Oh What A Lovely War!

The people have spoken, the bastards – Dick Tuck.  

Democracy is often a messy old business, which is why politicians tend to dislike it so much…it gives too much opportunity for the “wrong” answer. Last night we had a rare glimpse of a “wrong” answer being given, when Parliament defeated the government on military action against Syria, reflecting the British public’s general attitude to intervention in Syria. As Richard North notes, MPs still in their constituencies, closer to members of the public than normal, were left in no doubt at the prevailing mood.

Much has also been made about the shadow of Iraq which hangs over the debate, and it’s worth remembering this from Robin Cook’s resignation speech in 2003 which still resonances today ten years on:

The longer that I have served in this place, the greater the respect I have for the good sense and collective wisdom of the British people.

On Iraq, I believe that the prevailing mood of the British people is sound. They do not doubt that Saddam is a brutal dictator, but they are not persuaded that he is a clear and present danger to Britain.

They want inspections to be given a chance, and they suspect that they are being pushed too quickly into conflict by a US Administration with an agenda of its own.

Above all, they are uneasy at Britain going out on a limb on a military adventure without a broader international coalition and against the hostility of many of our traditional allies.

It’s clear and not for the first time that Cameron has significantly misjudged the mood. We’ve had plenty of evidence before about Cameron’s lack of judgement, yet the scale of how he has made a colossal arse of himself this time is quite something. But depressingly it’s been on a subject of utter most importance – the decision on whether to send our country to war – to involve ourselves in a civil war of mind-boggling complexity.

Many see this as a return to the parliamentary democracy that it should be – the legislature keeping the executive in check on behalf of the nation. Douglas Carswell writes in over-excited terms:

Be happy! Parliament works. The House of Commons has made it clear that it will not support UK military action in Syria. And so there will not be UK action in Syria.

For the first time in my adult life, government is being controlled by Parliament, rather than the other way round.

Of course blogs and newpapers [sic] will be full of comment and analysis about what this means for Syria, and David Cameron, and our relations with America. But let us not overlook what this says about our relationship with ourselves – and how we run Britain.

Despite Carswell’s optimistic words we should not kid ourselves. Last night was an exception to the rule; an action that firmly resided in the column marked ‘broken watches are still right twice a day’. Normal default setting of ignoring one’s constituents will certainly resume shortly.

We had some indication of that last night. The British public had made their opposition clear by a margin of over 2:1, yet Parliament defeated the motion by only 13 votes. The government was still able to secure 272 votes for the principle of military intervention – intervention which lacked proof, evidence and was based on a “probability” judgement, hardly a high enough bar to commit British troops to war. Thus while Parliament represented the people by defeating the motion, it did not do so in terms of the scale of public opposition.

Despite the gravity of the situation – a Prime Minster making a case for war – that same gravity was not always reflected in the House of Commons particularly among the leaders of both parties.

Cameron could not in his arguments give compelling reasons why Britain should intervene. Instead of comprehensive details regarding military objectives, military consequences, broader consequences in the region there was instead a statement of belief that we just ought to – topped off with a dash of “think of the children” (Though I cannot confirm whether he was referring to children in Syria or those who surrounded him on the green benches):

The video footage illustrates some of the most sickening human suffering imaginable. Expert video analysis can find no way that this wide array of footage could have been fabricated, particularly the behaviour of small children in those shocking videos.

There are pictures of bodies with symptoms consistent with that of nerve agent exposure, including muscle spasms and foaming at the nose and mouth. I believe that anyone in this Chamber who has not seen these videos should force themselves to watch them. One can never forget the sight of children’s bodies stored in ice, and young men and women gasping for air and suffering the most agonising deaths—all inflicted by weapons that have been outlawed for nearly a century.

This argument is rather offensive. Not only is it an acknowledgment of the lack of detail in the argument thus requiring the need instead to appeal to emotions, but also a less than veiled implication that those who oppose a strike on Syria are in someway not upset by the death of children in war.

