Saturday, 22 April 2017

Week One of the campaign. And five reasons Labour may lose disastrously.

Any hope that Theresa May’s surprise general election would drag Jeremy Corbyn into the real world was cruelly dashed within a few short days. His major launch speech was a spectacular retreat into his predictable comfort zone. To say that the Labour Leader’s fiery socialist rhetoric preached to the choir probably insults the more intelligent of the choristers.

One of the funniest moments was when the prep-school-lad-made-bad listed all the people who should be afraid of him. Philip Green is apparently cowering, along with the bosses of Southern Rail. Tax-dodging CEOs pray at night that they are spared the wrath of Jez’s incoming administration.

The reality, of course, is that no one is remotely scared.

First of all, Corbyn isn’t going to get within 100 miles of Downing Street. And even if he did, he would be so out of his depth that wealthy and powerful interests would run rings around him.

It’s true that civil servants have to go through the motion of preparing for a potential transition. They were instructed to start talking to Jez’s team about the curtain measurements for Downing Street. But some wag on Twitter pointed out this was broadly akin to the host of 80s gameshow Bullseye, Jim Bowen, showing contestants the speedboat they could have won.

The only question in this election is how badly Labour loses.

My hunch is spectacularly badly.

Here are the five factors that will almost certainly lead to a disastrous result on 8th June.

THE LEADERSHIP ISSUE

The first and most obvious issue is Corbyn himself. There’s no point in rehearsing all his extraordinary gaffes of the past two years or his complete detachment from the world of 2017. His sheer awfulness has become common currency. Historians of this period will look back with bemusement that anyone ever thought him credible and will point to the instrumental role he played in shaping the disastrous Brexit result and a period of lengthy Tory rule.

It’s weird, incidentally, how history’s losers can often have a pivotal role in momentous events. Look at Ed Miliband blocking military action against Syria, for instance. His fateful decision (motivated by a desire to distance himself from Tony Blair and New Labour) led to Barack Obama’s embarrassing deal with Moscow. Assad was let off the hook, his murderous regime was emboldened and a vacuum was created which allowed IS to thrive.

Corbyn’s leadership – or lack of it – will be right at the heart of the campaign. He is being presented as the man at the centre of a ‘coalition of chaos’, involving maybe the Lib Dems and the SNP. This will be just as damaging as the accusation that the more competent Ed Miliband was in the pocket of Alex Salmond.

TRUST ON THE ECONOMY

The second reason Labour will suffer a historic defeat is a complete lack of confidence in their ability to manage the economy. This is somewhat unfair, as Blair and Brown had a very credible record prior to the financial crisis of 2008. But the Jezuits have disowned their predecessors’ legacy and never talk about any of the New Labour achievements in the management of the economy or investment in public services.

So, in 2017, we are left with an extraordinary wish list of policies. Renationalisation of the railways and those parts of the health service which are deemed to be privatised. The restoration of NHS bursaries. Free school meals for every child. An end to university tuition fees. An increase in the carer’s allowance. Ending the freeze on public-sector pay.

There is talk of spending half a trillion pounds.  While some borrowing is actually economically very sensible right now, as we can do it at historically low rates, the sheer scale of what Labour is proposing plays right into the hands of their Tory opponents. Most members of the public will want borrowing to be limited, taxes to be kept down and spending to be sensibly controlled. All ideas that are anathema to Corbyn and McDonnell.

BREXIT

The third problem for Labour isn’t entirely of its own making. It’s true that Corbyn’s lacklustre campaigning in the EU referendum was, sadly, probably enough to tip the balance of the vote the wrong way.  We might assume Labour voters would have come out in greater numbers for Remain if Andy Burnham, Liz Kendall or Yvette Cooper had won the leadership contest in 2015, rather than a man who had spent his whole political life opposing the EU. Once the referendum had been decided, however, Labour was caught in an impossible position.

Although the majority of Labour voters supported Remain, a substantial minority didn’t. And these Brexiters are disproportionately concentrated in Labour’s heartland seats. Labour will be too pro-Europe for the Brexiters and too pro-Brexit for the diehard Remainers. A completely impossible bind.

Corbyn’s solution is not to talk about Brexit. The trouble is that the Conservatives are determined to make this a Brexit election. And so are the Lib Dems. And probably the Scottish Nationalists and Plaid Cymru.  Last night, the rambling Labour Leader actually tweeted about rambling. I am not making this up.

