The House that Brexit Built

With less than a week since HM Government presented the EU with the letter, the lineaments of the new British future are already beginning to emerge out of the fog of incompetence, lies and fading promises, and it isn’t a pretty sight.   Before Article 50 had been triggered, Michael Gove was looking forward to ending the EU’s Clinical Trials Directive,  so that British pharmaceutical companies could sell drugs without clinically testing them.

Even British pharmaceutical companies don’t want this, because if they didn’t meet international standards they wouldn’t be able to sell drugs on the international market. But like his fellow-Brexiters, Gove hates ‘EU red tape’ too much to pay attention to such minutiae.  Gove also wants to get rid of the European Commission’s Habitats Directive, which obliges builders to find alternative green spaces to offset the environmental impact of building within five kilometres of listed green areas.

The need to protect the countryside and the environment ought to be as obvious as the need to test drugs thoroughly before marketing them, but for Gove such regulations are just more red tape that ‘holds back’ business.

Since Gove made these observations the British economy has been sliding ever closer towards gotterdammerung as the government’s shallow and barely-thought through promises unravel, the pound gets weaker,  the price of food goes up, and real incomes decline.   In these circumstances Theresa May has been out frantically touting for business in the Gulf.  Pausing to criticize the fact that the word ‘Easter’ doesn’t appear in a National Trust advert, even though it does, she was unable to condemn or even mention the fact that Saudi Arabia has been bombing Yemen ever closer towards famine and societal collapse, even though it is.

On one level such silence is a continuation of the old UK complicity with the Gulf autocracies, in which oil, weapons deals and real estate speculation always trump any other considerations.  Nevertheless it’s difficult not to detect a new whiff of sweaty desperation behind May’s world tour.  She knows – even though she will never admit it – that ‘Global Britain’ is a very weak brand that needs any investors it can possibly find, and she clearly doesn’t care where such investment comes from.

The Gulf States know this too.  That’s why they reportedly have ‘signature ready’ free trade agreements already prepared for the moment the UK leaves the EU, and don’t anyone even think that May’s government will allow reservations about human rights, democracy or gender equality to get in the way of signing them.

If anyone was in any doubt about this, consider Liam Fox’s trip to the Philippines to meet Rodrigo Duterte.  Even in the freakish rogue’s gallery of 21st century ‘populism’, the president of the Philippines is a stand-out monster.  This is a man who has ordered his police to murder thousands of real and suspected drug addicts and drug dealers, and has boasted about throwing people out of helicopters himself.   Yet Fox has no problem having his picture taken with the smirking gangster,  and babbling about the UK’s desire to intensify a ‘ well-established and strong relationship built on a foundation of shared values and shared interests’ with the Philippines.

Fox is not the kind of politician to allow a few thousand extrajudicial executions get in the way of a good deal, and we can expect more of this in the future, a lot more.  In effect, the UK has given up its membership of a community of liberal states – the EU – with which the UK does share some values such as democratic government, a commitment to human rights and the rule of law, to cultivate relationships with politicians who have the same values as Al Pacino’s Scarface, and Arab rulers who are as democratically accountable as the Lannisters in Game of Thrones.

Of course there are contradictions and glaring failures in the practical application of the EU’s values, but at least they exist as an aspiration and a standard that member states are expected to live up to, which is more than you can say about Rodrigo Duterte.

The current direction of UK foreign policy makes it clear that we no longer aspire to have any such values either.  Fox told a Manila newspaper that we are becoming ‘a stronger, fairer, more united and more outward-looking nation’, but very little in that statement is true, and most of it is a grotesque misrepresentation of what is actually happening.

We are in fact becoming the opposite of all those things: poorer, weaker, more vulnerable, more deregulated, and more divided.  As for ‘fairer’ – this was a week in which thousands of families are set to become even poorer as a result of George Osborne’s ‘three child’ benefit reforms and Theresa May described cutting bereavement benefits as ‘fairness to the taxpayer.’

We are ‘outward-looking’ only in the sense that we are now prepared to do business with any autocrat and sleazeball gangster who wants to do business with us.

None of this should be at all surprising.  Brexit was always going to be like this, but knowing that doesn’t make it any better, and for the time being at least, there is very little that anyone seems able to do to stop it.