And nor does Ed Miliband come out of this smelling of roses. His actions ultimately defeated the government, but he deserves no credit for doing so. Did Miliband support the war or not? Well we simply don’t know. Miliband kept moving the goalposts and playing politics, requesting as he did copious demands from Cameron with assurances of Labour’s support. These demands were met, only then for Miliband to vote against the government anyway. No doubt though he will take the credit – projecting himself as someone with principles – at the Labour party conference in the autumn.

And Nick Clegg? Well he’s Nick Clegg.

Then when the result was announced, much cheering and gloating from the Labour benches (25 seconds in) amid calls of “resign” from those same benches and anger from the Tory benches of “you’re a disgrace“. One could almost forget we were talking about this:

Thus Parliament exerting its will was more an undignified accident than a confirmation that the system works. Then as a consequence of Parliament has a say (god-forbid) we get not a few chucking their toys out of the pram.

Toby Young:

Britain has become a nation of crisp-eating surrender monkeys. Gone is the special relationship that meant Britain and America could always count on each other to commit blood and treasure to defending the principles of liberal democracy.

Strange how despite references to democracy one clear example in action has been derided.

Dan Hodges has left the Labour party as a consquence:

for what it’s worth [my view] is it was a catastrophe for the cause of progressive interventionism

Paddy Ashdown:

Lord Ashdown also wrote to his 8,300 followers: “We are a hugely diminished country this am. MPs cheered last night. Assad, Putin this morning. Farage too as we plunge towards isolationism.”

He told the BBC: “Maybe I am just an old war horse from the past but I think it has a profound implication for our country. I think it diminishes our country hugely.

Progressive interventionism? Isolationism? And there was me assuming that on hearing Cameron we were supposed to think of the [Syrian] children, but no it was really all about Britain’s position in the world. Silly me.

Another Fine Mess…

 

Witterings from Witney makes an excellent point about the lack of mandate for Cameron to intervene in Syria. More than most – for obvious reasons – he’s acutely aware of Cameron’s lack of mandate or accountability to constituents.

It’s a wonder that Hague can keep a straight face when talking about “democratic nations”, given that the coalition government wasn’t elected, that Cameron is Prime Minster but only received support from less than half of his own constituents – no-one else voted for him – and that he is using the Royal prerogative to go to war. A mechanism which allows a Prime Minister to act like an unaccountable monarch.

Unsurprising then that Cameron has the freedom to display such arrogance and contempt to the lessons of history, to evidence (or lack of), to his party, to Parliament and to the British people; a level of contempt which really does beggar belief. It’s obvious that Cameron had privately promised Barack Obama that Britain would stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the United States – to intervene in a hugely complex conflict with unknowable, but undoubtedly grave consquences, to stand firm with a President who clearly doesn’t like us nor respects our military interventions. And he did so without first bothering to consult the British people.

So how refreshing is it to see a rare outbreak of democracy (sort of)? Despite assurances to the Americans, Cameron was then to be told “no you can’t” by Parliament and the British people, the latter’s views laced with outright hostility to the idea. A situation that has left the embarrassed Cameron, and British officials, having to inform…

…their counterparts in the US last night to explain that President Obama would have to go it alone or wait to see if Mr Cameron can persuade MPs to back him in the coming days. It could leave President Obama to go it alone and order an attack as early as this weekend.

It’s rather uplifting to see that the only mess Cameron has embroiled himself in is a political one entirely of his own making. One that has led to “government insiders” using less than Parliamentary language to describe the situation.

Yet despite this rare outbreak of democracy (let’s hope it’s contagious) fundamental problems remain and are exposed. It is possible that the UK will still become involved; Cameron is not bound by Parliament, he can still invoke the Royal prerogative. MPs also can ignore their constutients as wonderfully illustrated by Tom Harris in the Telegraph:

Strike on Syria: the enviable, alarming certainty of the MPs whose minds are made up. I’m not yet sure how I will vote tomorrow. That is allowed, isn’t it? 

Well actually no it shouldn’t be. As an MP you should be guided by your constituents wishes not by how many books you’ve read. What’s obviously most important to Tom is that his personal conscience is clear, not that the rest of us end up with the bill and any potential fallout as a result.

Without Consent

From the Telegraph (my emphasis):
Royal Navy vessels are being readied to take part in a possible series of cruise missile strikes, alongside the United States, as military commanders finalise a list of potential targets.

