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JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
June 24, 2017
It has taken 100 years for Britain to sink from being the world’s premier super power to the increasingly inconsequential cluster of off-shore European islands it is today.
The slide into irrelevance has been slow and genteel, until the last few months, and especially since the debacle for the governing Conservatives in the June 9 election. The view from the White Cliffs of Dover is now of a vast and unwelcoming no-man’s-land.
Britain’s long road to reality came to a bleak climax on Thursday and Friday this week. Britain’s Prime Minister, Theresa May, her political wounds still fresh and suppurating from her drubbing in the election two weeks ago, attended a summit of the 28 European Union leaders in Brussels.
She wanted to talk about the fate of British subjects living and working in Europe, and European counterparts in Britain, once Brexit is achieved in about two years. Also on her list was what to do about Northern Ireland, which will suddenly have a hard border with the EU at the crossing points into the Irish Republic once the separation is complete. And then there’s the cost of the divorce. How many billions is Brussels going to demand in compensation from Britain for backing out of future obligations?
Theresa May found, however, there is no interest among the 27 other EU leaders in talking to her about these things. For them, Brexit is a done deal. The details are for Eurocrats and whatever woefully inadequate team London manages to field – Whitehall is so bereft of experienced negotiators, the British government has been forced to bring in Canadians and New Zealanders on contract.
The EU leaders have already moved on. That was evident in what the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, told reporters ahead of the summit. Asked about the state of play between the EU and Britain, Tusk said:
“We hear different predictions, coming from different people, about the possible outcome of these negotiations: hard Brexit, soft Brexit or no deal. Some of my British friends have even asked me whether Brexit could be reversed, and whether I could imagine an outcome where the UK stays part of the EU.
“I told them that in fact the European Union was built on dreams that seemed impossible to achieve. So, who knows? You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”
Tusk’s channelling of John Lennon has been widely interpreted as a sign that there is still an opportunity for the British government to change its mind, and to stay in the EU. That looks like wishful thinking. Tusk looked and sounded as though he was waffling because he had nothing to say.
Indeed, Tusk moved on smoothly but speedily to say that the mood of optimism in the EU is now higher than it has been for a long time and that it is ready for the challenges ahead. The EU has major issues to address, such as the continued pressure of migration from Africa and the Middle East, defence in the age of Donald Trump, and the economy, which is doing well with some notable exceptions like Greece.
The EU also has a new and interesting generation of leaders – at least for the moment — who have surfaced since the British voters opted, by a slim margin in a referendum exactly a year ago, to leave the common market. There’s Emmanuel Macron in France and Leo Varadkar, the homosexual son of Indian immigrants, in Ireland. They embody commitment to European cohesion, the virtues of multi-culturalism, and the withering of old partisan establishments in the face of a renaissance in political thought.
For many Europeans, and not just their leaders, Britain was always an unwilling and troublesome partner. There was much anger in Europe when former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron called the referendum on EU membership last year, and even more when the British voted to leave. There was justifiable fear that Brexit would encourage “Eurosceptic” voters in other member states to demand their own referenda. But, having found in subsequent elections in Holland and France that Brexit is not an infectious disease spreading right-wing demagogy throughout the EU, most of the remaining members are happy to see Britain go.
On the British side, the whole grim saga of Brexit is like an episode of Fawlty Towers, but without the jokes.
It began with a raft of delusional Conservative backbench MPs yearning for a British Golden Age that never existed. They persuaded themselves, and convinced many of their constituents that silly, interfering bureaucrats and unelected EU pooh-bahs in Brussels were destroying the British – or, more precisely, the English – way of life with footling rules and regulations.
Petty gripes took on a large swig of Basil Fawlty racism when the free movement of people and their families within the EU became a perceived problem. Free movement was enshrined in the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992, but at that time the EU was still just a club of western European nations.
The full impact of the phasing out of internal borders wasn’t felt until the rule was extended under the 2004 Schengen agreement. And that coincided with the intake into the EU of 10 new members, most of them from the former Soviet East Europe bloc. The 10 are Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia.
