by Martin Odoni

Tuesday’s historic ruling by the Supreme Court that prorogation of Parliament was unlawful was one of the biggest moment’s in British constitutional history. That is no exaggeration. 24th September 2019 is as huge a moment as the passage of the Bill of Rights of 1689, and for reasons that go far beyond Brexit.

UK sovereignty is with Parliament

The 24th September should be commemorated annually, as it is the date British democracy was brought back from the brink.

I am quite serious when I say that even Brexiteers should be relieved that the judges on the Supreme Court did not take the easy way out and just say, “Well, this is not a matter for the courts, it’s a matter for MPs!” like the High Court had done a couple of weeks earlier.

Supreme Court ruling

The historic ruling of the Supreme Court is that Prorogation of Parliament is unlawful, and that the courts do have jurisdiction over the constitution.

Such a decision being upheld would have had terrifying implications for the future, and Brexiteers need to remove their blinkers and acknowledge that there are other matters in the world beyond their obsessive hatred of the European Union. For this was not really about Brexit as such, no matter how much Boris Johnson, the lamest of Prime Ministerial ducks, and his allies try to claim otherwise, in all their characteristic hypocrisy.

Boris_Johnson_-_prorogation_is_not_about_Brexit_and_it_is[1]

“I’m not saying it was about Brexit, but it was about Brexit.” It’s not about Brexit when it’s going his way, but it’s all about Brexit when it’s going against him.

In truth, it was the other way around. Initially, when Johnson called a prorogation, it was about Brexit. It was simply a cynical way of making sure Parliament could not stop Johnson from handling Brexit in as unilateral a manner as he wished. But the longer-term implications of such a move were not just unilateral but downright totalitarian, and had repercussions that could affect any number of issues in the future. For if Johnson were allowed to establish that he could simply suspend Parliament whenever it suited him, even at a time of severe constitutional disruption, then he could do it in any situation, and so could any subsequent Prime Minister. Prorogation would simply become the tool-of-choice for any Prime Minister who did not like the inconvenience of opposition getting a say, or was just feeling accountability-shy.  So it ceased to be about Brexit specifically, and became about matters of democratic structures, sovereignty and constitutional integrity.

Brexiteers and their tunnel vision

Most Brexiteers, sadly, do not seem to realise this, and in fact they remain unshakeably convinced that it was the opposite, and that the Supreme Court’s decision was about preventing democracy, as it made it almost impossible for Johnson to force through a No Deal Brexit. In truth, the Court’s decision did nothing to delay or advance Brexit, so that assumption is untrue, but even so, the likely third delay to leaving the EU could still be seen as anti-democratic, for the simple reason that it delays delivery of the 2016 Referendum result.

But is it that simple? Well, no.

Firstly, democracy is being interpreted in a very extreme way there. It is assuming that “If it is popular, it must be law.” But that is less ‘democracy’ and more ‘mob-rule’, and it can rapidly look a lot less appealing when applied to other scenarios. Just for instance, if there were a popular vote in favour of the extermination of everyone who voted to Leave, how in favour of ‘democracy’ would Leavers become then?

(And no, I am certainly not arguing for such a vote, I am simply pointing out that a line has to be drawn somewhere, and it is clearly somewhere a long way short of ‘vote-to-kill’.)

Referenda are not legally-binding

“All right,” answer Brexiteers, “so we shouldn’t have votes to break the law, but still, Brexit isn’t against the law!”

Well, that is questionable, given that Brexit’s contradiction of the Good Friday Agreement arguably is illegal under International Law. But equally, it has to be said that ignoring a Referendum result is also not against the law.

No, seriously. Referenda are not defined in British law, and so their results are non-binding. This was even made clear in briefing papers for the Brexit Referendum.

Brexit Briefing paper June 2015

Addressing the urban myth that the 2016 Referendum result has to be binding.

Yes, I know David Cameron claimed that the result would be respected and implemented, but hey, why should we start believing a chancer like him just on this issue? He also swore he would carry the task out personally, but instead he resigned the day after the vote. When was he ever honest about any policy? How often did he keep a promise? So why do we look to his words for the unvarnished truth now?

