, Hague conceded that there was little will in the rest of Europe to engage in the radical dismantling of the union that hardline Tory MPs were demanding. Following the marathon process that was the ratification of the Lisbon treaty, there was no appetite for yet another treaty, and as one leader had pointed out to the British minister, “There is no guarantee that European voters would vote to strip themselves of the rights that the previous treaties had conferred upon them.” In fact, Hague had to inform his parliamentary party of new Socialist French President Francois Hollande’s opinion that if there was to be any new treaty, it would be to advance political union, not move it backwards.
This in turn caused a crisis within the Conservative Party, jeopardising the government’s majority. Unlike the previous time in government, the Conservative parliamentary party had few pro-Europeans left in it, and was instead dominated by members who either barely tolerated the EU or were openly hostile towards it. On top of that, the Tory grassroots, who were able to influence their party through the web to a degree unseen in other parties, vented their anger over Hague’s failure, despite the fact that he had pretty much delivered what he and Cameron had promised before the 2010 general election. Cameron and Hague were slated as “sellouts” for not bringing back a pure free trade area, and it wasn’t difficult to find over 80 Conservative MPs, terrified by their rabidly eurosceptic constituency associations, to sign a letter demanding that, in light of the failure to renegotiate better terms, the matter could not be let rest there, and the British people must be given an opportunity to decide the issue. Facing a potential vote of confidence over the EU from the newly reinvigorated Labour Party led by former foreign secretary David Milliband, the prime minister felt he had no choice other than to pledge a referendum on continued membership of the EU.
The irony was that both Cameron and Hague had been elected leaders of their party partially on their appeal as solid eurosceptics. Yet they now had a choice: Opinion polls said that 65% of British voters disapproved of British membership of the EU. But both also knew that although Britain could survive outside the EU, it would be an action which would reduce the right of Britain to participate in the global decision-making process. The world was shaped by the EU, US, Russia, India, Japan and China, a point made very clear to them by the newly elected President Romney. In addition, the chief executives of major British exporters, in meetings with the prime minister, chancellor of the exchequer, industry secretary and foriegnsecretary, were absolutely adamant. Their exports will be bound by EU regulations regardless of British membership, and it was therefore vital that their own government be inside the union to help shape those regulations. Cameron and Hague, to much anger within their own party, announced that they would be advocating a “Yes to Remain” vote in the referendum. The prime minister nevertheless accepted that no Tory MP would be bound to campaign for either a Yes or No vote, but could vote with their own conscience. In truth, he knew that to do otherwise would be to break up the Tory party.
Three months before polling day, It was taken as a statement of conventional fact that the British people would vote to leave the EU. But once the campaign started, and the television media moved to ensure balance in the debate, it became very apparent that there was a problem, as the leaders of the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrat, SNP, Green Party and Plaid Cymru all advocated a Yes vote. This forced the broadcasters to give pole position to UKIP’s Nigel Farage and the BNP’s Nick Griffin as defacto leaders of the No side. Eurosceptic Tory and Labour MPsprotested, but as their parties were officially represented on the Yes side, they found themselves being allocated into third place slots behind UKIP and the BNP. Within a month, the No vote had dropped to 57%.
One of the curious features of the campaign was that the referendum was the first occasion where the British public actually started to receive mainstream information about the EU and how it worked. It certainly didn’t make the voters love the EU, but it did make them fear it less, and that began to be reflected in the polls.
Within the media, a subtle campaign was also beginning to have an effect. Major British companies, including major supermarket chains, sat down with the main newspapers, and put it to them bluntly. It was all well and good playing the eurosceptic game and bashing Johnny Foriegner to sell newspapers, but this was too important. They needed a British voice in Brussels and were willing to put their advertising budgets where their mouths were. Rupert Murdoch, pragmatic to the last, looked across the table at men as wealthy as he was, men who unlike politicians, weren’t afraid to play hardball, and had hundreds of millions in advertising revenue on the table. Stunned eurosceptics nearly choked on their cornflakes to discover The Sun, and a number of other papers, admit that whilst the EU was flawed, Britain had to fight her corner at the table, and therefore should vote Yes.
