May 312017
 

As Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas pointed out this evening: “The first rule of leadership is to show up”. Apart from Theresa May, the leaders of all the major political parties (plus UKIP) took part this evening in the only televised Leaders’ Debate of the UK General Election campaign. Amber Rudd, whose father passed away on Monday, was obliged to represent the absent Conservative “leader”.

Looking back a year ago, during the EU Referendum campaign, Theresa May sat on the fence and only eventually emerged to support the Remain campaign.

David Cameron resigned after the Referendum. As the Conservatives’ main Leave campaigner, Boris Johnson appeared to be the most likely successor to lead the Conservative Party … until Michael Gove stepped into the race, somewhat treacherously. With these two safely out of the way, Theresa May became the Conservative leader and Prime Minister without any election.

This reminded me of the rise of the “hero” of the BBC’s House of Cards political series, Francis Urquhart – although there was at least a leadership election in the fictional story.

UrquhartNot feeling guilty, I hope. If you have pangs of pity, crush them now. Grind them under your heel like old cigar butts. I’ve done the country a favour. He didn’t have the brain or the heart or the stomach to rule a country like Great Britain. A nice enough man, but there was no bottom to him. … So let’s not indulge ourselves in any squeamishness — alright? Because this… is just the start.

Theresa May then appointed Leave campaigners David Davis, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox to take care of Brexit and the UK’s international relations. As their campaign had been based largely on undeliverable promises, it was a bit like leaving the Keystone Cops to reorganise the police force.

Before doing that, she could have called a General Election to obtain a democratic mandate. But she didn’t.

After doing that, she could have launched a debate in Parliament about what to do in the light of the Referendum. But she didn’t.

Instead, while sterling continued to trade around 10% below its value before the Referendum, she did nothing. Eventually, she started repeating the meaningless phrase “Brexit means Brexit”. Perhaps she wanted to put people into a trance … .

She also fought a court case to require Parliament to decide on launching the Article 50 procedure, and not just her. When she ultimately lost at the Supreme Court, she rushed a back-of-the-envelope Act through Parliament.

Then, a few days after triggering the Article 50 negotiations, she called a General Election. She presented herself as a ‘strong and stable’ leader and taunted her opponents as the ‘coalition of chaos’.

Meanwhile, the Keystone Cops have shown little evidence of having a plan.

Some pointed out on social media that someone else had once promised strong and stable leadership back in the late 1920s. And people voted for it.

All this and various U-turns during the election campaign so far suggest that Theresa May is far from strong and stable. Rather, she seems to be cold, calculating, controlling, secretive and closed. Together with the Keystone Cops, they look like the real coalition of chaos leading the UK over the Brexit cliff, while forcing the elderly to pay for their social care and axing free school lunches for primary schoolchildren … although they would offer children free breakfasts – kind of.

May 302017
 

Former MEP Andrew Duff is credited with the formulation of “Article 50”. He has written a fascinating 4-page discussion paper entitled Brexit: Time for plan B for the Brussels-based European Policy Centre.

The likely disagreement

He analyses the diametrically opposed negotiating positions of the UK and the EU27 (links to which I included in my blog post yesterday). He reminds us of Theresa May’s vacuous ‘No deal is better than a bad deal’ soundbite, which is as uncosted as the Conservative party manifesto.

He concludes that the talks between the UK and the EU27 could break down before they reach the end of Phase 1 – namely “sufficient progress” being made on agreeing the principles of the three key issues regarding citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and maintaining a soft border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

“No deal”

In that case, the UK would leave the EU at midnight on 29 March 2019 (2 years after Theresa May’s Article 50 notification letter) without any agreement or transitional arrangements. You only need to look at the trade data to realise that the UK would have a lot more to lose than the EU27 if this were indeed to happen.

In 2014, total exports of goods and services to the EU were £228,893 million and total exports of goods and services worldwide were £515,191 million. This made exports to the EU 44.4% of the total. The US is our next biggest export market, accounting for 17% of the total. – The Pink Book, Office for National Statistics, October 2015, Table 9.3.

From midnight on 29 March 2019, the UK would then trade with the EU under WTO rules. The implications of that were set out in the UK Government’s pre-Referendum paper Alternatives to membership: possible models for the UK outside the EU :

  • WTO rules represent a minimum threshold. It would be the most definitive break with the EU, offering no preferential access to the Single Market, no wider co-operation on crime or terrorism, no obligations for budgetary contributions or free movement of people.
  • If we did not manage to secure an agreement on better terms, we would be forced to revert to this model. This would cause a major economic shock to the UK, with serious consequences for companies, consumers, jobs and prices.
  • The UK would face immediate and heavy costs to our trading relationships, both with the EU and with the wider world. If reciprocal tariffs were introduced on imports from the EU, these goods would become more expensive.
  • UK nationals would not have the rights that they currently enjoy to live, work and travel in the EU.
  • Under WTO rules neither the UK nor the EU could offer each other better market access than that offered to all other WTO members.
  • Our privileged access to 53 markets outside the EU through the EU’s Free Trade Agreements would be terminated. We could seek to negotiate new agreements, but this would take years. It would be difficult to replicate the terms that we currently enjoy.

