The United Kingdom: Divided, Scandalised and Lost

The Citizen

In2017, the United Kingdom continued to experience the trauma of the previous year’s referendum on the country’s membership of the European Union. The advisory referendum in 2016 had split the country almost evenly. A year on, divisions brought out into the open have started to work through. We are witnessing the economic and social aftershocks of the earthquake which the narrow victory for leaving the EU produced. A new battle for Brexit is on.

Divided UK

Schisms are around us to see. Between those who want the UK to remain integrated with the rest of Europe — and those with a fanatical determination to disengage from Europe in all but trade. Europhiles, on the one hand, are nervous about becoming too dependent on the United States as President Donald Trump reshapes America in his own vision. Fervent Eurosceptics, on the other, have no qualms about that prospect. Voices of reason are often drowned in the shrill and narrow nationalist rhetoric of a disorderly group claiming to have a majority, albeit small, behind them.

Often described as “Remoaners”, “traitors” and “enemies of the people” by Brexiteers and the right-wing press owned by media tycoons, onetime pro-EU Britons are becoming resigned to the inevitability of the country leaving the European Union. British businesses, anxious about the prospect of tariffs and long queues at border points, have been warning the government repeatedly. The UK currency has declined sharply since the 2016 referendum. Economic growth, too, is declining as migrant workers from Eastern Europe leave Britain in significant numbers.

Foreign companies such as Honda, Nissan, Toyota and BMW, banks and financial services, are making contingency plans to relocate before the United Kingdom leaves the EU on 29 March 2019 if no free trade agreement appears in sight by the exit date. But negotiations, which normally take years, are not expected to begin at least until the end of March 2018.

The British negotiating team has just completed the first phase of talks with the European Union. The aim was to finalise a deal on three major issues: the UK’s financial settlement when it leaves; the status of open border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, and the Irish Republic, an independent country within the EU; and protection of the rights of EU citizens in the UK as well as UK citizens in the 27 other EU countries.

David Davis.jpg

Brexit Secretary David Davis

No sooner than the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, announced the agreement paving the way for the second phase in which complex trade negotiations could start, the Brexit Secretary, David Davis, said that promises made by the UK in just concluded talks were “not legally binding” and they were “meaningless”. His remarks made the remaining EU 27 members furious, for it meant a lack of good faith to the EU and perhaps the rest of the world.

The boast of Brexiteers since the 2016 EU referendum that “we will have our cake and eat it” has caused anger throughout Europe. Too many in the British government, in Parliament and the populace remain oblivious to the unalterable geographical fact that the United Kingdom is surrounded by EU countries and these countries remain united in their approach to Brexit.

Sharp divisions afflict the United Kingdom. Prime Minister Theresa May’s full cabinet rarely has discussions on government policy or the final destination when the country leaves the EU. Ministers express their disagreements openly in the public. Individuals freely announce what looks like policy without consulting others in government, sometimes to be rebuked by the Prime Minister.

Her cabinet is dogged by allegations of sexual misconduct. The Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, was forced to resign for “falling short of acceptable standards”. The International Development Secretary, Priti Patel, resigned after holding a series of unauthorized meetings with Israeli officials during a private “holiday” visit. Most recently, a third minister, Damian Green, has also resigned after an official investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct found that he had breached the ministerial code.

Theresa May’s Conservative Party MPs are uneasy about the high degree of control exercised by a right-wing minority of Brexiteers and 10 MPs of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland sustaining her in power. In early December, a small number of Conservative MPs rebelled. They voted against a clause of the EU Withdrawal Bill that would have given ministers sweeping powers to change laws without parliamentary approval.

Despite every conceivable tactic to entice, cajole and pressure those threatening to oppose, the government was defeated. Since that vote, rebel MPs have received death threats which are a matter for police investigation. Parliament regained power to scrutinise the terms of any withdrawal agreement negotiated with the EU. The opposition Labour Party is purposely vague about what kind of relationship it wants with the European Union after exit for fear of losing votes among both supporters and opponents of EU membership at the next general election.

The Brexit referendum whipped up a lot of hostility against immigrants. Crime statistics show a marked increase in attacks against, and harassment of, ethnic minorities such as Muslims and people of East European backgrounds. Angry Brexit nationalists and white supremacists tell those who do not look English, or who speak a foreign language, are told to “go back to your country”.

Under-the-surface tensions have always existed in British society and erupt from time to time. Following the referendum, unrestrained chauvinism, including official threats to make the environment hostile for immigrants, are becoming accepted norms. As the political debate degenerates, courts and European human rights instruments are left to serve as the main bulwark against further descent.