With three weeks to go, the Yes campaign unveiled all of Britain’s former prime ministers bar one advocating a Yes vote at a press conference. It was a powerful image. Although a statement was issued in the name of Mrs Thatcher advocating a No vote, the manner in which it was issued, and the refusal of the No campaign to permit journalists interview her became a story in its own right. Some pro-European Tories questioned as to whether the elderly former leader was been taken advantage of by the No side. The fact that she did not appear in public during the campaign almost certainly negated her endorsement of the No side.
In the final week of the campaign, the No vote was leading by a mere 4%, as the No sidestruggled to focus its message. Whereas the Yes sidehad a solid group of eminent ministers and former ministers all advocating the same message, the No side struggled to maintain consistancy. One particular memorable edition of Question Time, where Arthur Scargill and Norman Tebbit both advocated a No vote for differing reasons, and then engaged in a furious on-air argument as all the Yes representatives remained on message, tended to highlight the challenges.
A similar event featuring Tony Benn and Nick Griffin did not add clarity. Whilst pro-No Tory cabinet ministers were permitted to campaign for a No vote, many of them were unwilling to debate in public against the top three cabinet officers, and so the No campaign tended to be dominated by extremists. A UKIP MEP, responding to a call by the Irish government to Irish voters in the UK to vote Yes, was quoted as saying that “What can we expect from the land of peasants, priests and pixies?” The remark did little to boost the No vote amongst Britain’s largest minority group.
Polling day surprised the pundits with a turnout of only 53%, confirming a suspicion amongst some that most British people were neither pro nor anti EU, but just did not really give a toss. Scotland voted 59% Yes, Northern Ireland split along broadly sectarian lines, with the formerly eurosceptic Sinn Fein uneasily advocating a Yes vote. In England, the south west voted No by 65%, a response to bitterness over the common fisheries policy, but right throughout the night, the Yes and No sides hopscotched over each other until the votes from middle class parts of London started to come in large numbers, dragging the Yes votes over the top to a modest 51.6% Yes 48.4% No conclusion.
The reaction in Yes campaign headquarters was ecstatic, with Lib Dem and Labour campaigners cheering. The Tories, who had refused to participate in the unified Yes campaign for fear of being photographed near EU flags, looked mildly embarressed at the result.
Over at the No campaign, a punch-up broke out between BNP and Respect members, with UKIP representatives darkly suggesting that the vote had been somehow rigged. A young eurosceptic Tory attempted to set fire to an EU flag, but accidentally ignited a union jack he was holding instead, and was beaten by a group of BNP activists. Some Tories suggested that, given the tightness of the result, that it would not be unreasonable to exercise “the Irish option” and began to call for a second referendum, and that they would begin advocating such a move in the parliamentary party.
At his desk in Downing Street, David Cameron sighed, sat down, and started highlighting passages from John Major’s autobiography.
The recent hoohah over Danny Healy Rae’s motion to permit drink driving in certain circumstances misses the point. Aside from the fact that he was addressing a serious issue, that of rural transport, consider the fact that most Kerry councillors didn’t even vote on the motion. What are we to take away from that?
What I read from it is that most councillors saw the motion for what it was, a stunt. If the council had actually been voting to permit drink driving, councillors would almost certainly have taken a position on such a controversial proposal. In fact, let’s be honest, if Danny Healy Rae thought that his proposal could actually become law in Kerry, would he really have suggested it? Imagine when the first drunken driver with a Healy Rae permit knocks somebody down, the first victim of Danny’s Law? Would he really want that? Unlikely.
But what really leaps off the page is the fact that so much attention is given to yet another bunch of politicians getting paid to not make actual decisions but to debate a motion calling on someone else to actually do some work. The truth is that the country would be better off if Danny Healy Rae did have the power to let people drink and drive in Kerry, because people would then sit up and pay attention to the things he does. They would go from publicity stunts to real live decisions. Sure, it would mean that other counties would warn tourists not to enter Kerry for fear of being mown down by a legalised drunk behind a wheel, but so what? That’s the will of the people in action, and a beautiful thing it is too.