In a perverse way, it was to Britain’s credit that it became the preferred destination for very many Eastern Europeans seeking opportunity. But the arrival of plane, bus, and ferry loads of Manuels willing to work harder, and for less money, than the British sent the country’s Basil Fawltys into paroxysms of rage. Chief among them was Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the very epitome of the pub bore. But pub bores, if they are gloomy enough, have a way of attracting Eeyores. So it was with Farage.
At the same time, globalization was gobbling up jobs and spitting them out in Asia and other low cost manufacturing centres. Farage’s tirades that it was all the fault of the bloody foreigners in Brussels found a ready audience. UKIP made something of a breakthrough in 2013 municipal elections, 2014 European elections and the 2015 general election for the Westminster parliament. In that election UKIP made its best showing ever when it won 12.6 per cent of the vote, but that translated into only one seat in parliament.
Even though UKIP’s standing remained inconsequential, its progression out of the ranks of fringe parties scared a lot of the Conservative backbenchers. Some feared losing significant support to UKIP. Others, no doubt, were scared of UKIP because they agreed with its declaration that Britain’s problems stemmed from its membership of the EU.
In an attempt to silence his rebels, Prime Minister Cameron promised ahead of the 2010 election that if elected he would oversee a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the EU. It was a ploy to try to discipline his Eurosceptic backbenchers for the election campaign. But then he reneged on the promise, in large part because he had not won a majority and was in a formal alliance with the pro-Europe Liberal-Democrats.
As the 2015 election approached, Cameron felt forced to renew his pledge, and said a referendum would be held in 2016 if the Conservatives won a majority, which they did.
History will undoubtedly heap much blame on Cameron for the farce of the last two years. First, he should never have allowed himself to be bullied into calling a referendum. Referenda do not sit easily with the Westminster parliamentary style of government. This is based on the concept of electing MPs, who are expected to understand and reflect in parliament the views and concerns of their constituents. If the MP fails in this mandate, he or she is chucked out in the next election. Referenda, which circumvent the supremacy of parliament and ask voters to decide by a simple yes or no vote on complex and often far-reaching questions, are an alien approach.
Referenda used by governments in the Westminster parliamentary system are usually a way out for political leaders who don’t have the guts or decisiveness to make up their minds about difficult issues.
So it was with the Brexit referendum in June last year. On top of the sin of calling a referendum in the first place, Cameron then ran an appalling campaign, arguing with only tepid enthusiasm that the future for Britain is better inside the EU. Not only was the campaign feeble, Cameron and other political leaders, the Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn most prominent among them, failed to perceive how deeply anti-EU sentiments had taken hold among committed Tories in rural England and blue collar voters in traditional Labour Party strongholds.
When the referendum results came in after the June 23 vote last year, it was Conservative country folk and abandoned rust belt workers in traditional Labour regions who pushed the results to 51.89 per cent in favour of leaving the EU and 48.11 per cent against.
To his discredit, Cameron immediately left the field. He resigned both as Prime Minister and party leader almost as soon as the last ballot was counted. This helped entrench the view in Britain, which still holds in some quarters, that there had been a conclusive vote for Brexit and that democracy had spoken. That was not true. Voter turn-out was 72 per cent and was especially low among young Britons. Also, it was mainly voters in England that voted for Brexit, and their numbers overwhelmed those in Scotland, Northern Ireland and much of Wales who wanted to stay in the EU.
With the swift departure of Cameron, events in the Conservative Party took on a surreal tone. It was evident to all that Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London who had just returned to the Commons in the 2015 election, lusted after the leader’s post. A well-known figure from his frequent appearance on television, his newspaper columns, and his penchant for politically incorrect buffoonery, Johnson had made himself the champion of the Brexit campaign, and now expected the pay-off.
He was well-placed to win under the Tories’ system for choosing a leader. First, the parliamentary caucus, through a system of informal and backroom polls, picks two candidates, who are then put to a nation wide vote among party members to make the final choice. It looked to be a choice between Johnson and the pro-remain Theresa May.