Steve Bell Cartoon in the Guardian

A country in crisis due to political failures often tends to evoke the past and embark on a journey to imagined greatness once again. When those dreams are not realised, anger and frustration follow. As the United Kingdom approaches the New Year, the country is at that point. For a small country of 65 million, with about 150000 active military personnel in total, including a navy and an air force of some 30000 active personnel each, the Brexiteers’ vision of Britannia ruling the waves means having to carry heavy load indeed.

[END]

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Sex, Lies and Incompetence: Britain’s Ruling Establishment in Crisis

CounterPunch 

Photo: BBC

Barely five months after a general election in the United Kingdom, the government of Prime Minister Theresa May looks doomed. It could fall any day, next week or next month. Within her Conservative Party and elsewhere in the United Kingdom, in other European countries and beyond, speculation is rife that Theresa May’s days in office may be numbered. Scandals involving sex, lies and incompetence unfold day after day. The rot has set in at the heart of Britain’s power centre.

As the deadline for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union (March 29, 2019) approaches, rival factions in the government and the Conservative parliamentary party are engaged in fierce battles over what kind of Brexit they want. Once a Conservative Member of Parliament and now a distinguished commentator, Matthew Parris, says, “The sooner Theresa May goes, the better.”

Ministers operate like freelance diplomats and traders, not like members of a cabinet which has collective responsibility, without reference to the protocol and the Prime Minister’s Office. Claims of sexual misconduct by politicians of various parties, but more seriously by ministers, abound. Allegations of groping have ended the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon’s career, after his confession that at times his behaviour had fallen short. And the First Secretary of State (in effect deputy prime minister), Damian Green, has been accused by a much younger woman activist, Kate Maltby, of making sexual advances and sending “suggestive” text messages to her. These accounts are widely reported in the media.

Further, there are claims, backed by a former senior police officer, that pornography was discovered on Damian Green’s office computer some years ago. He denies the allegations, and the Prime Minister has ordered an investigation. But, unlike Michael Fallon, Damian Green remains in his post.

Sleaze at the heart of power goes back to the time when Theresa May’s predecessor, David Cameron, was in office. A well-known television producer, Daisy Goodwin, has alleged that she was groped by a staff member in the then Prime Minister David Cameron’s official residence. According to Goodwin, when she challenged the man who was much younger than her, he dropped his hand from her breast and laughed nervously. Ex-Prime Minister Cameron now says he is “alarmed, shocked and concerned.”

Photo: Canary.co

At the same time, it emerged that another minister, the International Development Secretary Priti Patel, went on “holiday” to Israel and held 12 meetings with Israeli officials, including the Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. First, Patel said that she had informed the Foreign Office about her visit. It turned out that she had not. She apologised and was let off the hook. Then, news leaked out that she had had more meetings with Israeli officials and had not declared them. That was too much. Priti Patel was summoned back to London from a visit to Africa and left the Cabinet soon after.

Leaks also revealed that Patel had visited the occupied (Syrian) Golan Heights. She inspected an Israeli army hospital where Syrian “refugees” and anti-Assad rebels are treated. And she was in talks about ways to divert British foreign aid to the Israeli army. The United Kingdom does not recognise Israeli control in occupied Arab territories. British ministers do not visit those areas. When they do they have to maintain a strict protocol and meet Palestinian as well as Israeli officials to give the appearance of balance. The International Development Secretary broke all the rules.

Theresa May’s minority government is beset by crises of its own making. Having supported the option to stay in the European Union in the 2016 EU referendum, she has become a fervent Leaver since becoming Prime Minister. And her calculations have gone badly wrong. She called a general election in June 2017, dead certain of winning a big majority in Parliament and thereafter doing what she liked in exiting the EU and shaping the country in her own post-Brexit vision. Instead, she lost her majority in Parliament. A number of sitting MPs of her party were defeated. She snatched defeat from the jaws of victory many in her party had anticipated.

Now, she barely governs as head of a Conservative minority government. She is sustained in office by 10 MPs of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party which has promised to support her in any motion of confidence. She has bought the DUP’s support with a billion pound additional funding for Northern Ireland. But the deal has raised serious questions over the British government’s impartiality in the peace process and power-sharing between the province’s Catholic and Protestant communities that ended decades of conflict in April 1998.

In her party, Theresa May’s position is made even more precarious by about 35 hard-line MPs who would not accept any compromise in forging a new relationship with the European Union. Since triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty in March 2017 to exit the European Union, she is under relentless pressure from these uncompromising anti-EU MPs to make no concessions to the other side. Whether it is about paying the exit fee to meet the UK’s commitments to current EU projects and pension liabilities etc., accepting the EU requirement of four freedoms (movement of goods, services, capital, people) in a future trade relationship or the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice for settling disputes between the UK and the EU.