Now let me be clear; none of this is meant to imply that I am actually calling for Brexit to be reversed completely. It would certainly be the sanest option, given the constitutional quagmire into which it has tipped the country, but I ruefully accept the decision of the British public.

However, this is a response to those who keep claiming that the 2016 Referendum is some kind of unanswerable edict laid down by powers greater than the Gods, and that it somehow even supersedes the rule of law. It does not. There is no legal precedent for a Referendum as binding. It is certainly not as set-in-stone as the UK constitution, which, though uncodified, is not ‘unwritten’ (despite what is so often claimed of it).

Breaking the law does not help enforce it

There is an old saying that “One cannot enforce the law by breaking it, even if it helps catch a criminal.” A similar saying could be coined for democracy. “One cannot uphold democracy by destroying the structures that protect it, just to implement one democratically-reached decision.”

This means that the implementation of the 2016 Referendum result cannot be allowed to happen in any way that actually violates the law or endangers the UK Constitution. If that were allowed, democracy would be far more threatened than it could ever be by the overturning of a single Referendum. The Constitution is what gives us the power to vote, and to have representation in Government, and Parliament is where that representation sits. Sometimes one part of the state can seem to get in the way of other parts. That is just the nature of checks-and-balances though, and it will therefore often require patience on the part of the public before they will see the fruits of legislation. Impatience, such as the impatience displayed by Johnson when trying to prorogue Parliament, will have unintended side-effects. Brexiteers are often among the loudest to accuse politicians of corruption and dirty trickery, and they are seldom wrong on that score, but they need to recognise that the aforementioned checks-and-balances are there precisely to guard against such sleaze. Now they scream out against a critical check on the Prime Minister’s power? They want that check removed. They do not want the Prime Minister to be accountable to even the highest court in the land on constitutional matters. They want the High Court’s pusillanimous cop-out that this is a matter only for Parliament itself to be permanently accepted.

But how can it be, when Parliament was being prorogued without ever agreeing to it or even being consulted on it? The Prime Minister was acting unilaterally, and the High Court was saying, “Nothing to do with us. This is a matter for MPs.” But the MPs were not given any options to do anything about it one way or the other.

Government by prorogation

As mentioned above, if a Prime Minister has absolute control over prorogation, and can suspend Parliament for obviously excessive lengths of time, then he can use it simply to silence formal opposition. Opposition is an integral part of the way the British Constitution and democratic processes work. No Prime Minister can be allowed unchecked control of prorogation, when that gives him the power to limit legitimate opposition, accountability, and debate. Allowing the Prime Minister to be the safeguard of this part of the Constitution is rather like getting the metaphorical wolf to guard the henhouse; the individual with most motivation to attack it is the one expected to defend it. Abuse of such an instrument would be too easy for a psychopath like Johnson, who sees nothing as more valuable than his own narrowest interests, and the more he abuses prorogation, the more he would endanger the Constitution and its credibility.

Endanger the Constitution and you endanger democracy, you do not protect it. You should not retreat into claims of, “Oh, he was only going to do it this once.” You do not know that, and there would have been nothing to stop him doing it again in future if the Supreme Court had not reined him in. Enforcing one badly-under-cooked policy at the cost of our democratic structures is like sacrificing an army of thousands in order to free a hundred soldier-prisoners.

Try and remember in all your short-tempered self-righteousness that Brexit has not been revoked. It is taking far longer to implement than its advocates were hoping, but given the immense difficulties that the very intricate process is creating, it is hardly unreasonable that some delays prove necessary. Any delay in enforcing Brexit is neither illegal nor unconstitutional. A delay that establishes once and for all that Downing Street is not above the law and that the Constitution of the United Kingdom is protected by the Courts is something to celebrate. Had the Supreme Court chosen to say, “Nothing to do with us,” British democracy would have been mortally-wounded.

