Sunday, October 30, 2016

Britain. After 55 years seeking a role again.

My hotel here in Dhaka is in the diplomatic district of the city. Across the road construction work is underway on a large new building which the boards outside reveal to be the “Franco German Embassy”. No doubt the rabid haters of all things European will feel that this initiative confirms their worst fears. For if two nations which spent the first half of the twentieth century fighting one another can now be sufficiently close that they share an Embassy can the first “European Embassy” be far behind? Along with, of course, the “European Super State” about which they so noisily complain. In the long term probably not, I would think, and that’s something to cheer on not to jeer about.


The new Embassy is an overtly political symbol – though there will be sound economic reasons as well. The costs of the construction and operation of the Embassy will be shared – not least the costs of security. High these days anywhere, but particularly so in Bangladesh. But the symbolism is the real reason. If the French and the Germans share an Embassy that can only be on the foundation of also sharing a foreign policy and the reality is that that policy is not just theirs, but Europe’s as a whole.


When you have a broad-based coalition of 28 sovereign states there can’t be major differences of approach to international relations. The EU is not just an economic union, it is a political one as well. And you cannot have such a union if its member states disagree strongly with one another about external affairs. That there is common interest across Europe is fairly self-evident – even, I would argue, including the United Kingdom. Britain’s foolish and deadly adventure in Iraq, which was not supported by any of our European partners, was a blip in pan-European unity. But more than a decade later there is a greater spirit of cooperation across the EU’s 28 member states and only insular and petty nationalism could block the inevitability of “ever closer union”.


There is nationalism in pockets across Europe and that has led to the rise of parties of the extremes of Right and (in some cases) Left.  There is no room for complacency about this – history teaches us that in times of difficulty the extremes can prosper. The disadvantaged in America who will vote for the simplistic, banal nationalism of Donald Trump are not far removed from those who believed the snake oil of Britain’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and of the others who ran a disreputable and xenophobic campaign during the EU Referendum earlier this year. Nationalism does not just require the crude and maudlin portrayal of national symbols – the flag, sentimental anthems, the currency, reverence for institutions like the monarchy, nostalgia and reliving past glories –it also requires scapegoats. These are, of course, people and institutions that are external to the core of the nation and its history and who can be blamed for its ills. For Trump it’s Muslims and Mexicans (etc.). For UKIP and its fellow travellers it is the European Union, as an entity, and its officials as individuals – and, of course, foreigners in general and immigrants in particular. And for Hitler it was the Jews. Any study of the malevolence of Nationalism is also a study of bigotry, prejudice, intolerance and chauvinism. Patriotism is the veneer which barely disguises Nationalism. That patriotism is the “last refuge of a scoundrel”, as Samuel Johnson put it, we have evidence in abundance in Britain in 2016.


The opposite of Nationalism is Internationalism. That principle lay at the heart of Churchill’s call in 1946 “… to re-create the European Family… and provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom. We must build a kind of United States of Europe.” That is precisely what the European Union has done and is doing. This does not mean a Federal Europe and certainly not a “Super State” – except perhaps in the very long term. But it does mean closer union and also to a post-NATO European Defence Force as guarantor of the “peace and safety”. That the United Kingdom has chosen to be outside of this progress is distressing – the wrong decision, made for the wrong reasons at the wrong time. Churchill did not see Britain as being part of his united Europe – but that was a different Britain. In 1946 we were still Imperial Britain, a “Great Power” and the United States’ closest ally. None of that now applies. And when in 1962 Dean Acheson said “Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role” he was pointing to this emerging reality. 

The answer to the question of what Britian’s ideal post-Imperial role would be was arguably clear just before Acheson said what he said. In 1961 The UK applied to be a member of the then “European Economic Community”. At the time Macmillan acknowledged that the EEC was more than “just” an economic entity. He said:


“This is a political as well as an economic issue. Although the Treaty of Rome is concerned with economic matters it has an important political objective, namely, to promote unity and stability in Europe which is so essential a factor in the struggle for freedom and progress throughout the world”


By applying for EEC membership the UK’s post-Imperial role was effectively being prescribed. It was to be, along with Germany and France, one of the leaders in a United Europe. This may well be why General de Gaulle initially rebuffed the application! But in a few years time, and post de Gaulle, the UK took its rightful place (many would say) among the leaders of the new Europe.


In a parallel world the new Embassy in Dhaka would be the “British Franco German Embassy” – a reflection of the progress made in European cooperation and of the tripartite drivers of it. Fanciful? No more so than the reality of the “Franco German Embassy” surely.  


But now what? It took fifteen years for Britain to realise that to be part of the new Europe – indeed to be a key player in building it – was the right thing to do. Fifty-five years later, with much of the hard work of unification having been done and (especially) with democratic intuitions having been successfully introduced, we have decided to walk away. To what? Well nobody knows – least of all the Government wrestling with the enormity of what we’ve done.  The clock cannot be rolled back to 1946, or indeed to 1961. This is a Club which once you’ve left you can’t rejoin.