A number of her MPs want the British government to simply walk away from the talks, arguing that it will be the EU that will come back to negotiate trade with the United Kingdom. Others want a soft Brexit and trading as open as possible thereafter. Still others insist that the UK must leave the EU in March 2019, and any transition arrangement must be as short as possible.

In a leaked secret letter setting out their terms of exit, the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, and the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, have written to the Prime Minister that after the UK ceases to be a member of the EU in March 2019, any transition period must end precisely on the last day of June 2021. Writing in the Guardian, the newspaper’s political columnist Rafael Behr called it ego-wrestling in the British cabinet. The Prime Minister can neither sack Boris Johnson nor Michael Gove, because by doing so she will risk bringing down her government.

The Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, has a history of making off-the-cough remarks, a bumbling style and public buffoonery. Currently, he is in serious trouble following his careless, and false, comments before a parliamentary select committee. Speaking about Iran and a British-Iranian dual citizen being held in jail on accusations of plotting to overthrow the Iranian government, the Foreign Secretary said that the woman was only teaching journalism there. Actually she had gone to see her elderly parents and was arrested by Revolutionary Guards as she was about to board a flight to return to Britain.

The Iranian authorities jumped on Johnson’s comments, claiming that his remarks proved that the woman was guilty, and are threatening to double her five-year jail sentence. In prison, Nazanin Zaghary-Radcliffe’s health is declining. Her daughter is being looked after by her parents while her British husband, Richard Radcliffe, battles to get them back home. For several days, Boris Johnson resisted calls to apologise for making a false statement which has caused a British family a lot of trouble. Finally, he did apologise, but the woman’s fate remains in the hands of the Iranian authorities.

So, the government of Theresa May stumbles from crisis to crisis as the United Kingdom approaches exit from the European Union, the biggest trading bloc which surrounds it.

When she succeeded David Cameron as Prime Minister in July 2016, many people had assumed that she would be a safe pair of hands. However, her actions, her dependence on a small number of advisers personally loyal to her and her inability to win the party’s and people’s confidence have proved otherwise. In the midst of scandals involving sex, lies and ineptitude at the highest level of her government, she now fights for her own political survival as Parliament scrutinises the EU Withdrawal Bill.

[END]

Sex, Lies and Incompetence: Britain’s Ruling Establishment in Crisis

CounterPunch 

Photo: BBC

Barely five months after a general election in the United Kingdom, the government of Prime Minister Theresa May looks doomed. It could fall any day, next week or next month. Within her Conservative Party and elsewhere in the United Kingdom, in other European countries and beyond, speculation is rife that Theresa May’s days in office may be numbered. Scandals involving sex, lies and incompetence unfold day after day. The rot has set in at the heart of Britain’s power centre.

As the deadline for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union (March 29, 2019) approaches, rival factions in the government and the Conservative parliamentary party are engaged in fierce battles over what kind of Brexit they want. Once a Conservative Member of Parliament and now a distinguished commentator, Matthew Parris, says, “The sooner Theresa May goes, the better.”

Ministers operate like freelance diplomats and traders, not like members of a cabinet which has collective responsibility, without reference to the protocol and the Prime Minister’s Office. Claims of sexual misconduct by politicians of various parties, but more seriously by ministers, abound. Allegations of groping have ended the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon’s career, after his confession that at times his behaviour had fallen short. And the First Secretary of State (in effect deputy prime minister), Damian Green, has been accused by a much younger woman activist, Kate Maltby, of making sexual advances and sending “suggestive” text messages to her. These accounts are widely reported in the media.

Further, there are claims, backed by a former senior police officer, that pornography was discovered on Damian Green’s office computer some years ago. He denies the allegations, and the Prime Minister has ordered an investigation. But, unlike Michael Fallon, Damian Green remains in his post.

Sleaze at the heart of power goes back to the time when Theresa May’s predecessor, David Cameron, was in office. A well-known television producer, Daisy Goodwin, has alleged that she was groped by a staff member in the then Prime Minister David Cameron’s official residence. According to Goodwin, when she challenged the man who was much younger than her, he dropped his hand from her breast and laughed nervously. Ex-Prime Minister Cameron now says he is “alarmed, shocked and concerned.”

Photo: Canary.co

At the same time, it emerged that another minister, the International Development Secretary Priti Patel, went on “holiday” to Israel and held 12 meetings with Israeli officials, including the Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. First, Patel said that she had informed the Foreign Office about her visit. It turned out that she had not. She apologised and was let off the hook. Then, news leaked out that she had had more meetings with Israeli officials and had not declared them. That was too much. Priti Patel was summoned back to London from a visit to Africa and left the Cabinet soon after.

