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Blather is an old Scots word ultimately derived from an earlier Scandinavian word for chatter or prattle. I could have used any one of many words to denote the nonsense that is still being uttered by British politicians who want the UK to leave the EU. I was tempted to use a crude reference to bovine excrement or an equally unsavoury noun usually associated with a certain part of the male anatomy that comes by the pair.
I caught a segment of the ‘Tonight‘ programme on Irish television earlier in the week in which Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was taking part. Asked what was his problem with the Single Market and the Customs Union, he asserted that they prevent the UK negotiating trade deals with non-EU countries, deals which he was sure would benefit Northern Ireland businesses. When it was pointed out that most of those countries, including those who are members of the Commonwealth, prefer to deal with the UK as part of the much larger EU market, he responded by saying he had recently returned from Egypt where he led a trade mission from Northern Ireland, securing lucrative contracts for Northern Ireland businesses.
I felt like shouting at the screen: “membership of the EU didn’t prevent you doing that, then!”
Also this week, Channel 4 News asked a random sample of English people to mark the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic on a map of the island. The results were astonishing, showing that most people have no idea that, for example, the most northern point of the island, Malin Head, is in the Republic. Britons frequently refer to Northerrn Ireland as “Ulster” – I used to do it myself but have carefully avoided doing so in this post. The fact is that the ancient Irish province of Ulster includes Donegal which is in the Republic, to the west of Northern Ireland.
But whilst this week’s controversy has been concentrated on the land border between the UK and the EU, and the implications for the Northern Ireland peace process of any reinstatement of a border between the two parts of the island of Ireland, no-one ought to lose sight of the UK’s east and south coasts with their many ports, from Aberdeen to Southampton, all of which handle traffic between the UK and continental Europe and all of which will need some degree of additional policing if the “best deal for Britain” that David Davis is so eager to achieve falls short of the existing arrangements. And then there are the 16 regional airports*, as well as Heathrow, Gatwick and Stanstead.
I am only an ordinary citizen, although I did once dabble in local politics and even stood as a candidate for the European parliament, but I cannot comprehend how anyone could imagine that any “deal” could be better than the one we already have. I make no apology for repeating again what I said before the referendum, here, and, afterwards, here, and have continued to say in the period since.
As this comprehensive Facebook post from Jon Danzig at Reasons2Remain makes clear, the months of uncertainty, negotiations, and costly preparations that the UK has been forced to endure, and will continue to endure through the proposed two year “transition period”, are utterly pointless if the deal that is struck at the end of the process looks anything like the one we already have. And, if it doesn’t, then businesses that rely on fast freight transfers between the UK and EU will be hampered and their customers, the citizens of Britain, will pay the price.
*For anyone interested the 16 are, in alphabetical order, Birmingham; Blackpool; Bournemouth; Bristol; Cardiff; East Midlands; Exeter; Humberside; Leeds Bradford; Liverpool; Luton; Manchester; Newcastle; Norwich; and Teesside.
British blogger Clive tells it the way it is, prompted by a cartoon in, of all places, The Times. Like me, Clive is of an older generation (I think he is a few yearss younger than me) utterly perplexed, not only by the result of last year’s referendum, but by the general perception that it was people of our generation who swung it in favour of leave.
The only explanation I’m able to come up with for that is that we have had 40 years of being bombarded by fake news about the EU from the right wing media.
I can’t leave you to Clive’s thoughts without adding how horrified I was to see that Corbyn’s equally out of touch crowd voted earlier this week to leave the Single Market and the Customs Union.
I had planned to write a piece about austerity. Out of deference to the people affected by the terrible event in Kensington this week I have decided to hold that over to a future date.
There was another event that caught my eye however. Barely noticed among the hours of TV coverage and reams of newspaper reporting and comment about Grenfell Tower, came Tim Farron’s announcement that he was resigning the leadership of the British Liberal Democratic Party.
Mr Farron is a devout Christian who has made it known that he regards homosexuality as sinful. Despite that, on every occasion when laws about sexual behaviour and orientation have been under discussion in the House of Commons he has supported the right of individuals to make their own choices.
And yet, during the recent General Election campaign he was pursued relentlessly by certain elements in the media over his religious beliefs. At times in the past he has been guilty of evading such questions. He has explained this by stating that his Christian beliefs are irrelevant to his role as a legislator. His voting record confirms this.