As it is, it is back from the dead.

by Martin Odoni

Whether you think the UK leaving the European Union is a good idea or a bad idea, whether you think it is short-term pain for long-term gain, or it is an impending disaster that no amount of compensation down-the-line can completely diminish, there is no escaping one irony about it. It is an irony that can only give pleasure to those on the left, while inducing despair for those of more centrist or right-leaning persuasions. But it is there, whether you like it or not; –

Brexit has probably kept Jeremy Corbyn in charge of the Labour Party.

Now, Corbyn’s distaste for the EU is hardly a secret, and his position since the Referendum has been noticeably ambivalent – although not, as some have complained, actually ambiguous. So for him to derive benefit from the Brexit process should hardly be a cause of surprise. But the suspicion is that, were it not for the chaos that Brexit has caused for the Conservative Party, especially since mid-2017, Corbyn would probably have lost the leadership by now. The Tory havoc, sometimes frightening, frequently hilarious, always incompetent, has presented the embattled Labour leader with countless opportunities to injure the Government, and more people need to give him his due; he has handled most of them both skilfully and effectively.

Don’t sneer, the facts are on Corbyn’s side

Anyone who wishes to sneer at that should consider that Jeremy Corbyn has now inflicted more defeats – forty-one – on sitting Governments than any other Leader of the Opposition in history, which is not bad for four years’ work as a supposed ‘failure’. The previous record, held until this week by Margaret Thatcher at the expense of the Jim Callaghan Government of the 1970s, took ninety days longer to achieve.

Corbyn - winningest LOTO of all time

Corbyn has a remarkable success record as Leader of the Opposition for one who is so often derided about it.

Of course, how much these defeats for the Tories are specifically down to Corbyn, and how effective he would be had Theresa May and Boris Johnson not been trapped in a Minority Government, are up for debate. (Although how much the Tory successes in the 1970s were down to Thatcher could be debated too.) But Corbyn can only play the hand he has been dealt, and on objective analysis, he has made far, far fewer mistakes than his detractors insist. He also played a huge role in forcing a Hung Parliament in the first place, so if a Minority Government is good luck for him, it is good luck he has made for himself.

Even if we therefore assume that Corbyn is in a position where it is difficult to fail, he has still made good use of that advantage, where previous Opposition leaders have not always been able to do so. Given how dreadfully malicious, cynical and unpopular the Tories were in the 2015 General Election, for instance, it still remains a source of profound bewilderment that Ed Miliband somehow still found a way of losing to them, and even of ending up with fewer seats than he had beforehand. Equally with Neil Kinnock; how in blazes did he not just lose the 1992 General Election to the uninspiring John Major, but actually allowed the Tories the largest popular vote count of any party since the Second World War, if all Kinnock’s reforms to the Labour Party over the previous nine years were really as ‘sensible’ as he forever claims, and given the Tories’ general exhaustion and division over the previous couple of years?

Hilarious Tory chaos

So it is quite unfair to dismiss Corbyn’s performance. But at the same time, it cannot be denied that the quietly-hilarious chaos of the current Tory Party is a real gift to Corbyn, and the cause of it, beyond any doubt, is Brexit. Since the Maastricht Treaty was debated in the early-1990s, converting the European Community into the European Union, relations with Europe have always been the Conservative Party’s greatest weakness. A fracture to be attacked and exploited by Opposition parties at will. Now that the ‘big move’ has been made, and the country has started the process of ending those relations, meltdown has finally begun. But what if it had not happened? Say David Cameron had scored a larger majority at the 2015 Election, and so had not needed to placate the fanatics in his party by calling a Referendum on EU membership. Or say the Referendum had ended in a Remain vote as expected, what then? Where would we be now?