Leaks also revealed that Patel had visited the occupied (Syrian) Golan Heights. She inspected an Israeli army hospital where Syrian “refugees” and anti-Assad rebels are treated. And she was in talks about ways to divert British foreign aid to the Israeli army. The United Kingdom does not recognise Israeli control in occupied Arab territories. British ministers do not visit those areas. When they do they have to maintain a strict protocol and meet Palestinian as well as Israeli officials to give the appearance of balance. The International Development Secretary broke all the rules.

Theresa May’s minority government is beset by crises of its own making. Having supported the option to stay in the European Union in the 2016 EU referendum, she has become a fervent Leaver since becoming Prime Minister. And her calculations have gone badly wrong. She called a general election in June 2017, dead certain of winning a big majority in Parliament and thereafter doing what she liked in exiting the EU and shaping the country in her own post-Brexit vision. Instead, she lost her majority in Parliament. A number of sitting MPs of her party were defeated. She snatched defeat from the jaws of victory many in her party had anticipated.

Now, she barely governs as head of a Conservative minority government. She is sustained in office by 10 MPs of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party which has promised to support her in any motion of confidence. She has bought the DUP’s support with a billion pound additional funding for Northern Ireland. But the deal has raised serious questions over the British government’s impartiality in the peace process and power-sharing between the province’s Catholic and Protestant communities that ended decades of conflict in April 1998.

In her party, Theresa May’s position is made even more precarious by about 35 hard-line MPs who would not accept any compromise in forging a new relationship with the European Union. Since triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty in March 2017 to exit the European Union, she is under relentless pressure from these uncompromising anti-EU MPs to make no concessions to the other side. Whether it is about paying the exit fee to meet the UK’s commitments to current EU projects and pension liabilities etc., accepting the EU requirement of four freedoms (movement of goods, services, capital, people) in a future trade relationship or the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice for settling disputes between the UK and the EU.

A number of her MPs want the British government to simply walk away from the talks, arguing that it will be the EU that will come back to negotiate trade with the United Kingdom. Others want a soft Brexit and trading as open as possible thereafter. Still others insist that the UK must leave the EU in March 2019, and any transition arrangement must be as short as possible.

In a leaked secret letter setting out their terms of exit, the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, and the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, have written to the Prime Minister that after the UK ceases to be a member of the EU in March 2019, any transition period must end precisely on the last day of June 2021. Writing in the Guardian, the newspaper’s political columnist Rafael Behr called it ego-wrestling in the British cabinet. The Prime Minister can neither sack Boris Johnson nor Michael Gove, because by doing so she will risk bringing down her government.

The Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, has a history of making off-the-cough remarks, a bumbling style and public buffoonery. Currently, he is in serious trouble following his careless, and false, comments before a parliamentary select committee. Speaking about Iran and a British-Iranian dual citizen being held in jail on accusations of plotting to overthrow the Iranian government, the Foreign Secretary said that the woman was only teaching journalism there. Actually she had gone to see her elderly parents and was arrested by Revolutionary Guards as she was about to board a flight to return to Britain.

The Iranian authorities jumped on Johnson’s comments, claiming that his remarks proved that the woman was guilty, and are threatening to double her five-year jail sentence. In prison, Nazanin Zaghary-Radcliffe’s health is declining. Her daughter is being looked after by her parents while her British husband, Richard Radcliffe, battles to get them back home. For several days, Boris Johnson resisted calls to apologise for making a false statement which has caused a British family a lot of trouble. Finally, he did apologise, but the woman’s fate remains in the hands of the Iranian authorities.

So, the government of Theresa May stumbles from crisis to crisis as the United Kingdom approaches exit from the European Union, the biggest trading bloc which surrounds it.

When she succeeded David Cameron as Prime Minister in July 2016, many people had assumed that she would be a safe pair of hands. However, her actions, her dependence on a small number of advisers personally loyal to her and her inability to win the party’s and people’s confidence have proved otherwise. In the midst of scandals involving sex, lies and ineptitude at the highest level of her government, she now fights for her own political survival as Parliament scrutinises the EU Withdrawal Bill.

[END]

Theresa May: Walking the Kingdom Down a Dark Alley

CounterPunch

Things are rocky on both sides of the Atlantic. In Washington, Donald Trump’s presidency, barely a month old, has made a chaotic start, and is getting sucked into ever deeper crisis. In London, Theresa May, prime minister of the United Kingdom which looks deeply split, is about to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Thus she will begin the process of Britain leaving the European Union and its associated institutions.

In the midst of rancor between an infant presidency and its detractors, the White House meeting of May and Trump, seen hand in hand, was an extraordinary and rare demonstration of mutual love only a week after trump’s inauguration. A month on, it seems a long time ago.

