The Brexit General Election campaign is now under way and even at this early stage, a few observations are in order.
In no special order:
- Most parties, including the Tories, were wrongfooted about the calling of the election, with manifestos being improvised rather than carefully crafted.
- The spokespersons for the various parties became increasingly irritated as the media interrogators sought to flush out inconsistencies rather than allow the party thinkers to refine and polish the manifestos and policies to be put to the voters.
- Sadly the all too evident divisions within Labour prior to April 18 have been exacerbated as some of the comrades anxiously deliberated about how they might position themselves in the time remaining so as to optimise their personal prospects. A few have decided that their prospects are so bleak that they have abandoned ship.
- There was a slight hiccup in the Lib Dem campaign as Mr Farron foolishly allowed theological and sexual matters briefly to surface and then to impede the development of a plausible set of policies.
- For the only other significant party in terms of seats in Westminster, Ms Sturgeon quickly established an effective plan based on business as usual: what is good enough for Mrs May at the UK level is good enough for Ms Sturgeon her at the level of Scotland. A sound and stable approach.
- UKIP provided us with an abundant helping of farce as they struggled to decide how to defend their hard won victory of a year ago. The faulty memory of Mr – or is it Dr?- Nuttall is proving something of a handicap.
- It appears to this outsider that the Tory campaign is gathering momentum with every passing day. Firm evidence for this observation was provided by the outcomes of the local and mayoral elections across most of the UK.
So – Mrs May is striding away from the field and seems set to achieve her goal of moving from the hazards of a narrow majority in Westminster to a significantly stronger position. This stronger position will, in her view at least, enable her to deal with the far more difficult problems that await her in Europe, specifically the exacting and wearying negotiations with the exasperated leaders of the other 27 EU states that wish to remain within the EU.
The UK Brexit of 1940
The last significant Brexit from Europe ended on June 4, 1940, the last day of the miracle of Dunkirk. I was born at the end of June 1940 and so have no personal recollections of that event, although one of my earliest recollections is of the street party held to celebrate VE day in May 1945.
The current version of Brexit will inevitably generate considerable rancour and mistrust on both sides of the channel as the UK and its former EU partners grapple with the plethora of issues to be resolved in the next few years. On the plus side it is most unlikely that these fraught negotiations will generate anything remotely approaching the impact of World War II and the circumstances surrounding the recovery of Britain from near defeat in 1940 to the unconditional surrender of Germany in 1945.
A cordial start
“It often happens, however, that when a certain amount of conversation is going on between gentlemen, everyone present does not derive the same impression from it. Especially is this so when some are naturally preoccupied about their own positions.” Winston Churchill writing about the very different impressions formed by Free Traders and by those in favour of protection during a Balfour Cabinet Meeting in 1903
A mere 114 years later, Mrs May and Mr Jean-Claude Juncker arrived at very different views about the atmosphere that had prevailed during a Downing Street dinner on April 26th. Mrs May thought all had gone swimmingly and constructively, whereas JCJ thought otherwise and, as soon as he was free to do so, he poured out his concerns to Mrs Merkel. In addition and by some mysterious process the JCJ version was quickly and prominently reported in the German media. It would seem that JCJ thought that Mrs May was living in a different galaxy, a slightly implausible suggestion even in these days of strained nerves and sensibilities.
A terse phase – probably the first of many in the coming months and years
“In a dramatic move the PM accused senior EU politicians and officials of issuing threats and leaks deliberately timed to affect the result of the June 8 poll” James Groves, Daily Mail, May 4, 2017
The confusion surrounding the Downing Street dinner was quickly clarified, and in quite brutal fashion. On May 3rd Mrs May convened a gathering of the media pack to have her say. She was in splendid combative form as she took careful aim at her opponents. Her view on this occasion was roughly to say that if that is the way they want then that is the way that they can have it – all good stuff at the level of playground altercations.
The Daily Mail predictably applauded her aggressive stance, but I was less than convinced as to its wisdom. It was wholly unrealistic on her part to call an election solely to strengthen her negotiating position vis a vis the rest of the EU and then to expect her EU opponents to remain aloof from Brexel. The unnamed EU officials and politicians (we know who you are) promptly got their act together and fired off a few preliminary salvos, precisely what you and I would have done were we in their shoes.
It can be confidently asserted that in recent days we have seen a snapshot of what the next few years will be like – a painfully protracted drama/farce in which mendacity, unofficial briefings and misrepresentations will be the order of the day.
In short a replay of the Brexit campaign itself but this time with the active involvement of our former EU partners, now transposed in Mrs May’s rhetoric, into our opponents.
The view from Brussels
The UK is rightly perceived as the equivalent of a disruptive pupil in an otherwise orderly classroom or, to vary the metaphor, as a drunken raucous guest at an otherwise dignified wedding.
The 27 remainers have more than enough problems without being distracted by the tiresome fractious disruptive Brits.