The first point that has to be made in answering that is that what appeared to be a catastrophe for Corbyn – Brexit itself – was in fact a moment of saving grace for him. The ‘Chicken Coup’ by the Labour Right against Corbyn’s leadership in 2016 was attempted on the doubtful pretext that he had ‘failed to campaign effectively’ in that same Referendum. (That myth continues to feed the popular perception today that Corbyn has refused to commit to one policy on the EU or the other. In fact, he has been about as consistent on Brexit as the circumstances have allowed him to be; he has attempted with fair adherence to carry out a policy agreed upon by the Labour Party membership at Conference in 2017, which was to force and win a General Election, in order to carry out a ‘Soft Lexit’, so to speak, and when all options for making that happen were exhausted, to try and force a new Referendum vote. This has been broadly the course Corbyn has followed.)

Therefore, the 2016 coup appeared at first to indicate that Brexit was as much a curse for the Labour Left as it was for Cameron. While Corbyn clearly knew that something was about to happen even before Hilary Benn started rabble-rousing – hence he was able to build a new Shadow Cabinet within just two days of the previous den-of-thieves all resigning – there is also no doubt that at one point (subscr.) he was wavering under the bullying pressure Tom Watson and his henchmen were applying.

Brexit – the gift that keeps on giving

But since surviving the Chicken Coup, and with rather more ease than anybody expected, Brexit has been the gift to Corbyn that has kept on giving. The desperation to keep anti-EU hardliners placated led Theresa May to activate Article 50 at least a year earlier than she really needed to. Then, wanting to avoid the eternal problem of needing support from MPs with mutually-exclusive aims, May called a snap General Election three years early, over-confident that a Tory landslide would follow by default. This immediately took all the pressure off of Corbyn, as the rest of the Parliamentary Labour Party had to stop undermining him and get on-side, for fear of losing their seats in the Commons if they continued rebelling.

There were two upshots of this move, and both were bad for May. Firstly, no longer having to watch over his own shoulder for a couple of months, Corbyn was clearly very much in his element during the 2017 General Election, working at the head of the liveliest, most positive, and most invigorating political campaign the country had seen in twenty years. The other was that crude Tory and media attempts to attack Corbyn during the campaign were uniformly futile, demonstrating that they had not been doing the Labour leader any real harm at all over the previous eighteen months. All the damage to Corbyn’s position and reputation had in fact been inflicted by his own side, and now they had stopped doing it, he flourished. In fact, he was visibly loving every minute of the campaign. The result of that is now well-recorded.

Over the two years and more that have followed, the relentless dithering and blundering of the Government’s negotiators, the gridlock between the blind Brexit fanatics who want No Deal and the reluctant supporters of a ‘Soft Brexit’, the stubborn stupidity of May as she imposed unnecessary ‘red lines’ during the talks over a Withdrawal Agreement, the lukewarm deal she agreed with the EU that effectively undermined British sovereignty more than it restored, and the relentless logjam in Parliament, have all presented Corbyn with more ammunition than one leader can use, and what he has used, he has used well. Not only did he see off David Cameron, even as Cameron theatrically told him, “For heaven’s sake, man! Go!” Corbyn then saw off Theresa May this past summer. And he has now played a solid role in neutralising Boris Johnson’s leadership before it could begin, culminating this week in the effective self-castration of Johnson’s own position in trying to force through a No Deal Brexit. And Corbyn manages all this while still being routinely undermined by his own side.

Corbyn winning by default sometimes, but winning nonetheless

In a lot of circumstances, Corbyn has not had to do all that much, never more than just stand his ground and make valid points about how appallingly the Tories have handled Brexit since the day the Referendum was announced. It could be argued therefore that Corbyn’s performance has not been all that impressive, and the Tories are destroying themselves and each other. But this underlines the point; Brexit has proven an absolute God-send for the Labour Left.

Had it not been for the Referendum, had it not been for the vote to Leave, it is highly likely that Corbyn, fairly or otherwise, would have been hounded from the leadership by now. He would probably have had very little in the way of victories in Parliament to point to, there would have been no General Election in 2017 to give him a new lease-of-life, and the rebellions against him would probably have continued without a pause, and with rather more credibility than they have had over the last two years, in which the attackers from within the party, or from those who have broken away from the party, have largely looked thoroughly shambolic, if not completely disconnected from reality. People are twigging on to a particularly large elephant in the room; if the main argument for getting rid of Corbyn is that he is a ‘fool’, then there is no argument at all to be made, as the blundering of his opponents within the party has demonstrated that there are only fools on-hand to succeed him.