DEFENCE AND SECURITY

This hasn’t really featured as an issue in British general elections since 1987, as both parties seemed broadly credible on defence from 1992 onwards. Under Corbyn’s leadership, Labour has become associated once again with appeasement, pacifism and defeatism.

The British public will never accept as Prime Minister someone who believes we could renew Trident nuclear submarines without the warheads. Or keep the warheads and tell people we would never use them. This argument was categorically lost three decades ago, but Jez didn’t get the memo.

For the record, I do not believe there is any military action by British forces that Corbyn has ever supported in his career. And that includes the intervention to stop ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. According to his fans, this puts him on the ‘right side of history’, although the great British public will respectfully disagree.

THE VISION THING

Right at the heart of Labour’s failure to connect with voters is the dismal picture they paint of the UK.

Make no mistake, this is a country with far too much poverty and inequality and Labour’s raison d’ĂȘtre must be to address this. Otherwise what is the party for? At the same time, Britain is still a very prosperous country and many people have some kind of stake in that prosperity, however tenuous. It goes without saying that a good number of them need to vote Labour if the party is to achieve power.

Right now, Labour is full of vitriol about a world of zero-hours contracts and welfare cuts and NHS crises and failing public transport. Like many other people, I want to see stronger employment laws, protection for the most vulnerable, a properly funded public health service and trains that run on time. But I don’t think we are defined as a nation just by our current failings.

The language Labour uses is relentlessly negative and for all the talk of ‘new politics’ under Corbyn, there is absolutely no sense of what British society might be like under his leadership. The overall impression communicated is one of decay and decline. Blair in 1997, by contrast, offered hope, confidence and cautious optimism about the future.

It seems, sadly, as if a cataclysm at the polls is the only way in which the arrogance of Labour’s current leadership and the naivety of its supporters can be shattered.  The tragedy is that it is the people Labour exists to represent who will be hardest hit by the sheer madness of the last two years.


Monday, 6 February 2017

Forget the Oval Office. Join Trump in the back bedroom.

Some caricaturists depict Donald Trump as an over-indulged baby, throwing toys out of his pram. Others see him as a puppet, manipulated by the Machiavelli of the alt-right, Steve Bannon.

I’m sure there’s some truth in both these interpretations.

Hearing Trump talk today, however, I have a rather different image coming into my head.
The 45th President was talking at a US airforce base about Islamic terrorism in Europe and claimed that this was covered up by the mainstream media.

His actual words were as follows: "All over Europe, it's happening. It's gotten to a point where it's not even being reported. In many cases, the very, very dishonest press doesn't want to report it. They have their reasons and you understand that." 

This is a truly madcap conspiracy theory.

On an X-Files scale, it rates a nine.

It pains me even to pick it apart, but think about what he’s saying. His accusation is that mainstream news media with professional journalists have their ‘reasons’ for covering up terrorist atrocities.

The reasons, one supposes, are that they are liberals who are dedicated to a vision of multiculturalism or active supporters of the expansion of Islamic ideology in Europe. These duplicitous political activists, masquerading as reporters, worry that if the public were to hear of terrorist attacks, they might rebel against the current order.

So they cover them up.

Except the ones they don’t cover up.

Like Paris and Nice, which Trump himself mentioned. And Brussels and Berlin and all the other places.

Boy, did the liberal media slip up with those ones! They really dropped the ball, didn’t they, with all their round-the-clock reporting?

Leaving aside the utterly ridiculous and unsupported nature of Trump’s allegations, there is also the issue of exactly how the journalists would succeed in keeping any terrorist activity in Europe under wraps. Perhaps smartphones, digital cameras and social media haven’t made it across the Atlantic yet? Maybe we Europeans are ‘sheeple’, who haven’t yet seen the light?

Except supposedly we have.

Isn’t part of the Trumpian world view the idea that Brexit was an awakening? That the anti-globalist populism of Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders demonstrates Europeans throwing off the shackles of liberalism, multiculturalism and political correctness?

My image of Trump is now of someone who is 25-going-on-15 and still lives at home with his mother. His days are spent in his room coding, while eating KFC. His nights are spent alongside his empty bucket meals, trolling people on Twitter.

His reading consists of conspiracy sites which suggest that vaccinations are poison and that scientific evidence can’t be trusted. He rails against feminazis, snowflakes and libtards. Anyone who believes a poll is a fool and anyone who trusts what they read in the mainstream media needs to WAKE UP and GET SMART!

