The European Council has approved the Brexit settlement. Coming so soon after its members were at the ceremonies marking the anniversary of the end of the Great War, this should cause people to stop and think.
What Madness is this?
Today’s meeting of the European Council (25 November 2018) endorsed the EU withdraw agreement. In the words of European Commission President, Jean Claude Junker:
“To leave the European Union is not a moment of jubilation. It is a moment of deep sadness.”
“There are no smooth divorces.”
It is a day to weep.
With its characteristic professionalism and generosity, the EU has enabled some sort of agreement. Virtuoso work behind the scenes by negotiators means the deal that has been negotiated a lot better than it might be — though still well short of simply staying in the EU.
But it is a day to weep.
It is a fortnight since European leaders gathered to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War — the “Great War”, the “War to end all wars”. The determination to end war in Europe is what called the EU into being.
One of the recurring themes in commentary on support for Brexit is that some of it is “religious”. That offers a way to think about some of the anxieties leading people to support it, even if Brexit itself is not the answer, and would harm more of its supporters than it helps.
From the Leave side, Aaron Banks has spoken of “true Brexit” and Nigel Farrage accused Theresa May of “not believing in Brexit” after the General Election. Jacob Rees Mogg has accused other members of the parlimentary committee on Exciting the European Union of being “high priests of Remain”. From the Remain side Rafael Behr has written of the dangers of following the “scriptures of Rees-moggery”, and it’s not unusual to hear support for Brexit dismissed as “religious” when it seems to ignore economic reality.
There are a range of attitudes among Brexit-supporters I’ve spoken with, but the more strident support for Brexit is coming across as having a religious quality.
Some will want to bracket together religion and support for Brexit as irrational, and leave the argument there, but this short-changes both religion and what the support for Brexit. This matters because winning a “People’s Vote” on the terms of Brexit needs some who voted Leave in 2016 to vote the other way, and avoiding the damage that would come from alienating a substantial minority needs a large number of people to change sides. For people to switch sides means they need to feel that their concerns have been heard.
The Hindu epic the Mahabharata belongs to a different age and a different continent to the saga of Brexit. But there’s something in its timelessness and exploration of the complexity of being human that has powerful echoes.
The Mahabharata is a complex epic. The snag with producing a quick summary is its richness is in the detail, in the complexity of what happens across generations and extended families, and the interplay of virtue and messy human reality.
Reducing The Mahabharata to a story of the conflict of good and evil makes sense in Western terms, but looses much of the point of it. I first read it in an attempt to get a better understanding of the Hindus in Bali soon after reading a book on Jung’s lectures on the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. Jung makes sense of some of Ignatius’ ideas by talking of the devil as the fourth person of the Christian Trinity. His underlying point is that things seem to come on groups of four for humans, raising the question of what’s missing in the Christian concept of the Trinity (God as father son and Holy Spirit). In practical terms of spiritual direction this is a really useful concept because it holds a space for that of God that’s outside people’s conception of God. With more of a psychoanalytic lens, it shifts the dynamic from pushing things away as “evil” or “the devil” in a crudely-dualistic way. One of the fruits of that is to help people own both their limitedness and their capacity for evil, rather than simply to project it onto others who then get labelled as “bad”. Not doing evil things involves owning one’s ability to do just that and choosing not to go there: assuming that evil is what “bad people” do is a recipe for rationalising one’s way into doing appalling things.
Might Chinese involvement in the new 5g technology represent a bigger loss of sovereignty than anything to do with the EU? Might anxiety over sovereignty and the EU be a displacement of anxiety that belongs elsewhere onto a safe target — with serious consequences?
At the time of negotiation of Chinese investment in the Hinckley C nuclear power station commentators noted that it marked a new and much deeper connection with China. Some went as far as to suggest that, in reality, it marked a transfer of sovereignty far greater than anything associated with the EU, that had passed with barely a comment. Their point was that Chinese control (or near-control) of a major nuclear power station gave them significant influence over key infrastructure. At its crudest: would they shut off our power in event of a war or trade dispute?
Harold Wilson once said “a week is a long time in politics”… The weekend after Theresa May’s “agreement” on Brexit at Chequers make that sound like an understatement.