Corbyn has anti-EU fanatics to thank

In all likelihood, without Brexit – especially without the uncompromising desire of a small-but-vocal minority of foaming-mouthed fanatics for a total severance from the EU – Corbyn would have had to step down eventually due to the sheer exhaustion of being constantly ‘dogpiled’ by his fellow Labour MPs. Even though he would have retained mass support from members outside the PLP, there is only so much one man can take. As it is, the confidence he got from forcing a Hung Parliament in 2017 has allowed him subsequently to shrug off most of the predictable renewed backstabbing with an air of cool aplomb.

Meanwhile, given how much they seem to hate Corbyn, most Brexiteers really should pause and reflect that their own blinkered, tunnel-visioned fanaticism for No Deal is the main instrument that has kept him in the job for the last two-and-a-half years.

To these fanatics, a quick message; –

Jeremy Corbyn - thank you to Brexit

Were it not for Brexit, there is every likelihood that Corbyn would be gone by now.

by Martin Odoni

As I wrote over the weekend, Boris Johnson, already the worst Prime Minister the UK has ever had after being in office barely six weeks, has managed to push the country into a Constitutional crisis with his first significant action in the role. Sounds about right for such a psychopath really. He accomplished this by pressuring the Queen into suspending (“proroguing”) Parliament for a crucial period of over a month, from mid-September to mid-to-late-October. This would mean the House of Commons would have insufficient time to put together a Bill to prevent a No Deal Brexit happening on 31st October; certainly it would be easy for any MPs in favour of No Deal to ‘bog down’ any debate by filibustering and raising constant pedantic objections to waste time.

Now, the pretext Johnson has given for this completely anti-democratic and unconstitutional move is that he supposedly has a ‘major new program’ of domestic policies that he wishes to implement, and needs time and space to arrange a new Queen’s Speech to open Parliament.

Lying makes BoJob feel kewl

Boris Johnson saw Theresa May telling lies on that same doorstep for years, and now says, “Hold my beer…”

Please, people of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, do not be fooled. There is no way that this pathological liar would ‘just happen’ to be telling the truth on this one occasion, especially when the ‘incidental’ benefit to him is so clear.

One doubt that needs raising is that if you study the (somewhat vague) policies Johnson claims to have in the pipeline, they appear to be mere reversals of public services cuts implemented by the Governments of David Cameron and Theresa May over the last nine years. The extra twenty thousand police he keeps mentioning, for instance, just barely offsets the reduction in officers due to the ignorant and toxic Austerity program started by George Osborne. So while the restoration of funding to a number of key services is welcome in itself, it is nowhere near as impressive or as exciting a pledge as Johnson is trying to make us believe.

Second reason for doubts is that Johnson announcing such a program seems to be a quiet admission that the aforementioned Austerity program started in 2010 was unnecessary and even harmful. This is a point some of us have been making for years. It is nice to see that the Tories have finally come around to this way of thinking, but it would be even nicer if Johnson could admit that he and his colleagues were wrong at the outset, and apologise for all the terrible and needless harm they caused.

Third reason is that Parliament has only just got back from its summer recess, which started on the 25th of July. Johnson could have arranged a Queen’s Speech with no great difficulty for this week, avoiding any need to suspend Parliament at all.

But the biggest reason of all is a simple matter of very obvious numbers. As Brexit has repeatedly demonstrated, there simply is not the right lay-out of MPs in the House of Commons to get a majority for, well, anything really. That is not just a problem for Johnson, it will be a problem for anyone trying to form a Government at the moment.