 

The Anglo-Spanish War

One thing about political reality – in the end you can’t avoid it.  You can try, as Theresa May and her weird little Brexit government have been doing for the last eight months or so.   You can beat your rhetorical chest and bare your teeth.  You can threaten this and promise that.  You can utter expressions like ‘truly Global Britain’ and ‘we are a great trading nation’ like mantras and hope that millions of people – or at least enough of them to deliver Tory votes – will utter them too.

You can tell the nation that we will have our cake and eat it, because that is what great trading nations do.  You can run off a cliff and keep going at your own momentum for a few steps.  But in the end,  just like Roadrunner and Tom the cartoon cat, you will fall, because countries can’t walk on air any more than cartoon characters can.

For Cruella de May and her Brexit-skinning crazy gang, that moment arrived last Monday when Donald Tusk announced the EU’s negotiating deadlines.  Unlike so many statements that have come out of Cruella’s mouth – to say nothing of those that have come from some of her more outlandish ministers – these guidelines were founded in a very objective concept of reality, rather than the entirely subjective version that we Brits have got used for the last ten months.

As a result the government’s delusions were quietly and effortlessly dismantled. Free trade agreements will not allow the same privileges as single market membership. There will be no cherry picking. The UK will not be able to make deals with individual EU member-states. The UK will be expected to resolve its outstanding financial commitments before negotiations begin.  The UK will not enjoy the same benefits in its future relations with the EU as member states.  Any free trade agreement will have to contain safeguards ‘ against unfair competitive advantages through, inter alia, fiscal, social and environmental dumping.’

All this was written in the kind of calm reasoned tone you might use to try and talk down someone standing on a high bridge about to commit suicide.   Most of it should have been obvious to any British politicians who were prepared to consider what was legal and what was possible in the forthcoming negotiations.  Unfortunately such politicians have been in short supply lately.   And this is the problem with jingoistic arrogance: it makes it difficult, if not impossible to make realistic assessments about the national interest or even consider what your opponents are thinking and planning.  That’s why you are likely to miss little gems like this one,  that also propped up in the guidelines:

‘After the United Kingdom leaves the Union, no agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom.’

No one should be surprised that Cruella and her team didn’t see that one coming, since they have blatantly ignored all the more obvious things that they should have seen coming.   And no one should be surprised that, faced with Spain’s diplomatic coup, they are responding with the same arrogant and aggressive bluster that has been spewing out of their mouths ever since this ghastly process began.

For reasons that are not exactly clear, the first verbal shot was fired by Lord ‘something of the night’ Howard, who assured Channel 4 News that Theresa May was prepared to go to war over Gibraltar.  Just let that sink in. Howard said that this country would be willing to go to war with a European country that is still technically its ally, and which has some 800,000 Brits living there, if Spain were to do anything contrary to the wishes of Gibraltar’s population, such as insist on co-sovereignty.

Howard describes this as an ‘EU land grab,’ when in fact it’s just another example of the galumphing flatfootedness of Cruella and her team, who really don’t see any iceberg until they hit it.   Howard has noticed that ‘  35 years ago this week another woman Prime Minister sent a task force half way across the world to defend the freedom of another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country.’

I love that ‘another Spanish-speaking country’, don’t you?  Reason enough in itself to go to war, Howard seems to feel.   For him, the Falklands isn’t just a coincidence – it has the whiff of imperial destiny.   And he isn’t the only one.  Defense Secretary Michael Fallon has also said that Britain would ‘go all the way’ to ‘protect Gibraltar’.  Boris Johnson – always a good call whenever you need a fatuous stupid statement from anyone – says that British support for Gibraltar will be ‘implacable and rock-like’.

It would be easy to dismiss all this as yet more crowdpleasing Blimpish loose talk from politicians who don’t seem to know any other kind.  That would be bad enough. You don’t need to read Machiavelli to know that it probably isn’t a good idea to go into complex negotiations from which you need a good result babbling about gunboats and war with one of the countries you’re going to be negotiating with.

But there is also another even more disturbing way of looking at this latest fleck-spittled outpouring of indignation towards Johnny Foreigner.   When Thatcher took the country to war in the Falklands her government was in deep trouble politically, the economy was failing and her polls were dropping.  She gambled on war and won, and the jingoistic bubble that she inflated gave her the political power to take on the miners.

The situation that May and co are in is so much worse, even if the polls and the politics don’t reflect it yet.  They are leading the country towards economic disaster.  They have promised things that are impossible, and the things that are possible they have no intention of delivering.  They are already out of their depth and seem to have no idea what they’re doing or what to do.