Let us remind ourselves about what has happened in the past month. Donald Trump came to Washington promising to “drain the swamp.” The exodus of officials from numerous federal departments and agencies that keep the United States government functioning has been dramatic. Instead, Trump has created his own little swamp, which he has found difficult to fill.

First, the National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, was forced out after revelations that he had held telephone conversations with the Russian ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak, while President Barack Obama was still in office and Flynn was in Trump’s transition team. That in one telephone conversation Flynn discussed the sanctions President Obama had imposed on the same day was bad enough. What sealed Flynn’s fate was that he then lied to Vice President Mike Pence, who then publicly defended Flynn saying that there had been no discussion with the Russian ambassador about the sanctions.

Flynn was also interviewed by the FBI soon after Trump’s inauguration, and had given a similar account to the agency. Following leak after leak, speculation has become relentless that over the past year other Trump associates have had constant and repeated dealings with the Russians. President Trump’s plan to appoint a friendly individual as intelligence supremo to investigate and identify sources responsible for leaks shows how much the working relationship between the White House and the intelligence services has broken down. The consequences of this breakdown for Britain’s formidable intelligence headquarters GCHQ could be serious in the light of the UK’s disengagement from the European Union.

Second, Andrew Puzder, billionaire CEO of a fast-food restaurant chain, withdrew his nomination as Trump’s Labor Secretary because of intense criticism of him in the Senate prior to his confirmation hearings. Third, Trump’s choice to refill the national security adviser’s post, Robert Harward, turned down the offer despite the president’s repeated efforts to persuade him. And then, David Petraeus, once a celebrated army general, dropped out of the race for Trump’s national security adviser.

Petraeus has been on probation after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge after revelations of an extramarital affair and mishandling of classified material with his lover. It is as clear as daylight that President Trump is beleaguered and faces struggle to establish his authority like few of his predecessors.

For Prime Minister Theresa May to fly to Washington within a week of Trump’s inauguration was both an act of political expediency and perilous haste. He was mercifully courteous before television cameras. She was anxious to say, again and again, that she was there to “renew the special relationship” between the United States and Britain. She boasted in front of cameras that she had secured President Trump’s full commitment to NATO in private talks. Right up to his election, Trump had described NATO as obsolete, and threatened to reduce Washington’s commitment to defending smaller, more vulnerable countries of the alliance if they did not spend more money on defense.

Trump remained silent on the matter while his guest went ahead to announce that the American president had given a firm commitment to NATO. Barely two weeks later, Trump’s Defense Secretary, James Mattis, taking Trump’s original line, said that unless other alliance members spent more, America would “moderate” its commitment to their defense. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s blunt response was that Germany would not accelerate its existing, long-term plan to gradually increase military spending despite America’s demand to do so by the end of 2017.

Vice President Mike Pence immediately picked up where Mattis had left, making clear that he was delivering Donald Trump’s message. Apparently referring to Germany, France and Italy, the American Vice President said, “Some of our largest allies do not have a credible path. The time has come to do more.”

So, we have turmoil in Washington; unprecedented tensions between the United States and NATO; and the European Union. Nonetheless, Britain’s Prime Minister looks determined to make a clean break from the European Union and all its institutions, and follow Trump’s America. It is a dangerous path.

Less than a year ago, Theresa May advocated Britain’s continued membership of the EU that gave the country access to the world’s largest market. Now, she is a passionate leader who will lead Britain out of the European Union and its economic, social, environmental and judicial instruments. She will accept estrangement from immediate European neighbors, but much greater reliance on a superpower governed by an isolationist, unpredictable president more than three thousand miles away across the Atlantic.

She will explore the “brave new world” more than half a century after Britain lost its empire, and ceased to rule the oceans. All with a small army and naval force smaller than those of the United States, Russia, China and Japan, and only slightly bigger than the French navy. Britain has nuclear weapons, but it cannot conceivably use them without America’s consent.

A country is never more vulnerable than when there is just one guarantor and not enough room for manoeuvre.

[END]

Austria Wakes Up and Rejects Far-Right Takeover

The Citizen

The June referendum in which Britain voted to leave the European Union, and Donald Trump’s victory in the November 2016 American presidential election, were massive right-wing political earthquakes.

Those who predicted aftershocks, this time in Austria’s presidential election and Italy’s constitutional referendum, thought that they were on safe ground in assuming that the right would triumph there, too.

Instead, the far right in Austria suffered a shock defeat. Independent candidate and former leader of the Green Party, Alexander Van der Bellen, beat the Freedom Party candidate, Norbert Hofer, by a margin of 53.3% – 46.7%. In May, Bellen had won by a tiny margin of 31000 votes, but the result was annulled by Austria’s highest Constitutional Court. Then, the judges found that although there was no fraud, thousands of absentee votes had been counted too early, influencing the main vote. And the court ordered that the election be held again.