Johnson cannot even get one Bill through Parliament at present, given his majority-of-one, which only exists because of a shaky alliance with the Democratic Unionist Party. The Brexit deal agreed with the European Union fell at the first hurdle three times under May, the first time in particular being the heaviest defeat ever suffered by a sitting Government, and Johnson’s majority is significantly smaller than May’s was. The slightest rebellion, even just an absence or abstention or two from any Tory or DUP MP, and any Bill the Government tries to advance dies on its backside.

So when Johnson cannot get any one Bill to pass the Lower House, he wants to convince us that he thinks he can get an entire program of spending increases through? Given how rabidly pro-Austerity many of his remaining troops in the Parliamentary Party are, they are as likely to vote against such a program as anyone. Johnson may even be counting on that as a way of getting himself off-the-hook, in the unlikely event that a majority of MPs side with him in tomorrow’s Withdrawal Bill vote, and allow him not to fulfill the spending commitments.

You would have to be an absolute fool to believe this ‘big spending program’ pretext.

So don’t.

by Martin Odoni

So, Theresa May, a war criminal, is stepping down as the Prime Minister of Her Majesty’s United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland. Not because she is a war criminal, but because it is clearly the only way out of the Brexit gridlock she has done so much to create. She will depart 10 Downing Street on the 7th of June.

May was in tears when she made the announcement this morning. But as is so often the case with politicians – especially right wing politicians – the tears will not win any sympathy from my direction. She failed miserably as Prime Minister. She was unceasingly dishonest, evasive, cowardly, and mean-spirited, for reasons well-catalogued elsewhere in this blog. Her relentless boasting that only she could deliver Brexit, and her sneers that Jeremy Corbyn would lead a ‘coalition of chaos’ if he ever got into power, have both had a sorry outcome.

May fails and resigns

The Prime Minister resigns, having failed to see out three years in office, and having never truly established a firm mandate to govern.

But I have to comment on May’s speech announcing her departure, which was as littered with the same bare-faced deceit and hypocrisy that marked her entire stewardship. For her to resort to that even now, when she no longer has a job to cling to only serves to make clear that her dishonesty was no matter of desperation in difficult times. It was, and remains, simply a fundamental feature of her personality. She is leaving her post as Prime Minister anyway, there is no practical purpose left in her continuing to tell blatant untruths. But she did it anyway, because it comes as naturally to her as breathing.

May’s lecturing of others on the importance of ‘compromise’ was vomitous. She was the one who repeatedly refused to speak with Opposition parties throughout the Autumn, and when she finally opened talks with Labour this year, she persistently refused to give any ground at all, insisting that Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer had to surrender to her every demand. Hence why, when May kept going back to Parliament to try and force through her Brexit deal that had already been rejected, it never contained any significant difference in its content. It had simply been reworded to mean the same thing each time. That stubborn refusal to give an inch is the very definition of failure to compromise, while her pretence that the Bill had really changed when it had not was the definition of dishonesty. For her now to lecture the rest of the House of Commons on the virtue of compromise means she deserves a milkshake over her head.

But even more deceitful still was May’s attempt to talk up her administration as a success. None of her claims, be they about job security, housing, environmental policies, mental health care, Grenfell Tower etc stands up to scrutiny. But a most particular reversal of the plain facts was her claim that her Government had delivered “a falling National Debt”.

Beyond absurd. The Office of National Statistics’ last two published totals for the National Debt were published in September last year, and April this year, for March 2018 and December 2018 respectively.  What do they reveal?

The National Debt in March last year was £1,763.8 billion. The figure announced for the end of 2018 was £1,837.5 billion. In other words, the later figure was higher than the earlier figure, therefore the amount has continued to go up. And May says that, “the National Debt is falling”?

Now, as I have pointed out many times in the past, the size of the National Debt – while not unimportant – does not matter nearly as much as the Tories like to make out. But irrespective of that, what May said is still yet another a total reversal of the truth delivered with a mechanical bare face. It is possible to argue that the Debt, as a share of Gross Domestic Product, has fallen. But the problem with that is that the Tories are once again switching measurements whenever it suits them, and without telling anyone.

May resignation speech lie

Theresa May lives in a world of blackwhite, where a rising National Debt means the National Debt is falling.

