Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Westminster needs better arguments rather than new parties

It’s become common to assert that Brexit has changed the contours of British politics forever.
That remains to be seen. After the UK leaves the EU, older loyalties and divisions may re-emerge, as allegiances and rivalries that developed since the referendum become irrelevant.
That hasn’t prevented some fairly animated discussion about the potential for new parties to reflect a ‘realignment’ of politics after Brexit.
Since Jeremy Corbyn’s hard-left faction took charge of the Labour, there have been suggestions that its pragmatic ‘Blairite’ wing would be happier outside the party. They may or may not have enough in common with disgruntled Conservative ‘remainers’ to share a common political home.
This fabled ‘centrist’ group is joined by a ‘Radicals’ party, imagined by FT journalist, Jeremy Cliffe. He went to the trouble of drawing up a short manifesto, that combines pro-EU, pro-migrant social policies, with proposals for aggressive decentralisation and a free-market economy, driven by ‘disruptive technology’ (a buzzword for innovations that upset the status quo in industry).
At Conservative Home, Paul Goodman described the document - with its suggestions for ‘city states’, houses built on green belts and a network of high speed railways - as a prospectus “for younger voters”. Ironically, the plan for devolved ‘city states’ echoes nothing so much as the fantasies of so-called ‘neo-reactionaries’; US bloggers who have been accused of far-right sympathies.
At the website Unherd, Chris Deerin finds that Cliffe’s ideas are attractive to an “orphaned centrist”. Goodman is more wary and argues that the manifesto is not centrist at all, but in many respects lies well to the right of the Conservatives and is anathema to the “one nation” wing of that party.
At a very basic level, the coherence of the state would hardly be increased by dispersing more and more power to regions, cities or other devolved units.
David Cameron’s government talked a lot about ‘localism’ as it theorised about the ‘Big Society’. In principle, handing decision-making back to communities is a healthy instinct. The problem with many forms of devolution is that regions or cities rarely accept the sense of responsibility that should accompany their newly acquired powers. They wish to take credit for successful policies but continue to blame all their difficulties on central government.
A scheme to decentralise power and change the constitution drastically would likely lead to a more divided country with weaker allegiances to the national parliament.     
Is there any need for new parties?
Deerin’s article contains a graphic from The Times, which suggests a more realistic realignment of UK politics.
The model is skewed, because it preceded the EU referendum, but it proposes four new parties, ranging from The Solidarity Party, standing on the left for a large public sector and high taxes, through to The Freedom Party, which would equate to some of the patriotic populist movements in mainland Europe.
At least the four options outlined in this graphic describe accurately some of the prevailing thought among current politicians, though they still don’t comprise a compelling case for four entirely new political parties.
Although the direction of modern Labour has been portrayed as something new and exciting, the reality is almost the polar opposite. Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Seumas Milne and their like are bargain basement communist revolutionaries of the type that developed out of anti-establishment feeling in the 1960s and 70s.
The basis of their ideology has been tried, tested and disproved repeatedly, most recently in Venezuela. It’s a bizarre development that these escapees from Citizen Smith have been presented with a belated opportunity to champion solutions for modern, globalised, 21st century Britain, that have never worked, anywhere, ever.      
Once the dizzy hype and boisterous terrace chants around Jeremy Corbyn die down, surely the public will start to see clearly again an ageing Marxist of the most dangerous and misguided type. And even if moderates cannot regain control of Labour, then the Liberal Democrats are led by a man who describes himself as centre-left and has already appealed for solidarity between his party and Blairite MPs.
Conservative factions
The Conservatives are going through a spell of infighting, after a poor election result, with factions forming around different views on a final Brexit deal. These divisions are not necessarily permanent and neither will they inevitably bring down the government.
Theresa May has struggled to inspire the Tories with optimism or a sense of purpose, but the theories she has outlined sound a lot like rhetoric you might expect from the “socially just, economically conservative” party that The Times dubbed The Nationals.    
The Prime Minister’s big failure so far is that she hasn’t presented Conservative ideas in a way that made them sufficiently appealing to the British public. During the general election, she chose to rely too heavily on scaring voters about the prospect of a government led by Jeremy Corbyn, whose ability to lead an energetic campaign she seriously underestimated.
Yet the type of philosophy the UK needs from its leaders remains broadly the same.
They should value the positive aspects of our society that are worth preserving - like stability, prosperity and democratic liberties. They should recognise that these goods have developed because of our institutions and culture, and they should be careful that any reforms don’t damage benefits that we already enjoy.
The Tory party is an imperfect vehicle for these ideas, but it is the only mainstream party where they are articulated at all.
May’s instincts appear to be right - she has accepted the British people’s verdict on Brexit, she’s in favour of a market economy (with certain qualifications) and she prefers policies that ease divisions in society - even if her leadership and the policy detail aren’t always convincing.
Free market ideology and traditional conservatism have mingled successfully enough within the Conservatives throughout the party’s history and, if they create a certain amount of tension, it isn’t enough to justify a split. “In the battle with socialism”, Sir Roger Scruton wrote in a recent book, “the classical liberal and the conservative stand side by side”.
That leaves Brexit and the rancour it appears to be creating in the current cabinet.
Frankly, some of the protagonists could do with calming down. The UK will leave the European Union, but there is little merit in making this process harder, faster or more acrimonious than it needs to be. It’s necessary to prepare for the consequences if a deal is not possible, but the argument that agreement cannot be reached or shouldn’t be reached is rash and premature.
It would be highly irresponsible if Conservatives on either side of the Brexit debate were to jeopardise the government over their differences of opinion, as they currently stand. Particularly if their motives were really to do with ambitions and rivalries within the party.   
For activists, commentators and political enthusiasts, dreaming up new alliances, manifestoes and parties is thoroughly entertaining. For the country, rather than tearing up the system as it is currently comprised, it would be far more constructive if the existing parties were simply to perform better and articulate more compelling policies.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Irish Language Act threatens a cultural carve-up

