BRITAIN PUTS THE CLOCK BACK 1608 XCII

BRITAIN PUTS THE CLOCK BACK

BREXIT. Occasionally an event of major significance occurs. After it things are never the same.  In Ireland we’ve just finished celebrating the centenary of one such event – the Easter Rising. Hiroshima was another, the fall of the Berlin Wall a third, Nine Eleven a fourth.  On June 23 arguably another such event happened when Britain, the world’s fifth economic power, voted – narrowly – to quit the European Union. As I write the shock waves internationally, not least in Ireland, show no sign of diminishing. A new, ostensibly gung-ho government is in power in London, determined to push through with exiting, a process likely to take several years.

The inquests and recriminations are well under way. Europe’s establishments and chattering classes, including in Britain itself, are baffled and dismayed. Britain was seen as a sometimes petulant but important partner, not only as one of the Big Four but also as providing an important counterweight in internal policy discussions, usually to be found on the side resisting further or speedier European integration. Its EU credentials were never in doubt even though it maintained a semi-detached position on key EU areas like the Euro and the Schengen common travel zone, stances it could more easily take given the financial clout of the City of London and Britain’s position as an island.

Britain’s increasingly vocal Eurosceptic wing, represented by UKIP and a sizeable minority within the Conservative Party, was ignored or discounted. Britain was regarded as too deeply embedded within Europe for trade, investment and social reasons, seriously to contemplate the leap in the dark that leaving constituted. The warning signs were ascribed to the same mixture of discontent, disillusionment, dissatisfaction with the status quo and vague xenophobia evident in a number of other member States, where right wing parties were starting to garner significant electoral support. All true, no doubt. What made the British situation unique was that, staggeringly, a country with little or no tradition of deciding important matters by referendum,  was asked to vote a simple yes or no on a proposal to undo involvement in almost half a century of  political and social construction and cooperation within Europe. The resulting Mother of all Protest Votes was then compounded by the (narrow) victors proclaiming there could be no going back on the result.

The “Why” has been parsed and analysed since. The philosopher Roger Scruton, in a brilliant article in Prospect Magazine, has traced the alienation of the English working class in recent years, and their feeling that, above all, their sense of identity was being eroded. In a striking phrase he has identified a vital flaw in the EU as it is: “the European people have not been merely SUBJECT  to a treaty, but GOVERNED  by it.” Add the hubris of a wealthy faction in Britain, convinced that the country would do better “going it alone.” As far back as 1994 a junior British Tory Minister explained this attitude in detail to me; depressing but prophetic. Taken together, and in a campaign notable for its chauvinism and churlishness as well as its deceitfulness, the mix proved a potent one.

The referendum outcome has shattered the comfortable Establishment near-consensus of a Europe moving steadily if slowly towards an “ever closer union” a vision which has sustained Europhiles for over half a century. This cosy vision has it that the then EC, when Britain joined  in January 1973, was  little more than a post-war free trade area between six members, with one or two transnational dimensions, in coal, steel and a limited number of agricultural products. It had aspirations to be a lot more, and wording in its treaties to allow for organic growth. And, over the decades, it HAS grown, dramatically, sometimes lopsidedly, changed its name and now comprises a shaky and incomplete union of five hundred million spread over twenty eight countries. It has established a zone of unprecedented economic and prosperity across Europe with landmark standards in human and related social rights. A queue of countries waits to join.

With up to twenty eight countries, each with its own national priorities and particular requirements, for the EU getting to where it is has not been easy. Progress has been slow and tortuous. There IS a common currency – the EURO, but not all twenty eight are members. There IS a Common Travel Area – Schengen – but again some countries -Britain and Ireland – are outside. There are serious differences evident over national attitudes to the Refugee problem. There is serious economic imbalance between the wealthier North and the poorer South, something exacerbated by the 2008 Financial Crisis. Yet overall the consensus has it that Europe has muddled through and worked hard at solutions. The various landmark Enlargements, culminating in the 2004 admission of the Central Europeans, are testimony to the vibrant European idea. And significant progress has been made in making the EU more democratically accountable, a process that is ongoing. Throughout, Britain has been an important and valued component in the evolution of the Union.