Moreover, the UK would no longer be a member of the European Investment Bank and, if it fails to pay what it owes to the EU, which other country is ever likely to trust it with a trade deal?

The rosy ambition of the Leave campaigners for the UK to negotiate trade agreements with its former colonies presumes that the latter have forgotten their past, usually-unhappy experiences under UK rule. Shashi Tharoor’s comments at the Oxford Union a couple of years ago (see the 15-minute video above) illustrate why these former colonies fought for their independence from the UK to “take back control”.

Even Brexit Minister David Davis has said that “If we fail, the consequences for working people will be dire.”

The only plan B which could save working people in the UK from Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn

At a live event in Brussels earlier this month, Martin Selmayr, the Head of Cabinet of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, was asked (see the video of the event from 43:15) whether a new UK Government could withdraw the Article 50 notification made by its predecessor. His reply was that it could not be withdrawn unilaterally without the agreement of the other Member States but that, if that situation were to arise, the other Member States would probably not insist that the notification could not be withdrawn.

For the UK, this would seem to be the only viable Plan B which would be in the best interests of the country. After a Referendum called in the best interests of the Conservative party (not the country) and a General Election called in the best interests of the Conservative party and Theresa May (not the country), this plan B could only happen if there is a majority of anti-Brexit MPs elected to the House of Commons on 8 June.

Come to think of it, since neither Theresa May nor Jeremy Corbyn seem to have much of a plan for Brexit, shouldn’t this be the UK’s plan A?

May 302017
 

I was born and grew up in London. I used to love it. I still love London’s theatres but many other aspects are no longer what they used to be – at least for me.

The beginning of the end

I think the decline started long ago, when both schools and parents stopped teaching children any values and focused instead on mechanical learning and testing. It accelerated when David Cameron decided to call a referendum on EU membership purely to try to settle a split within the Conservative party. More recently, Theresa May’s strong and stable promise to leave both the Single Market and the Custom’s Union with the sole objective of reducing immigration seems set to make the UK an even less pleasant place to live or even visit, let alone do business with.

UK Government – consistently clueless

All we know about the UK position comes from:

  • Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech (17 January 2017), setting out the UK’s negotiating objectives;
  • The UK Government’s White Paper (2 February 2017) on its “vision” for a new partnership with the EU; and
  • Theresa May’s letter to European Council President Donald Tusk (29 March 2017) triggering the start of negotiations under Article 50 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

The two-line European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 does not say much, supposedly to avoid tying Theresa May’s hands in the Brexit negotiations. Apart from this, we had heard for six months that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and lately that she wants to “make a success of Brexit”. The wishful thinking of the Leave campaign that a UK outside the EU would be able to have its cake and eat it was continued by David Davis, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox as Ministers. Personally, I found this extremely amateurish and clueless.

All this waffle has already caused a lot of uncertainty for anyone or any business based in the UK and for UK citizens based elsewhere in the EU. The pound is still worth 10% less against the euro than it was on the day of the Referendum. That is before any Brexit negotiations have even started.

The EU27 negotiating position

Unlike Theresa May, the EU27 (ie, the group of European Union Member States other than the UK) and the European Commission have decided to be completely transparent about the Brexit negotiations. Perhaps ironically, the UK Referendum result and the election of Donald Trump in the US have led to greater unity between the other EU Member States (as German Chancellor Angela Merkel noted yesterday).

Apart from the timeline, here is what we know so far about the EU27 negotiating position:

The clear line is that “sufficient progress” needs to have been made on agreeing these principles with the UK before discussions on other areas would begin.

The future of the UK?

The Leave campaigners claimed that the UK would be better off trading with countries other than the EU. In case you had forgotten what they told us, here is the leaflet put out by our local Conservative MP at the time of the UK Referendum last year.

The Leave campaigners conveniently failed to mention how long it might take or that the UK could not negotiate trade agreements with countries outside the EU until after the UK has left the EU. They also forgot to say that the UK would not be the 5th largest economy in the world without its EU trade. The UK already fell behind India soon after the Referendum because of the 10% drop in the value of the pound.

Another thing the Leave campaigners didn’t mention is that the UK would need to recruit a lot more civil servants to carry out the tasks currently carried out by the “unaccountable bureaucrats in Brussels”.

Could the General Election on 8 June change this?

From these UK and EU27 negotiating positions, you can already see where the areas of disagreement are likely to be if Theresa May wins the predicted landslide majority on 8 June. Given Labour’s plan to control immigration, the destiny of the UK probably would not be very different if they win either.

The Government had already predicted the economic consequences of a Leave vote in its pre-Referendum leaflet. It had not predicted the dramatic rise in hate crime fuelled by the anti-immigration rhetoric of populist politicians or the collapse of the NHS when its tens of thousands of non-British staff decide to leave the UK to work somewhere they feel welcome. If most people really vote for either Conservatives or Labour, as the opinion polls are predicting, all this seems likely to become the reality.