In the recent past, there was a common idea among academics who thought and wrote about unionists, that there were broadly two types of unionism in Northern Ireland. ‘Cultural unionism’ concentrated on defending a way of life regarded as specific to Protestants in Ulster and it was most closely associated with the DUP, while ‘liberal’ or ‘British unionism’ was focussed on the UK as a whole and influenced some quarters of the UUP.

People’s attitudes and motivations can rarely be put into categories so neatly, but there was some truth to the distinction. A common Ulster Unionist jibe asserted that the DUP was an “Ulster nationalist” party with little time for UK politics or modern British society, and scarcely deserved to be called ‘unionist’ at all.

From the perspective of late 2017, it’s a lot more difficult to sustain that claim.

Whatever the merits or otherwise of Brexit, the DUP threw itself into a nationwide campaign and argued the case for the whole UK to leave the EU. Then, after the last general election, its MPs found themselves holding the ‘balance of power’ at Westminster. The party brokered a deal to support the government in key votes and established a meaningful relationship with the Conservatives.

This new emphasis on UK politics happened partly by accident - because Sinn Fein had collapsed the power-sharing executive at Stormont and left Democratic Unionists without their local political platform - but it also reflected how unionism has realigned, as voters and activists deserted the UUP.

Unfortunately, there are some ominous signs that, in order to get the Assembly up and running again, the DUP might be tempted to return to its old habits and accept a sectarian carve-up on the Irish language.   

Although the party has sent out conflicting signals, some of its representatives encourage the idea that it may back legislation to formally support Irish, if the Ulster Scots ‘language’ is included in an act as well. It’s a dangerous notion, that could change Northern Ireland considerably, on the flimsy pretext of securing equivalent money for a culture that interests a tiny majority of enthusiasts.

An Irish Language Act could mean almost anything, but campaigners most frequently cite legislation in Wales, where a much larger community speaks the native tongue and English and Welsh are legally on an “equal footing”. Sinn Fein wants the act to centre on its own paper, compiled by former culture minister Caral Ni Chuilin, which proposes ‘affirmative action’ to boost the number of Gaelic speakers in the public sector.      

Even less wide-ranging legislation could deepen divisions in our society and encourage ongoing efforts to ‘mark out’ areas with Irish street signs and other indicators of cultural ownership. Add Ulster Scots to this equation and public money may as well be used to fund a kerb-painting scheme to show exactly who lays claims to which parts of the province.

This kind of thinking reflects very accurately how power-sharing has operated in Northern Ireland since 2007. Government here has often come down to divvying up taxpayers’ money to one or other of our perceived ‘communities’, and the biggest parties’ role is to fight for their share of the spoils.

The Irish language is certainly a unique and irreplaceable part of the heritage of the British Isles. It deserves support and protection, just like many other aspects of our culture. However, Sinn Fein barely attempts to disguise the fact that it wants legislation in order to promote the “Irish national identity” because Northern Ireland “is not British”, as Michelle O’Neill claimed at the Conservative Party Conference.      

A language act, or even a wider culture act, will focus on things that divide people in Northern Ireland, rather than things that bring us together. It will take money that could be spent on services for everyone and spend it on a tiny minority whose idea of culture is making a big deal about national identity, often with transparently political motives.

If the DUP is really starting to think about politics differently, and if it aspires to keep the support of the broadest section of unionism, it should leave this legislation well alone.