I suspect that one outcome of the forthcoming Brexel will be that it will have become clear that Mrs M has badly miscalculated in her Vicar of Bray act both as regards abandoning her previous remain stance and as regards changing her previous no election stance. Neither of the above U- turns come across as evidence of strong and stable leadership but rather as clear evidence of shabby opportunism.
Matters arising during the campaign
“I think the privatisation of near monopolies is about as irrelevant as – and sometimes worse than- were the Labour Party’s proposals for further nationalisation in the 1970s and early 1980s” Roy Jenkins in his autobiography – A Life at the Centre.
The Labour Party has come in for a great deal of criticism for its proposal to return some of the privatised near monopolies to public ownership. This proposal has been cited as evidence of a return to the run up to 1983 general election with its manifesto memorably dubbed as the longest suicide note in history under the shaky if benign leadership of Michael Foot. For my part I am unaware of any Trotskyite sympathies that Mr Roy Jenkins may have harboured and his point about the absurdity of privatising near monopolies is as valid today as it was then.
The Labour Party should go onto the attack in this area and highlight the farce of the cartels that masquerade as competitive businesses: they could add the endorsement of Adam Smith rather than of Karl Marx on this point.
In addition I suspect that there might be significant numbers of Southern Rail passengers who would be relaxed about the axing of the mediocrities who have successfully exploited their monopoly opportunities to cash in.
“Lord Rothermere in accusing Mr Baldwin of having lost a fortune, Mr Baldwin in in accusing Lord Rothermere of being a professing Liberal, had exhausted their armoury of abuse. Each had said the worst thing he knew about the other.” Malcom Muggeridge, The Thirties.
A few critics, notably Lord Finkelstein, have dwelt on the Trotskyite past of some of the senior supporters of Mr Corbyn, with dire warnings about what might happen were Mr Corbyn to emerge stronger from Brexel. Finkelstein’s piece in The Times was the metaphorical equivalent of the ice pick used by one of Stalin’s henchmen to curtail the activities of Leon Trotsky in 1940.
Might there be some scope for Labour partisans to point out that Lord Finkelstein was, in an earlier epoch, an ardent Social Democrat?
The emergence of Mr Blair as a factor in Brexel
Mr Blair has cautiously argued the case for those voters unhappy with the whole idea of Brexit to combine in some as yet unspecified way in order to oppose Brexit. There are still several weeks to go to Brexel and it might well be the case that the most accomplished harvester of votes in modern times could make a significant contribution.
His detractors (no shortage of those across the UK political spectrum) argue that Mr Blair is well past his sell date but I am not so sure. When I am told that Mr Boris Johnson, the principle guilty Brexiteer, is expected to play a key role in the coming fractious discussions, then I am more than happy to contemplate the rehabilitation and return of Mr Blair.
Who are the rich?
One tricky issue that has arisen is the need to establish who are the rich in the context of a debate on the pros and cons of funding various Labour proposals by the agreeable process of soaking the rich.
Does an annual income of £70,000 put you into the McDonnell rich list? How about £700,000? How about £7 million? The answer becomes more clear cut as you add the noughts.
Mr McDonnell was understandably reluctant to be pinned down as he awaited a figure from those in his party busily compiling the party manifesto. Why not simply announce a steadily rising tax rate above the current 45% to a level of say 90% for those earning above £1 million per annum.
In the good old days when I was still a member of the hard working class a small amount of my income was taxed at the top rate. I was never persuaded of the fairness of an income tax system that applied the same arithmetic to my modest income as it did to the earnings of – let us say – Sir Martin Sorrell.
The imposition of a steeply-rising tax rate for soaring incomes would help to focus the minds of the super rich on serving the interests of the companies that employ them instead of working tirelessly to loot the system. This point applies with equal validity to those on high retirement pensions. (This latter category that cannot plausibly assert that they will take their talents elsewhere.)
Labour should develop a policy to deal with underperforming managers in the public sector and in the no mans’ land that comprises territory controlled neither by the public sector nor by the private sector but by the Quangoland – managed in the main by the descendants of Mr Arthur Daley.
Replace the present policy of retaining and/or rewarding the failures by a system which entails the prompt clearing of desks, and being escorted off the premises. (As Private Eye might put it: prompt P45s to replace trebles all round.)
There are many persuasive arguments other than the Brexit argument to vote Labour on June 8.
However let me end by appealing to readers to ascertain the views of all the candidates seeking election to the new parliament and then to cast their votes for the candidate most favourably inclined to abandon Brexit and seek to retain our membership of the EU.
Mrs May might well prevail on the on the home front, she might well increase her majority, and that outcome would improve the chances of the UK leaving the Europe: if that is what you want then vote accordingly.
However, if you wish to take advantage of this May-sent opportunity to put the Brexit process into reverse and remain in the EU – then you know what to do.
If the outcome on June 8 does not bring comfort to Mrs May, then our many friends in the EU, not to mention the 48% in the UK that voted to remain, will heave a collective sigh of relief and discuss how best to plan for a speedy return to the status quo ante.
Image courtesy of Daily Express