Of course, there are a million of these sad little men around and we could argue all day about the cause of their alienation and anger. But only one in a million gets to play at being President of the United States of America.

We know that Mike Pence, Paul Ryan, Rex Tillerson and others do not subscribe to Trump’s ridiculous conspiracy theories. They might have some pretty obnoxious and kooky views of their own, but they do not believe that there have been terrorist atrocities in Europe that have gone unreported.

They need to say so.

These men do not believe that a federal judge appointed by George W Bush and ratified 99-0 in the Senate is only a ‘so-called’ judge.

They need to say so.

They do not believe that the New York Times and CNN publish fake news.

They need to say so.

They will be biding their time and thinking that there will be a later opportunity to remove Trump.

Now is not the moment. Keep our powder dry, they will say to themselves. Give him enough rope and he will hang himself.

No.

History tells us that if you give people like Trump enough rope, he’ll end up hanging you.

They need to act soon. For the sake of the Republican Party, the sake of the United States and the sake of the wider world.


Tuesday, 24 January 2017

The political minefield on the road to Brexit

Brexit produces a whole load of weird conundrums, confrontations and contortions, doesn’t it?

The Supreme Court has given Parliament the right to decide on the triggering of Article 50, as it was agreed by 8 votes to 3 that it requires a statute and cannot be waved through by Theresa May using Royal Prerogative.

Those supportive of the Gina Miller case like to regale us with stories about the constitution (uncodified) and The Civil War and the Witan of the Anglo-Saxons and God knows what else.
They were affronted and astonished that the government even dared to appeal the original High Court judgment. The argument for parliamentary sovereignty in this case was so glaringly obvious that even a child could understand it.

Rather strange, in that case, that three of the learned justices on the Supreme Court actually dissented. They must be pretty thick. Maybe they never saw those three-line memes summarising the case on Twitter?

Anyway, after all the hullabaloo, you’d think Theresa May would be quite frightened, wouldn’t you? Brexit is back in the hands of MPs. And they tend to be more inclined to Remain than Leave.

Her plans for wrenching the UK out of the EU must surely now be on hold?

But wait a second. What’s this?

Most MPs will exercise their sovereign right to block Brexit by allowing it to proceed.

That’s because they know that the real decision was taken last June, when the British public (disastrously, but democratically, in my opinion) made their views known and voted out.

As former Labour minister Yvette Cooper has said, to oppose Article 50, you’d need to take a Trumpian view of the democratic process. Remember how the newly-installed US President wouldn’t commit to accepting the November poll if it had gone against him? We growled at him for his blatant contempt for the democratic process.

In the referendum of 2016, it was made quite clear by both campaigns that we were taking a permanent and irreversible decision. A group of Labour MPs, however, say they are planning to defy their hapless leader Jeremy Corbyn and vote against the A50 bill in Parliament.

Some argue that they represent constituencies which voted Remain and they are simply giving voice to the views of their local residents. But if that logic were followed, there would be a very interesting turn of events. Over 60% of UK seats voted for Brexit. So the majority in Parliament for quitting the EU would actually be larger than the majority achieved among the general public.

Of course, the consensus is that MPs and the unelected Lords don’t have the bottle to block A50. But they are determined to amend the bill and attach some brakes and CCTV cameras to Theresa May’s runaway Brexit bandwagon.

This position is perhaps represented best by the intelligent and persuasive MP for Streatham, Chuka Umunna. He bravely says that he won’t let his constituents’ living standards be undermined by May’s perverse attachment to a hard break with Europe.

But what can he and other MPs do in practice?

Pass amendments which set out a whole range of pie-in-the-sky objectives for the negotiations?  If I were May, I would actually be happy to accept one or two of these, knowing that they would mean little in practice. Until we get into the negotiating rooms with the representatives of the EU, we have no idea what ideas will fly and how much ground they’re prepared to give.

One scenario is that May goes into the talks and tells Parliament that she did her best to achieve their goals, but it was impossible. Sorry, guys. Tried my hardest, but what can I say? Here’s what I came back with.

Another option is that she fights amendments in the House of Commons and House of Lords tooth and nail. If she loses on some minor points, she doesn’t break much of a sweat (see scenario one). But if she is in danger of losing on something major – an amendment which seeks to guarantee continuing access to the European single market, for example – she turns it into a vote of confidence in the government.

