Was Corbyn right to sack Owen Smith, after he advocated a referendum on the final terms of a Brexit deal?

One answer is horror: there’s a compelling case for asking the British public whether the Brexit that is negotiated is what they actually want — not least because the dishonest and contradictory messages from the Leave campaign mean that many who voted Leave will find a large gap between the deal that is offered and what they thought they had voted for.

Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith: rivals in Labour’s 2016 leadership election

But an Exit From Brexit means healing the deep divisions that it has exposed, not just a narrow vote the other way in a referendum. That means bringing across many of those who voted Leave, and engaging with why they voted that way. Many voted Leave out of fear, and they still have reason to be afraid. That is particularly the case in the Labour heartlands.

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Not dead yet: the Good Friday Agreement

Recently, various pro-Brexit voices have been claiming that the Good Friday Agreement is dead. There is certainly a big danger of it being a casualty of Brexit, but it is certainly not something to be sacrificed. Instead, it’s worth thinking about why it is under strain — in order to save it.

Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness, former adversaries working together after Good Friday Agreement

The Good Friday Agreement, signed on 10 April 1998, was a remarkable achievement. After an extended peace process, which had built up sufficient trust to make a breakthrough possible, it finally brought a way to share power between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, ending decades of armed conflict.

The problem was, and is, that there is legitimacy in the claims and the stories on both sides. Finding a route to the point when both communities can co-exist peacefully is the sanest way to peace. My reading of the story is that the fundamental change that made this possible was that the UK and Eire had both been in the EU for long enough for people to get used to it.

It is possible for communities to co-exist on a day-to-day basis, but the fundamental question which is hard to fudge is “on which side will you be if there is a war?” In other words, “Will you fight for Dublin or for London?”. Peace is possible when there has been enough peace and stability for long enough to mean that question is not at the back of people’s minds.

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False allegations against Jeremy Corbyn: chaos as things shift on Brexit

On 26 February, Jeremy Corbyn gave a speech saying that Labour favoured remaining in customs union with the EU. The week leading up to that was dominated by said an absurd, untrue, and ultimately retracted, allegation that he had spied for Czechoslovakia. It seems like a testing of absurdity on the way to a wise position on Europe.

In the foreground was the media storm which ended with Jeremy Corbyn winning an apology and payout from Tory MP Ben Bradley over his “Wholly untrue communist spy tweet”.

Andrew Neil’s brilliant interview with Steve Baker MP, demonstrates the ridiculousness of the allegations.

This is so absurd that the question it raises is “Why on earth did anyone believe it?”

In the middle of the storm, one comment caught my ear — Jeremy Corbyn saying that he had spoken with Czech diplomats because he wanted to hear both sides in the Cold War. An individual backbench MP won’t have had a huge effect, but advocating peace rather than war, and talking with the other side rather than demonising them, sounds like the conduct of a wise statesman.

So, why has this story blown up now? There is a political answer, and a below-the-surface one.

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On the streets in Ware with East Herts for Europe

I was out today with a group of people from East Herts for Europe in Ware. In among the leafleting and gathering 161 signatures on a petition for referendum on the terms of Brexit (once the government actually works out what those are, and actually manages some meaninful negotiations). There were some fascinating conversations.

Some of the people from East Herts for Europe out on the streets of Ware on 24 February 2018

In the referendum campaign, I was focussed on Cambridge, but friends in Hertford and Stortford talk of street stalls getting significant opposition. The case for Europe was worth making and clearly needed to be made. The constituency was the closest in the country to 50:50.

Now the feel is different. It’s unwise to draw any conclusions from those who didn’t want to stop and talk, but conversations today were rich. Some shed light on people’s real worries over Brexit, and others on their attachment to it.

Messages of support for Remain

There were people who stopped to thank us for being visible. There were stories of people feeling gutted by the result and of people from elsewhere in the EU feeling unwelcome since the referendum.

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A snapshot of the chaos of Brexit

A few months after the referendum I gave a conference paper where I suggested that Europe has been so important to the UK for so long that the referendum and its result had had a profound effect on the British political system, leaving it struggling to cope. The week of the World Economic Forum gathering in Davos has provided a striking example of this.

The systemic problem

In the background of that paper was the thought that stable systems need some form of containment. That applies at lots of levels, from a small child feeling safe in the containment of its mother’s arms, through to people feeling an anxiety over immigration feeling the need for a country’s borders to be enforced to make them feel safe. Containment is particularly important when people feel vulnerable. It can be about actual physical needs, but is much more about managing anxiety. Some of this will seem irrational, but it makes sense if it is thought of as managing anxieties that are hard to express. Immigration is a good example because the economic evidence that it helps the economy, boosts living standards and doesn’t cost people their jobs doesn’t communicate at the same level as the raw emotional fears in people for whom life is uncomfortably fragile.
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Responding to Labour Remain

Recently a friend and Liberal Democrat activist showed me an email from Labour Remain — formed at the start of 2018 and claiming significant support. This comes on the back of a survey showing that 78% of Labour members disagree with Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition to a referendum on the terms of Brexit How should Liberal Democrats respond?