In these circumstances we can’t be surprised to hear them talk of war.  Because Brexit means never having to say you’re sorry.  It means that you never admit that what you promised was dishonest, impossible and politically and economically nonsensical.   What you do, when things go wrong, is blame other people: the ‘traitors’ at home; ‘Remoaners’; the ‘EU bullies’ – and now,  ‘another Spanish-speaking country’ that thinks it can get the jump on Global Britain when its back is turned.

Such talk brings back warm and pleasant memories: of the Burmese ‘shoe question’; of Palmerston bombing Athens after a British merchant was attacked by a Greek mob; of the Opium Wars…and for a certain type of Tory, it brings back memories of the Falklands and conjures up enticing visions of a united country of patriotic, flagwaving crowds watching our brave boys depart and the sun never setting etc, etc.

All this war chatter took place in a week in which a school here in my new home of Sheffield has just suggested that parents pay £33 each half term to keep their school going.  That’s the kind of government this is.  It won’t even pay to educate its own children but will go ‘all the way’ over Gibraltar.    We should never forget that, when they get their rhetorical sabres out.

And if the likes of Theresa May, Fallon and Johnson have the temerity to even think about taking us to war over this, we should show these lunatics what treason really is, and give them so much of it that they will never be stupid enough to consider such a possibility.

 

 

Liberation Day

No matter what the future may bring, those of us who were lucky enough to be alive and British on March 29 2017 will never forget the glorious day when the United Kingdom finally threw off the yoke of the European Union.  In the years to come, perhaps very soon, we will hold a national holiday to commemorate our liberation from four decades of unrelenting tyranny and near-total darkness, in which we had seen our precious nation brought to its knees by the dictatorship of Brussels.

At last, our emissaries handed over the letter expressing the will of the people,  and we were able to believe that it was really going to happen.   It was the end of a nightmare or the beginning of a dream.  Or the beginning of the beginning or the first birdsong heralding a new dawn or the birthpangs of a truly Global Britain.  For some, it was only comparable to VE Day or the liberation of Paris.  It was a moment that so many of us had dreamed of throughout the years of toil and suffering under the EU’s slippered jackboot.

Even Jacob Rees-Mogg was barely able to maintain the stiff upper lip and hold back the tears of joy as the first members of the EU occupying army began to pack their bags, taking their subsidies with them.  Others smiled contentedly as the EU nurses left in the wake of the occupying forces,  at the thought of the NHS that would soon be theirs. Cornwall and Wales let out a sigh of relief at the thought of all the European money that they would no longer receive.  Ukip MEPs, hardened through decades of guerrilla warfare in the belly of the beast on salaries of only £84,000 a year plus expenses, came back from Eurostar with their sten guns and handgrenades, wondering how they would turn swords into ploughshares and forge new careers in a country where their single MP had just turned independent.

Watching the non-existent crowds in the empty streets, Michael Gove felt a lump in his throat at the thought that he would not be prime minister after all, but took consolation from the prospect of all those drugs that could now come onto the UK market without EU clinical trials,  and the green spaces that could now be built over without all that EU red tape to prevent it.  Boris Johnson shambled out into the street with his shirt hanging out over his trousers wondering how long he would have to wait before he could prime minister.

Others dreamed of bigger things. Oceans full of fish.  Selling cows to New Zealand. Factories and coalmines reopening. Empty motorways and well-paid jobs for all. And above all, controlled borders and no foreigners, even though the government is now saying that immigration won’t go down after all.

The Sun, passed out like Father Jack in a corner of the nation’s living room, lifted its unshaven head and belched as it warned the Eurocratic scum that if they failed to reach a trade agreement the UK would stop sharing our ‘world-leading counter-terror and crime-fighting abilities’ with the EU.  ‘Your money or your lives!’ the Sun croaked drunkenly, because we really are that great.  And because in any trade negotiations, as the Sun reminded us before passing out again ‘ our crack team of politicians and civil servants’ will always vanquish the ‘Brussels no-hopers.’

Truly the white man had got his country back,  and could look forward once again to taking the underground and not hearing Polish in a journey that would hopefully end up somewhere in the early 1950s.   And the white woman  could also rejoice, like the woman in Hastings who found historical parallels between our current slavery and the Norman Conquest, and concluded that ‘The concept of being governed by an unelected body would have been absolutely abhorrent to anyone in those days. It’s almost like the state has been lost. It was like another takeover, we relinquished our law and power to an unelected body.’

