Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition on 18th July 2016.
Writing on social media last week about the Nice attack, the conservative commentator John McGuirk remarked that “at some point soon, people are going to say “you know, we tried the nice way. We tried tolerance. We tried being understanding. Maybe it’s time to give the crazy guy a shot at it.”
It’s hard to dispute the logic of his argument, given the rollercoaster of the last 12 months. From Trump to Brexit, we are witnessing what some are calling “post-truth” politics but what I prefer to term The Right To One’s Own Facts. The most disturbing aspect of the Brexit debate for me was the willingness of voters particularly but not exclusively on the leave side to casually dismiss facts which did not fit with their worldview.
But what should really alarm us is that there now seems to be substantial numbers of voters who choose to vote recklessly on the basis that “sure, it can’t get any worse, can it?” There are literally millions of people voting for Trumps, Farages and Erdogans. It can always get worse.
In 1979 the trades unions brought down Jim Callaghan’s Labour government because they thought he was too right-wing. Think they were still applauding themselves for that act after ten years of Mrs Thatcher? Reckless voters keep thinking that they can’t break the system, even when they pretend they want to.
But they do want to break it, some say. Why shouldn’t they? They’re disengaged. Except they’re not. They are completely engaged by other taxpayers through the state. It often provides their dole, their healthcare, their housing, their kids’ education, all funded by the taxes of voters whom they themselves seem to hold in contempt for being “an elite”.
The welfare state isn’t some form of natural fiscal phenomenon. It’s a decision by voters collectively to provide what is, in many instances, a form of nationalised charity. Sure, get insulted all you want at that definition, and talk about entitlements and rights, but bear in mind that whilst all of us, in every class, cannot avoid paying some tax, even if it is just VAT, some pay far more into the pot than they draw out, and others vice versa. You know where the poor are disengaged properly? Venezuela. When you can’t even find toilet paper on the supermarket shelves. Disengagement? That’s abandonment by the state, and it isn’t happening here.
The other awkward reality about reckless voters is their contribution to the rise of the hard anti-immigrant right in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland. What do these countries all have in common? How about, in one study after another, they collectively have the highest standards of living as nations in the world, which actually means in human history. So what’s their gripe? How disengaged are they? Is their broadband speed letting them down? Not getting enough time to play Pokemon?
What unifies Trump voters, Brexit voters, far right and far left voters? For some it is simple racism. We seem to believe that racism is no longer possible, but is merely a symptom of some other underlying cause. But guess what? Some people just don’t like people who are a different colour or creed. It doesn’t matter why, we just have to ignore them because their opinions are irrational and listening to them about the direction of society is like listening to Jimmy Saville about child protection protocols.
But I would suggest that the racists are a minority, and the real motivating factor for many of these voters is the speed of change, and that’s a big problem. Yes, immigration transforms societies, but so does technology. The speed of transport has sped up immigration, but it has also sped up shipping times from the cheaper labour less employment rights factories of China and thus made off-shoring jobs much more viable. How do you stop that?
The Trumps and the Le Pens can stop immigration, and erect walls, both physically and tariff. But they can only alter the speed of change by actually withdrawing their respective countries from the globalized economy, which has all sorts of consequences from labour shortages to the price of food in the shops.
For me, the greatest reason why we should ignore reckless voters is their belief that complexity can be removed. That “take back control” or “just send them all home” is an actual solution. This is using a match to see if there is any petrol left in the drum stuff, and it must be opposed.
Of course, all that assumes that a majority of voters will vote in a non-reckless way, and that, in the age of Trump, is a hell of an assumption to make. Just look at the Erdogan of Turkey.
In 1932, in Germany, 52% of voters voted for either the Nazi party or the Communist party. Many of those same voters would have to wait for 17 years for another free election, and only after their country lay literally in ruins and under occupation.
It is very possible for voters in a democracy to vote to abolish themselves. Reckless voters have a right to be heard. But they don’t have a right to grab control of the wheel of the bus and take us all down with them. Nor are we obliged to let them.
England, 2023. Five years after Brexit.
The roaring and shouting after England and Wales left the EU was loud and colourful. A generation of politicians who had supported British membership found themselves demonised as Quislings and traitors, and quietly retired from public life, and every ministerial speech was peppered with Eurosceptic hyperbole as the new regime took office.
Over time, however, the EUphoria died away, as the government and the tabloids turned to the issue that had carried the Brexiteers over the line: Immigration.
The new government moved quickly to deliver on the issue. Tough new visa requirements were in place, and whilst existing legal residents were permitted to stay, they could not be joined by relatives, and so as many returned to their home countries they were not replaced. The teary-eyed right-wingers who had choked back stories of Commonwealth citizens (“our kith and kin”), every one of whom seemed to be related to a spitfire pilot, being put behind queues of stony faced Poles, suddenly and bizarrely seemed to go cool on Pakistani and Indian and African immigrants having easier access. The number of people legally entering the UK dropped significantly.