A third possibility is that if things get out of control (Nicola Sturgeon plans 50 amendments) and the timetable were slipping – or she suffered a major defeat in the Commons – she would ask for the repeal of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act.  Jeremy Corbyn has already kindly offered to facilitate the required two-thirds majority to call a general election, which he apparently relishes.

I would say she has plenty of options and all the cards are stacked in the Prime Minister’s favour. Her opinion poll ratings are generally very good and they are rock solid on Brexit.

The one thing which would lead to her having to concede various amendments would be the thought that Article 50 might actually be blocked if she didn’t accept them. But the MPs won’t block A50 and she knows it.

The Labour Party is in a pickle.

It’s like a tenant who desperately needs a flat and has put down a deposit. They are then being told by the landlord the property is rat-infested and doesn’t have a working toilet. There’s no other apartment available in town and they’ll be sleeping on the street if they don’t sign on the dotted line. But they’re convinced they’ll persuade the owner to pay for all the repairs and throw in a new IKEA sofa.

Looming large is a by-election in Stoke, in which the populist right-winger Paul Nuttall is challenging Labour on behalf of UKIP. Every Labour MP who makes a statement saying they’re prepared to block Brexit will be helping to fuel Nuttall’s ugly politics in the Labour heartlands.

It confuses us and frustrates us. It confounds us and it frightens us.

It’s Britain on the road to Brexit.


Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Why foreign policy will be Trump's downfall

Predicting Trump’s trajectory is hard, because the territory is uncharted. A rogue rocket has launched from Cape Canaveral with a nuclear warhead on board and we’re hoping that when it crashes and burns, it doesn’t take out downtown Orlando.

All the famous checks and balances built into the American political system? The ones designed to stop tyranny and to act as a firewall against the agenda of a power-hungry megalomaniac? They will be tested to the full by Donald J Trump, believe me.

Part of the problem is that no one – from the founding fathers onwards – could ever have predicted anyone quite like this man claiming power. The political establishment and the constitutional experts might have imagined a calculating crook or an ideological extremist assuming the presidency. But the pussy-grabbing, China-baiting, tweet-firing freakshow that is Trump? He’s just not in the instruction manual.

It’s beyond question that it will all end in tears.  The only issue is whose tears?  If the lacrimal flood is limited to Donald himself, we can all breathe a huge sigh of relief. But let’s not kid ourselves. This guy will cause a lot of collateral damage along the way.

My prediction, for what it’s worth, is that foreign policy and security will be Trump’s ultimate undoing.

It seems inevitable there will be moves to impeach him at some point, but the wheels grind slowly and the GOP will be largely supportive in what might laughably be described as Trump’s honeymoon. The President’s domestic policy will be offensive and retrograde, but in many respects this is where he is most in line with the agenda of House and Senate Republicans. They all love nothing better than taking away hard-earned workers’ rights, attacking women and restricting access to healthcare.

Trump is on much more problematic ground with his erratic personal behaviour on social media and his tendency to make foreign policy on the hoof. I foresee a crisis with a foreign power precipitated by his trigger-happy Twitter account or some inane (or perhaps insane) announcement he makes off the cuff in a press conference.

The Chinese leadership will be watching closely. The issue of Taiwan and their so-called ‘One China’ policy is a red line. So is their sphere of influence in the ocean territories disputed with Japan, South Korea and The Philippines.

The issue of Russia and kompromat and the lovefest with Vladimir Putin is not going to go away. There’s only one thing worse than seeing someone fall head over heels with the wrong guy. And that’s dealing with the aftermath when their relationship implodes.

While many of us are sickened by the closeness of the lovebirds right now, things could easily be turned on their head overnight. Why? Because Trump doesn’t have one inch of loyalty to anyone except himself. What he says on Tuesday, he happily contradicts on Friday. And by Monday, he’s forgotten he ever said it.

There is a lot of commentary about the fact that Trump seems hostile to the intelligence community and doesn’t like to be briefed. My hunch is that the spooks won’t share anything of substance with him anyway, even if he does start granting them an audience.

As the guy doesn’t read anything, I would just dress up some reports from the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times and tell him that it’s a briefing. Would he know any different? It would be a risky strategy, for sure, as ideally you’d want the President to be on top of world events. But this is not a normal situation and it would surely be even more risky to share detailed classified intelligence.