As any student of history knows, those Normans would never have allowed England to be taken over by an unelected body, so we could only put out the flags and cheer even louder that such great and noble thoughts had brought us to this pass.   And the left could celebrate too, because as John McDonnell reminded us not long ago,  ‘Brexit is an opportunity.’   Now the working class had spoken and delivered a fatal blow to ‘the elite’ and the neoliberal order and the British had the chance to get the socialism they had always secretly wanted – even if it was only socialism in one country.

Bliss was it to be alive, as Wordsworth once said about an equally historic moment, and it needed a poet to capture the beauty and the history of our own Liberation Day. Fortunately we had Theresa May, one of those rare politicians with a poetic license to make the impossible sound plausible and articulate the opposite of what is actually happening with absolute and total conviction.

Yesterday the vicar’s daughter reached new rhetorical heights as she reminded the nation that we are now going to ‘going to make our own decisions and our own laws’, regardless of the fact that we already do.   She told us that the government that brought us foodbanks, fitness to work tests and the bedroom tax would ‘build a stronger, fairer Britain.’   Like so many others, she urged us to ‘ look forward with optimism and hope – and to believe in the enduring power of the British spirit.’

She told us ‘I choose to believe in Britain and that our best days lie ahead ‘ and we ‘chose’ to believe it too, even though there was absolutely nothing to suggest that any such future lay ahead.   We did so because we had learned that fairies were real and because Brexiters warned us that they were tired of negativity, pessimism, and doubt, and some of them were even suggesting that those of us who harboured such thoughts might be traitors or criminals or collaborators with the EU death machine.

Our Great Leader also ‘chose’ to believe in ‘the British spirit’ and we did too, because the spirit can reach places where material processes fail, and she was ‘confident that we have the vision and the plan’ even though nothing that has happened since last June suggests that she has either.  She promised us that we would become ‘a magnet for international talent and a home to the pioneers and innovators who will shape the world ahead’ –  even though we already are exactly that.

Typically British in her magnanimity, she offered the olive branch to the European despots, and told them that she wanted to have ‘a new deep and special partnership between Britain and the European Union’ – as opposed to the old one which we already have.

She also promised ‘ a bold and ambitious free trade agreement with the European Union that allows for the freest possible trade in goods and services between Britain and the EU’s member states; that gives British companies the maximum freedom to trade with and operate within European markets; and that lets European businesses do the same in Britain’ – precisely the agreement that we already have.

She pledged to ‘ strengthen the Union of the four nations that comprise our United Kingdom’ even though Scotland and Ireland are already pulling away and Wales is unlikely to be far behind.  She assured the workers amongst us that ‘workers’ rights are fully protected and maintained’ even though the British standard of living ranks at number ten out of 18 European countries and the Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that most British workers will be earning no more in 2021 than they were in 2008.

Last but not least, she reminded parliament ‘ at moments like these – great turning points in our national story – the choices we make define the character of our nation.’

She was right about that too.

Murder in Westminster

So far nothing is known about the murderer who thought it would be a good idea to mow down a group of pedestrians and cyclists on Westminster Bridge and assault parliament with a kitchen knife yesterday.   The murderer is dead, having completed his homicidal spree with an act of suicide-by-cop that was presumably his ultimate aim in the first place.  Last night Channel 4 News bizarrely identified him as Trevor Brooks, aka Abu Izzadeen, the Islamist bigot linked to Andy Choudary’s group of Islamist bigots who once famously heckled John Reid.   This claim unraveled within minutes when it was discovered that Brooks is still in jail.

So the killer remains a blank, except that he was almost certainly a Muslim.  In the days and weeks to come we will probably learn some details about his trajectory.  More than likely it will match the familiar pattern: druggy/petty criminal background followed by ‘conversion’ and rapid ‘radicalisation’.  We may learn that he was ‘on the radar of the security services’; that he had been to Syria; that he was a member of a cell or an isolated ‘lone wolf’ who was ‘inspired’ by Islamic State.

For the time being, all this is speculation.   Yet within hours of the attacks, the familiar terror attack rhetoric was already unfolding like a machine, and Amber Rudd was depicting the attack as an assault on ‘our shared values’ and insisting that these values would never be destroyed.   And the blood hadn’t even dried when the sneering bigot Stephen Lennon who calls himself Tommy Robinson had arrived at Westminster with his personal cameraman to tell the world that ‘these people are waging war on us’ and that ‘this has been going on for 1,400 years.’