The tabloids, robbed of the EU pinata to mercilessly beat, but knowing that immigration was still the story that stirred the loins, turned their attention to the government. the new line was that the government was full of mealy-mouthed liberals letting people sneakily in. That and the EU was actively conspiring to flood England with immigrants through Ireland, Scotland and Calais, of course.
The government, like all populist governments, was as concerned about how to be seen to be doing something as actually doing something. The truth was that the immigration controls were not delivering the rewards the tabloids had promised. Housing was not cheaper, as fewer immigrants had only freed up the very lowest in housing quality, which in turn had forced landlords to improve the quality but raise rents to pay for it. The vast numbers of manual workers needed to fund large scale building of houses didn’t exist, resulting in builders struggling to find the skilled labourers to do the job. The Irish workers that they could source, due to a common deal with Ireland, expected top dollar, and all that contributed to higher costs and thus higher prices. The NHS and other public services were struggling under staff shortages as it emerged that many of the hard-pressed English white working class didn’t actually have the skills to fill the jobs. But the government was too scared to issue too many working visas to fill those jobs, as the tabloids, bereft of the EU to blame, had now doubled down on ANY immigrant “depriving” Brits of a job. Politically, it was better to leave those jobs empty.
With the labour shortage feeding into wage rises, inflation, public service waiting lists and rental rises, the Government decided to go fully for immigrants as the problem.
The launch of the Immigration Police was a huge media managed affair. The logo of the new force, a union flag in the shape of a shield, was emblazoned on the fleet of shiny new vehicles and officers unveiled by Prime Minister Johnson. The helmeted, combat trousered police, who vaguely resembled the baddies from “Blake’s Seven” but with huge union flags on their shoulders, grinned at the prime minister’s jokes about them “scaring the hell out of him”.
As with everything in post-Thatcher Britain, the Immigration Police was a private for-profit tendered service, the contract held by a huge security company with a very mixed record.
Within months of commencing operations, the IP was the new source of fury for the right-wing tabloids. The fact that a significant number of IP officers were themselves illegal immigrants who had gotten through the cut-price vetting process resulted in the resignation of the Home Secretary, and the tender holder announcing that it could no longer fulfill the contract under such arduous “red tape”. The subsequent taking of the company to court by the Home Office resulted in even more embarrassing revelations including the fact that some immigrant IP officers from some countries seemed to be using their very considerable IP powers to pursue vendettas against people from other tribal areas or religious groups.
The Government was forced to introduce emergency legislation to nationalise the whole IP organisation, making it a state agency. This, as it always seems to do, then sent costs through the roof as the new IP management, made up of Home Office staff, were more than happy to spend millions on vetting.
Three years after its initial launch the IP had been “purged” of illegal immigrants. It was also running hugely over-budget, requiring cuts elsewhere to feed its huge fiscal maw, and led by a very media savvy chief executive who fended off any attempt to trim the rapidly expanding budget with tales of hordes of terrorists and illegal workers sweeping towards virginal England. The IP’s media budget was very substantial.
Aside from its internal chaos, the daily operations of the IP became problematic. Although initially popular, with black cab drivers beeping their horns at speeding IP vehicles, sirens flashing, off to defend England, the reality of the organisation’s nebulous task began to take the shine off rapidly. The new Home Secretary, of Asian extraction and from the hard-right of the party, was adamant that the IP must be visibly active which led to huge poster campaigns asking the public to cooperate. One stand-up comedian likened the posters to the “Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave!” posters of the 200oAD comic character Thomas De Torquemada. The IP also started setting up random street checkpoints, which began to jar even with the most right-wing of blazer-wearing golf club Mosleys. Camera footage of IP officers singling out dark-skinned pedestrians alone caused a row, and in one case a riot where a number of black and East Asian youths proceeded to beat up the aggressive IP officers. This resulted in the local police having to intervene.
Indeed, relations between the IP and the regular police were strained at best. In London, where the Metropolitan Police had made a serious effort to diversify its membership, the jarring approach of the IP did not go down well. The commissioner complained that the IP was stirring up racial tension in areas where painstaking work by community police officers had finally started to show results. One incident in particular, where two Metropolitan Police officers challenged an overly aggressive IP checkpoint resulted in the IP officer in charge demanding that one of the officers, who was black, prove his legal status in the country and then attempted to arrest him. The situation, again all over the web, was only contained when the Met officers called in an armed SO19 unit and arrested the entire IP patrol to loud cheering and applause from local youths of mixed races.