One thing that really strikes an Irish reader of Jonathan Fenby’s excellent “The General” are the parallels between De Valera and the general. Both men built a political movement based on a set of personal values, both men had a certain flexibility when it came to using force to overthrow democratic institutions they did not approve of, and yet both men ultimately remained anchored to democratic beliefs. Both betrayed sections of society (The IRA and the French Algerians) who had believed that the men in question were their strongest supporters. Both were replaced by protégés who abandoned large sections of their creed, and left parties that essentially became vehicles for ambitious but politically flexible individuals like Chirac, Haughey or Sarkozy.
Having said that, De Gaulle can also be used as an example of an historical figure like Harry Truman who just happens to be in the right place at the right time, and whose values are those needed. That’s not to say that De Gaulle was without talent. In the 1930s he was one of the few military figures to argue for armour based modernisation in a French Army that spent four times as much on horse feed as it did on petrol, and his book on the subject was found, with approving handwritten notes, in Hitler’s bunker in 1945.
De Gaulle’s return to power in 1958, ahead of a potential military coup which he may tacitly have supported, allowed him to create a political office, the French presidency, which remains to this day the most powerful (read unchecked) elected office in the democratic world. To his credit, it did allow him to finally put some order on France’s Italian style political chaos. Where he was not a success was in foreign policy, where his paranoia about the United States mixed with his inability to grasp European unity fully led to France striking dramatic poses on the international stage (like leaving NATO’s military structure) which did little to enhance France’s actual global influence. Indeed, De Gaulle’s opposition, whilst out of power, to the creation of a European Army in 1950 can be traced right through to 21st Century France being unable to defeat Libya without US military help, a task surely a 60-year-old combined (and probably French led) European Defence Force would have been able to achieve.
When he left office in 1969, he left not as a result of the 13 attempted assasination attempts on his life but because the French people had voted against a proposed senate reform (ironically to turn the French senate into something similar to the Irish vocational model). He then came to Ireland, where he made a passionate “Vive Quebec Libre” style speech at a banquest held in his honour in favour of a United Ireland which didn’t get picked up by the media because the microphone broke!
Many people from FDR to the French Left were convinced that he would attempt to become a dictator, and he could have given it a serious go, but he didn’t, in fact securing French democracy (although turning a blind eye to the thuggishness of his secret service). But for resisting that temptation, he deserves the mantle of greatness.
Fenby is always readable, keeping De Gaulle’s tale moving with just enough quotations and anecdotes to keep it interesting.
Every time there’s an opinion poll published a certain type of poll-junkie comes rushing out of the bushes to throw massive extrapolations on the results. But what I find interesting is just how uninformative the actual polls are. They tend to give a shallow glimpse at voter thinking but rarely explain what, why or how voters have come to the decisions they have arrived at, or what values shape those beliefs.
Here are a few questions I would love to see asked of voters. But a warning: Yes, they are leading. My point is that I would like to see the person being polled challenged as to how strongly they hold their beliefs, and whether they believe that they should be held to the standard of their own beliefs.
1. Do you believe that the government should increase taxes more, or cut spending?
2. Do you believe you personally should pay higher taxes to fund services for the vulnerable in society?
3. If yes: how much extra per week would you be willing to pay?
4. I have a selection of charity direct-debit forms here. As you are willing to contribute more to help the less well-off, will you fill in a direct debit of your choice for the amount you stated you were willing to pay extra in taxes to help the vulnerable?
(Purpose of question: I believe that many voters claim that they would “happily” pay a higher contribution to help those less well-off than them, but would change their minds when actually asked to do it. The statistical difference between those who claim to support the concept, and those who actually do donate the extra amount would be very informative)
5. Do you believe you are over taxed?
6. Including income taxes, VAT, PRSI and USC, what percentage of your gross income do you believe you pay in tax? (Compare answer to actual percentage of tax paid by individual)
7. What’s the highest proportion tax you believe you should pay, percentage wise?
8. We have calculated the percentage of tax you actually pay. If it is lower than the amount you say should be the highest level you should pay, would you be willing to donate the balance to a charity of your choice?
9. Are you better at spending your money than the government is?
10. Do you believe people who earn more than you pay enough tax?
11. If someone who earns less than you believes that you don’t pay enough tax, are they right?
12. If not, why not?
13. If a person who earns more than you declined to pay extra tax because (use answer 12, above) would you say that was a valid excuse?