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Early in 1981 a group of Labour MPs, led by four former ministers, left their party in order to establish a new one – the Social Democratic Party or SDP, a left of centre grouping. They were unable to support three of Labour’s then policies: unilateral nuclear disarmament, opposition to EU membership and “Clause 4”, the long term intention to achieve public (ie. State) ownership of “the means of production”.
I had long been someone who supported a middle-of-the-road political outlook which, up to that point, meant voting Liberal. Enthused by this new development I wondered should I join the new centre-left party. I liked the policies that people like Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams, in particular, had pursued in government. I suppose it was a sense of loyalty that drove me to stick with the Liberals, especially when the two parties agreed not to stand against each other in elections. It seemed that this could yield a change in fortunes for the Liberal Party.
About the same time an international trade treaty called the Multi Fibre Agreement was being renegotiated and seemed likely to increase competition for Courtaulds from low-cost countries. Of course, Courtaulds had been indulging in potentially suicidal activities by selling, not only fibres, but the means to manufacture them, to China and the Soviet Union. So there was a certain amount of hypocrisy involved in the request to employees to write to their MPs seeking assurances of continued protection for home produced textiles. Nevertheless, I did so, and copied the letter to David Steel, then leader of the Liberal Party, with a request for information about joining.
One morning the Works Engineer asked me if I’d heard back from our local Tory MP. He had, and the MP had mentioned a meeting due to take place that week to protest about plans for a new leisure centre to replace the swimming pool on Cleethorpes sea front. I attended the meeting and was pleased to see that the small group of Liberal Councilors were the most helpful, not offering support for the protestors, but explaining the benefits of the development, how it had come about and apologising for the fact that the council had not consulted or informed the people living close to the site.
As the meeting broke up I buttoned-holed one of these councillors and asked about joining the Party. “We are heading up to the Liberal Club later. Do you know where it is? You could meet us there.” She went on to point out the Club’s location and suggested I wait in the bar until she arrived.
That night I had a long conversation, almost an informal interview, with three leading members of the local party, as a result of which I not only joined the Party and the Club but became a volunteer in both. During the course of the conversation I was informed that the party was seeking suitable individuals to stand for election to the County Council in May of that year.
There was a council by-election taking place in Grimsby at this time. Assistance from party members from outside the borough was always welcomed and I joined a few other Cleethorpes Liberals canvassing and distributing leaflets. It provided a valuable insight into campaign practices which I was able to put into practice in the County Council election the following May. I did not win on that occasion but my appetite for campaigning was certainly whetted!
It was not long before I was elected as secretary to both the local and constituency parties. This was a time when there was a lot of negotiating to be done. Around the country Liberals were struggling to reach agreement with SDP officials on the question of which party contested the General Election, widely anticipated to take place in two years time. Fortunately, in the case of our constituency, there was no difficulty in agreeing that the SDP, who already had quite a strong following in Grimsby, would contest that constituency, and Cleethorpes, where there was a strong Liberal tradition, would be contested by a Liberal.
The problem for us was that a recent re-drawing of constituency boundaries had created a difficult situation for Cleethorpes. In past elections the borough had been included in a constituency with a large rural hinterland to the south, centred on the market town of Louth. Now Cleethorpes had become the southern half of a constitency that included a rural hinterland to the north, centred on the market towns of Brigg, Barton and Barrow-upon-Humber. We had to get to know a whole new group of people – not that this proved on the whole to be difficult. Much harder to resolve was the question of party assets, especially the Liberal clubs.
Louth Liberal Club had been allowed to run down and a team of Cleethorpes Liberals had, in the period before I joined, worked hard to get it re-established. They were not over-eager to see that asset lost. Cleethorpes also wanted to keep the Parliamentary candidate that had contested the previous general election. A resident of Louth, where he operated a wine importing business, he was reluctant and, despite repeated entreaties from leading Cleethorpes Liberals, he decided to stick with the new constituency that contained Louth. The newly formed Brigg and Cleethorpes constituency would have to find a new candidate.
The new constituency also had to approve a constitution. So, as secretary, I found myself with a great deal of work recording the many meetings in which two groups of people with broadly similar aims about which they were passionate were nevertheless determined to ensure that their local demands were recognised.
I have been pondering some of the responses to a Facebook post yesterday in a pro-EU forum. Contributors were asked to say whether they voted “remain” or “leave” back in June 2016 and to say why. The majority of responses came from people who voted “remain”. What struck me was the way in which the reasons for that decision mirrored the reasons usually given for a “leave” vote, and the gulf in perceptions, not just about membership of the EU, but the world view that it revealed.