His resignation statement makes plain his sometimes conflicting belief that, in a nation whose people observe many different religions and none, it is inappropriate for law makers to impose restrictions based on a single interpretation of the holy book of just one of those religions. It also demonstrates the anguish he feels as a consequence of that internal conflict.
I have written before about the suffering caused by religious fervour in the past. And we see it still, almost on a daily basis, in parts of the Middle East.
Across most of the UK in the 21st century we have removed the majority of those laws which were motivated by religious belief. The same is true of most modern democracies, although in some there are people with power and influence who still seek to have ancient explanations granted the same weight as scientific reasoning in schools.
I say “most of the UK” because there is a small part of the Kingdom where a fervently religious political party still insists on imposing restrictions on the rights of its citizens in matters of sexual orientation. Where, I wonder, is the media harassment of the leader of that party? Especially now that she is in a position to influence the governance of the whole Kingdom over the next five years.
You could say that, as an atheist I am seeking to impose my personal beliefs when I insist that religion has no place in politics. But, like Tim Farron, I have no desire to deny anyone the right to live by whatever doctrine he or she chooses to adhere to, so long as their behaviour does not harm others. And that is why I have such great admiration for this decent man who has presided over the re-birth of his party after the disastrous collapse in support following their performance as coalition partners from 2010 to 2015. I may not share his religious beliefs but I have nothing but praise for his honesty and integrity.
Do you agree that religion has no place in politics in a modern democracy or should our laws be determined by ancient beliefs? And, if so, which ancient belief system would you impose?
Once again Britain has shown itself to have become a divided society. Polarised between young and old, between those who see the advantages of being a part of the European Union and those who don’t, between those who believe in the entrepreneurial spirit and those who think the state should provide for all their basic needs. Long gone are the days when Labour and Conservative parties did well to achieve much above 30% of the vote, with the middle-of-the-road Liberal Democrats snapping at their heels with a vote share above 20% and ‘New Labour’ adopting many of their policies.
Mrs May gambled and failed to win. But nor did she lose, still receiving the greatest share of the votes cast and the largest number of seats in the House of Commons. She wanted “strong and stable”, a majority large enough to overcome what she saw as the flakiness of those of her colleagues who were less committed to her vision of post-brexit Britain. She hoped for a resounding endorsement of that vision from those she described as ordinary people “just about managing”. Now it is she who is just about managing to hold onto the vision. She now hopes to continue just abut managing for the next five years. That shows a degree of optimism verging on the arrogant.
The people she will be relying upon to sustain the vision, the DUP, certainly share some of that vision. But already there are warning signals. Thursday’s result for the Tory’s was achieved in large part because of the success of their campaign in Scotland, masterminded by an openly gay woman, who is engaged to a catholic Irish woman. The fiercely protestant DUP have resolutely fought to maintain Northern Ireland as the only part of the British Islands in which same sex marriage is still not permitted.
It could be argued that the DUP are responsible for the breakdown of the power sharing arrangement under which Northern Ireland has been governed for since December 1999. The refusal of their new leader to step down whilst an enquiry takes place into the failings of an alternative energy project over seen by her when she was Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment was the catalyst for the initial breakdown. Talks aimed at restoring the agreement have failed to reach a conclusion with the two parties to the agreement, the DUP and Sinn Fein, at loggerheads.
What this means for the rest of the UK over the coming months which will inevitably be dominated by the Brexit negotiations is hard to predict. The DUP oppose a so-called hard Brexit. Moreover, if, as seems to be the case, Thursday’s result was driven by an increase in the number of young people taking part when it is also true that young people are more disposed to remain in the EU, then it is reasonable to argue it represented a softening of opinion on membership of the single market. So, too, did the collapse of support for UKIP.
To many outsiders it seems as though May has spent most of her tenure as Prime Minister trying to put off a decision about how to approach the negotiations. She apparently made her decision to call the election whilst climbing a mountain in Wales. She still has a much more important mountain to climb. The election has not made that climb any easier for her.
About five years ago I wrote a review of a book called “The Candy Store Generation” in which its author had argued that everything that was wrong with the USA at the time was the fault of the Baby Boomer generation. A British politician had started the fashion for blaming the elderly in a much more widely read book (The Pinch, by David Willetts, pub. Atlantic, 2011). Now a new book gaining a lot of publicity in the USA is making similar arguments. Meanwhile in the UK one of the issues already being talked about in the General Election campaign is the so-called ‘triple lock’ on pensions. For the benefit of those not familiar with this particular device, what it means is that the basic state pension is guaranteed to increase in line with the higher of wages, prices or 2.5%.