This article was published first in the News Letter.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

EU's Brexit position on Ireland is contradictory

Last month the government published its Brexit position paper on ‘Northern Ireland and Ireland’ (by which it meant the Irish Republic). It was hardly a scintillating document, but at least it tried to imagine how a ‘seamless and frictionless’ border might work in practice.

In response, the EU Commission issued a set of truculent and unhelpful ‘Guiding principles for the dialogue on Ireland / Northern Ireland’. Like the British paper, it filled a great deal of space referencing the Good Friday Agreement and emphasised the importance of the peace process, but it pointedly refused to ‘put forward solutions for the Irish border’. ‘The onus to propose solutions’, it said, lies squarely with the UK.

What the commission didn’t say directly, but its negotiator Michel Barnier acknowledged in a press conference, was that the UK did propose solutions, which the EU rejected out of hand. The British paper made it clear that the government sees no need for a so-called ‘hard border’ from its perspective, and that attitude makes a lot of sense.

If the UK hopes to trade freely across the world after Brexit, there are persuasive arguments for dismantling barriers to commerce as comprehensively as possible. That’s before we consider the political sensitivities around placing customs posts and other checkpoints at the Irish border.

Whatever Mr Barnier might claim, the government is responsible only for arrangements on its side of the border. If the EU insists that elaborate infrastructure is needed in the Republic of Ireland, to protect the customs union or the single market, then that is its responsibility. Brexit supporters will point to another example of the type of bureaucratic inflexibility that justified the ‘leave’ campaign in the first place.

Of course, the two sides are engaged in a negotiation and the two papers on Ireland can’t be untangled easily from the broader strategies that both the UK and the EU 27 are pursuing.

Britain’s document was a rather clever attempt to pin responsibility for any hard border on Brussels as early as it could. If there are customs checks and physical barriers, it will be thanks to the EU rather than the UK, is the implied message. The commission’s ‘guiding principles’ try to refute that suggestion, but a lack of counter-proposals mean that its argument is less convincing.

There are probably other factors influencing the stroppy tone of Brussels’ document too.

Its negotiators are desperate to force the UK to accept a substantial bill, as part of the process of leaving the EU. Depending upon whose interpretation you accept, this is either a settling up of accounts to which Britain was previously committed, or a punitive and unreasonable bribe.        

In an attempt to strengthen their position, EU negotiators have insisted that they will not discuss a possible post-Brexit trade deal until the UK promises to pay. And although the Northern Ireland peace process is supposed to stand above this haggling over cash, most of the issues around the border are connected intimately with customs and commerce. Brussels is not prepared to resolve the more practical problems presented by Ireland, until the talks move on to a trade deal, but it doesn’t wish to say this outright.

The EU’s vague references to a “unique solution” for the island are calculated to sound like the “special status” within the European Union that nationalists have been demanding for Northern Ireland. Usually, this status is described as a way of keeping the province inside the single market and the customs union, by completing border checks on routes between Northern Ireland and Britain, rather than Northern Ireland and the Republic.

If the EU is alluding to that type of arrangement, which is flagrantly unacceptable to unionists, it could be chiefly a manoeuvre, designed to persuade Britain to accept preconditions around trade negotiations. It may also be a way of expressing solidarity with the Dublin government, which has responded to Brexit by reopening the ‘national question’ rather than addressing practical threats confronting the Republic’s economy.

If the “unique solution” is actually a genuine bid to pick apart the UK’s mandate to leave the EU and keep Northern Ireland within the single market, it’s a spectacularly ill-conceived and irresponsible strategy. A power-grab that might put trade barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, in order to prioritise a closer relationship with the Republic, would obliterate the constitutional settlement formalised through the Belfast Agreement.

Certainly, Guy Verhofstadt, the EU Parliament’s Brexit coordinator, encouraged the idea that Northern Ireland could stay in the customs union and the single market after Brexit, during his visit to Belfast this week. He even suggested that voters in the province could elect MEPs through the Republic of Ireland’s electoral system. Unless he is particularly badly informed about the peace process, he must know that this type of intervention is insensitive at best and at worst looks like an attempt to stoke separatism in the UK.

Next month, the EU 27 will meet in Brussels to decide whether there has been sufficient progress during the first tranche of negotiations to open talks on future trading arrangements. Perhaps, if the two sides come closer to agreeing about money, then their discussions on Ireland will start to flow more freely. For the time being, the EU has taken the contradictory position that the border is an issue for ‘phase 1’, yet it refuses to discuss any of the critical matters around trade or customs that are affected by ‘phase 2’.

It’s reasonable to urge the UK to be ‘flexible and imaginative’ about the Irish border, but the UK doesn’t have a responsibility to accommodate endless inflexibility and lack of imagination from the EU.