The Home Secretary was furious. The commissioner backed her men, and when the Home Secretary threatened to fire the commissioner, the commissioner revealed that she had a special investigation unit looking into penetration by the far-right of the IP. She revealed taped footage from an undercover officer of IP officers, who were revealed to be members of various white supremacist organisations, joking and laughing at how they were paid “by one Paki to fit up other niggers and Pakis”.
The Home Secretary was gone by teatime.
Another source of problems for the new Home Secretary was how to verify someone was legally resident in the UK. His officials excitedly dusted off an old file: a National Identity Card. Not surprisingly, he balked at the idea, but the issue was unavoidable. In order to avoid charges of racial profiling, IP checkpoints were now stopping and demanding identification from every person, regardless of age, colour or gender. Many people were now carrying their passports with them everywhere, and the grumbling was beginning. In time honoured fashion, The Daily Mail and The Daily Express, having demanded a “get tough crackdown” on immigration, now did a u-turn and started banging on daily about the IP being a version of the Gestapo harassing ordinary Brits going about their business.
The Home Secretary stared blankly at his officials. Polls showed that middle England was vehemently against having to carry “papers”. Is this what we fought a war for? On the other hand, without some form of verified state backed ID, his officials said, there was no way for the IP to check on-the-spot. Unless, we created a national biometric database, one junior official mused. Then we wouldn’t have to carry ID, just be scanned. Of course, we’d have to scan the entire population.
The Home Secretary died in the ambulance on the way to hospital. The coroner said it was a massive heart attack.
The huge camp near Dover (christened Camp Boris by the media) was also the problem of the new Home Secretary. Since Brexit, the EU had decided that illegal immigration into the UK was not its concern, and so turned a blind eye to migrants making their way across the channel. France had announced that the UK could do its own border control in Dover, and closed its facilities in Calais, the infamous “jungle”. French, Belgian and Dutch police and coastguards were told that preventing “outflows” were not a priority, to the extent that many boat owners on the continent were taking a few quid for carrying illegals to the edge of the UK’s territorial waters and letting their passengers take their chance in a rubber dinghy. All to huge protests from the British ambassador to the EU who was embarrassingly filmed being kept back by security personnel as he tried to lobby ministers attending an EU council meeting.
Huge resources were being deployed along beaches in the south east to capture illegals, and send them to the camp, which now had over 9,000 residents. The decision as to who should run the camp had turned into one of the finest games of bureaucratic pass-the-parcel in years. The Prison Service had said that they were a criminal rehabilitation service, and weren’t suited. The NHS said they weren’t a prison service. The local police said they would have to take “Bobbies off the beat”, and the chief of staff of the army had threatened to publicly resign if the army were told to run the camp. So, it had ended up with the Immigration Police, whose CEO had happily accepted the task then submitted a huge budget supplement request which took the IP’s annual funding clear of the Metropolitan Police’s £3.7 billion.
With scandals within the IP, the ongoing battle to secure the coast (most of the Royal Navy, including the UK’s two new aircraft carriers, were on coastal patrol), the growing unhappiness with the overt and hostile street presence of IP officers demanding “papers” on street corners, the outbreak of riots in Camp Boris was not welcomed by the Government. The IP officers, even with riot gear, struggled to maintain order in two days of rioting. On the third day a large group of young Syrian refugees charged the perimeter, panicking a member of one of the IP armed response units. Without authorisation he emptied his full clip into the crowd, killing nine refugees and wounding another four. Three children were killed in the stampede from the fence. The image went worldwide, and resulted in massive demonstrations against UK embassies.
The Home Secretary, who had only authorised the creation of armed units of the IP three months earlier, in response to stories of some refugees being armed with knives, handed in his resignation to the Prime Minister later that day. The PM was harangued in the house, and in a fit of pique that was typical but would come to haunt him, announced that he would be his own home secretary.
He arrived down to the camp bearing his name just as another riot was getting into its own. Outside the camp, hundreds of young and middle-aged white men, members of the self-appointed United Kingdom Defence Force gathered with baseball bats and crowbars, telling the gathered media they were there to back up the IP and “back Boris”. Another crowd, larger than the UKDF, were made up of anti-fascist protesters who roared abuse at the first crowd.
When the PM arrived, the UKDF cheered and chanted his name, prompting him to wave just as another surge broke through the IP line and charged towards the main gates. The UKDF surged forward before breaking into a Braveheart-style run at the main gate of the camp. The two groups met. The UKDF, unlike the refugees, were armed with a variety of weapons and ploughed into the refugees.