That vision now lies in tatters. What happens next is unclear. We are now in a kind of phoney war situation. The process for exiting the EU, stuck in as an afterthought as Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, must first be initiated by the UK, with afterwards a two year “sunset period” to complete the separating process. How quickly the new British government acts to invoke Article 50 remains to be seen. Teresa May has appointed Brexiteers to lead the exit charge, which could be a Machiavellian tactic, though others see it as filling the posts with what remained after the purge of the pro-Europeans.

Thus far these have made predictable noises about negotiating bilateral trade deals with third countries. Yet eight of Britain’s top ten markets, including Ireland, are EU or EEA members, accounting for the bulk of her exports. Britain already has thriving trade with all major third countries, on foot of existing trade deals negotiated by the EU Commission; whether any new deals will prove more fruitful or beneficial for Britain must be moot. There’s no pot of gold out there that the evil EU has been withholding. A lot of similar hard economic realities are likely to be aired in the coming months as the small print of Britain’s economic and social entanglement with the EU is picked over. And politically there’s Scotland, which voted 62% to remain, with every prospect of a constitutional crisis before long.

For Ireland the issues are profound. We have major concerns, quite apart from the economic ones which are potentially more serious for us than for the other EU members.  The Common Travel Area – a vital element in our bilateral relationship with Britain – is under serious threat. The EU’s one land frontier with Britain is within Ireland. Given the posturing of the Brexiteers over curbing immigration from the EU, that Border – and with it that special relationship – is now an issue. Arguably the Common Travel Area has sugared the bitter pill of Partition over the years and is part of the fabric underpinning the Peace Process. Is it possible that the casual passing whim of English voters will “do” for Ireland yet again? Perfidious Albion?

20/7

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THE 2016 US OPEN

THE 2016 U.S. OPEN

I’m not a Golfer, so I’m always hesitant about pontificating about the sport. I like watching it on T.V.., in the past have followed top golfers around a championship course, and applaud the athleticism, accuracy and composure of the world’s leading golfers. The consistent ability to bounce back and re-focus after a bad or unlucky shot, the stoicism demonstrated is remarkable. In the only sport which I played at any significant level – Chess – a mistake on the board is usually followed by a lengthy period of brooding introspection, rather than getting on with the contest, and a loss tends to be explained away by excuses. Not so in Golf, where there is a refreshing frankness about admitting mistakes or bad play.

These thoughts were prompted by the concluding round of the 2016 U.S. Open Championship on June 19. The championship was won by Dustin Johnson, with four under par, his first major victory after a number of disappointments and runner-up positions including the 2015 U.S. Open. Johnson had trailed Shane Lowry by four strokes entering the final round, but drew level by the turn and eventually won by three shots over a trio including Lowry, who, without collapsing totally nevertheless shot a disappointing 76 on one of America’s most difficult courses. Only four players broke par.

Posterity will record the bald facts of Dustin Johnson’s victory. Yet there was drama on that last round. On the fifth hole Johnson’s ball moved slightly on the green as he was shaping up to putt. By the rules of golf there was the possibility of a one shot penalty should Johnson have “addressed” the ball and grounded the putter. He summoned the officials, denied he had and was told to proceed. T.V. footage seemed to bear him out. He played on, continuing the “charge” that enabled him to overtake Lowry. Then, on the Twelfth Hole, USGA officials approached him to tell him there was a problem, a possible penalty stroke and that a decision would be taken at the conclusion of his round. Johnson continued and after an apparent slight lapse of concentration (he bogeyed Hole 14) , consolidated his lead, finishing with an excellent birdie. His four stroke victory margin was then cut to three.

There was disbelief, bordering on outrage, among Johnson’s colleagues including McIlroy, Speight and Fowler, all of whom thought Johnson was in the right and, moreover, that the USGA officials had behaved farcically and wrongly in not dealing definitively with the matter, one way or another, either on Hole 5 or Hole 12, rather than stringing Johnson along, with doubt nagging away inside him and the concentration of those just behind him also affected. Amen to that – my sentiments, shared with the television commentators and, I am sure, most of those watching. Afterwards Johnson dismissed the issue as being over. Afterwards also, the USGA apologised to Johnson!

Yet what if his victory margin been one after the final hole? He would have been pitchforked into a play-off after the penalty. (It could have been a somewhat different final round had Johnson been docked the stroke, either on Hole 5 or Hole 12, but that is too much conjecture.) It is to Johnson’s credit that he soldiered on and ensured he had sufficient margin over his rivals to fireproof his victory.

