Yet Another Election

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The weeks of posturing, polls, predictions and promises that mark the run-up to an election have passed me by.  I’ve been very busy with work and I didn’t know about the UK general election until a friend in New York asked me what I thought of it.  A quick trip to the BBC News app explained which election he was referring to.

Over the last few days, I’ve surfaced enough to take the pulse of the campaigning and rhetoric and I’ve been underwhelmed with what I’ve heard, seen and read.  More specifically, here are my thoughts.

1          I sense that Theresa May has lost her way.  She doesn’t seem as capable as she did before the election was called.  I’ve heard snippets of the flip-flop on social care costs, which has the hallmarks of a last-minute idea that shouldn’t have made it anywhere near a manifesto.

2          Apart from the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, appearing in a televised debate last week, Tory cabinet members seem to have been conspicuous by absence.  I don’t know whether that’s because they’ve absented themselves or they’ve been told to stay on the bench, but I’m confident that we’ll hear a lot from them if the Tories don’t hit a landslide at the polls.

3          I sense that old allegiances on party lines have been muddied by Brexit.  For many people, Brexit is the defining issue and they see neither Theresa May/the Conservative party nor Jeremy Corbyn/the Labour party offering anything that appeals to them on that crucial topic.  I wonder whether we’re heading for a political realignment that takes greater account of Brexit and who has a say in the form and terms of the UK’s exit from the EU.  Just a thought.

4          Labour’s campaign message – For the Many Not the Few – struck me as being more likely to resonate with voters and hats off to whoever came up with it.  Not so convinced by what seems to be Theresa May’s slogan, rather than the Tory party’s campaign message:  Strong and Stable.  From where I’m sitting, it only seems credible if the alternative is having Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister.

5          That said, with the television on mute, Jeremy Corbyn appeared more Prime Ministerial than Theresa May last week.  He looked purposeful and confident.  His head was held high.  He exuded authority.  But the television was on mute.

6          Personally, I’d like to see a hung Parliament and a coalition government.  I don’t have confidence in either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn, the Conservative party or the Labour party, to run the country or negotiate our exit from the EU.  It would be ironic if a coalition required a deal with the Scottish National Party, which would no doubt want a further referendum on Scottish independence and might also seek to re-visit Brexit before forming a coalition government.

7          What I really wouldn’t want is another general election in short order, as happened in 1974.  We had a general election in 2015 and we have another one this year.  Last year, we had the EU referendum and we had vicarious participation in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 and the US presidential election throughout the whole of 2016.  Even though I’m a staunch advocate of democracy and I’ve missed most of the campaigning this time round, I have a severe case of election fatigue.

 

Caesars and Judges

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Last week began with the International Crisis Group presenting its top ten crises for 2017 at Chatham House.  Those crises barely got a look-in:  most of the discussion was about the US under its new President.

Most of the commentary and answers to the questions came from Mark Malloch Brown, former UN Deputy-Secretary General.  His insights were excellent and there was one that struck me in particular.

Rather than seeing the election of President Trump as being linked to – and in a line with – Brexit, it would be more appropriate to see him as the latest of the “Caesars” – authoritarians with a populist appeal.  A number of examples were given and more occurred to people during the session; I’m sure you’ll be able to work them out.

Caesars do things that liberals regard as breaking political and/or social norms.  Some voters see them as an aberration, but others consider them an admirable breath of fresh air.  One thing Caesars generally have in common is that they seem very comfortable exercising power without an array of checks and balances.

It’s a while since I studied the development of the US constitution, but my recollection is that it was designed and drafted to avoid excessive power vesting in the executive, whether called a president, a king or a Caesar.  Congress (as the legislature) and the judiciary are given their roles to produce a balanced constitution with inherent checks and balances on power.

The judiciary is important as one of these branches of government, as we’ve seen in the UK on the Brexit appeals.  The role of judges is to interpret and rule on the law.  It isn’t to make decisions about implementing the will of the people or (picking up on the court decisions in the US over the last few days) to determine what makes a country or people safe.