The PM’s bodyguards shoved him into his car, screaming at the driver to get them out of there, all live on TV as a huge fight broke out around them. The IP commander, totally overwhelmed, ordered the use of rubber bullets and water cannon, all aimed at securing the main gate. Some of the baton rounds hit UKDF members, who, seeing the IP firing at them, were overcome with the fury that can only come from experiencing treachery, and attacked the IP vehicles.
The news of the surge at the gate of the camp swept through the camp, encouraging thousands more to rush the entrance, overwhelming the IP officers at the door.
On his way back to Downing street, the PM gave the order for the army to be sent in with more baton rounds.
By evening, order had been restored, but half of the residents of the camp had fled. 39 people were dead, a mixture of refugees, children, IP officers and UKDF members.
In Munich that night a far-right group held a rally, holding aloft images of the British prime minister as they sieg heiled in support.
Watching this on TV, the PM had the good grace to vomit.
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition on 8th August 2016.
It seems that it has become one of the latest causes of the Permanently Indignant Left to call for a referendum on TTIP. TTIP? That’s that trade thing, right? Yes, and that’s your first test. Tell me what TTIP means. I ask, by the way, having guessed myself, gotten it wrong, and having to look it up. TTIP is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the vast trade deal currently being negotiated between the EU and the US. Depending on whom you listen to, it’ll either boost trade and jobs on both sides of the Atlantic, or it’s a secret plot to hand over vast power to giant corporations who can then go about privatizing everything.
I’ll admit, I knew next to nothing about TTIP, and so went off and found both pro and anti TTIP information, and the more one reads the more you realise how complicated modern international relationships are. Indeed TTIP shows how modern society is a vast collection of moving parts and TTIP and the EU and WTO are an attempt to put some sort of order on them.
Which leads to a bigger question. Are voters actually capable of making a rational decision about these issues?
I’ll be honest: if I were to vote in a referendum on TTIP, I would have to do a few hours study before I knew even vaguely myself whether I thought it’s a good or bad thing. Will other voters do that? Many will, but I suspect most won’t. They’ll be influenced by the opinions of public figures they trust, or, and this is where it gets worrying, by vague nuggets of information they half hear.
What would a TTIP referendum look like, in any EU country? Nearly half the voters would allege its all part of some conspiracy, with everything from the Lizards of Davos to The Rothschilds lobbed in for good measure. Some voters would vote against anything because the government proposed it. In Ireland, some councillor would almost certainly demand local people vote against it unless St. Jude’s gets a new roof for its changing rooms.
I’ve no doubt there are smart people who know TTIP inside out who have serious issues with it. Good. Let them fight it out with other smart people who support it because the rest of us really haven’t a clue.
The truth is that asking the public to vote on TTIP is like asking the public to decide over new techniques in brain surgery. These issues are becoming too technical for the public (myself included) to give anything other than a vague opinion, often based on hearsay information directly contradictory to reality. I’d wager that a large proportion of people who want to stop TTIP can’t tell you what it stands for. If anything, we’ll be voting for who is on what side. So let’s just cut out the middleman and let them decide in parliament.
Is this elitist? Yes. We’re now living in an elitist world. Elite surgeons operate on our loved ones. Elite engineers design and run the nuclear power plants than stop our grannies freezing to death in the winter. Elite chemists design the medicines that cure diseases that killed our ancestors. So why wouldn’t we expect to have elite leaders to run our countries and negotiate our laws and treaties? The alternative is ending up with presidential candidates asking why nuclear weapons can’t be used more often.
But what about us, the voters? Who aren’t experts in nuclear proliferation or labour mobility or life expectancy management? What’s our role? Are we just not intelligent enough to play a role anymore?
Here’s the truth: we don’t need to be experts. But we do need to be able to ask the right questions of experts. We need elite legislatures and voters who know that yes, we do need legislators who know more than we do.
That means we need to take voter education as seriously we require drivers know how to drive.
The programme for government talks of setting up an Electoral Commission to run elections independently. I’d argue that its remit should also include the aggressive year-round education of voters, additionally funded perhaps by a small tax on election posters? Not just on the hows of the political system, but actual facts about our society that voters should know before voting. Is it wrong to educate voters that the government jet and TDs salaries and pensions are a tiny part of the budget? Or that most Irish people get more from the state than they pay in? Or that the rich actually pay the most tax? It’s time for the state to ram political, fiscal and economic reality down the throats of voters, for their own good. Informed voters are as important to a society as qualified surgeons.
We’ve see the alternative in the US, which on the verge of electing a fool as president, on the backs of voters whose ignorance (“Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya!”) is bordering on a belief in a political version of witchcraft.
Democracy isn’t a guarantee of good government, but the last line of defence against tyranny. But in order for it to work, voters have to be able to tell when they’re actually under attack.
Theresa May has a problem, and that is that it’s anybody’s guess what Brexit actually is. She has been elected on a “Brexit means Brexit” ticket and yet nobody can be quite sure what the destination actually looks like.