But then, at the last moment, one of Johnson’s most prominent supporters and backers, Michael Gove, decided that he wanted to be a candidate. There were a few hours of confusion before Johnson and Gove did the maths, realised they counted each other out, and both withdrew.
Theresa May became Tory leader and Prime Minister by default.
Despite her support for Britain remaining in the EU, May was seen as a safe pair of hands. Comparisons were made with Margaret Thatcher and cartoonists starting portraying May in a suit of armour, much as they had the Iron Lady 30 years ago. But cartoonists are often the most sensitive of social commentators, who spot trends and moods well ahead of others. It soon became noticeable that May’s suit of armour was not the Thatcherite pristine battlewear of St. George, but more the bashed and battered cast-offs of Don Quixote.
May proclaimed that “Brexit means Brexit,” though what that meant was and continues to be a mystery. It also remained a mystery on what terms she wanted to leave the EU and what she wanted Britain’s post-Brexit relationship with Europe to be. There was much bandying around of the phrases “hard Brexit” and “soft Brexit,” though what these inferred about Britain’s departure from and future trade and other ties with Europe is difficult to say.
A rough guide is that “hard Brexit” means Britain will entirely sever relations with the EU, and only then seek a new free trade agreement. “Soft Brexit” means Britain seeking to keep the existing free trade relationship with the other 27 countries, while jettisoning the things it doesn’t like about the EU, such as the ultimate sovereignty of the European Court and the free movement of people.
Theresa May started off by advocating for a hard Brexit. But the calamities that have befallen her in the past year – most of them self-inflicted — have confiscated almost all her political authority. She is now plaintively asking for a soft Brexit, but will have to put up with whatever Brussels gives her.
After taking office, May delayed starting the process of Britain leaving the EU, by triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, until the end of March. Part of the delay was undoubtedly because the government came face to face with the difficult realty that Britain no longer had enough experienced trade and constitutional negotiators in its civil service to field a team in Brussels. In February a call went out from Whitehall asking Canada, Australia and New Zealand to please lend Britain some of their negotiators.
Until the triggering of Article 50 there was some hope that May might follow her own preferences, and those of the majority of members of the House of Commons, and somehow reverse what was, after all, far from being an overwhelming vote to leave the EU.
At the same time, public opinion in Britain did an about turn. It was now a slight majority who favoured staying in the EU and a minority still backing Brexit. There are a number of reasons for this, most of them the usual hangover in the cold light of dawn after a night of revelry.
The campaign for Brexit a year ago contained a largely unspoken piece of wishful thinking that saw Britain’s departure from the EU as the moment when there would be a revival of the club of English-speaking nations. This dream envisaged an alliance of Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand against the world. It was only after the Brexit win, when the yearned-for alliance did not materialize, that Brexiteers began to see what a cold and unwelcoming world awaited their arrival.
The current Canadian government is a firm believer in multilateral institutions and regional free trade agreements. It has just completed a major free trade agreement with the EU. Australia and New Zealand are similarly inclined and both, after much internal struggle, now self-identify as Asian nations. Former U.S. President Barack Obama was upfront in urging Britons to vote to remain in the EU, but the arrival of Donald Trump changed the equation.
Many Brexiteers were cheered and heartened by Trump’s denigration of the EU and his support for the British, French and anyone else to quit the alliance. But once Trump became President it became obvious to even the most hidebound Brexiteer that Trump has no political philosophy or fixed convictions, and that he is motivated entirely by flim-flammery and whatever he thinks the crowd wants to hear. It was also clear that Trump has nothing but disdain for the UK, and any dreams in Britain of a revival of the trans-Atlantic “special relationship” is worse than fanciful.
With the air heavy with confusion, Theresa May then made another appallingly bad decision. She chose to call a snap election, saying the country needed to demonstrate “strength and stability” by giving her a majority in the House of Commons and clear mandate to negotiate Brexit.