In Italy, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had called a constitutional referendum to curtail the powers of devolved regional governments and reduce the size of the Senate, arguing that these measures would reduce bureaucracy. Renzi suffered a heavy defeat and resigned as he had said before the vote. The outcome, however, did not cause the shock to the Italian system that many had predicted.

Britain’s right-wing press had made much about a new crisis for the euro and the stock markets if Renzi lost the referendum. In the event, Italy and the EU took Renzi’s departure in their stride. The truth is that governments in post-war Italy come and go frequently. Prime Minister Renzi’s was the latest. Italy’s economic and industrial decline has been going on since the end of World War II, with no real growth over the last twenty years. What was new and unexpected this time? It was business as usual for Italy.

The United Kingdom sees developments in mainland Europe very differently from Europeans themselves. So deep is the hostility against the European Union and its leading members, Germany and France, that diehard opponents on Britain’s political left and right will go to any extent to try to prove that the EU project is collapsing.

There are two different realities in mainland Europe. The far right, fervidly opposed to the idea of the European Union, has been on the rise for a number of years. But now support for the EU is also rising in many member-states, particularly in the wake of the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom.

That the far right poses a serious challenge for established parties throughout Europe is not in doubt. Nonetheless, Britain’s vote to leave the EU, the anti-Europe rhetoric and the prevailing uncertainty, all appear to have generated a new consciousness across the continent. The European Union may have its faults. But many of those who have been working for its disintegration in the name of nationalism and sovereignty are far from serious politicians who have credible alternatives to offer.

Austria’s newly-elected president, Van de Bellen, fought on the slogan: “Those who love their country do not divide it.” The result of the re-run is evidence that the new post-Brexit reality, and the forethought of what might happen to Austria in the event of a far-right victory, evidently changed the hearts and minds of many voters.

Other worries also concentrated the minds of Austrians in the event Norbert Hofer won the presidency. The post is largely ceremonial, but what if Hofer exercised his constitutional right to appoint a prime minister, and that person was from the fringe? Austria has been a liberal democracy since the devastation in two world wars in the last century. The prospect of upheaval threatening the country’s stability and prosperity was not something Austrians wanted to contemplate again.

Continuing arrival in Europe of great many refugees escaping Middle East wars, in which the West has played its own part, have helped create favourable conditions for the far right. But to many Austrians, a far-right takeover is a frightening prospect for their country which, along with Germany, still grapples with its history of fascism and World War II.

That history reminds us of the rise and fall of a great empire and the destruction wrought by extremist politics. So the Austrian people drew back from that prospect and elected Van der Bellen, a mild-mannered academic, who expressed faith in the country’s liberal parliamentary democracy.

Will the tide now turn against right-wing extremist groups in other countries? France, Germany and the Netherlands are among European Union states due to have elections in 2017. In France, the current Socialist President Francois Hollande, facing a humiliating defeat, has announced that he would not stand for re-election next year. The contest to succeed Hollande will almost certainly be between Francois Fillon, ex-prime minister, who recently won the Republican presidential primary, and Marine Le Penn, leader of the far-right French National Front. Opinion polls suggest that Fillon will easily overcome the challenge from Marine Le Penn.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel is seeking a fourth term. Despite criticisms of her decision to allow hundreds of thousands of refugees, Merkel remains popular among Germans. And her role is central to the success of the European Union and Germany’s leadership role.

The year 2016 has certainly produced big surprises, and it would be reckless to make predictions about the coming year. The best which can be said at this point is that even though support for the political right is causing alarm among established parties, far right nationalism has probably reached a peak from where it is unlikely to climb up much further.

[END]

The Fall of David Cameron

History News Network

Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who dominated British politics in the 1960s, once said that a week is a long time in politics. The meaning of his famous remark is that political fortunes can change dramatically in a short time. Just one year after winning the May 2015 general election against the odds, Prime Minister David Cameron has suffered a spectacular fall. He is out of power and out of politics, having stood down as an MP with immediate effect on September 12, less than three months after he resigned as prime minister.

Cameron had been leader of the Conservative Party for ten years, and prime minister for six, all but one in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. When he appeared to be at the pinnacle of his career, having won a majority in the May 2015 general election, his luck ran out. Now, he is yesterday’s man. Much of Cameron’s legacy is being dismantled by his successor Theresa May. His record in office is under critical examination. His admirers are dwindling.

Two days after Cameron’s resignation as an MP, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee published a highly critical report. It held him “ultimately responsible” for the collapse of the Libyan state, and the rise of ISIS after the Anglo-French military campaign with American help in 2011.