Former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld referred to ‘known knowns’ – things we know we know. Then there were ‘known unknowns’ – the things we know we don’t know. But there was also his third, and rather scary, category of knowledge called the ‘unknown unknowns’. These are the things we don’t know we don’t know.

In every presidency, stuff will turn up that we can’t imagine yet.  ‘Events’, as British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan quaintly described them. How will Trump react? Will there be one 3am tweet too many?

In the UK, the ‘men in grey suits’ come to tell a Prime Minister it’s time to go. There’s not really any provision for the men in white coats.

The 25th Amendment of the US Constitution does, however, allow for a President to be declared unfit for office by the Vice-President and senior cabinet members. Star Trek aficionados will recognise this as the right of the Chief Medical Officer on board a Starfleet vessel to declare the Captain incapacitated.

If it happens, expect it to happen suddenly without warning. Because I fear it will only be invoked to prevent an international crisis of catastrophic proportions. And time will probably be of the essence.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Why liberal Britain still gets Brexit wrong

First things first. I was a Remainer and I still am.

The EU referendum in June produced a decision which was irrational and reckless. It’s hardly an overstatement to say that the consequences will be felt for generations to come. And in the worst-case scenario, I wonder if historians will see the Brexit vote as a trigger which led to the ultimate demise of the whole European project. If so, they’ll be writing a history of deep economic recession and war.

Given that I feel so strongly about this, you might expect me to back wholeheartedly the renegades who are fighting tooth and nail for the pro-European cause. Cheering every mishap and fumble from the government in the hope that the whole absurd Brexit project collapses in on itself.

But I don’t. And the reason is quite simple. As well as being a strong supporter of Europe, I believe in social cohesion and public trust in the democratic process here in the UK. And I fear that both may come under threat as we move into 2017.

Let’s look at the legal case currently before the Supreme Court. Those who brought the action originally are avowedly anti-Brexit. They’re not interested in the judgment because it answers some very particular and esoteric piece of constitutional law about Crown prerogatives. They see it as a way of creating a stumbling block to the triggering of Article 50.

The Court – if it rules in the government’s favour – will be at pains to point out that they have no political axe to grind. They will send the decision back to Parliament and there will be much rejoicing in liberal and left-wing circles.

But why the celebration? We’re repeatedly assured that Parliament would never actually block Article 50.  Would they be cheering because some ancient, ‘uncodified’ constitutional right has been upheld? Or because, secretly, there’s a hope that Article 50 will be further delayed or obstructed?

The majority of the general public, according to the latest YouGov polling, wants the government to win the case and for Theresa May to decide on the trigger. This news will probably surprise young hipster activists and the Guardian-reading middle classes in Richmond-upon-Thames who rely on being able to visit their Tuscan villas twice a year. It will shock the legal professionals who are well read in Magna Carta and the 1689 Bill of Rights. But is it really that astonishing?

When people voted in the summer referendum, they were told on numerous occasions by both sides of the debate that they were making a momentous decision. We Remainers said that once you’ve voted out, there will be no turning back. The Brexiters opined that it was the one and only chance to break free from the shackles of the EU.

So people voted believing that their vote counted for something. And when they did, they kicked the establishment in the teeth, because they gave the verdict every politician and business leader and clergyman and international statesman had told them not to give.

The establishment licked its wounds and said that it understood. It claimed to recognise the loud cry of discontent. Democracy would stand. As the American political consultant, Dick Tuck, once put it: ‘The people have spoken, the bastards.’

Let’s imagine a scenario. Early in 2017, a group of unelected judges decides that the referendum result cannot be put into effect without a vote in Parliament. The anger will be palpable, because in the eyes of most ordinary people – who are not necessary well versed in constitutional law – their referendum has more legitimacy on this issue than anything that can be decided by MPs. It was, after all, a mass democratic exercise.

And let’s say that some MPs – a vocal minority, perhaps – try to delay or obstruct the triggering of 
Article 50, that sense of anger will start to grow stronger. Maybe the lawmakers will put down amendments which tie the hands of the British government in negotiations and signal to EU bureaucrats the limited wriggle room that Theresa May has.

Of course, Members of Parliament may well be reluctant to push their luck too far. 63% of them, according to the University of East Anglia, represent seats which voted for Brexit. But will members of the House of Lords have any compunction in this regard? Elected by no one and only loosely accountable to their parties, they may react in unpredictable ways.

