Tag Archives: UK

In or Out? Why both the EU & the UK are equally to blame for Brexit

JR Max Wheel

10 April 2019

It may seem perverse to argue that there are a number of important positives to take out of the referendum result and the political paralysis in the UK. Firstly, for many we have had a serious and protracted row over our participation in the EU, that is important. True, it has generated more heat than light, but it has illuminated many aspects of the EU’s present configuration and future challenges.

It has also revealed that article 50 as a process is fundamentally unfit for purpose. If ever a member state votes to leave of its own volition, for better or worse, article 50 is a hopeless mechanism. Firstly, it is abnormally time-bound for a period which cannot possibly address the complexity of issues likely to affect both leaving and remaining states. Secondly it is so one-sided in favour of a rules-based process, that negotiations as traditionally understood to operate are virtually impossible. It has also allowed a sequencing on a two staged process, when in fact a simultaneous withdrawal and future trade agreement would provide a more normal and probably much less contentious process. So, from many viewpoints it is almost guaranteed to produce impasse. Add to that the frustration of ill-tempered insult and finger-wagging.  This serves neither party. It is of course especially true of very close result outcomes. But It goes much further than that.

At its simplest an in/out referendum was about a relatively elementary choice, whether the UK wished to continue to subscribe to the aspiration for an increasingly federal Europe, with all that entails for nation states, including remaining members, in terms of defence, foreign policy, law and order as well as the well-worn clichés over immigration, the left-behinds from decades of increasing globalisation.  None of these issues is unique to the UK and not all member states share the direction of travel of many of the European Council and Commission. So again, we have the collision between the legitimate interest of the member nation and an aspirational set of ideas, which may never actually be realized. This drift towards “completing the project” has been apparent since Maastricht in 1992 but accentuated by Treaties of Nice and especially Lisbon (2004/9). If there was ever a moment to test the appetite in the UK for such a proto EU constitution, it was surely then. Indeed, it was and roundly rejected by Ireland, France and the Netherlands. The UK was not offered such a say, and this has rebounded spectacularly with the rise of nationalist parties. The crash of 2008 revealed multiple fault lines in many Western democracies, enforcing as it did a level of austerity that threatened long-standing public service provision. Turning points in the tide of history are often hard to disentangle, but it is a fair bet that the damage done to living standards and rising inequality have had a direct effect on the scepticism against Governments of widely differing types.

Culture and identity do matter, and they are enshrined in multiple facets, institutions, monuments and a sense of belonging. This does not translate well to multilateral bodies, which lack historical legitimacy and don’t easily “connect” to national electorates. The EU, no matter how beneficial it has been to some has always suffered from this tension, the so-called democratic deficit, coupled with the notion that even elected officials are pursuing agendas that have never really been agreed or subject to proper consultation.

If one takes the UK’s European Communities Act of 1972, its second clause allows for decisions proposed by the Commission and endorsed by a “remote” Parliament via a series of Acts or Directives to pass into law, which have never been debated or properly scrutinised by the national parliament. This has been particularly acute in the UK, where the process is to pass them into law; other EU members have frequently chosen to ignore or pay minimal attention to these directives. In this sense there is both divergence and a sense of lack of control.

The UK was always going to be a difficult member of the European club, partly for historical reasons, partly its legal system, its independent tradition and crucially its lack of any contiguous borders, with the exception of the Irish Republic. Thus, what is appreciated as logical and beneficial, freedom of movement of people, good and services and a single currency make sense within Continental Europe. The problem is that a mix of governmental remoteness and poor design/implementation of policy e.g., the single currency has left behind a legacy of problems which are now exceptionally difficult to reform. The single currency is the 21stC “gold standard”, a deeply inflexible system, where economic adjustment is only possible through the movement of real incomes, and employment, which condemns less competitive economies to keep making adjustments which never result in sustainable competitive economies. This is a core problem only capable of resolution if the key and powerful member counties were to create a system wide agreement to proper burden-sharing, deposit insurance and dumping artificial criteria on debts and deficits. Germany in particular does not want to sacrifice its exchange rate benefits to become the EU’s paymaster, understandable enough given the history, but there is an overwhelming need to address these shortcomings with all Eurozone member states.