There is a term that has been coined to describe the supposed phenomenon whereby the old take a greater share of a nation’s resources than do the young: inter-generational theft.
You can read my review of David Todd’s book here, and his review of the new American book here. For the purpose of this article I intend to restrict my comments to the situation of UK pensioners – after all, I am one – and to a refutation of the underlying notion of inter-generational theft.
A segment about the triple lock on BBC news the other evening explained that, whereas in the past senior citizen incomes were substantially below average earnings, they are now slightly ahead. (You can see a graph of this alongside this BBC article). Some have used this fact to argue that the ‘double lock’ – linking pensions to cost of living or wages – is adequate and that 2.5% is an unnecessary additional burden on the exchequer. On the face of it, and bearing in mind the other ‘perks’ that senior citizens receive, from winter heating allowance to free TV licenses and subsidised public transport, it is a compelling argument.
At a time when the crisis in social care in the UK means that some old people are occupying hospital beds and resources when they could be cared for at home, why not eliminate the 2.5% guarantee and use the money to provide more home care, or care home places?
The use of averages for this comparison is, as is often the case, misleading. The figure for ‘average pensioner incomes’ includes many for whom the state pension is only a small part of their total income because they have private pensions and investments. For them the 2.5% guarantee is virtually meaningless. However, there remains a significant degree of pensioner poverty in the UK. As one of those fortunate to have a private pension, I can well see that anyone who has to rely solely upon the state pension must find it extremely difficult to make ends meet. For such people the little extra that the 2.5% represents is important.
At the same time I can understand how the young, faced with student loans, low wages and the high cost of housing, might resent the fact that some older people seem to lead a feather-bedded existence.
My contention, however, remains the same as when I reviewed Todd’s book: it is as wrong to pit one generation against another as it is to blame a particular ethnic group or nationality for all that is wrong with the world. (See my article about the dangers of scapegoating here). Every generation has its share of people who prefer scamming the system to working; every generation has a few who use their power and influence to screw over everyone else. And, yes, there are more people with power and influence among the old than among the young. But whilst taking from the rich to give to the poor is a good idea, taking from every old person to give to the young is not.
The very people who voted ‘leave’ in the UK, and for Trump in the USA, are the ones most likely to suffer as a consequence.
Élite (ĕlët’), n. The choice part, the best, (of)
The above is from my ancient copy of the Concise Oxford Dictionary. Confirming that ‘elite’ means best. So how did the expression ‘the elites’ become a term of abuse, used in contempt to describe those we believe have too much power and influence? And, if we accept that there are individuals who singly, or as a group, have too much power, what is the best way to deal with the situation?
For the most part such people are characterised by being better educated than the average citizen, having greater intelligence than the average citizen, being, in fact, the best at whatever they do. Whether they practice law or medicine, run successful businesses or become successful sportsmen or women, or entertainers, they are the leaders of their profession. Is that a reason to hold them in contempt? I think not.
And, when it comes to sportsmen/women and entertainers we take the diametrically opposite view, worshiping them like gods. It’s the lawyers, accountants and business people that we hold in contempt, not because they are the best at what they do, but because we believe they have access to the best of the resources that should be available to all. We want a bigger share for ourselves. So we take actions we believe will have the effect of taking away some of their power and influence, giving it to us instead.
That, of course, is a perfectly reasonable position to take. It’s the reason I involved myself in a small way in politics in the 1980s. But something strange has happened this year. Something that I simply cannot understand. In Britain people voted to leave the European Union. And, in USA, people voted in large numbers for Donald Trump.
Now, I am not going to say much about USA politics except this: faced with a choice between two members of ‘the elite’, one a billionaire property developer, the other a human rights lawyer, I have no doubt whatsoever as to which one is most likely to take actions to improve the lot of the least well off citizens.
I do know rather more about the UK and Europe than about the USA. I know, for example, that one of the guiding principles of the EU is that very redistribution of opportunity and resources that those who voted ‘leave’ on June 23rd were seeking. The reason Britain is a net contributor to the EU budget is because it is one of the richest nations in the union. The European Social Fund and the European Regional Development Fund, are two examples of how the EU redistributes resources to the poorest regions. Some of those poorer regions are in the UK and have benefited from those funds. And yet the residents of those regions voted overwhelmingly to leave. That makes absolutely no sense to me.