And, of course, it’s worth mentioning in passing that it might be decreed by the learned justices that the Scottish Parliament and Northern Irish Assembly have a potential veto over Brexit. In reality, that is the truly nuclear scenario, which no one talks about. It would quickly threaten the break-up of the UK.

So we can’t yet know the detail, but quite early in 2017, there is a chance of a full-blown constitutional and political crisis. And my message to those on the left of British politics is to beware of what you wish for. I personally do not see any good coming out of the confrontations we can easily envisage.

If May battles through, but is wounded in Parliament and is seen to be obstructed by Liberal Democrat, Green and Labour MPs, my prediction is that we shall see a huge UKIP resurgence and possibly the growth of even more unsavoury far-right politics.

Her other option is to request a general election, for which she’ll need a two-thirds majority in Parliament. As I’ve said before, it is hard to see how Corbyn and McDonnell can refuse such a request, given their stated desire to confront her at the polls.

I have absolutely no doubt that May would achieve a very large majority. It is, of course, possible that there would be resurgence of the Lib Dems in some strongly pro-Brexit seats. But in a general election, there would be nothing like the effect they managed to achieve in a bizarre one-off by-election in south-west London. Labour meanwhile would be under huge threat from UKIP in its northern heartlands and undoubtedly stands on the verge of a historic catastrophe.

So I can’t cheer Brexit. It’s still the most stupid political decision made in the UK in my lifetime. But beware. If there’s one thing worse than Brexit, it’s Brexit denied. I’m not sure our fragile democracy would be able to cope with the consequences.




Monday, 14 November 2016

The view from the 66th floor will take your breath away

So, a week on, what do we know?

According to some eternal optimists, we’re seeing the sensible side of Donald Trump now.

In the campaign he was boastful, brash and bigoted – showboating to the crowds. Now, supposedly, we see his adorable, modest and vulnerable face, in which he compromises on his extremist pledges and is guided by wise counsel.

I’m reminded of another larger-than-life New York character – Ernie, the piano player in Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.  With the spotlight on him and a mirror reflecting his face back to the crowd, he revels in showing off. But after the applause, he gives an implausibly humble bow.

As the narrator of the story, Holden Caulfield, remarks: ‘It was very phoney.’

Phoney is the perfect description of a man like Trump, who claims to live on the 66th floor of a 58-floor apartment building.

Who can tell exactly what the new President will do and what he won’t? He is capable of believing one thing on a Monday, reversing his opinion on a Tuesday and deciding on Wednesday that he had it right at the start of the week.

We cannot assume anything about him at all. He is unpredictable, irrational and self-obsessed, so anything is possible. Personally, I would prepare for the worst and not bank on any pleasant surprises turning up.

Some of the things he promised may come to pass. Some may not. I fear that the bad ideas – deportations of immigrants, a love-in with Putin – are the ones most likely to prevail. The other ones, such as restoring manufacturing jobs to the rust belt, are sadly a pipedream.

But with Trump, the issue isn’t so much what he promised prior to the election. It’s what he’ll say and do on a day-to-day basis when he’s in the Oval Office.

What will his response be to a terrorist attack? How will he approach a diplomatic or political crisis with China? Which minority group will he blame when the US economy threatens to tank?

Democracy is a curious system of government. It is, on the one hand, much more flexible and durable than many forms of authoritarian leadership or dictatorship. At the same time, however, it is more precarious.

Part of the glue that holds democracy together is the idea that those competing in elections accept the basic tenets of the democratic system. Trump indicated during the campaign that should he lose, he might challenge the result. This quite rightly provoked outrage from Democrats. But it also created a fascinating double bind.

Now, when Trump is elected – without a mandate in terms of popular vote – we are obliged to say he is legitimate. I don’t blame Obama and Clinton for trying to be gracious and telling us that we have to give the guy a chance. They had no alternative. But this, of course, is exactly the way in which democracy begins to unravel.

You don’t need to go back to the dark days of the 1930s to know what happens when you elect people who don’t accept democracy. Look at Russia under Trump’s bestie Vladimir Putin. There is a notional democratic process in Moscow, but not one which stands a moment’s scrutiny. Journalism is constantly under attack, opposition leaders are targeted and a cult of personality exists around the president.