Lennon is a man who carries the stench of the political gutter with him wherever he goes, and his arguments are barely worth drawing breath to refute.   But his use of the first person plural was a fringe variant of the familiar terror rhetoric that invariably follows such incidents.   So far we don’t even have the remotest clue whether yesterday’s murderer was attacking ‘our’ values – if these values are deemed to mean freedom and democracy.

Whatever personal motives he may have had, they are likely to be have been legitimised – in his own eyes at least – by some grievance that he holds the British government and public responsible for.  It might be Mosul.  It could be RAF bombing sorties in Syria.  Whatever it is, it’s likely to be much more specific than the cosy invocations of the first personal plural suggest.  Strategically, yesterday’s attacks are more than likely to belong to the usual dismal jihadist playbook: stir up hatred against Muslims who inhabit what IS calls the ‘grey area’; provoke the government into a security overreaction; demonstrate that IS is everywhere and can attack anyone anywhere.

Such things are almost as predictable as the response to them, yet no matter how many times they happen, politicians continue to respond to them with the same meaningless incantations.  In the emotional aftermath of these horrendous events, it may be tempting to imagine that ‘they’ (Muslims) really are waging war against ‘us’ (Westerners, Democrats, Liberals etc) or against ‘our values (tolerance, democracy, freedom, female equality).

But it’s worth remembering that hundreds of Muslim civilians who are no less innocent than those who were killed yesterday have been murdered across the world in the last few months by Islamic State and by other so-called jihadist groups. They include the 30 wedding guests blown up in a suicide bomb attack in Tikrit on 11 March; the bomb attack in Lahore in February that killed 30 protesting pharmacists and wounded more than 100; the car bomb that killed more than 30 people in a Mogadishu market on 19 Feb;  the Istanbul nightclub massacre on 1 January: the multiple car bombings in Sadr City in Baghdad that killed 56 people and wounded more than 100

This is only the most cursory sample.   Look back on the seventeen years since George Bush  launched his war against evil, and you will see again and again that Muslims have been killed in far greater numbers than non-Muslims by the groups that the forces of civilisation are supposedly fighting.

No one can be surprised that an attack like the one that took place yesterday should dominate the front pages. But we ought to wonder why even bloodier acts of mass murder carried out by the same franchises in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan or Somalia receive little no coverage at all, no calls for international solidarity, no facebook memes or twitter hashtags, no lofty rhetoric about freedom and democracy and shared values – and above all no first person plural.

On one level it’s inevitable that British society should pay more attention to an attack carried out here than it does to acts of violence that take place in what Neville Chamberlain once referred to as ‘faraway countries about which we know nothing’.  But something else is at stake here in a media-saturated world in which ‘faraway’ no longer means what it used to.

It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that ‘we’ don’t actually care that much about these Muslim victims because they aren’t included in our definition of the first person plural or because such victims don’t fit into the ‘civilisation versus barbarism’ paradigm.   Or maybe it’s because they die in countries where we somehow expect people to die violently, so it somehow makes their deaths seem normal and routine, whereas ours are always an anomalous intrusion into normality.

But if the first person plural that politicians invariably evoke on occasions like this refers to humanity as a whole,  then it must include those other victims who don’t feature in the ‘them’ and ‘us’ narratives.  Because if there is a ‘war’ going on isn’t between Muslims and ‘us’, but between violent Islamist bigots that are as much a danger to their fellow-Muslims as they are to ‘us’.  Over the next few days ‘our’ bigots like Trump, Farage, and Melanie Phillips will undoubtedly come swimming through the dank swamp that Lennon and Katie Hopkins already inhabit, and use yesterday’s murders to stir up hatred.

In these circumstances it’s worth remembering that a motorcyclist called Ismail Hassan only narrowly avoided being killed on Westminster Bridge.  I have no idea if he was a Muslim, but whoever was driving that car towards him clearly didn’t care if he was or wasn’t.  Like his fellow-murderers in Brussels, Nice, Baghdad or Quetta he was prepared to kill anyone who got in his way, whatever their age, gender, nationality, religion or skin colour.

We need to hold onto that simple recognition, not only because we should not divide the world into worthy and unworthy victims, but because we cannot allow the bigots to use yesterday’s atrocity for their own ends and whip up precisely the kind of hatred that its perpetrators undoubtedly seek.