Well, maybe that’s not entirely true: Nigel Farage has an idea. To him, it looks like the humiliating capitulation of the rest of the European Union, possibly accompanied by a gushing apology for troubling Blighty in the first place, and sung to the theme from “Dad’s Army”.
The problem for May is that everything short of that can be sold by her rivals (prime ministers always have rivals) as a sellout, betrayal, or simple lack of moral gumption to get the job done.
So what is she to do? She needs access to the EU marketplace, but she also needs to be able to do something big on freedom of movement (FoM).
The answer might be, I suggest, in two places: the Leave campaign’s fabrications, and Robert Harris’s 1992 thriller about Europe under a Nazi victory, “Fatherland”.
First: can she get wiggle room on FoM? The answer is yes. The rest of the EU could allow Britain an emergency brake within the European Economic Area, in return for a nice fat penalty fee. And how does she justify that? By using the Leave campaign’s £350m a week as gospel, even though it is over twice what the UK actually paid. If, say, £325m a week is the price of FoM brake plus access, she could sell that.
After all, she’d be coming back with money and a brake on immigration and single market access, and although she is actually paying far MORE than the UK is paying now, the Leave side can hardly complain. It’s their figure, after all.
Then there’s the second part, to cap the deal. In Robert Harris’ novel the European Community is a nominal single market of partner nations, but in reality is controlled from Berlin, whilst preserving the veneer of independent nations. May has a lot to play with in this regard. There can be formal withdrawal, the lowering of the union and EU flags, the removal of EU signs in airports, the return of the UK passport, all heavily laden symbolism, all signs that “Brexit means Brexit”, and all total bollocks.
Britain remains in an EEA single market where rules are set by Brussels, bound by some sort of EFTA style court. They get to take down a few blue flags, have no seats at the decision-making tables and stand in longer queues in airports, and we get about £16 billion quid a year for our trouble.
In the words of Del Boy: lovely jubbly.
There’s going to come a time when the EU and UK have to get down to the specifics of a Brexit deal, something both sides can live with that minimizes disruption and allows both sides to move on. As it happens, a modified form of EEA membership for Britain looks like the most logical step, to include:
UK membership of the single market based on a contribution by UK taxpayers, with a discount on the figure of £350m per week given by the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson. Say £200m a week?
An emergency brake on freedom of movement which can be triggered by the UK government. However, the UK will have to pay the EU £350m for each week it is in operation, as compensation for EU citizens not going to the UK. Going on the 2014 figure of 209,000 EU citizens going to the UK this would amount to the UK government paying the EU £86,000 for each citizen who doesn’t go to the UK and pay taxes in the UK, which seems like an excellent deal for both parties. Europe gets €18,000,000,000 and the UK gets to keep the editor of the Daily Mail happy. Everybody wins.
An emergency brake on UK exports and the selling of financial services into our single market may be triggered by the European council.
Both the EU and the UK courts and parliament will be subject to an independent court tasked with ruling on the application of the new agreement.
The UK will be bound by the rules and regulations of the single market.
Britain will lose its seats in the council of ministers, commission and European parliament.
The agreement may be reviewed every five years.
All EU and UK citizens living in the EU/UK area at the time of acceptance of this agreement shall maintain the current rights of EU citizens.
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition on the 11th July 2016:
Amidst all the pre-heave foreplay and long lingering glances going on within the Fine Gael parliamentary party, let’s put two facts about Enda Kenny on the table.
One: he didn’t win the 2011 election. Fine Gael can dress it up all they like, that a desperate nation turned to the men in blue to step forward and restore a nation’s honour, but that’s not what happened. The country voted for the largest non-Fianna Fail blunt object on offer, and that was Fine Gael.
Two: he has, to his credit, had some achievements. The economy is in better shape than when he found it, and he has to get some credit for that because if it was in a worse state he’d almost certainly get the blame. Secondly, unlike almost every government since the last abortion referendum, he actually did something on abortion. Too much in some people’s eyes, not enough in others, but he did do something. Finally, he kept his word on offering a vote on Seanad abolition, making him the only Taoiseach in a generation to actually deliver action on a major attempt at political reform.
That’s what you can say about Enda. However, what you can’t say about him is that he actually has a plan as to where he wants to take the country. If he does, he’s hiding his light so deep under a bushel that he should ask Arthur Scargill to represent him.
Is there anyone who believes Enda has a vision for where he wants to lead this country? When I say vision, I don’t mean guff, and there is a difference, which all of us in this post-truth age can recognise. A vision made of guff is full of phrases about a “world class health service” and “dignity” and a “nation to grow old with respect in”. You know. Guff.