Government sources said talks between the Prime Minister and international leaders, including Barack Obama, would continue, but that any military action that was agreed could begin within the next week.

The possibility of such intervention will provoke demands for Parliament to be recalled this week. 

In 2006:

Conservative leader David Cameron has called for curbs on prime ministers’ power to declare war or agree treaties without the approval of MPs.

Mr Cameron wants his party’s democracy task force, headed by ex-Chancellor Ken Clarke, to examine the way ministers use the Royal Prerogatives. He wants more key decisions to be down to MPs, rather than the prime minister.

No more needs to be said.

Article 50: No Sudden Movements

No country is an island (with apologies to John Donne). 

Geographically the UK is very obviously an island with all the benefits that brings, although not quite as comprehensively as is often imagined. However in many other senses such as economically, militarily and politically the UK is anything but.

The UK occupies a remarkably unique position in global affairs. It is the only state which is a member of the G8, G20, the EU, NATO, the Commonwealth, the Council of Europe and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. In addition the UK is a nuclear power and, despite current difficulties, has one of the largest economies in the world. We may no longer be an imperial power, but “punching above our weight” sometimes seems to be an understatement.

Thus it is clear that a country the size and importance of the UK leaving the EU is going to have very significant political and economic ramifications which will reverberate around the world. Greenland leaving the then EEC in 1985 is one thing, the UK leaving the EU now is an entirely different matter altogether. Just the effects on the EU alone would be profound, not least in reversing partly the political momentum for ever closer union and thus showing a different path for other member states. Other countries such as Ireland and Denmark may follow us out. We would be creating a precedent.

So while some arguments ensure over legal details such as whether “the Commission can do what they like in the two year process under Article 50” – it can’t as I noted here, here and here – there are significant consequences that transcend the dry legalities of leaving.

One thing stock markets dislike intensely is uncertainty which is why market sensitive data is often released over a weekend when they are closed; thus any unilateral exit by the UK especially with no plan and no warning would clearly send the FTSE, the Dow Jones, the Nikkei et al smashing through the floor on a plummet trajectory.  Tearing up international agreements on an ad hoc basis is likely to lead to stock market crashes and history tells us where stock markets crashes end up.

We’ve had plenty of evidence on the sensitivities of the market during the Eurozone crisis, for example when, to the complete surprise of virtually everybody, including his own parliamentarians, Greek prime minister George Papandreou called a referendum to approve a EU bailout deal in November 2011:

Global stock markets dropped sharply as investors sold off shares after Greece’s shock decision to hold a referendum on its eurozone bail-out package thratened to intensify the region’s debt crisis.

London’s FTSE 100 index of leading shares dropped more that 2pc, with markets in Germany falling, France, Spain and Italy sliding between 2.7pc and 4pc.

And not just the stock markets, the bond markets have also played an important part of the eurozone crisis. More so as bond markets generally have large power over countries again typified by the fate of Eurozone countries such as Spain, Italy and Portugal.

So we come to Chancellor George Osborne whose entire strategy is effectively betting on being able to borrow on the bond markets at rock bottom rates. Osborne’s recovery plan is based on the hope that rates will stay pinned to the floor, and given that we’re borrowing £3,000 a second he (and we) can’t afford for borrowing costs to overshoot, which they most certainty will do in the event of uncertainty regarding sudden exit from the EU. Escalating borrowing rates as a result are very likely to make Greece’s situation look like a picnic in comparison..

And not just the bond market, there’s also the sterling and the forex market, any movement on EU membership by the UK will have dramatic impact on the value of GBP, with economic consequences for us all.

So to leave without an orderly exit in place, in times of a fragile world economy, will have adverse economic consequences also for other countries to the ultimate and obvious detriment of our own. Any immediate destabilisation of EU membership by any member state would impact on the Eurozone undoubtedly dramatically ensuring it enters yet another crisis furthering affecting the UK economy.

Thus we have an international duty, in our own self interest if nothing else, to make sure our exit has to be as smooth and as structured as possible, and that can only be achieved by showing the international community we honour international agreements and are willing to follow due process. Undoubtedly an extensive period of foreshadowing our intentions beforehand is likely to be necessary to allow politicians across the world, the economy and the markets to price the change in.