If you want a sense of where Trump’s America will go, think of any country around the world which has the superficial trappings of democracy, but none of the substance. Places where parliaments rubber-stamp the edicts of strongmen and where opposition becomes more and more muted. Tinpot republics where one man is seem to embody the popular will and anyone who opposes him is assumed to oppose the people.

One thing is for certain. The only time in which democratic institutions will have the power to intervene and shape events is right now.  Congress needs to oppose Trump at every turn and assert its independence. But both the Senate and the House are now in the hands of the GOP. And the Republican lawmakers find, to their horror, that they owe something to Trump.

The very time they need to speak out will be the time they are least likely to. Why? Because the message will be that Trump was elected, that we need to give him a chance and rescue something of the mainstream Republican agenda. And, critically, some of this message will be backed initially by many senior Democrats who believe in the peaceful transition and the integrity of the office of President.

A new landscape starts to emerge or, as Americans would describe it, a new ‘normalcy’.  Trump is President and anyone who denounces his actions doesn’t understand how the world has changed. In the UK, we live in the post-Brexit world.  God forbid that you might cling to the old ways of thinking. Interested in the single market and free movement of labour? So 2015.

Perhaps the most dangerous thing about the new normal is that it is highly contagious. Trump built his campaign partly on the back of Brexit. He said that the little guy can shout and rage at the ‘establishment’ and the ‘elite’ by voting for him. This sends a message to fantasists and populists in other fragile democracies. It resonates in Austria, in Hungary, in Germany and perhaps most alarmingly in France.

Could Marine Le Pen really win the French presidency? Before 2016, every political bone in my body would have said no. The French system is locked down in a way which makes it virtually impossible for an extremist to triumph. She could win the first round, but would be defeated when socialists reluctantly endorsed Sarkozy or Juppe in a second-round run-off. 

Now, all bets are off.

What if Le Pen does much better in the first round than we fear even now? What if socialists, out of political purity, refuse to back her right-wing opponent in round two?  There are Bernie Sanders supporters online who openly say that Trump’s election is a good thing. In at least one state, the write-in vote for the socialist old-timer from Vermont was larger than the margin by which Hillary Clinton lost.

So the left is in a state of shock and looks around for explanations. They favour the ones that fit with their existing ideological standpoint. Sanders and Corbyn blame globalisation and the neglect of working-class communities. They believe erroneously that if they peddle many of the same fantasies as right-wing populists (return of manufacturing jobs, increased protectionism, retreat from global financial and political institutions), they will ride some kind of populist wave.

But of course, the appeal of the right-wingers to working-class communities is only one part of a much bigger story. There are plenty of middle-class people who voted for Trump and Brexit as well.  And the left has to grapple with a whole range of other issues too, which are far less comfortable.

Immigration and racism are involved. Sexism is involved. The FBI is involved. Russia is involved.  Guns and abortion and single-sex marriage are all involved.

Clinton might have won if the third-party candidates had withdrawn. She might have won if idiotic Bernie supporters had backed her rather than abstaining or writing his name on the ballot. She might have won if...

But as we know, she didn’t win.

Welcome to the world of the new normal.  Best viewed from the 66th floor of a 58-storey apartment block.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

When did the left forget that court judgments ARE political?

The world has generally gone fairly topsy-turvy over the past year or two. And now, in the latest bizarre twist, the UK’s left-leaning activists and liberal intellectuals have suddenly become the biggest cheerleaders for the British judiciary.

Yes, these paragons of the legal establishment – predominantly white, aged, privately educated, Oxbridge alumni – are now apparently the champions of the people who should be cheered from the rooftops.

Social media is awash with people defending the Brexit judges and despairing at anyone who doesn’t ‘understand’ their High Court judgment earlier in the week. How can we be so ignorant?  Aren’t British people familiar with their own constitution?

Of course, I found the various tabloid headlines lurid, objectionable and disturbing. The judges were merely doing their job and don’t deserve to be pilloried or exposed to abuse. I was even more disturbed by the rape and death threats received by Gina Miller, the figurehead of the group bringing the Article 50 case.  None of this should be happening and shows a complete debasement of our political life.

But I’m afraid there are a few home truths that we need address.

Brace yourself.

It may come as a shock, but I’m afraid there ain’t no such thing as the British constitution.  Not one which someone has bothered to write down anyway. (We share this rare distinction with a couple of countries in the Commonwealth and with Israel. But in most places around the world, from Argentina to Zaire, people have got their collective backsides into gear and actually set pen to paper.)