With this perspective, I don’t really see that the UK will have much of a future – or at least one that I would still want to be part of.

Of course, there are the consistently anti-Brexit political parties like the Lib Dems, Greens and SNP. For them to do well, a lot of people in the UK would need to vote as recommended by the ‘Best for Britain’ tactical voting campaign led by Gina Miller. I really hope they do. Otherwise, the UK will become a country where, as Tagore observed in his Nationalism in the West speech in 1917:

“… the people are hospitable but the nation has proved itself to be otherwise, making an Eastern guest feel humiliated to stand before you as a member of the humanity of his own motherland.”

May 142017
 

Last weekend, as in previous years, we marked the birth anniversary of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore at Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon. Our theme this year was the centenary of the publication of Nationalism by Tagore. You can watch our half-hour presentation in the video above.

Celebrating Tagore’s birth anniversary in the garden of Shakespeare’s Birthplace (Shakespeare Birthplace Trust – 6 May 2017)

While the First World War was still raging in Europe, Rabindranath Tagore gave a series of speeches in Japan and in the US in 1916-17 warning of the harm of Nationalism. These speeches were published as essays in 1917 in a book called Nationalism. It comprised Nationalism in the West, Nationalism in Japan, Nationalism in India and the poem ‘The Sunset of the Century’.

In these essays, Tagore warned of the harm which he believed Nationalism could cause to humanity. 100 years later, his warnings appear to have been prescient and have a new relevance today.

I had included some of his observations in my previous post about the assassination of the British Labour MP Jo Cox a few days before the Referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. For the 10 months since the marginal victory of the Leave campaign, the politicians who argued for it have avoided spelling out how exactly they plan to deliver their ‘have cake and eat it‘ promises.

Only this morning, in his 13-minute interview with Robert Peston, Britain’s Brexit Minister David Davis revealed the extent of the delusion he is under. He seems to be blissfully unaware of the speech by the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier just over a week ago in Florence about ‘Protecting Citizens’ Rights in the Negotiations with the UK‘. He also seems to have no understanding of trade negotiations … .

Still, let us not worry about this, Theresa May invites the people of the UK to put our faith in her ‘strong and stable leadership‘. This after the UK’s National Health Service came to a grinding halt on Friday due to a cyber-attack using vulnerabilities found by the US NSA.

Theresa May seems simply to have taken over the populist mantle of the UK Independence Party, emphasising the need to control immigration into the UK (and reject trading with the rest of the EU). Her ‘battle bus’ has ‘Theresa May: For Britain’ emblazoned on it and she has been meeting pre-selected voters and journalists who have had to submit their questions in advance.

In the modern era, nationalism has become popular in several countries. Fake news, and the money behind it, has played a major role in this, including in the UK Referendum. Claudia Cadwalladr’s investigation has linked the main Leave campaigns to a US billionaire who also financed Donald Trump’s campaign. It remains to be seen whether the Tactical2017 campaign will be able to counter this.

As we have seen recently in France, the debate is no longer between left and right but between the Nation and the world. In the French Presidential elections last Sunday, the people of France clearly preferred the internationalist view of Emmanuel Macron to the nationalist view of Marine Le Pen.

Emmanuel Macron: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité

Of course, there is still an underlying problem which the populists have been playing on: many ordinary people have not seen the benefits of globalisation. Remarkably, globalisation was something Tagore had predicted a century ago in his speeches on Nationalism. He also suggested that the way to avoid the world being “broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls” could come from India’s experience.

The whole world is becoming one country through scientific facility. And the moment is arriving when you also must find a basis of unity which is not political. If India can offer to the world her solution, it will be a contribution to humanity. There is only one history – the history of man. All national histories are merely chapters in the larger one. And we are content in India to suffer for such a great cause.

European nationalists, not to mention Donald Trump, were hailing the result of the UK Referendum as the beginning of a domino effect leading to the disintegration of the EU. Fortunately, since then, the voters of other EU Member States rejected the advances of eurosceptic populists, as Thomas Taylor’s cartoon illustrates.

In his TED talk ‘Why Brexit happened – and what to do next’, social scientist Alexander Betts explains that this was behind the way people voted in the UK Referendum.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attributes his election success to having identified some years ago that ‘Globalisation isn’t working for ordinary people‘. Similarly, France’s new President, Emmanuel Macron, campaigned for a clear diplomatic policy to make France an independent, humanist and European power. In his inaugural speech earlier today, he said “We will need a Europe that is more efficient, more democratic and more political, for it is the ultimate instrument of our sovereignty.”

Macron’s call for France to be a humanist power echoes Tagore’s most famous poem from the English Gitanjali:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Here is the French version recited by Arlette Schreiber for our multilingual Story of Gitanjali at the world premiere of our film version of Chitrangada in 2012:

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