Remember, then Prime Minister David Cameron and President Nicolas Sarkozy were leading champions of military action in Libya, citing the principle of “responsibility to protect” – a principle endorsed by the UN Security Council as a means of last resort to prevent war crimes and crimes against humanity. Amid determined public calls for a western-led campaign against the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, a reluctant President Obama gave in. The result was a NATO campaign which led to the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi. Obama regrets the bungled Libyan intervention now.

The parliamentary committee’s report said the government of Prime Minister Cameron neither had accurate intelligence nor a coherent strategy for Libya after Gaddafi’s removal. The result, according to the report, was political and economic collapse, tribal warfare, widespread human rights abuses and the rise of ISIS in North Africa, fuelled by weapons which the Libyan army abandoned.

The initial objective of the Libyan campaign was limited to protect the besieged civilian population in Benghazi, protesting against Gaddafi’s rule when the Arab Spring swept across the region. After that objective was secured within a short time, the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report concluded, the United Kingdom “drifted into a policy of regime change by military means.” It became “exclusively focused on military intervention.” The decision was taken in France; the United Kingdom simply followed.

Insofar as Britain’s recent military interventions abroad are concerned, there are parallels between David Cameron and Tony Blair, prime minister from 1997 to 2007. Blair was heavily criticised in the Chilcot Inquiry, published in July 2016, for acquiescing with President George W. Bush to invade Iraq in 2003. The parliamentary inquiry into Libya found that David Cameron went along with the decision-making in France, with calamitous results.

Tony Blair, with George W. Bush, must bear the ultimate responsibility for the collapse of the Iraqi state, the emergence of al-Qaida in Iraq and more recently ISIS. Likewise, the parliamentary inquiry, in its final analysis, held David Cameron responsible for the disintegration of Libya. The policy created conditions for the birth of ISIS in North Africa, and for massive waves of refugees arriving in Europe. UK actions in Libya were described as “ill-conceived” by the inquiry chairman Crispin Blunt, a member of Cameron’s own Conservative Party. Cameron himself refused to testify. He said he was too busy to appear.

But the reason for Cameron’s fall from power was not Libya. He was a tactical, rather than visionary, leader, not able to stand up to dissenters in his party. He failed to secure a majority in the 2010 general election, and had to form a coalition government with the Liberal Democratic Party. In 2015, he won by a small majority in parliament on a manifesto pledge to hold a referendum on whether the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union.

His pledge was meant to placate the anti-EU faction in his Conservative party, and to counter the UK Independence Party (UKIP) led by Nigel Farage, a vehemently anti-EU and anti-immigration politician. Cameron’s lurch to the right on issues such as immigration, and his attempts to secure concessions from the EU, were tactics to maintain control, win the referendum, and stay in the European Union. He was over-confidence that he was a winner, and would prevail in the referendum. It proved costly.

Cameron’s predecessors, Margaret Thatcher and John Major, had resisted calls for a referendum. In the 1980s, Thatcher’s frequent public arguments with the rest of the European Union over British contributions, and her assertions of national sovereignty, concealed divisions in the Conservative Party. Her successor John Major (1990-1997) often clashed with party rebels over EU membership, but would not contemplate another referendum. Major insisted that the membership issue was resolved in the 1973 vote. Cameron lost the gamble, because what was meant to be an electoral exercise about the EU became a vote on a wide range of policies under his prime ministership.

Now that Cameron has left the political scene, it is for Prime Minister Theresa May to manage the aftermath. But the recent history of the United Kingdom demonstrates that when a prime minister has dominated national politics for years, the tenure of their successor is difficult and short. James Callaghan (1976–1979) survived in office for three years before his defeat by Margaret Thatcher. John Major had a difficult time in office before his defeat in 1997 by Tony Blair’s Labour Party. And after Blair’s resignation, Prime Minister Gordon Brown managed to remain in office for three years before he was defeated in 2010.

The next general election in the United Kingdom is due in 2020. Whether Prime Minister Theresa May’s government can last until then is an open question.

[END]

Britain in the Doldrums After the Brexit Vote

CounterPunch

The recent referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union was a people’s revolt which unleashed a series of unintended consequences. The result was unexpected, and its aftershocks ended more than a handful of political careers. Prime Minister David Cameron, who had vigorously campaigned to remain in the EU, resigned the following day. The euphoria which the Leave campaign’s ‘victory’ generated did not last. Several leading figures of the winning side withdrew from the front line.

Nigel Farage, a vehement anti-EU and anti-immigration politician, stood down as leader of the right-wing populist UK Independence Party. Farage claimed that he had done his bit, and was going to spend time with his family. Boris Johnson, former mayor of London, whose last-minute decision to join and become co-leader of the Leave campaign, announced that he would not enter the race to succeed David Cameron as the Conservative Party leader and prime minister. George Osborne, chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister), who was seen as a future prime minister, also decided not to enter the leadership contest.