For he must surely have been haunted by the memory of the 2010 U.S.PGA at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin. In a thrilling finish, involving a number of players, Johnson led by one stroke on the final hole. He bogeyed, which should have left him in a play-off but was then penalised two strokes for grounding his club in a bunker. The course is uniquely, some would say bizarrely, dotted with dozens of shallow mini bunkers – designed to resemble an Irish/British links course – and Johnson’s defence was that he had not realised he was actually standing in a bunker. Video footage shows a shambolic scruffy patch of sand and scutch grass, not the type of elegant delineated and manicured bunkers normally associated with U.S. championship courses. Johnson was forced to bite the bullet then, and of course he bit the bullet on this occasion also, but this time it didn’t matter. It will be interesting to see how Johnson fares in future with the ghost of the first Major now laid to rest.

For Shane Lowry the result meant that he has now very much arrived. He made no excuses for his final round and dismissed the idea that the putter grounding controversy affected him at the time. His time will surely come.

23/6

QUO VADIS BRITANNIAE? 1607 (2) XCI

QUO VADIS BRITANNIAE?

I’m still trying to come to terms with the BREXIT outcome. The bald truth is that Britain, the fifth economic power in the world, the second in Europe, has signalled its intent to walk out of the EU. Can it be fixed? Can it be reversed? At this point in time this does not appear likely, but as the dust settles something may emerge. Some personal reflections follow.

I felt a waft of déjà vu last Friday morning as Britain woke up to the result. The whole establishment, the chattering classes, bankers, businessmen, even the Archbishop of Canterbury, came out solidly for a vote to remain in the EU. Sound familiar? Ring a bell? It was Ireland the day after Nice One and later after Lisbon One. To the dismay of the elite, the referendum result was not what had been confidently expected.

There the resemblance ends. In Ireland’s case the treaties as originally framed had been rejected but our membership of the EU was not at stake and there proved to be enough wiggle room, not to mention good will and anxiety to reach a deal on our specific concerns from our EU partners, to resolve matters. Cameron and the British government, however, have metaphorically bet the house , precipitating a crisis not just for Britain but for Europe itself. It remains to be seen whether there is any scope to undo the damage. An important element in Ireland’s case was the willingness of both sides to accommodate to reach a solution. Britain is currently leaderless, so one side is unable to engage, even should this prove feasible. The early indications are not encouraging.

It’s now Wednesday and , déjà vu again, the spectrum of reactions resembles that here – and in Europe – in the wake of our “No votes,” writ much larger of course but not dissimilar. On the BREXIT side, triumphant hubris, a chorus of anti EU sentiment and flat assertions that the vote was final, there can be no going back and no second vote. On the domestic losing side, numbness, dismay, disbelief, and a feeling of helplessness not helped by Cameron immediately choosing to fall on his sword. In Europe at the political level similar reactions of dismay and disbelief, with an obvious fear that the contagion may spread and encourage others to contemplate leaving. European leaders seemed asleep to the danger in advance, as the extent of panic among them as June 23 approached demonstrated. It was yet another example of the disconnect between Europe’s elite and the people. Some of the first public statements from Europe have not helped.

Several days before the Vote I wrote in my IAN column that the result was at that stage too close to call, noting that the latest polls were showing the Leave camp slightly ahead. I pondered whether the momentum – clearly with the Leave faction – would be halted by the hiatus following the murder of Jo Cox, and observed that the “Stay” campaign were mounting an Operation Stable Door. My gut feeling subsequently – wrong – was that the Stay side would win, based in part on the expectation that the undecided would plump in the end for the devil they knew. I also took heart from the poll analyses of experts and the bland assumption that an electorate would vote, even with misgivings, in their own best interest and take any promises from the Leave camp with handfuls of salt.

There was a particularly devastating assessment of Cameron by Max Hastings (who voted Remain) in the Daily Mail several days ago which painted up his limitations and tactical ineptness. Certainly a lot of blame must attach to David Cameron, in calling the referendum, in choosing to hold it when he did, in framing it as a simple In-Out choice only and then for running an inept campaign. It’s not as if a referendum was necessary, and indeed the result is only – theoretically – “advisory” rather than “obligatory.” But having decided on one, its terms and wording should have been set with care. Even with those particular dies cast, a more astute politician would surely have thought long and hard about the date, which was only announced in mid-February, without any pressure to hold the poll so early.