There is no Bliss in this new dawn to be alive, and for the young especially it is very hell. It was the meagre, stale, forbidding ways which got us here and the false and nationalistic “attraction” of a country in romance with its past. Sadly Reason failed to assert her rights. She was lost to the forces that would not go forward in her name.

Monday, October 24, 2016

A pardon for Alan Turing? It's not a simple as it might seem.

The issue over a pardon for Alan Turing and those similarly convicted of homosexual "offences" is more complex than some think. At any one moment in time we have laws. People are convicted under these laws and punished. Sometimes these convictions turn out to be unsafe and sometimes this only becomes apparent happens a long time after the event. The Timothy Evans or the Birmingham Bomb case for example. Here the pardons were made because of wrongful conviction - which they were. In effect the pardons overturned the convictions and made those convicted officially innocent in the eyes of the law (not much help to Mr Evans, sadly). 

The case of Alan Turing (etc.) is different. Nobody is saying his conviction was unsafe. He was correctly convicted under the law of the day. Nobody disputes that. So it would be inappropriate to pardon him because of wrongful conviction.  

Alan Turing and many others were convicted of transgressing against laws then on the Statute Book which are no longer on that book. We have in the last fifty years had a raft of social legislation which has liberalised our society. Among these has been the decriminalisation of homosexuality. What Turing was convicted as having done would today not be a crime.  

Today's generation has assumed it has the right to criticise the illiberality of previous generations. That's fine by me - and there's plenty to criticise. Slavery. Institutionalised discrimination against minorities. Dangerous employment practises. You name it the past was a tough old place. But that's how it was.  

Alan Turing was rightfully convicted under what we now believe to have been an unjust law. Today's mores and values and sense of what is right or wrong - and the laws which surround them - are different from those of 70 years ago. I think that we have advanced as a society as a consequence. Not everyone agrees - although as far as the decriminalisation of homosexuality is concerned few would argue that this change was anything other than desirable. 

We have a sense of guilt about what happened to Turing. But it is not guilt about our own actions but about those of a previous generation and the society that then existed. So what, if anything, should we do about it ? The usual requirement for a pardon (wrongful conviction) does not apply. It is frankly nonsense to argue (as some are doing) that because someone was convicted of an offence in 1952 that would not be an offence in 2016 he should therefore be pardoned. 

If we choose to pardon Alan Turing (et al) we should be very clear about why we are doing it. Because we believe ourselves to be more virtuous than our parents or grandparents is not a reason. Nor is it a good reason that Turing was a great man and that his life story has been well told in a fine movie. The failed Bill proposed by the SNP did not do that for me. If the Government bill does (as the pardon of those convicted and executed under Courts Martial during the Great War did) then I will welcome it. But, as I say, it's more complex than it might seem to be.


Since posting this it has been pointed out to me that Alan Turing has already been pardoned and that this is about also pardoning similarly convicted men. I had forgotten that. Checking on the reasons given at the time (2013) for Turing's pardon they are as follows:

"The Justice Secretary has the power to ask the Queen to grant a pardon under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, for civilians convicted in England and Wales.

A pardon is only normally granted when the person is innocent of the offence and where a request has been made by someone with a vested interest such as a family member. Uniquely on this occasion a pardon has been issued without either requirement being met, reflecting the exceptional nature of Alan Turing’s achievements."

The "uniquely" didn't last long. And the reasons given (Turing's "achievements" and the "exceptional nature" of them) were highly questionable to say the least. And they do not apply to others for whom it is now proposed a pardon be granted. The can of worms is open... 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

When the Nationalists take power...

A senior EU offcial confirmed that there is only one viable exit option - if the UK is no longer to be part of the EU, and if it will not seek the "Norway" status, then "Hard Brexit" is the only way. 

Norway is not an EU member but it has Freedom of Movement and is in the Single Market. The two are indivisible. This is an odd situation as the country has the benefits/problems of both policies without being in a position to affect the policies. But Norway accepts it.

The UK will not accept Freedom of Movement not because we don't benefit from it (we clearly do) but because it is a political line which cannot be crossed. Our electorate voted against the UK's membership of the UK because they equated that membership's "Freedom of Movement" obligations with "immigration" - which they don't like. (I simplify, but that was the bottom line).

Everything follows on from the political "bottom line" I describe. If that line cannot be crossed for fear of the electorate's response then "Soft Brexit" is no longer an option. 

We are cutting off our noses to spite our faces. Brexit will set Britain back for decades. And all because a foolish man thought he could defeat his opponents on the Tory Right /UKIP with a reasoned and internationalist argument. History should have taught him that Nationalism has a powerful appeal to those who think that they are disadvantaged. And we all know what happens when nationalists take power...

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Freedom of Movement within the EU is not "immigration"

Freedom of Movement within the EU is not "immigration". The myth that it is heavily influenced the outcome of the EU Referendum and is still being circulated by those opposed to the UK remaining a signatory to free trade in Europe. 