Vision is what comes from a Taoiseach bursting with new ideas, itching to start implementing them. The words “Enda” and “bursting with new ideas” are not what you would call fellow travellers.
This country has both problems and opportunities, and it needs a leader who doesn’t regard reaching Merrion Square as being the end of the race. Consider Brexit. What’s our country’s position on the access of the City of London to the European single market in financial services? Do we have a position? If we are to poach actual firms from London, do we have a plan to deliver on the extra housing that will be needed in the Dublin region to prevent an influx of wealthy bankers, as has happened in London, driving the natives out of previously affordable areas?
Is there anyone who believes that the current Taoiseach could sustain an hour long interview on that subject without it degenerating into a swamp of the most vague twaddle?
We need a Taoiseach who can tell us the concrete facts and figures of where he or she wants to go. Who is capable of being boring by going into the detail, line by line. Who isn’t afraid to appear smarter than the rest of us, because that’s his job. Above all a Taoiseach who knows that being willing to make long-term decisions that he will never benefit politically from is the difference between being a national leader and a hack.
It also means having a Taoiseach willing to go to the country and confront it about its obsession with avoiding short-term discomfort for long-term gain. From water, to pensions to senior care to planning to health insurance provision, government after government have avoided these issues because they were, quite simply, unpopular. It’s time we have a Taoiseach who is willing to be unpopular for the right reasons and who actually tries to lead the country.
It’s also time for a Taoiseach that recognises the power of imagination and new ideas. Both the Criminal Assets Bureau and the National Treatment Purchase Fund were departures from the dreaded Way We Do Things Around Here and both delivered results. Appointing an outsider as head of the Garda Inspectorate was another one, as was appointing a Governor of the Central Bank and a Financial Regulator not from the usual deserving lads but from outside the prevailing culture. Where’s our minister for Brexit, standing alongside Pat Cox, Lucinda Creighton, Catherine Day, Ruairi Quinn, John Bruton and yes, Bertie Ahern, putting party labels aside at the Taoiseach’s request to be our tried and tested Team Ireland ready to go in for us in the most important negotiations since the War of Independence? That would be leadership.
Noel Browne was minister for health for less than four years, and never held ministerial office again. Yet we still recognise his name, because in that short time in office he made decisions on the treatment of tuberculosis that were literally life saving for thousands of people for years after he left office. It wasn’t a question of him remaining in office for as long as possible, but using that time wisely. We often forget that Noel Browne left office in 1951 generally unpopular, with his courage only really coming to be appreciated years later.
Courage matters. We need a new Taoiseach who has both courage and a plan. But even more so, we need a new Taoiseach who recognises the words of President Jed Bartlet from “The West Wing”:
Some things are more important than re-election.
So, if we were to reset the European Union, what would it look like?
We, the peoples of the sovereign nations of Europe, and members of the European Union, declare the following:
That we recognize, in the ballots of the people of the United Kingdom in their referendum on the European question, that the future of the European Union must be debated.
We also recognize that in casting their ballots they raised questions about European integration which have been raised with equal concern and passion by other peoples in other member states of the union.
Accepting these facts to be true, the European Council, being the representatives of the peoples and national parliaments of the nations of the EU, and its highest body, declares the following to be the basic laws of the policy of the European Union:
The Council recognizes that the European Union is a community of sovereign democratic nations, and that those nations, at the behest of their people, are the primary source of democratic legitimacy of the union. Some of those nations may wish to integrate to different degrees from others. The EU will respect the sovereign right of each nation to determine its own level of integration, or to withhold participation.
The Council recognizes that no new country may join the European Union without the consent of the national parliaments of all existing member states.
The Council accepts that whilst some member states may wish to cooperate on defence issues, no member state or its armed or security forces shall be obliged to participate without the consent of that nation’s national parliament. The European Union shall not have the power to introduce conscription.
The Council believes that the European Court of Justice exists to interpret the laws of the union as determined by the member states. Therefore, voting by a majority of both member states and population, the Council may overturn any ruling of the European Court of Justice.
The Council also believes that the national parliaments are the indispensable voice of the people of the member states, and so a majority of national parliaments representing a majority of the population of the EU may vote to suspend or abolish any existing EU directive or regulation, or block any proposed one.
The Council acknowledges the unique role of the European Parliament, and so grants to it the right to initiate legislation which may only become law if passed by the European Council and not blocked by the national parliaments as per the preceding clause.
The Council concedes the question of the democratic legitimacy of the European Commission. It therefore announces that the President of the European Commission shall be elected by the people of the European Union on the same days as the European Parliament elections. A method of nomination of candidates may be decided by a majority of the national parliaments.
The Council affirms the right of any European Union citizen to renounce their EU citizenship, and all the treaty rights attached to it.