And Cameron should surely have reflected at the very least at how the political scene elsewhere in Europe was evolving. I wrote last week as follows: “ Little-England nationalism aside, the Brexit movement should perhaps be seen in the context of the sizeable and almost universal Europe-wide popular disenchantment with the way society is perceived to be evolving, with the existing establishment and party political dominance under threat from populists on both the left and right.” Cameron could hardly have been unaware, from his frequent meetings with fellow HOGs, and from those briefing him, including reports from British Embassies sur place, of the extent of this disenchantment, often inchoate but also often organised, and expressed in elections when opportunity presented itself, whether in Spain, Greece, Ireland, Austria and in state elections in Germany, and otherwise reflected in opinion polls throughout the EU. Did he think the British voter was immune?

So why do it now? Was it overconfidence? Cameron had a comfortable Parliamentary majority following his unexpected General Election victory last year. He had also the experience of the Scottish referendum in 2014 and perhaps thought, that having headed off the threat from the Scottish nationalists he could head off UKIP and the Tory malcontents by a short swift campaign, particularly having extracted, as he saw it, fresh concessions from Brussels. The concessions – cosmetic – fooled no one, while his reading of Scottish nationalism was myopic – symptomatic of his whole approach. Even the framing of the question – an “X” in the Remain or Leave box – was less nuanced than that in the 1976 vote (“ Do you think the UK should stay in the EC?).

Yet having decided to plough ahead with a vote, he and his government seemed content to run the campaign on autopilot, only waking up to the danger recently as the Leave campaign gained momentum. Again there are interesting parallels with the approach of the Irish governments to the first Nice and Lisbon referendums. Satisfied that the majority of the Irish electorate knew where there bread was buttered, Irish governments twice campaigned “softly” and paid the price, while their opponents hammered away on a few basic themes. On Nice it was a brutally effective poster campaign – “ You will lose Money, Power, Influence.” On Lisbon the opposition focussed on the partial loss of an Irish EU Commissioner and fears of involvement in a European army as well as playing on public unfamiliarity with the contents of what was primarily a technical tidying-up treaty. Again, ceteris paribus, sound familiar?

For Farage and Co. it was Immigration, over-regulation from Brussels and slogans about sovereignty and “getting our country back.” They also played on the basic unfamiliarity of the man-in-the-street with the EU and how its institutions worked. Moreover they could and did point to the Europe –wide disenchantment with governing elites and to the Brussels bureaucracy. The deliberate distortions and misinformation from the Leave side were deplorable. It was win at all costs. The EU was demonised, Britain’s net contribution overstated and the complexities of unpicking complex legislation and benefit structures minimised. A major platform plank, that the cash-starved NHS would benefit by billions annually after leaving has since been disavowed. Apart from that the Leave leaders post –referendum have confined themselves to bombast or to minimising the likely difficulties of any forthcoming negotiations. There appears to be no Plan B.

Cameron apart, the chattering classes have no shortage of villains or scapegoats, whether Farage or Johnson or Gove or the tabloid press which pandered to the deceitful and misleading campaign the Leave side ran. All true, but hardly sufficient to explain the results as with the assertion that Jeremy Corbyn and Labour campaigned less than enthusiastically for the Remain side. Which leaves those who voted Out. We are told that the old, the less prosperous, the less well educated and the racists all voted to leave.( In a particularly nasty aside the old are being accused of having ruined things for the young.) All apparently true, but again, why?

Immigration was clearly portrayed by the BREXIT side as a major issue and immigration from other member states (shorthand for the 2004 Accession countries) has been identified by Cameron as a reason for much of the leave vote. Yet I don’t see the 52% of the British electorate who voted Out as being racists or necessarily anti-immigrant. I have little doubt that, had the vote been 52%-48% to remain, those same chattering classes would now be preening themselves about the “ maturity” of the British electorate in rejecting Farage and co. and racism. Millions of immigrants have entered Britain since Powell’s 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech and have been successfully, and on the whole seamlessly, integrated into British society. There have been incidents, certainly, but in terms of the massive multicultural influx into Britain, particularly after 1980, such incidents have been inconsequential. And indeed some of the more humorous T.V. interviews aired have been with immigrants or the children of immigrants who last week voted to leave the EU.

