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.

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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.

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The Dangerous Political Game That Killed Jo Cox

The Citizen

LONDON: The assassination of Jo Cox, a 41-year-old Labour MP, during a fierce political campaign ahead of the 23rd June referendum to decide whether Britain remains in the European Union, or leaves, has shocked many people. Her assassination is not only a personal tragedy for her family. It has wider significance, for British society has become deeply polarised in the current debate over immigration and its social and economic consequences.

A 52-year-old man, Thomas Mair, has been arrested and charged with the murder of the MP. When Mair was produced before a judge in London, and asked to confirm his name, he replied: “My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain.” Mair had repeatedly shot Jo Cox, and plunged a knife several times into her body as she lay dying outside a village library, where she had gone to meet her constituents.

According to the prosecution’s summary, as Mair attacked he shouted a variation of “Britain First”, “Keep Britain independent” and “Britain always comes first”. As he was arrested, Mair told police officers that he was a “political activist”.

A 77-year-old man tried to intervene, but was also attacked and seriously wounded. Britain First is an extremist right-wing group. The name chimes with the “America First” slogan of Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee in the US presidential election.

In a video released after the assassination, Britain First swiftly denied that the attacker had any links with the group. Other details emerging since Thomas Mair’s arrest tell a different story. There is evidence that he had purchased manuals on guns and explosives from National Alliance, an American neo-Nazi group which advocates an all-white nation.

Receipts going back many years show that Mair bought Ich Kampfe (I Fight!), an illustrated handbook issued to members of Germany’s Nazi Party in the early 1940s; and he had been a subscriber to a white supremacist magazine S. A. Patriot, published by a pro-apartheid group in South Africa.

Police found firearms, knives and Nazi regalia during their searches of Thomas Mair’s home. As further evidence emerged, an overwhelming number of people expressed grief over the death of Jo Cox. At the same time, some white supremacists glorified the act of murder on social media. Right-wing extremist groups are now a priority line of police investigations, along with Thomas Mair’s mental health. Police said that he was fit to be questioned.

The political and social landscape in Britain has undergone an alarming transformation, and poses a major challenge to society. The targeted assassination of a young politician, on the threshold of a promising career in politics after a decade of work for international charities, is a symptom of deeper conflict between antagonistic forces in British society.

To make sense of what has happened, context is all important. Despite strong opposition to Britain’s membership of the European Union in some quarters, general consent had been found after a referendum in 1975. It did not last long. Scepticism over closer integration with the rest of Europe started to come to the fore again in the 1980s, when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was in power. She fought the European Union hierarchy, but did not make a decisive move to leave the association.

Nonetheless, many of her associates and followers were encouraged, and their hostility to the EU grew steadily. Today, distrust of Germany and France lingers in many of Britain’s older generation, though young people under 35 years of age are more pro-European Union.

Enlargement of the EU to 28 member-states and closer integration has its virtues. It has created a large single market with unrestricted movement of goods and services, but has also enabled free movement of people. It has also kept the peace in Europe. With an ageing population and shortage of workers in some sectors, immigrant workers from the European Union and outside have been coming to Britain to take up jobs which are difficult to fill. Competition in the labour market is greater.

There is downward pressure on wages because of economic austerity in the government and private sectors. Competition for jobs, and the presence of new arrivals from abroad, mean extra pressure on public services. Further, it generates resentment among working people already in Britain, because they feel disadvantaged. Their complaint, put in simplistic terms, is that foreigners are taking away their jobs.

The reality is somewhat different. Immigrants are mostly young with necessary skills, and many work as doctors, nurses, IT specialists. Others do menial jobs which British workers are reluctant to do for relatively low wages.

Anti-EU politicians have been successful in harnessing the discontent. They have fought an aggressive campaign over immigration from EU countries, and assert that the United Kingdom must regain its independence and sovereignty from the European Union – the absurd implication is that the United Kingdom is an EU colony. To this end, many politicians on the right have common cause, though their tactics may vary. Some of the language used in the “Leave” campaign has been inflammatory, even xenophobic, similar to that on the far right.

For example, claims that Turkey’s entire population of 80 million, overwhelmingly Muslim, is about to descend on Britain; the 500 million people living in the European Union can enter the country any time; and a poster similar to a Nazi-era image showing a flood of people ready to enter, with the message “Breaking Point”. After Jo Cox’s murder, her bereaved husband, Brendan, criticised mainstream politicians for legitimising extremist anti-immigrant views by imitating far-right rhetoric.

The far-right fringe group Britain First recently announced that it was to launch a “direct action campaign against Muslim elected officials targeting where they live, work and pray”. The group described them as “occupiers”.

It is a disturbing scenario in which hatred runs deep; individual interest supersedes wider community interest; there are people who feel that their leaders have granted equality and fair treatment to those who do not deserve it; the ‘undeserving’ are inferior and subhuman in their eyes. In this critical period, Britain needs leadership that promotes unity not division, cooperation not isolationism, and communal harmony not blame.

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