Add this to an unprecedented level of immigration from failed or war-torn states and one comes to the inescapable conclusion that Europe so long a dominant part of the West in the 20thC  is now in relative decline to the US and China. The EU does not appear to know how to address these issues.

The UK has an invidious choice to stay or go, to make long overdue changes to its own political system or to try and effect changes from within- such efforts have never been welcomed by partner states and the result of nearly 3 years of upheaval has exhausted patience. For better or worse the UK has had a protracted and mainly internal row over its participation in what at heart remains a 1950s construct. Were the EU to adopt a real reform agenda it would make remaining a viable, even obvious option.

Rebuilding a Broken United Kingdom- A tale of 4 Kingdoms.

JR Max Wheel

 

14 March 2017

 

The UK’s proposed exit from the EU has thrown up some serious fault lines inside the Union.  A core reason is a failure that goes back years, the infamous West Lothian question so eloquently described by its own MP. Tam Dalyell, whereby the devolved administrations MPs sitting in Westminster can vote on English matters, yet English MPs cannot vote on those arising in those administrations. The movement towards decentralised power in the UK was in principle fair enough- to move decision-taking closer to the people, but as with many important issues it was not thought through, thereby creating another anomaly in the quirky nature of the UK’s unwritten constitution.

 

Despite sitting for a Scottish seat- West Lothian, Dalyell opposed both plebiscites in 1979 (Callaghan Government) and in 1997(New Labour- Blair). He was right. Nonetheless New Labour pursued the devolution agenda in Scotland and Wales creating a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly. The tortured politics of N.Ireland was subject to a separate agreement. The critical failure was to confine the plebiscites to the constituent countries only and not open to English voters. This might be seen as a cynical ploy to entrench Labour votes in its traditional heartlands especially Scotland and Wales. In Scotland, all it has done is the reverse, encouraged a nationalist and separatist movement, based on actual and perceived historical grievances. The situation in Wales has not (yet) resulted in a similar upsurge in nationalist feeling. Had the devolution argument been aired properly it would have queried the relationship of all the constituent parts, not just the devolved regions.

 

Thus, rather than redefining the United Kingdom for the future, it has created confusion and mutual suspicion. A much better solution would have been to have redefined the role of the Upper Chamber, long a parking lot for the great and the good and a handy way of rewarding party political participation. Its role as a revising chamber is a valuable one, but it has become a bloated anachronism, with over 800 members. In addition, it contains bishops, law lords and hereditary peers. Why so many when the US can have an upper house of 100 in the Senate and other parliamentary democracies make do with many less than the UK. There have been endless attempts to re-legitimise the Upper Chamber by direct election, none has really succeeded.

 

What is needed is a Chamber that reflects the diverse interests of all the countries, and thus represents regional interests which cannot then be over-ridden by solely English interests, nor vice versa, this would force a level of real debate and concerted decisions. Needless to say this would provide a perfect opportunity to reform the Chamber and to rid the UK of its excess peers, and to concentrate their minds on issues of real importance.

 

This matter acquires an extra urgency as Scotland contemplates a second independence effort and whilst N. Ireland faces a very difficult problem arising from Brexit. It suits no one except those willing to frustrate the electorate’s result, of which there are plenty, with quite specific and anti-democratic views.

 

Brexit – now Government and Opposition Chaos!

JR Max Wheel

30 June 2016

Today brings news of fresh turmoil in UK politics in both the Government and opposition ranks. Irrespective of the rights or wrongs of the UK case for leaving the EU it is blindingly clear that the country’s governance has been found wanting. Under more normal circumstances there would and should have been a vote of no confidence in the Government and a likely general election.

It is however symptomatic of deeper constitutional issues which have been festering since the Scottish referendum and the devolution settlements: it seems to me that this now requires wholesale changes to our voting system which is increasingly exposed as unrepresentative. It may be as well that the UK does not do “Government by plebiscite” normally, but this referendum has exposed deep fault lines, as well as abuse.

