Category Archives: Politics

The day after: Tory MPs look at the cliff-edge

At the edge of a cliffThere is one thing which I think is true of most MPs across party lines: they do, by and large, care about their constituents.

They do so as a matter of practical politics: even a constituent who is not eligible to vote in a Westminster Parliamentary election can influence the vote in one direction or another (“oh yes so-and-so, well, he’s Wrong Party but he’s a nice chap: my neighbours were in trouble, no fault of their own, and he was really helpful”)

But to be fair: MPs are human*, and even the poshest and most privileged MP, come face-to-face with human tragedy, as they may be required to do with their constituents, is likely to have some kind of human feeling towards them.
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Brexit: we’re closer to the cliff-edge

Dangerous Cliff EdgeToday the House of Commons had a debate and a vote on whether the House of Commons should be able to have a meaningful vote on the final Brexit deal, or lack of one. The House of Lords proposed and won an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill that said there should be a meaningful vote: Dominic Grieve, Conservative MP for Beaconsfield and Attorney General for England & Wales from May 2010 to July 2014, proposed an amendment to support this for a debate in the House of Commons.

Grieve’s amendment lost 303 votes to 319, so the only vote Theresa May will permit on her Brexit deal (or lack of it) is on a neutral statement: a neutral statement cannot be amended, it only records that the House of Commons “took note”. In the end Grieve himself walked through the lobby to vote with the Government, against his own amendment, because (he said) “he woke up in the small hours worrying that his actions would cause the the government’s collapse“.

This could very easily have been true. As Dominic Grieve is well aware, Theresa May’s government (and the Brexit negotiations) are inherently unstable.
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How do they rise up, rise up, rise up?

Abortion Rights ScotlandScotland is a pro-choice country.

About four-fifths of the population of Scotland would agree – this crosses gender-lines, voting-intention, religious belief, class/wealth, or locale – that abortion in Scotland should remain freely available on the NHS.

Only a minority think that pregnant patients who need access to abortion should have that access decreased. That minority can be loud and can be unkind – the ones who think it’s a good idea picketing clinics to hand anti-abortion leaflets to patients are particularly cruel – but they are, everywhere, only a minority.

Abortion Act 1967 - Happy 51st BirthdayOn 28th April this year in Edinburgh we held our annual celebration of the day the 1967 Abortion Act became law. (On the other side of the road are the sad people who think abortion in the UK should have remained illegal and dangerous.)

We asked people who stopped by our stall to have cake and sign our open letter:

“We stand with the people of Ireland who will be voting to repeal the Eighth Amendment on 25th May 2018: for healthcare in pregnancy to be freely and fully available for all patients. Abortion denial is lethal.”

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Free speech and abusive behaviour

Marie Stopes anti-choice protestersThis week, Ealing Council made a landmark legal and political decision: patients entering or leaving the Marie Stopes clinic would be protected from harassment by the creation of a buffer zone, a Public Spaces Protection Order, ensuring that no anti-abortion protesters can set up their signs, hand out their leaflets, or otherwise harass patients seeking treatment.
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Ireland and Brexit, four ways forward

In December last year, I started writing a post on Ireland and Brexit, which I never published because it seemed to have been overtaken by events: on 8th December, just barely in time for the EU mid-December summit, Theresa May agreed to preserve the Good Friday Agreement and the transparent border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. She had no choice: Donald Tusk had made clear in early December that EU-27 would be standing together and would collectively support the Irish government’s defence of Irish interests in preserving peace and a transparent border.

On 28th February, the EU Commissioners produced a draft agreement based on the outline Theresa May had agreed to in December. The UK did not produce its own draft agreement. Theresa May simply rejected it, claiming that no UK Prime Minister could possibly agree to the deal she had in fact agreed to in December.

But: if there’s going to be a deal for the UK at all before Brexit, it has to be set down in a form 27 EU governments can vote on and agree to, by 30th September this year. And that’s cutting it very, very fine and assuming that the agreement is something all 27 EU countries can vote Yes to.

And yesterday, Donald Tusk reaffirmed the EU position: the UK must provide a solution which includes a transparent border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, or EU talks will not continue.

As I see it, the UK government has four choices ahead of it:
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Ireland and Brexit

EU's chief Brexit negotiator Barnier and Britain's Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union Davis attend a meeting in BrusselsThe UK’s Brexit negotiation team has been so fecklessly incompetent that their EU-27 counterparts thought this was a pretence and must be a trap.

The July photograph of the British team (on the right) sitting at the negotiation table without any briefing papers in front of them, while the EU team (on the left) all have a stack of paperwork, looks emblematic of the UK government’s lack of preparation. (According to British diplomats, David Davis’s papers were still in his bag at the time the photo was taken.)