I guess it’s been obvious for many years that such a gulf existed but prior to the referendum it was relatively hidden. Since then it has led to accusations of ignorance and treason from both sides. So what are these different perceptions and how can the gulf that separates them be bridged?
“For 40 years membership has never been a real problem and still isn’t. The economic, social and cultural benefits of membership are incalculable.” (JS)
Clearly that view is in complete opposition to those who believe that the EU is the source of all the UK’s recent problems.
“The EU protects the European continent’s food supply, ensures sustainable fish stocks, protects the environment and aims to ensure that as larger global powers become economically stronger the EU maintains strength and European values through unity.” (RV)
Again, a view that is contrary to the “leave” camp’s belief that the EU’s agriculture and fisheries policies are damaging to rural and coastal communities across Britain.
“I think we need immigration and we have lots of Polish where I live and I really like the Polish – they work hard and are polite and a lot nicer than some other people. They have brought footfall to our High Street which was becoming deserted.” (SH-C)
In contrast, there were, at the time of the referendum, a number of vox-pops on television in which people complained their high street was no longer recognisable with all the Polish shops and foreigners taking jobs.
The same contributor to the forum also said this: “It’s quite a good idea to have other higher courts to look at matters of say human rights,” a point echoed by another: “I voted remain because the EU’s laws are the only thing protecting the ordinary people of this country from exploitation by our politicians and employers.” (IR)
A sentiment which is in direct opposition to those who want to “take back control of our laws”.
“I value my right to live, work, study or retire anywhere from the West Coast of Ireland to the Black Sea, or from the Arctic Circle to the edge of North Africa. I think that the EU guarantees standards and conditions which successive Tory governments try to remove. I think it’s much better to resolve disputes between nations with a legal process instead of dispatching the armed forces.” (DF)
A recognition of the way in which the EU’s Freedom of Movement principle is a two way street benefiting many British students, workers and retirees, a fact that many who voted “leave” either ignore or deem to have been gained at too high a price.
“We have huge global challenges to solve and we can do that better as a block.” (JC) A sentiment expanded upon by another contributor: “I voted for Remain mainly to keep our sovereignty. Without being part of the biggest trading block in the world we’ll be a punching bag for larger powers such as the USA, the EU and China upon which we depend economically more than they depend on us and therefore can force us to do things against our will. Inside the EU we have a fair share of power and say in what the rules are and are protected against unfair bullying by larger powers such as China or the USA.” (SK)
The idea that pooling sovereignty with our neighbours actually strengthens that sovereignty is completely alien to those who believe we have lost sovereignty and can only regain it by leaving the EU. Such people seem unable to grasp the idea that making trade deals with anyone involves a quid-pro-quo and that any deal we reach with any of these larger powers is likely to involve the loss of some of the “control” the UK is intent on “taking back” from the EU.
“Because the EU has, in 40 painstaking years, cleared away protectionism and created an actual free market where countries can trade with each other without barriers, which improves our ability to export, and lowers prices. And countries have valued that so much that they really want to join it, that’s how three former fascist dictatorships and ten former communist countries have come in to the EU and become richer, more mature democracies.
When I was a child, about half the countries now in the EU were very hard to visit. Now we can travel there freely, live, love and learn across a whole continent, and the understanding we have gained about each other is what keeps our peace.” (JS)
There are several things here that “leave” voters would contest. For a start they see the EU as a protectionist bloc that uses tariffs to exclude imports from non-member states, ignoring the many free trade arrangements the EU has made with underdeveloped countries, providing tariff free access for certain goods and, inter-alia, making nonsense of the claim by some pro-brexit MPs that we can have cheaper imports from those countries when we leave. Secondly, I think I can say without being accused of elitism that most of the people who voted “leave” have no interest whatsoever in understanding their fellow Europeans.
I think that AD sums up perfectly what all these “Remain” voters believe about the EU: “European unity, security and freedom of movement. Rejection of nationalistic sovereignty.”
And therein lies the crux of the problem. Half the country welcomes the opportunities that EU membership has provided, remembers the horrors that red blooded nationalism brought to Europe twice during the last century, and rejects the idea that the accident of being born in any particular place makes you better than someone born elsewhere. The other half clings to the antiquated notion that being “English” makes them superior. That, certainly, is why we hear so many cries of “Traitor”.