Of course, we claim to have a constitution which is ‘unwritten’ and when you talk to some lawyers and politicians about this, you almost feel they smugly believe this to be a superior arrangement. It means that what passes for our constitution is actually a series of conventions and precedents.

This kind of gentlemen’s agreement is great in the good times, but becomes rather exposed when the country is divided in two and you’ve decided to extract yourself from the world’s largest trading bloc.
 
Written constitutions are constantly debated and interpreted and amended around the world. And, believe it or not, unwritten ones are too. It’s just that we don’t have the luxury of those pesky written-down clauses. I would argue that the constitutional settlement in the UK is in constant flux – most notably in recent decades with the devolution of power to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London. It is permanent work in progress.

In this Brexit case, the High Court was effectively trying to decide on the respective power of the executive and the legislature in relation to the most significant political event of my lifetime. This is way too important an issue to be decided at this level, which is why the justices granted leave to appeal their decision directly to the Supreme Court, skipping the usual route of the Court of Appeal. (Gina Miller’s plea that the case should go no further is completely indefensible. It’s like saying we’d be happy to play the FA Cup Final at Fratton Park.)

When the Supreme Court does deliberate, it will bring together every member of the panel. This is unprecedented, but reflects the seriousness of what’s at stake.

Which brings me to my second and perhaps more controversial point. I suspect the Supreme Court will take a more political view of the issue. When I have made this point online, I have been decried as some kind of fool.  Judges interfering in politics? Impossible! Judges merely interpret the law.

What’s very odd is that 30 years ago, the political interference of the judiciary was a huge issue in liberal and left-wing circles. J A G Griffith’s Politics of the Judiciary was compulsory reading in Sixth Forms and universities. And some of you may remember Tony Benn’s five questions to ask of the powerful:

What power have you got?

Where did you get it from?

In whose interests do you exercise it?

To whom are you accountable?

And how can we get rid of you?

The left always believed that the judges came from a privileged and elite background and exercised power in the interests of the establishment. In the UK, it is clear the judiciary is not accountable to the public and cannot be removed by any democratic levers.

The 1980s produced a number of judgments which many liberals and left-wingers found objectionable. Some related to industrial disputes, although the most notorious was probably Lord Denning’s ruling against Ken Livingstone’s Fares Fair policy at the Greater London Council, subsequently upheld by the Law Lords.

The argument back then was not always about judges pursuing overt political agendas. It was a recognition that they are unelected and tend to come from very particular social backgrounds. This means that we should always be prepared to ask questions.

So although judges should never be denounced in vitriolic language as ‘enemies of the people’, any free society should allow people to question and criticise their judgments. And although no one should be thought less qualified to deliberate on a case because they are ‘an openly gay ex-Olympic fencer', it might be perfectly legitimate to consider their wider social, educational and career backgrounds when interpreting their decisions.

What’s interesting is that in the United States, there is an explicit acknowledgement that judges are political and will be asked to take political decisions. At lower levels, members of the judiciary will often be elected. And when it comes to the Supreme Court, each appointment is weighed in terms of political significance. As a vacancy becomes free, the incumbent President will nominate someone in his or her image, but the nominee is scrutinised at hearings by the Senate.

This, in my view, is a much healthier system than exists in the UK, where we ask judges to make political decisions but pretend that they don’t.

So, back to the Supreme Court next month.

You’d think with all the glib memes circulating, there was no need for qualified judges, as everything could be decided on Twitter. In actual fact, it’s a very complex case.

Yes, there is the issue of Parliamentary sovereignty and the lack of any explicit authority for the government to use its Royal Prerogative to invoke Article 50. But there is also the question of whether Article 50 is irrevocable or not. And behind that, there is a much bigger question: how far should the unelected judiciary intervene in this debate between the elected politicians representing the executive and the legislature?

And that’s the political conundrum.

If the Supreme Court upholds the decision of the High Court, it will be accused – however erroneously – of delaying or blocking Brexit, or giving licence to those who seek to do this. The referendum in June was not legally binding, but it was presented by both sides as a momentous decision rather than a straw poll. Any reasonable person, having listened to the debate, would believe they were making an important choice which was going to be enacted.

The Supreme Court might end up precipitating the collapse of the May government or the calling of a new general election.  I would personally be surprised if they felt the long-term credibility and impartiality of the judiciary was best served in this way.  So my hunch is that they might pull back from the brink. Politics, you see.