The recent confirmation that the UK government will be paying the EU fifty billion or so, pretty much what the EU initially said the UK would have to pay to finalise the UK’s liabilities before Brexit, had Brexiteers Iain Duncan Smith and Nigel Farage squealing loudly that this was too much, that Theresa May and David Davis should have taken a harder line and refused to pay anything.

But with regard to the fifty billion bill, the only difference between a competent team of Brexit negotiators and the current crowd, is that a competent team would have realised last year that the UK had no choice about discharging our liabilities to the EU if the Brexit date was set before the end of the 2014-2020 budget period: would have taken that into consideration when deciding just when to invoke Article 50: and would have come to the table in Brussels prepared to dicker over exact amounts, not wasting time arguing that nothing at all should be paid. As far as we can tell, Theresa May and David Davis did none of these things.

Of course, a competent Prime Minister with a solid if small majority, wouldn’t have called a General Election after invoking Article 50, thus wasting three months of negotiation time – and losing her majority to be dependent on the DUP.

As a reminder: after June 2017, the Tories have 315 seats and are the largest single party: because Sinn Féin (7 seats) don’t sit in the Commons, and the Speaker doesn’t vote, an effective majority for the government is 322 and a formal majority is 325: the DUP have 10 seats. If all MPs of all other parties vote together, they muster 311 votes. So the DUP, the unionist and Brexiteer party in Northern Ireland, literally hold the balance of power in Parliament.

The issue about paying the EU billions to discharge the UK’s budget liabilities wasn’t even worth arguing about: the UK’s only leverage was to refuse to pay it and suffer hard Brexit, which would be catastrophic for the UK but only moderately damaging for EU-27.

Hugh Orde, former Chief Constable of Northern Ireland, on the Irish Border and BrexitThough some news reports described the problem of the Irish border as “unexpected”, the Irish border and the end of the Good Friday Agreement, was always going to be hugely difficult, and with the DUP in a confidence-and-supply arrangement to prop up the Tories, has probably become unresolvable by the current government.

I had initially here written a few hundred words summarising the history of Ireland in relationship to Britain, but Waterford Whispers points out that the UK public would most likely only believe it if it was written on the side of a bus. That’s probably true.

So, while it’s tempting to outline how the government of Confederate Ireland (1642-1649) was bloodily smashed by Oliver Cromwell and estates owned by Irish Catholics were then confiscated and redistributed to Protestant incomers, how the Penal Laws, enacted by the Protestant-dominated Parliament of Ireland that resulted from the land confiscations, ensured that Irish Catholics should become poor, be uneducated, banned from public office, and denied the right to serve in the army (a potential career path for even the poorest/most uneducated of men), and how “Irish jokes” which portray Irish people as stupid and ignorant, arise from the need of the English and the Irish Protestants to believe that it was okay to keep Irish Catholics poor and uneducated because they were naturally stupid: how after the Parliaments of Ireland and Britain were merged in 1801, while people in Ireland were starving during the Great Famine (1845-1852) in Westminster MPs debated on whether it would be right to provide food to the starving. But that would make this a very long blog post.

Even dealing with the 20th century only, there is the rebellion put down in 1916, two wars immediately after WWI ended and Sinn Féin won the general election in Ireland by a landslide and proclaimed the Irish Declaration of Independence in January 1919: the treaty accepted by the majority of the Dáil for the Partition of Ireland: and the formation of the Irish Free State, later the Republic of Ireland, and the separation of the six counties of Northern Ireland, which in 1922 and thereafter is part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Although the Troubles are dated in British history as beginning 5th October 1968, the cause was systematic gerrymandering for decades to ensure that Catholics in Northern Ireland were cooped ip in slums so that in local authority areas where Catholics were numerically in the majority, Protestants had a majority on the local government councils.

Thank you for your attention: let us move on to the present day.
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Capital City of Culture 2023

Glasgow 1990 - Cultural Capital of EuropeIn 1990, I remember posters that appeared on Edinburgh billboards. The posters announced that the Cultural Capital of Europe was to be found forty miles THAT way – arrow pointing to Glasgow.

Edinburgh and Glasgow have long had that kind of feud: Edinburgh, capital city of Scotland, city of the International Festival and the Fringe, the city that named its main train station after a series of novels by Walter Scott, the city that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which hosts the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery and the National Library of Scotland, the city that was known as the Athens of the North: but in 1990, Glasgow was the capital of culture in Europe, and Glasgow had no intention of letting that be overlooked in Edinburgh.
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