The rule of law is a pillar of a properly functioning polity and the separation of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government is the foundation on which the rule of law is built.

Brexit: a political merry-go-round

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A short entry this week:  put it down to being bothered and baffled by Brexit shenanigans.

My understanding is that there was a referendum to placate the Eurosceptics in the Conservative party and decide the UK’s position in Europe once and for all.  We’ve had that referendum.  The result is to leave the EU.  But Eurosceptics are arguing for “hard” Brexit, rather than “soft” Brexit, and the Conservatives are starting to turn themselves inside out over Europe all over again.

But it’s been a good week for the Liberal Democrats.  They kept few seats in last year’s general election after being tainted by five years of coalition (and a nasty U-turn on tuition fees), but overturned a majority of 23,000 in a by-election to defeat a Brexiteer.  Too much anti-Brexit sentiment could be read into the result, but that hasn’t stopped the press seeing the result through a Remain/Leave lens.  The only certainty is that the Government won’t want to call a general election any time soon.

And the Government’s Brexit powers have been back in court today, this time before all eleven justices of the Supreme Court.  At stake:  whether the Government can trigger article 50 or whether that requires Parliament’s approval.

Brexit was always going to be messy and protracted, but I suspect we’ve hardly scratched the surface of the chaos yet.

The US Presidential Election – a Few Days Later

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Another week, another drama, another revolution in the political landscape.  Here are some thoughts on the result of the US presidential election.

1          From hope to change – Barack Obama offered hope, but it seems that message is no longer enough.  People in the US have responded to Donald Trump’s message of change.

2          Shocks, Brexit and the US moment – I’ve heard Europeans say that Donald Trump winning the presidency would have been more of a shock if there hadn’t been Brexit.  The existential shock and realisation that there are fault lines dividing large groups within the country on a roughly equal basis, different views and values, different visions and objectives – the UK went through that at the end of June and the rest of Europe absorbed it.  From what I’ve heard from friends and family in the US, Brexit shocked, bemused and intrigued, but didn’t shake people to their core.  For half of Americans, that moment happened on 9 November.

3          Where next? – France, Italy, The Netherlands and other European countries have been flirting with populist and nationalist parties.  I wouldn’t be the least surprised to find the flirting turn serious in next year’s elections.  And with the US having shifted so significantly to a right-wing populism, it becomes more acceptable for voters in other countries to follow suit.

4          We need to re-think the assumed political landscape – the institutions that have marked international politics for the last 70 years and the political order that has prevailed since at least 1990 no longer necessarily represent business-as-usual.  And it’s no longer safe to make assumptions (for instance, regarding US military intervention) that would have been reasonable at the beginning of the year or even a week ago.

5          The potential for new norms and values – I’m very concerned that a message has been given that it’s acceptable to say things that are offensive and that courtesies and decencies no longer matter.  That it’s acceptable to refuse to extend a hand of friendship to those who need it, that an I’m-alright-Jack nationalism is a perfectly appropriate alternative.  That education is over-valued.  That it’s acceptable to demean and devalue women.  That people who do and say these things are selected, that they win.  This feels a retrograde step on all levels.

6          This is what it feels like – after the vote for Brexit, it struck me that the frustration, the sense of doors being closed and the feeling that government policy didn’t resonate with me or do what I’d like it to must be what a lot of other people had felt for some time.  The same might well be true in the US now.

7          And finally … Michelle Obama’s heels – she smiled, she posed for the cameras, she played nice, but you’re not telling me that Michelle Obama, low-heeled familiar, just happened to put on a super-high pair of heels the day she welcomed Melania Trump to the White House.

Brexit and the judges

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There’s been a grand hullabaloo in the UK after our High Court ruled that the government requires the approval of Parliament before triggering Brexit and beginning negotiations with the EU.