Purely taking an English stance by seeking comfort in quotes from the Magna Carta and other Constitutional Acts which apparently bind their Parliamentary successors and hoping for the best without consideration of the UK’s position in the world simply will not wash…

A State Secret

One of the peculiarities of UKIP is though its raison d’etre is EU exit, one notable void in party policy is precisely on how that would be achieved. Despite 20 years in existence and 6 years since the Lisbon Treaty was signed – thus changing the method of exit – no such policy exists on UKIP’s website or indeed anywhere else.

In light of this Autonomous Mind tries to tease out any details via a UKIP candidate but with little success. Roger ‘Tallbloke’ Tattersall claims he knows what UKIP’s policy is, apparently via an email with head of UKIP’s policy unit Tim Aker, but he cannot reveal those contents.

With this in mind I emailed Tim Aker myself today via his website here. To his credit he replied within 10 minutes and he outlined UKIP’s current position. It articulates one possible route but its vagueness gives UKIP enough wriggle room to consider another option or to continuously avoid the question altogether. I hoped to post the contents of the mail here and requested if I could do so, but Tim asked for me to keep the “correspondence between us for the time being”. It is a request I will reluctantly adhere to.

Let’s be clear I haven’t requested membership details nor anything else sensitive, just UKIP’s policy on exit. And for now that remains a state secret. What an odd situation to be in.

The Most Damaging Clause In The Lisbon Treaty

 

It seems to me that there is an implied and odd kind of consensus, between those who advocate EU membership and those who don’t, that any EU exit will be a final chapter. For many who support membership, such an action would be a “disaster” from which there is apparently no return. Conversely some if not many who oppose membership understandably see exit as a cause of celebration and a job well done – a historical correction finally completed.

What is not in doubt is that any referendum campaign to exit will be difficult, rigged and unfair. What also is not in any doubt is exit, as consequence of an “out” vote, will be difficult, long and protracted. A simple act of parliament cannot magically make the Japanese Knotweed-like-tendencies of the EU  – that has acted like an invasive species – disappear over night.

Yet while there would be much to applaud regarding an EU exit, 40 years of very hard work and money could be undone within a space of just a couple of months. The reason? Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty – the accession clause:

Any European State which respects the values referred to in Article 2 and is committed to promoting them may apply to become a member of the Union. The European Parliament and national Parliaments shall be notified of this application. The applicant State shall address its application to the Council, which shall act unanimously after consulting the Commission and after receiving the assent of the European Parliament, which shall act by an absolute majority of its component members.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument Cameron, having won the General Election in 2015, has his EU referendum in 2017 and the “outers” win against all the odds. All well and good, Cameron is then forced to begin negotiations to leave via Article 50.

However…no Parliament may bind its successor. So, despite the expressed will of the people in a referendum, there’s nothing preventing a future government from invoking Article 49 and applying to rejoin. And as history acutely informs us no popular mandate is needed in order to do so. We would be no further forward from 1972 and would have to start all over again.

It’s for this reason that I believe the importance of Harrogate’s 6 demands is not to get us out but instead to prevent us from ever re-entering such a project again. That should be its successful legacy. EU exit for the UK in my view will probably be dictated by other factors beyond Harrogate.

In some ways membership of the EU may have done us a favour, highlighting dramatically the failings in our own system of governance albeit such a revelation has come with a very very heavy price tag.

By dramatically reforming the way we are governed we can ensure we are better governed than we have ever been before in our history. And ultimately we can prevent the fundamental failings that Tony Benn highlighted during the Maastricht Treaty debate: “no [MP] has the legal or moral authority to hand over powers borrowed from the electors to people who would no longer be accountable to them”.

But they did, and will do so again without changes. Exit from the EU is not merely enough.

Another One Down

Over the weekend I discovered that yet another pub near me has closed (pictured above), and is currently being converted into a house. Nothing special in that given the current climate, but this pub has personal resonance for me not least because it was where my best man took me to have a couple of liquid refreshments before the wedding ceremony itself.

It also means the village in question has now lost its only pub, joining the ever growing list of dry villages.

No flowers.