It should have escaped no one ‘s attentionthat since the campaign was carried out on a cross party basis, that any subsequent action should require a similar cross party arrangement and agreement to implement, not a prolongation of the status quo ante.

The UK’s first past the post system has generally served us well enough, this time it is in danger of embedding a very divisive decision through Parliamentary majority and in the near absence of a Prime Minister, a full-blown leadership campaign and with no effective opposition. Worse the leaders of both campaigns have been exposed as acting in self-interest and not necessarily in good faith. This is unworthy of any democracy, let alone the UK.

We now need comprehensive overhaul of the following and with some urgency.

  • A move to proportional representation for the House of Commons.
  • Reform and radical downsizing of the Upper House to function as a reforming chamber – a Senate. Removal of all peers, whether Lords Spiritual or Temporal
  • Direct representation for the devolved administrations in the Senate
  • Abolition of the much abused honours system
  • A charter of British Rights applicable to all citizens, and extensive to all legally, if temporarily residing in the UK.

 

We may still decide to exercise a sovereign right to execute a withdrawal from the EU, but it  should not be rammed through on the current basis. The leadership of the campaign has by its behaviour and the turmoil evident in the opposition, forfeited the right to proceed “as is” after the unseemly brawl of a leadership campaign being embedded in the process and in so doing distorting the result together with flagrant abuse of Government department resources. Two choices remain – neither of which should have ever been necessary, a rerun of the referendum or a general election when the opposition have a new leader and team in place.

No side emerges with any credit from this exercise which is worthy of a banana republic and not Britain. It’s time for serious change.

 

Under-defended UK?

JR Max Wheel

3 March 2014

 

The standoff in the Ukraine, which may well have turned into something a great deal more serious if Russia pursues its sphere of interest policies to annexe parts of the country, once again shows total short-sightedness of European defence and foreign policy. If the EU is to mean anything in an increasingly dangerous world, it needs the capability to act and to project its power decisively. NATO is a post WWII construct whereby the EU has largely sheltered under a US nuclear and defence umbrella. The rapid decline in UK capabilities is even more alarming, the Strategic Security & Defence Review of 2010, whilst written in the light of austerity politics is now an irrelevance, it urgently needs updating and defence spend needs to rise to provide the UK with a credible force. This is not an argument for war-mongering, but it is a recognition that both men and materiel have been cut down to dangerous levels: equally the nature of conflict described in the document has been proved to de-emphasise state on state conflicts, yet that is still a threat, as we can see.

 

Despite admitting overstretch in the Iraq and Afghan conflicts, we have opted to reduce the regular army to 80,000 and to use territorials as substitute front line troops, this is blatantly inadequate. So is the reliance on a single aircraft carrier and the decision to decommission Harriers before a much delayed US alternative Joint Strike Fighter is ready;  it is late, wildly over budget and there are serious questions of its capabilities. Reduction in frigate capacity by four and decommissioning of aging HMS Illustrious and Ocean is also weakening naval capacity. Failure to ensure inter-interoperability of the carrier with European allies is  a major strategic mistake,

Britain is dependent on US C17 aircraft and a delayed over-budget A400M European built plane for air support transport. Eurofighter Typhoon orders were cut back effectively depriving the RAF of both adequate air superiority capabilities and theTornado is now obsolete. The Sentinel airborne battlefield surveillance aircraft is due to be retired and there is no replacement in sight. The RAF has been emasculated as a fighting force in most of its roles.

The Navy which retains its Trident nuclear capability and its hunter killer submarines has the major strategic weapons capability. Delivery systems however are also aging Vanguard class submarines and with reduced capability i.e.configured with half the firing tubes compared to the original design capability.

It is little wonder that Russia brushed aside the UK as being of little consequence any more. It is true it isn’t: this is not to denigrate the quality of fighting troops but the woeful lack of quality transport equipment and helicopters was evident in the Iraq and Afghan deployments.