The core principle of economic alliances is the free movement of the factors of production - including labour. You can't pick and choose. If you want free movement of (say) capital free movement of labour comes with it. And free trade, the removal of barriers to the movement of goods also demands open borders - open to goods, capital, enterprise and people. 

Freedom of Movement of labour in the EU means that job seeking and employment has no national boundaries. It is, however, subject to the normal economic forces of supply and demand. If there is demand there will be supply. And the intersection of the supply and demand curves will give you the price. That price in the U.K. is regulated by minimum wage legislation. The legal employment of non British EU nationals is subject to the same laws as the employment of Brits is. There is no "cheap labour from Europe". (That there is illegal employment is a matter for the Police and is irrelevant to this discussion). 

Those EU nationals working here have not, in the main, migrated. They are Guest Workers doing a job, paying their taxes, consuming goods and services etc. Their net contribution to the economy is heavily positive. In time most of them will move on - back to their home country or elsewhere. The laws of supply and demand apply. Our economy relies on the availability (supply) of labour, capital and enterprise. The wider the source of all of these the better. The lower the costs and the higher the quality and the greater the choice.

Friday, October 07, 2016

For the Tory Right UKIP have been useful fools - crucial in securing their victory.

There is a cool, intellectually robust and factually undeniable article in "The Economist" today which states the reality that Freedom of Movement within the EU is strongly beneficial to the UK. And yet Nigel Farage who Paul Goodman praises today on the ConHome website (properly in the Lords - OMG !!) and his brother in crime Stephen Woolfe were the ones believed in the EU Referendum. 

Without question it was the lies of these and other doleful Kippers who secured the Tory Right their victory. There were a few unconvincing complaints from some Conservatives about the bigotry and mendacity of Mr Banks, Mr Woolfe and Farage. But most of them knew that every vile poster brought a "Leave" victory nearer and that the grubby means justified the ends. And those ends were, of course, the Thatcherites back in power for the first time since 1990. (I use the shorthand "Thatcherite" for want of a better descriptor. It's not wholly accurate as it was only in her sad demented final years that the blessed Margaret segued to where it seems Mrs May is heading now).

UKIP has been a vile scourge on the body politic. To the Tory Right they have been useful fools but they have been crucial in securing the victory. No wonder on ConHome  and elsewhere they are treated kindly. The extent of the plotting and the intrigue between fellow travellers across (nominally) the party lines (Carswell and Hannan, for example) may emerge in time. The short lived call for UKIP/Conservative electoral pacts pushed by some of the faithful (Toby Young, for example) got nowhere because it was realised it wasn't necessary. Just let the Kippers do the dirty work, stand at a distance and the prize will fall into your hands. Clever. Very clever...

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Labour sucked into a rather trivial Grammar School debate - but whatabout the Brexit chaos?

Theresa May has expressed a view that approval should be given to the creation of new Grammar Schools. It is not Government policy and many Conservstives are opposed to the idea including previous Education Secretary Nicky Morgan. 

Of the approximately 3100 state secondary schools 163 (5%) are Grammar Schools. In some areas they play a significant part in the state system - the county of Kent has 33 for example. But overwhelmingly the state system is comprehensive. This means that they do not select their pupils and are open to all children irrespective of ability. A Grammar school is a secondary school that is selective on ability at 11+ - that is its distinctive feature.

You might think that the addition of a few more Grammar schools to the few that exist is hardly a matter to take to the streets about. Even if the number of such schools doubled (very unlikely) it would only have a small effect on Britain's education system. Whether that effect on the margin would be good or bad depends on your view as to whether or not it is beneficial for a small percentage of our schools to be selective. However there is no general threat to the principle of comprehensive education. 

So what is going on and why is Labour in protest mode? It's rather like the protests against the so-called "privatisation" of the National Health Service. The NHS is not being privatised - although the process of contracting out and competitive tendering started by a Labour Government is continuing. But the NHS remains a publicly owned system staffed overwhelmingly by public employees. 

We are in "thin end of the wedge" territory here with education and with the NHS. More grammars and more contracting out in the NHS, although minor in themselves in the short or medium term, could indicate trends that are "undesirable". Selection in secondary education, and more involvement of the private sector in the Health Service. However the reality is that the massive edifices that are our Education system and our Health Service would take more than a bit of tinkering on the margins (for that is what it is) to change. Do we really seriously believe that the Government really wants to reintroduce selection on a major scale in education or dilute the principle of our NHS being publicly owned? Apart from anything else there is no mandate as there was no manifesto commitment for either.

So what is going on here? It's politics innit? The accusation that there is "segregation" in education planned is disingenuous. And note the use that most emotive of words - "segregation" - with its awful intimations of apartheid and institutionalised discrimination.

The utter confusion of Theresa May and her Government over Brexit is an existential crisis of unprecedented proportions. The recent Labour Party Conference only briefly discussed this in plenary session as they chose to unveil their domestic left wing agendas - on the NHS and Education (among other things). But Labour does not look like a Government in waiting but under Jeremy Corbyn it has become a protest movement. It's an abrogation of their duty as Her Majesty's Opposition.