That’s a highly-condensed account of a landmark constitutional decision.  What I’m concerned with in this post is the media backlash, which has seen emotion get the upper hand of reason.

First, the judges are there to rule on the law.  They consider the legislation and the cases through which the rights and obligations – and the powers and limitations – of the Crown (now acting through the government) and Parliament have been determined over centuries.

If the law doesn’t give people the result they want, don’t blame the judges.  I’m not a constitutional lawyer, but it seems to me that the difficulty in this case is that the referendum mechanism and the potential for a Brexit outcome weren’t aligned with the existing legislation and treaties.  The result is that Parliament is left with rights that must now be acknowledged – unless the Supreme Court rules otherwise.

Secondly, the headlines I’ve seen refer to the judges ignoring the will of the people.  That isn’t a concept the judges can recognise, because it isn’t relevant, as a matter of law, to the questions before them.  (For anyone who thinks this is an opportunity to have a We the People moment leading to a written constitution, the will of the people is too vague a concept to feature.  And a written constitution – as with our largely unwritten one – still has to be interpreted by the courts.)

Thirdly, I’m not sure anyone can say what the will of the people is in relation to Brexit.  There was a referendum on whether to leave the EU or to remain within it, but not on the terms of an exit.  What’s become apparent in the months since the referendum is that Brexit means different things to different people.  Even the terms “hard Brexit” and “soft Brexit” lack any specifics.  If it comes down to what people (rather than the people) want, I suspect you’d get a different list from everyone you ask – as to priorities, as well as specific points.  And that’s before we touch on technical niceties of what people wanted at the time of the referendum vote, which might be a more accurate test of the will of the people in this context.

Brexit was always going to involve tensions, difficulties and existential differences of opinion.  But it needs to be conducted in accordance with the law, wherever that takes us.  It’s entirely inappropriate to denounce judges for doing their job.

As the Brexit dust settles …

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There’s a sense that some dust is settling in the UK political scene after what one commentator described as ten years of political events in a week.  Here are a few thoughts.

  1. There’s a relief in having a prime minister who isn’t a lame duck. I want someone firmly at the wheel after the seismic result of the referendum vote and I wasn’t relishing a summer of jostling for position by the Conservative party leadership candidates.
  1. Theresa May is an unknown quantity as Prime Minister, but she didn’t hang around appointing a new Cabinet. She’s made interesting choices.  The appointment of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary has attracted most attention, but establishment of new cabinet positions (Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union; Secretary of State for International Trade) and accompanying government departments show thinking outside the box and a pragmatic approach to events.
  1. The new Cabinet has some old names. It’s a while since David Davis and Liam Fox have been Cabinet members and it’s many years since I felt that the country is being run by people older – and, I hope, wiser – than me.
  1. None of this makes delivering Brexit any easier or, for those of us who voted Remain, any more palatable.
  1. Pretty much every conversation I have with people still turns to the referendum. Why was it held?  Why did so many people vote to leave?  What package will be negotiated?  Increasingly, talk is turning to practicalities – how will the UK find enough people to negotiate trade deals and work through the changes in law that will be needed?
  1. And there’s still a sense of bewilderment. As someone said to me last week, are people in London so out of touch with views around the country?  The answer has to be Yes – and, as I’ve said before, that’s one of the most important lessons of the referendum vote and one of the most important points for the new government to address.
  1. We need to rake over the coals, but we also need to move forward. In that time-honoured phrase, we are where we are.  The time for shock is over and we need to roll up our sleeves and make the best of some badly-spilt milk.
  1. It would help to have a viable opposition party. (For readers outside the UK, that’s an example of the very British art of understatement.)  Politics in the UK is designed for there to be an opposition to the government.  Please would the Parliamentary Labour Party get its act together and start behaving as the opposition?  Vacuums have a nasty habit of being filled with things we don’t expect and I’m not at all comfortable with there being a vacuum in opposition in the current political climate.

We live in interesting times …