 

This review was an accountancy exercise and not a sober military assessment and is urgently in need of revisiting. There is little doubt that cyber attack and remote-controlled vehicles will be a major part of any future strategy, but the flawed assumption behind this limp and flawed review was to underestimate good old-fashioned threats to national security can come in both traditional forms as well as via conflict that requires a low-level, rapid deployment force. Expenditure on Defence is rarely a popular choice, but it is nevertheless essential as is a credible European capability. It is after all the first not the last duty of Government to keep its citizens secure, current policy fails on nearly any measure.

 

UK. Decline & Fall

JR Max Wheel

3rd. September 2013

The shock defeat of the UK Government’s Commons motion to intervene in Syria seems to have unnerved the political classes in the UK and the US. In its watered down format, it was not even seeking explicit approval to act. Public sentiment is against involvement as it is largely in the US and much of the EU. Any action is mainly symbolic, the supposed upholding of international law against a regime that appears to have little or nil restraint, although evidence, as always in war zones, is not conclusive. This is again ultimately a judgement call, The UN inspection regime is positively glacial and its leadership seems to have little urgency or guidance, nor will it do more than confirm the use of chemical weapons, without attribution as to who used them, which explains the impatience in the US. Another impending tragedy is the mass displacement of Syrian people, now estimated to be over 2m and more within its borders. Where is the UN urgency in driving a resolution to this regional mess, whether in Jordan, Lebanon or Iraq?

None of this standoff should actually be a surprise, as these issues stretch way back beyond the second Iraq War, Afghanistan and Britain’s now exhausted military, hobbled by poor long-term decision-taking and budget cuts. The historical trail leads at least back to the Great War settlement of Versailles, when the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire produced a plethora of double-dealing and confusion, especially from the French and British, all overseen by a still naive United States. As with many bad deals worked out by the “Great Powers” Versailles provided a succession of them in the Middle East, whose malign consequences are alive and well today. Palestine, the foundation of Israel, the frustrated cause of Arab nationalism and the division of Syria into pieces, part Lebanon, part Jordan and part old Syria. Its borders were arbitrary and its citizens an unholy mix of Druze, Alawite, Sunni, Shia, Christians and Jews. The Ba’ath party itself, a messy concoction of pan-Arabism and socialist and secular ideals flourished in both Iraq and Syria, but its idealism became rapidly splintered into factionalism. Unsurprisingly in the collapse of the United Arab Republic between Egypt and Syria, power passed to the Army in 1963 and then finally with the Assad coup of 1970, the rise of a tyrant, enshrining the new regime in a near one party State.  Syria under Assad Senior was a formidable and brutal mix of repression, nepotism and corruption, with the army involved in all aspects of Syrian life.

Much as in Iraq, the power vacuum resulting from removal of a demagogue creates the ideal conditions for the spree of reprisal killing and sectarian violence that marked the toppling of Saddam Hussein; a similar fate is equally likely in any post war Syria. The Assad dynasty aided and abetted by Russia, by supply of modern firepower is a cynical regional power ploy with Putin playing the same game of Great Power politics. Throw into this heady mix, regional meddling by the Iranian theocracy, an international extreme jihadist movement spread through the Maghreb, Yemen and beyond and it is easy to see why this is such an intractable and toxic brew. Trying to impose principles of international law or even curtailing the Syrian Government’s capability to inflict further misery on its people is a triumph of hope over experience. Whatever the “West” does will always have echoes of an imperialist past. Trying to bomb dictatorships to the negotiating table does not have a great record of success anywhere. The regional powers lined up are also in anything but their more normal configuration. Thus while Egypt has abstained; Turkey, Israel, most of the Emirates and Saudi Arabia are aligned against Assad, whilst Lebanon, Jordan, Iran and Qatar are against direct action.

Britain has seemingly now decided that it will not act, despite French agreement to do so. Whilst unusual, it may represent a more realistic assessment of our actual military capabilities as well as a more thoughtful approach to what happens next.  Whether or not the US and allies succeed in gaining any meaningful advantage from a proposed degrading of Syria’s capacity for war is disputed even by many in the US military, who rail at the naivety of more political posturing. Shades of 1919, a proxy regional war led by superpowers, couched  in the specious name of upholding a worthy principle, but likely to bring anything but peace.