It seems to me that Immigration – or rather the perception that Britain was unable to control its own borders – became the lightning rod for a variety of grievances in Britain, rather as Irish Water did in elections here in 2014 and 2016. The last thirty years have seen the significant erosion of the great achievement of post war Britain – the Welfare State. This has been accompanied by the collapse of many of Britain’s traditional rust-bucket industries. Pressure on resources in health and education, limited employment opportunities and an obvious growing gulf between the rich and the rest have generated a sense of alienation and discontent, particularly in the lower socio- economic groups. The recent economic recession, increased taxation and reduced benefits fed into this.

With the 2004 EU Enlargement came the arrival in Britain of a million plus migrants from Eastern Europe (far less, incidentally, than the numbers who arrived in the twenty five years before from the sub-Continent, the Caribbean and Africa) , perceived to be willing to work harder and for less and also to be receiving state benefits. This could have been avoided, or at least postponed, had Britain chosen to follow the example of twelve of the other Fifteen, including Germany and France, in restricting workers from Eastern Europe for seven years. It’s worth pointing out here that of the EU three who allowed unrestricted access, while relatively few workers emigrated to Sweden, proportionately far more came to Ireland than to Britain. Even today the percentages of Poles Latvians, Lithuanians, Slovaks, Hungarians and Czechs living and working in Ireland are far greater than in the UK., though you’d never think it from reading the British tabloids. There’s an interesting “Compare and Contrast “ study to be done on this.

The new arrivals, highly visible, on the one hand, and the catalogue of what appeared an ever-growing number of EU regulations affecting everyday life on the other, melded with the other senses of grievance and alienation, with EU membership becoming an obvious blanket scapegoat for all these perceived ills. Cue Farage, Johnson and the others playing on these fears and on misapprehension and misunderstanding of how membership of the EU had benefitted and was still benefitting Britain. The vote last week was a protest one. It has proved to be the Mother of all Protest Votes!.

As to what to do now, no ready solution seems on offer. If indeed the Referendum result is considered to be irrevocable and not to be revisited, which at this point in time appears to be the case, lengthy and complex negotiations lie ahead. Whether these can be concluded within the two years specified by Article 50 once invoked remains to be seen, but this is technical and can surely be tweaked .Yes, an IGC could easily amend the time limit if in everybody’s interest. Alternatively surely the EC old device of stopping the clock could be used. The significance of Article 50 is that invoking it is the starting gun.

Any such negotiations will be of major importance for Ireland. From our national point of view the consequences of BREXIT are enormous, not only economically – Britain is our largest trading partner – but because of the Northern Ireland dimension, involving as it does the whole Peace Process, the land border ( the only one the UK has with the rest of the EU) and the vital Common Travel Area between the two countries. Will that survive? And how will it be regulated? What if Ireland were to become a back door for entry into Britain? And what of the Peace Process? A landmark success but arguably still bedding down. Noel Dorr has an interesting piece on the importance of this for Ireland in today’s Irish Times One Scottish columnist lamented what he referred to as the “casual vindictiveness” with which the English had voted. Most in Ireland would concur. And indeed, what will befall Scotland?

The formulae for getting around the Irish vetoes hardly offers a way forward, though if there could be agreement on the end to be achieved that would be a start. (In Ireland’s case there was a willingness on both sides to achieve the necessary compromise and none of the fundamental foundations of the EU were in dispute.) Here the first and perhaps fundamental red line, if and whenever any negotiations actually begin, appears to be for both sides the issue of free movement of labour. Could this be tweaked? A lengthy derogation perhaps? And what about EU citizens already in Britain?

If this issue could be sorted, by both sides showing willingness, it might be feasible to contemplate a new British government, with or without an election, taking the plunge on a second referendum. There are already signs of the “Oh Jesus” factor emerging – i.e. “ Oh Jesus! Did we really vote for that?” with the subtext that we might vote again. Wishful thinking? Perhaps. But Britain already has a major opt-out of arguably another of the EU’s cornerstones – Schengen. Right now there is a huge hole threatening in the fabric of the European economy, with possible worldwide consequences. The nature of the EC/EU has been to stagger on and advance crabwise; not ideal but practicable. We should be considering all options and agreeing on what is least-bad for all.

29/6/16