On Sunday 8 July I offered something to Liberal Democrat Voice suggesting that it’s time to switch the language on Brexit into an explicit attack on “Tory Brexit”. The resignations of David Davis and Boris Johnson took that a great deal further, and left me wondering what further resignations would happen before it was read on Liberal Democrat Voice, and whether we will be in another Tory leadership contest, or hurtling into a General Election.
There’s been forceful posturing about “getting a good deal” and “how these negotiations work” and “abandonment of Brexit”. On the other side of the Commons, Jeremy Corbyn quipped that May’s Brexit deal took “two years to form and two days to unravel”.
Why is it that some of the Brexiteers are acting with the stridency and anger that would be appropriate if the UK were being expelled from the EU? Is this a tacit recognition that what they have got is not, in fact, what they were asking for?
Former Science Minister, David Willetts, was strident on the Today programme, which was picked up with predictable force by The Express. His point is that the UK has already contributed a great deal to this, both in terms of money and technological skill, and would be willing to pay for continued participation.
But there is a rub. Part of Galileo will deliver satellite navigation which is available generally, but part of it will include encrypted resources for military use. After Brexit (if it happens) the UK would be a “third nation”, outside the EU. It would be crazy to think that the EU would be willing to share its defence facilities with a “third nation”, except in the sense tat a nation might share some things with allies in NATO. To give away core defence capabilities would, and should, provoke the same horror and anxiety as if (say) the UK handed over its defence capabilities to the USA.
The news that Trump plans to use trade talks with the UK to force the NHS to pay more for drugs should surpise no-one. But the fact that people thought he would do anything else exposes the fantasy of Britain as an imperial power at the heart of the appeal of Brexit.
This week a story re-appeared about Trump wanting to force the NHS to pay more for drugs, as part of a possible trade deal between the UK and the US.
His argument seems to be that putting “America first” means stopping foreigners “freeloading”. The actual point is that the NHS (via NICE) operates as a single payer, and so has more muscle than the fragmented US system, where payments are made by individual health insurance companies.
That is in stark contrast with Nigel Farage’s attempts to claim that Trump would be a president who would take the UK “to the front of the queue”.
Farage being wrong is hardly news-worthy. But this calls to mind some perceptive comments in the first chapter of Nick Clegg’s How to stop Brexit, where he points up the string of things which have led to the imagination of Britain being an exception — not least the fantasy that we alone won the Second World War (which ignores the fact that we were in deep trouble until the Americans joined in). Continue reading “Trump’s failed promises, and imperialist fantasies around Brexit”
Substantial Labour gains in the local elections in 1995 were the first clear indication of the landslide that brought labour into overnment in 1997. The 2018 Local elections haven’t matched that, despite the mess the Tories are clearly in over Brexit. What’s going on?
Comments since the Local Elections have highlighted the significance of Labour’s failure to make substantial gains on Thursday, which is particularly striking given the savaging that the EU Withdrawl Bill is getting in the upper house.
Lord Adonis (@Andrew_Adonis) captured it sharply in a tweet as the result was sinking in:
Labour’s big weakness, & why we did so poorly on Thursday, is being a Vacillation not an Opposition on Brexit. Oppositions never win power as handmaiden of the government’s big policy. If people really want Brexit & think it is/was a success, they will mostly vote Tory
While @tony_nog was even sharper, writing on Election day:
So….will probably regret saying this….
But if Labour don’t make significant gains tonight, they’re are never going to make gains anywhere, ever, under the current leadership & #Brexit stance
Why vote for #brexit lite if Tories are offering full fat over the cliff Brexit?
I have speculated that Labour might be in a careful shift on Brexit, which could enable them to come round and bring at least some of their Leave-voting supporters with them. It’s worth hoping.
But Adonis has a point. The nature of Tory support has been changing for several decades, at least since the cultural shift when Margaret Thatcher succeeded Edward Heath. When the phrase “Basildon man” was coined, it caught a sense of traditional Labour voters switching to the Tories because Thatcherism was speaking to their aspirations. They were voting Tory out of a sense of where they wanted to be, where voting Labour would have reflected where they were.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.