European and British flags.

Brexit is a profound threat to British values, the economy and the very integrity of the United Kingdom. In that sense it needs us all to pull together.

The country is in a crisis. We have been so intertwined with the rest of Europe, for so long, that the referendum result has had a deeply destructive effect on public life. Parliament seems paralised. Andrew Adonis has written of a Brexit-induced “nervous breakdown” in Whitehall. The Conservatives and Labour seem massively dysfunctional. There are stories of moderate councillors in both parties being de-selected. Most of the pro-Remain majority in the Commons is silent or vanquished. My excitement over the formation of Labour Remain is more than a little tempered by the lurch to the Left in their recent National Executive Committee elections and stories of MPs being threatened with de-selection. Faced with Brexit, ths has all the wisdom of re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. We need to think differently.

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Mental health realities… and Donald Trump

A couple of things have come across my radar recently which highlight the stark realities of life for people with mental health difficulties. By contrast, Donald Trump’s behaviour is distasteful by most standards, but questioning his mental health doesn’t help people with real mental health issues — or excuse his behaviour.

Yarnbomb by TigerChilli

Shortly before Christmas came the news that the High Court had ruled that changes to the rules around Personal Independence Payments for people with mental health conditions were “blatantly discriminatory”. The conclusion won’t have been a surprise to people involved with mental illness, and the decision was good news, but the facts that it had to go to court, and that PIP is needed to support people with poor mental health, highlight some of the grim realities.

Later the same morning, I crossed the footbridge by Jesus Lock in Cambridge where there were some striking pieces of “yarn bombing” — effectively knitted sculptures — by TigerChilli. In themselves they were striking, but what particularly caught my eye were two phrases on the accompanying text: “For those of you living with depression or illness, missing or mourning a loved one, caring for a sick relative, or if you simply find this time of year difficult”, and “To the courageous woman I met last year who said ‘The sunshine’ yarnbomb saved her life and prevented her jumping off the bridge, I thank you for sharing this with me. I am extremely moved by this.” The yarnbomb sculptures and the words speak volumes.

I’ve had those two experiences in mind in the recent media debate around Donald Trump’s mental health. This sparks an immediate worry. At the best of times it is not easy for someone to seek help over mental illness. Fearing that they will be seen as “like Trump” makes this much worse.
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Brexit: a callous attack on those least able to bear it

The collision of stories in the last few days sends a shiver down the spine. At Christmas, there are grinding stories of real poverty, and of the super rich who donated to the Leave campaign complaining at HMRC asking them to pay their taxes.

Early last autumn I blogged about Brexit as a new class war — already by then it was seeming like a cynical attempt of a wealthy minority to mobilise the frustrations of the most disadvantaged to vote in a way that helped the wealthy minority. I hesitate to lay that at the door of the Conservatives because that is a deep betrayal of the “one nation conservatism”, which deserves respect, and took us into the EU, displaced by something far nastier.

Just before Christmas there was the story of a grandmother dependent on donated food and unable to give presents. That could be claimed to be a one-off, as each individual story of poverty is unique. But there do seem to be rather a lot of these stories.

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Catalonia: the case for a federal Europe

The increasing tensions in Spain, leading up to the Catalan parliament’s unilateral declaration of independence on 27 October, offer a strong case for a more federal Europe, made stronger by the lack of other viable options.

In the distant past, this is something that would have been settled on the field of battle. Spain would seek to put down the province declaring independence, and Catalonia would have resisted.

In the twenty-first century, there’s reasonable hope that this won’t end in bloodshed. There’s a vestige in that older way of thinking in the speed with which Spain suspended Catalan autonomy, calling fresh elections, and the threats to arrest the (now ousted) Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont. From the outside, it feels like a game of double bluff, but one in which every twist tears at the self-understanding of the many who see themselves as both Catalan and Spanish, making it harder to find a negotiated solution.

In a dis-spiriting parallel with Brexit, the near-impossibility of establishing an independent state seem not to impinge on the desire for it (countries can only join the EU with the agreement of all existing members, and Spain would be likely to veto membership). The sense is of poorly and partially articulated grievances leading to actions that make things much worse.

For the EU this presents a dilemma. Donald Tusk quickly came out with a statement saying that, the declaration changes nothing, and the EU will deal only with Madrid. In one sense he has no choice: for the time being this is an internal matter for a member state. In the short term, that would come under pressure only if Spain cracks down on Catalonia in a way that calls into question its commitment to the basic ideals of the Union. That’s possible, and there was pressure for action on that basis against Hungary in May 2017, but the hope is that things won’t get that bad.

But the other side of the EU’s dilemma is that this does change everything.

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