Another way of redistributing opportunities and resources is for people in deprived areas to travel to places
where there are more of them. It has happened throughout the ages, from the legendary Dick Whittington who set out believing the streets of London were paved with gold, to Norman Tebbit’s father who notoriously ‘got on his bike’ to look for work in the 1930s, to the many young men and women of my generation who took advantage of assisted passage schemes to travel to Australia or Canada in the 1960s. It is also what the ‘freedom of movement’ clauses in the EU treaties seek to encourage.
The EU has been characterised by those who supported the ‘leave’ campaign as a ‘rich man’s club’. If that is the case, why are there so many rich people, so many so called ‘elites’, who supported ‘leave’, among them the foreign domiciled proprietors of many of the UK’s newspapers? Take a look at all those ‘eurosceptic’ Tories. Are they not part of ‘the elite’? Are they likely to continue policies that help support deprived areas, or are they eager to continue cutting social welfare?
This is why I said, back in June, that many in the ‘leave’ camp were deluded. And, it is out of a genuine concern for their well being that I continue to hope, and to campaign, for the reversal of this terrible decision.
Ireland’s role in establishing the British Parliament’s supremacy over the executive.
It was the English civil war, a brutal affair that lasted, on and off, for six years and pitched brother against brother and father against son, that established the supremacy of parliament. And it began with the trial of a man who had the temerity to threaten to raise a mostly Catholic army of Irish men to assist King Charles in his campaign against Scottish protestants. And Ireland was to suffer some of the worst horrors perpetrated during the course of the war.
Thomas Wentworth had been appointed as the king’s representative in Ireland. As such he succeeded in maintaining an uneasy peace on the island, between Catholic ‘Old English’, Protestant ‘New English’ and Scottish Presbyterians who had been granted land in the north and west taken from Irish clansmen. Meanwhile, on the mainland, many in parliament and outside were becoming uneasy about the king’s continuing support for a reforming arch-bishop who, in their eyes, wanted to take the Church of England back to something resembling the Roman Catholicism they had grown to detest.
So when the king asked Parliament for the funds to mount a war against a protestant led invasion from Scotland they refused. The king dissolved parliament and went ahead anyway. However, the army he raised was inadequate to the task. The Scottish force took control of Newcastle and Durham. The king re-called parliament. The Scottish leaders demanded that the arch-bishop and Wentworth be brought to trial for what they deemed to be acts of treason.
Parliament went ahead, against the wishes of the king. The trial lasted 7 weeks. The prosecution was unable to come up with sufficient conclusive evidence against Wentworth. Parliament therefore changed tack and instituted something called an ‘act of attainment’. This required only a body of suspicious evidence in order to secure a conviction. The problem was that the act required the king’s signature. At first he refused to sign.
In an act of extraordinary courage, Wentworth, fearing that his aquital would lead to riots and unnecessary bloodshed, wrote to the king begging him to sign, concluding with this sentence: “To set Your Majesties (sic) Conscience at liberty, I do most humbly beseech Your Majesty for prevention of evils, which may happen by Your refusal, to pass this Bill.”
In as much as the king signed, Wentworth’s plea was successful. It failed, however, to prevent the coming holocaust. Wentworth was hung, the arch-bishop was imprisoned in the Tower of London. In the country people began to wonder if parliament had taken too much power upon itself. And, in Ireland, the Catholics and the native clansmen began to fear the prospect of domination by the Protestant New English and Scots Presbyterians. They staged a rebellion, making the spurious claim they were supporting the king. Exaggerated tales of massacres of Protestants by Catholics in Ireland, not all of them erronious, reached England. This did the king no favours and the stage was set for a revolution in England.
Both king and parliament began recruiting armies. On 23rd October 1642 the two armies met at Edge Hill in Warwickshire and fought the first of many bloody battles. By the end of that day about 3,000 lay dead and there were countless injured. By the end of the war, a quarter of a million had died in England, Scotland and Wales and a similar number* in the much smaller island of Ireland. There were sieges and accompanying massacres at Drogheda and Wexford.
This week’s court case in which it is being claimed that the executive cannot move to take Britain out of the EU without parliament’s approval surely won’t lead to civil war, although some of the opprobrium that accompanied June’s referendum – and still continues – was of a kind that few Britons had seen in their lifetimes. But the outcome will be interesting, especially as one of the key arguments in the referendum was about the supremacy of parliament in our British democracy.
*The number of deaths in Ireland during Oliver Cromwell’s campaign in 1649 has been estimated at as many as 600,000. This was the figure originally estimated by Sir William Petty, Charles II’s surveyor-general in Ireland, and is now widely regarded as a gross over estimate.