Finally, the Council proclaims that no member state shall be forced to accept migrants without its consent.
We believe that this declaration, which we commit to transcribing into a binding treaty, shall recognize the modern aspirations of Europeans and the appropriate balance between the union and the sovereign member states.
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition on June 27th 2016.
If there was one word to describe the European Union’s policy towards almost every crisis, it would be: reactive. From Greece to the migrant crisis to banking to the Ukraine, going all the way back to the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, the EU just doesn’t do getting ahead of a problem.
That has to change, because we’re moving into endgame here. Brexit is like the political version of the zombie epidemic movie “28 Days Later”, watching a terrible unstoppable force overwhelm and transform something beautiful one took for granted. The problem now for Europe is that the populist infection is going to spread. From Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, to Marine Le Pen in France, or Denmark or Greece or Czechia (yes, that’s what the Czechs are calling themselves these days) or even Italy, the real chance of the EU going through regular bouts of terror as other referendums appear on the horizon just won’t wash. We can’t just carry on with bits falling off at regular intervals. We’re trying to run a continent here. It’s time to cut to the proverbial chase.
One of the problems of European referendums is that they’re mostly not designed to give clear answers, but often, instead, accidentally create new questions. When Ireland voted no to the Nice and Lisbon treaties, we chose between Option A or Not Option A. Even the British Brexit vote was a vote for the unknown. Will free movement still exist after the UK leaves? How much will the UK pay in the EU budget, if at all? What happens to the Finnish wife of an Irishman living in Kentish Town? Neither they nor we know, yet the British people had to vote on it.
Each country has a view as to what it wants. Some want out, some want a trade relationship only, and others wish to integrate further, primarily around the euro. We have to recognise that the European project must adapt to the realities of the people who live in it. If they, or significant numbers of them at least, say less Europe, then less Europe it must be. The old Brussels mantra of More Europe automatically being the solution to everything is not acceptable without popular support.
Let’s let every member state take a fresh look at what it wants. A choice between leaving entirely, the Norwegian arrangement of the European Economic Area, and possibly not being in the euro, or staying in the full union with a clear understanding that it will integrate further as needed.
It might need some tinkering, possibly on the question of free movement and also on the migrant issue, but the purpose of the exercise would be to leapfrog the conveyor belt of crisis that a series of exit votes would trigger.
Would it be high stakes? Yes. But better than random exit votes appearing all over the continent like unpredictable political landmines. Let’s set a date where each country goes back to its people, and by its own national means, whether its parliament or referendum, decides what sort of EU that countries wants to sign up for. Out, EEA, or union.
Of course, every country will want to have a broad idea what other countries are doing first. After all, if the Germans found they were left in an EU with just Greece and Italy they might have second thoughts. That’s why the end of the process would involve every country coming back with its selected option under that great Irish coalition negotiating maxim, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.
There’s no question that this is high risk. We’d be playing Senior Hurling. But it’s still better than the standard EU operating procedure of hiding behind a very expensive, beautifully handmade sofa and hoping that our problems will think we’re not in and go away.
Some countries will almost certainly decide to leave, and others, including possibly ourselves, will choose to step back into the outer ring of European Economic Area membership. But across the continent, the issue will have been confronted, not left as unexploded ordinance just waiting to be detonated by some random event like some internal party row (I’m looking at you, Dave). Every country will have the chance to debate itself what it wants from Europe, and select from the appropriate option.
We can’t just keep drifting on, waiting for the next Nigel or Marine or Geert to take our continent to the brink. This union, with its warts and pointy elbows and Jean Claudes is worth fighting to save. Particularly for a small country like us. There has never been a Europe better for small countries than this Europe.
Ireland always gets upset when it sees the Germans or French making joint pronouncements, but there is nothing to stop us touring the smaller countries and building a coalition for our vision of Europe. It’s time for us to step up.
Populist euroscepticism is the brassy blonde with the short skirts and the cheap perfume next door, appealing not to your husband’s head but elsewhere. If she tries to seduce him, you have two choices.
You can fight to save your marriage and keep him, or you can throw him out on the road.
But you sure as hell can’t ignore his carry-on as if nothing is happening.
It’s time to fight for this marriage.
Posted by Jason O on Jun 27, 2016 in Books
, British Politics
, European Union
Given this week’s events, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Felix Klos’s slim “Churchill and Europe” isn’t really that relevant anymore, as Britain’s European Union chapter comes to an ignoble close.
You would be mistaken, because the book is an eye opener into a time when mainstream British politicians, and not just Churchill, publicly advocated European integration as a vital and worthy national interest.