I grew up believing that being English meant more than that. I was proud that English men and women, alongside other Europeans, had developed a set of values that had the potential to make the world a better place. The sentiments that underpin the “leave” campaign are diametrically opposed to that world view. I wish I knew how to undo the damage done by those in the media who have spent 40 years denigrating the EU and those very English values it stands for. I fear that it is too late. I fear for the future of the UK and the young generation that is about to have taken from it the many opportunities their parents took for granted.
Not so much a Saturday Sound-Off as a Sunday Sermon!
As gratifying as it was to see so many people marching against Brexit on Saturday, the party was spoiled by the reappearance on our screens of Nigel Farage with his insistent repetition of nonsense about ‘independence’. Behind that insistence is the insidious lie that we are a vassal state to Europe. Try as I might, I cannot understand why so few seem unable see the truth: that Brexit is a betrayal.
A betrayal of our shared geography, our shared history, our shared culture and, above all, our shared values.
If you doubt that the British Isles share geographical space with the rest of Europe consider these facts: Galway is roughly the same distance from Kiev as Seattle is from Miami; Oslo is nearer to Naples than Los Angels is to New York.
The last thousand years of our history are scarred by disputes between kings, and would be kings, both within and across national boundaries. The England we know and love was shaped by the invasion of Normans from across the English Channel, themselves the descendants of Scandinavians who had invaded the British Isles and the area now generally known as France several centuries earlier. Our present Royal Family has German ancestry. The British king most revered by the Irish Unionists was Dutch.
We share with other nations of Europe, too, a history of colonisation. Britain’s might have been the largest empire, but France, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, The Netherlands and Germany all established colonies in far flung parts of the world. Arguably that is why the two most recent wars between them spilled over to become World Wars. And why the legacy of those wars, in the Middle East especially, is one of continuing war and suffering.
We share a love of the same music. Make a list of your favourite classical composers and it will inevitably include Germans, at least one French man, a Pole and an Austrian as well as great Britons like Walton, Elgar and Vaughan Williams. Even when it comes to ‘pop’ and rock, the Europeans are in there somewhere, and not just ABBA. The Beatles cut their performing teeth in Hamburg.
Some of our greatest literature comes to us, in translation, from Europe. Les Miserables may be a successful British piece of musical theatre but it began life as a classic of French literature.
But the greatest betrayal, the one that cuts like a red hot knife to the very heart of everything I was brought up to believe, is the betrayal of our shared values.
The idea that every human being deserves respect; that those blessed with good fortune have a duty to share some of that largesse with those less fortunate than themselves; that no-one should be denied access to education, a rewarding job and care in ill health and old age.
The EU embodies those values in its constitution. Freedom of movement, so reviled by some Britons, guarantees the freedom of individuals to live and work and attend an educational institution where they choose. Please note that it does not guarantee access to social welfare. The rules that regulate trade seek to prevent workers and consumers from being ripped off by unscrupulous corporations. The environmental regulations are there in an attempt – admittedly inadequate – to ensure that the world our grand children inherit is not too sullied by our profligacy.
The idea that the nations of Europe, after a millennium and more of conflict, have come together to try to mitigate the harm those conflicts and the colonialism did, an enterprise in which Britain has played no small part, is one of the greatest achievements of my generation.
One of the more fatuous statements of those opposed to #Brexit is “We were great before, we can be great again.”. To which I would say we have spent the last half century and more using our greatness to ensure the adoption of those shared values across the world, through our involvement in the United Nations and the European Union.
It breaks my heart to see so many of my fellow countrymen working to destroy that achievement.
There was a time when low skilled jobs were taken by young people whilst studying, or learning a craft, as they worked their way up the career ladder.
Then it got that young people were so well off that they could afford to stay up until all hours in the pubs that their parents worked in when they used to close at 10:30pm, but have now been converted into clubs.
So well off that that they didn’t need those jobs. So people had to be recruited from abroad.
Now the government is proposing to stop bringing in low skilled workers from overseas. In stead they are going to encourage highly skilled people to come here to do the very jobs that a previous generation of UK citizens studied and trained for.
That strikes me as an inversion of what a country that sees itself as advanced ought to be doing.
What message does it send to potential investors?
Whether indigenous entrepreneurs or foreign investors, what such companies look for is the availability of a skilled workforce. What are they supposed to think when they discover that the UK has to bring skilled workers from overseas to fill the jobs that are already here?
May as well take their investment to the place where the skilled labour is already in-situ.
Now, of course, UK citizens will have to do all those unskilled jobs themselves.
I can’t help but wonder if someone in government is thinking along the lines of
“Let’s teach those people a lesson. Let them do all the nasty unpleasant jobs. It is, after all, the will of the people to send the low skilled migrants home. Serves them right.”
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?