Amid the shock of Brexit, the party’s ‘big beasts’ Michael Gove and Liam Fox were eliminated from the leadership race in the first two rounds. The Home Secretary Theresa May, a quiet Remainer, found herself in a commanding position among Conservative members of parliament. Chris Grayling, another Leaver, made a tactical retreat without even entering the race. Andrea Leadsom, a junior minister, took a distant second place. Her lack of judgment and experience were soon obvious. Leadsom retired hurt after growing criticisms from party members and the press.

Leadsom’s withdrawal left Theresa May as the last candidate standing in the field. Thus she became the leader of the party and prime minister.

Two striking features emerged from May’s appointment of a new cabinet on taking office. The overwhelming majority of her ministers were in the Remain camp, as she herself was, before the vote. Nevertheless, she did bring some prominent figures of the Leave camp into her cabinet. She has given them departments with the responsibility to negotiate Britain’s exit from the European Union, and to find new trade deals to plug the big hole which leaving the EU will create.

The appointment of Boris Johnson, an outspoken politician who has a reputation for making undiplomatic remarks, as Britain’s foreign secretary has caused astonishment, ridicule and anger in Europe and the United States. Johnson has few friends, but many foes. The new Brexit Secretary, David Davis, was minister of state for Europe twenty years ago. Liam Fox has been given the department of international trade, and Andrea Leadsom environment, food and rural affairs – a department which has to deal with massive EU subsidies for farmers.

These four politicians were the main faces of the Leave campaign in the governing Conservative Party before the referendum. Now they are entrusted with the heavy responsibility of making Britain’s exit happen. For them, the time for sloganeering is over. Now they must deliver. The presence of some of the most vocal Leavers in a cabinet which has a safe majority of Remainers looks like a Machiavellian device to keep opponents in and, at the same time, contain them. If they fail, people will hold them responsible.

The United Kingdom leaving the EU would be a walk into the dark, for there is no precedence of a member-state walking out of the association. Once Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is triggered, the process would be extremely complex, tense and risky. The prime minister has announced that she will chair three new cabinet committees which will focus on the European Union and international trade, economy and industrial strategy, and social reform. The Brexiteers who found a place in the cabinet achieved high office, but with their wings clipped. Theresa May, to whom they should be grateful, will always be watching their every move.

This outcome shows that winners are often losers in the chaotic aftermath of a popular mutiny, for that is what the referendum was. Rebellion continues to simmer under the surface in the governing Conservative Party, which has a working majority of just 16 in parliament. There are about 20 hard-line MPs who will stop at nothing short of complete exit from the EU, and Theresa May has either sacked or not promoted around 25 Tory MPs, who are unhappy. The prime minister may be safe in the cabinet she has chosen now, but the prospects of revolt in the near future are high.

The origins of the people’s revolt in the EU referendum are worth exploring. A close examination of how different groups voted is revealing (see Politico). While 70 percent 18 to 24-year-old voters wanted the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union, there was a steady decline in support for the EU among older age groups. Among those aged 65 years or more, 61 percent voted to Leave. Britain’s aging population has been on the rise for years. Older people with lingering memories of World War II look negatively at the EU, in which Germany is the most powerful member-state.

Support for remaining in the EU among voters with a university degree was 71 percent. It declined with lower education to the extent that almost two-thirds of voters with a high school diploma chose to Leave. Across the political spectrum, the more right-wing voters were, the stronger their opposition to Britain’s membership of the EU and free movement of people. So Labour and Liberal-Democrat voters backed the idea to remain in large numbers while backing for leaving among Conservative and UK Independence Party supporters was very high. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain. England and Wales went against. The referendum has divided families, with young and ambitious graduates wanting to travel on one side. Their parents and grandparents on the other.

Most worrying is the divide between rich and poor in England and Wales. Communities devastated by the demise of the coal and steel industries since the 1980s have still not recovered. Young, able and ambitious have moved to other parts of the country, indeed to other European countries. Left behind are the old, the less educated and the poorly skilled whose wages are easily undercut by new arrivals from other EU countries. Years of hardship, isolation and hopelessness have made them bitter and resentful. A great many of them saw in the referendum their only opportunity to punish the rich and the powerful, who had failed them. To vote Leave was their only weapon.

The United Kingdom has not seen such deep polarization in living memory. The pound has crashed. Confidence in the economy has suffered a sharp decline. Prime Minister Theresa May has said that she will not trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, and start the exit process this year. For the country faces major challenges – to negotiate the exit from the EU; at the same time to maintain as much access to the European single market as possible; to negotiate dozens of new trade deals with countries around the world. These are monumental challenges. It is doubtful whether the United Kingdom has the ability to meet them without having to pay the price.

 [END]