Eurosceptics have always suggested that Churchill’s endorsement of a United States of Europe in Zurich in 1946 was done in the context of Britain and her empire not playing a role. As Klos argues, not only was that not the case, but by 1947 Churchill himself was head of the United Europe Movement, addressing the Royal Albert Hall under the banner “Europe Arise!”
As a pro-European and one who had hoped that the UK would have stayed in the EU, it’s hard not to read this without a heavy heart. But it’s worth reading if only to see the curious British path where the UK lost its self confidence as it took its European journey. Britain could have led Europe after the war, and moulded it in its image. Indeed, as Churchill himself said to his wife Clemmie, if he had been ten years younger he could have been the first President of the United States of Europe. Well worth a read as a sharply focused look at a fascinating topic.
“Just a mo,” the Prime Minister said, pulling his jacket off, then struggling with the bullet proof vest. His close protection officer helped him. It was the lightest model they could find, as the PM was “fed up looking like the Michelin man” on television, but it still added to his not inconsiderate bulk. The security services had insisted he wear it in public after he’d been shot at a month ago by yet another demented right-winger screaming at him for being a traitor. That was outside of London. In London they screamed at him for being a racist. Tony Blair had rang him recently to thank him for taking the pressure off him.
“I really appreciate it, man. I’m being invited to dinner parties in Islington I haven’t been to in years!”
He ran a hand through his blonde mop, and fell into a seat at the table, facing his chief of staff and that very sharp focus group lady they’d drafted in.
“Right, let’s get on,” he waved his hand in the air, as if signalling a dancing girl whose performance he had to tolerate.
The focus group expert clicked on a slide.
“Basically, they think you’ve betrayed them. The words liar, traitor, all keep repeating. And it is all to do with immigration.”
“But we’ve reduced immigration! Look at the stats! In the last quarter…” the PM blustered.
“Prime Minister, they don’t care about the actual details.”
She wasn’t lying, the PM thought. The justice secretary had his two front teeth punched in by a yob at a public meeting screaming at him about mass migration and “experts”. Indeed, the tone of the country had turned nasty in the three years of his premiership. Hate crimes were going through the roof as people deemed not English, whatever that meant, were subjected to all sorts of abuse on the streets. In some schools they were even having to segregate students to stop them fighting by race.
He’d been appalled by this, and was pouring resources into the police to tackle hate crimes, but that seemed to have angered some people even more. When he appointed the first non-white home secretary the amount of abuse he’d received in the post had been shocking.
“The perception, prime minister, is that you lied about stopping immigration and kicking the foreigners, in particular the Muslims, out.”
“But I never promised that!” he protested.
“They think you did. In some demographics, over 80% of respondents are convinced they heard you make that specific promise. It’s becoming a self-reaffirming loop. The more they get angry at you not delivering what they think you promised, the more they convince themselves as to what they heard you and others promise.”
He picked up a Jammie Dodger and munched on it. He really wasn’t enjoying being PM at all.
“Right, so how do we get the truth out? Brief journalists better? I mean, there’s a 14% reduction in immigration…”
The focus group woman looked at the chief of staff.
“I’m sorry prime minister, but I’m not sure it’s possible.”
“What?” the PM asked.
“This demographic is impervious to statistics or experts. All lies as far as they’re concerned, and Brexit to them was the signal that it’s OK, that they’re the real voice of the ordinary people. They only trust their own eyes, and every time they see a woman in a headscarf or a dark skinned man…I mean, we’ve had to stop using mixed-race focus groups for political work because it’s getting too dangerous. A man was nearly stabbed in one last week. Their measure of success on immigration would involve closing mosques, public arrests of non-whites, evictions from public housing. Making non-ethnic whites carry national identity cards was quite popular, especially if they were required to wear them on clothing…”
“Bollocks to that!” the PM said.
“A significant proportion think we should leave the EU?”
“We have left the EU!” the PM blurted out, biscuit crumbs going everywhere.
“They don’t believe you. Many believe we’re secret members. They believe UKIP are telling the truth. The phrase EU-Lite, you know, his phrase, comes up a lot. Also a number want to know why you aren’t promising to veto Turkey joining the EU?”
“And then there’s the £350 million a week,” the chief of staff said awkwardly.
“Not still!” the PM exclaimed.
The focus group woman nodded.
“It seems to have really locked in to public consciousness. Every local cut to spending, every school, hospital, the 350 comes up. They want to know why you aren’t using it to fund the given service. Some people think you’re using it to build a giant mosque in the next town over. It’s always the next town over.”
“It funds our access to the single market?” The PM said to nobody in particular.
“Yes, well that feeds into the UKIP line about you funding secret membership of the EU.”
The PM looked at his watch.
“I have to go. Have a state dinner for President Capaldi. Wish I had a bleedin’ TARDIS,” he muttered, as he went out the door.