Well, it is true that her political legitimacy was tenuous. She was Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party only because she was the only surviving candidate after Cameron resigned. But her timing was terrible, and she misread the mood of voters just as badly as Cameron had in 2016.
To very many people, May’s calling of the election looked like a crass piece of opportunism. Polls indicated that the Labour Party and its leader Corbyn were unpopular beyond belief, and that May and the Tories could not only dramatically increase their majority, but even perhaps kill off the Labour Party as a political force for a generation.
Voters didn’t like being taken advantage of by the Tories. More than that, many of them objected to May and her advisers trying to dictate the issue as them being given a strong hand with which to confront Brussels. During the course of the campaign the voters decided the issue they preferred was the whole question of austerity cuts in government spending under the Tories, and what this was doing to social services. Jeremy Corbyn during the course of the campaign transformed from a loonie leftie leftover from the 1960s, to a principled swan gliding majestically and calming the ruffled waters of British public life.
Corbyn didn’t win, of course. However, he brought the Labour Party roaring back into contention and drove May and the Tories into minority. In order to continue governing she is now dependent on the support of the 10 members of the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland.
These are not savoury or compatible bedfellows. DUP political philosophy, such as it is, is rooted in Protestant triumphalism over Catholics in Ireland in the 17th century. To say that the DUP is not housetrained in the social issues of the 21st century is to be excessively polite. That might be manageable for May and the Conservatives were not Northern Ireland a key issue in the Brexit negotiations.
In 1998, at the end of the 30-year guerrilla and terrorist war launched by the Irish Republican Army in the 1960s to try to unify Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic, a central element in the Good Friday Agreement was the opening of the border between the two jurisdictions. This was eased by both Britain and the Irish Republic being members of the EU. But when Britain leaves the European community, customs and immigration barriers should go up again along the border between the two Irelands, with potentially serious consequences for the peace process. That process is already churning through dangerous seas with the collapse of a power sharing agreement between the republicans and unionists in the provincial government.
Moreover, the revived border will be the only land link between Britain and the EU. It will be the place illegal migrants congregate in the hope of getting into Britain, as they do in the French port of Calais now.
That’s assuming, of course, that after Brexit, Britain is still an attractive destination for refugees and migrants from Africa and the Middle East. In a speech this week, the Canadian governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, warned Britain is heading for difficult and uncertain times that will see weaker real incomes. He said that monetary policy implemented by the bank can go only so far to alleviate the impact of job losses and inflation that are likely to be part and parcel of the Brexit process.
He mocked the idea that Brexit is launching the UK on a “smooth path to a land of cake and consumption.” This was clearly a jibe at Boris Johnson, now Britain’s foreign minister, who in the course of the Brexit campaign said he was in favour of “having our cake and eating it too.”
No head of the Bank of England in living memory has been the target of so much public criticism as Carney, who headed the Bank of Canada before taking over in London in 2013. So his tilt at Johnson will probably be water off a duck’s back, as most criticisms of Johnson prove to be. The man is not known for his sensitivity.
Johnson probably still wants May’s job and to be Prime Minister, but there is a lot of opposition to him within the party, and there seems to be a consensus among Tories that now is not the time to remove her. A comment by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister), George Osborne, that May is a “dead woman walking,” looks to be off target. She has shown contrition for her failure in the election, and fired the advisers who pushed her along that path. This week she produced a legislative agenda for the new parliament that can draw widespread acceptance from both Tories and others in the House of Commons.
Theresa May’s fate will turn on the progress and direction of the negotiations on Brexit. While it is not impossible that a putsch is attempted over the summer, the most likely scenario is that an assessment of her leadership will be made by Tory party members at the annual convention in October. If May survives that, there will probably be an inclination to let her carry on until Britain leaves the EU in March 2019 or thereabouts.
By that point, it looks very much as though the leadership of Britain will be a grim and thankless inheritance.
Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2017
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Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan.” Return to his column page.
Jonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.
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