If, as they should have been, public discussions of the Debt had been conducted in terms of the share of GDP from the time David Cameron became Prime Minister nine years ago, everyone would have known how completely pointless and toxic the Austerity program since then has been.

I would like to think May’s tears as she spoke came from the burden on her conscience that she had scarcely passed a day at Number 10 without deceiving someone, but I reckon it was more just a general haplessness on her part, having to acknowledge her failure to deliver the Brexit, or the “strong-and-stable leadership”, she had guaranteed. She cuts the most crumpled figure of a Prime Minister I have ever seen, and although the only candidates to succeed her from within her party are likely to be even worse, that does not constitute a defence of her. Her resignation may be the only truly right thing she has done as Prime Minister.

So May resigns as she served; by being deceitful, hypocritical, dysfunctional, high-handed, and unable to accept that anything that went wrong was her fault. Amazing how a Prime Minister can be so powerless.

As for the aforementioned Corbyn, that’s two Prime Ministers he has seen off as Leader of the Opposition. Not bad for the guy who was theatrically told after less than a year in the job by David Cameron, “For heaven’s sake, man, go!”

It is the Tory leaders who keep going at the moment, David.

by Martin Odoni

If, as seems inevitable after last month, Article 50 is activated in the next few weeks and the United Kingdom starts the process of withdrawal from the European Union, it is perhaps ironic that it should happen in a year ending in -17. For the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics was established 100 years ago this year, after a pair of Revolutions in the old Russian Empire, and was the world’s first Communist/Socialist country (at least in its objectives). It lasted through until 1991, when it collapsed in circumstances that should sound uncannily familiar to anyone closely studying what is happening to the UK right now.

There was a lot to be said against the Soviet Union down the decades. Despite its established aim of fairness and equality, the nation proved to be an oppressive, at times expansionist, dictatorship. It was one of the most dreadful regimes on Earth during Joseph Stalin’s era as General Secretary of the Communist Party. (Not officially the Head of State, but in practise whoever held the office of General Secretary was the man – it was always a man of course – in charge.) Stalin is estimated to have taken the lives of over twenty million people during his rule. Thanks principally to him, the very name ‘Soviet Union’ tends to cause lips to curl back in disapproval.

There is another side to this however. Although there was very little freedom in the USSR, it did take relatively good care of its population, by the standards of wider Russian history. Life had been utterly miserable for the vast, vast majority of ordinary people during the centuries of the old Russian Empire. While Stalin had shown no real concern for the well-being of the man-in-the-street – and considerable paranoid concern for his own physical safety – his successor from 1953, Nikita Kruschev, made a genuine-if-modest attempt to liberalise society, and the standard of living had improved a lot between the 1950s and the 1970s. Irina Lobatcheva, author of Russia in 1990’s, recalls,

 In 1960s-1980s the Soviet society provided majority of Russians with a decent life, free of fear of unemployment, with plenty of opportunities for self-fulfillment and career advancement. Everyone had a right to a month long vacation which one could spend in recreation hotels, sanatoriums, or touring the USSR for a very affordable price. Medical care was free, as well as any education, numerous children clubs and summer camps; even day-care centres cost next to nothing. Simple life, overall confidence in the future, guaranteed pension. The ideological load had almost waned after the death of Stalin: the state security had little effect on our lives compared to its influence in 1930s-1950s, when harsh competition with the rest of the world demanded from the new socialist state extraordinary repressive measures.

NB: Apologies for the poor syntax and punctuation of the above excerpt. The published translation into English of Russia in 1990s was not compiled very well, and it has to be said that the book sometimes reads a little like the output of a website subjected to Google Translate. I considered making corrections but ultimately decided against it as it would be dishonest.

One can certainly question whether Stalin’s repressive measures were really as necessary as Lobatcheva implies, but her points about the standard of living in the USSR, at least compared with what preceded it and what succeeded it, are accurate and frequently overlooked in the West. Life may not have had much in the way of civil liberty in the Soviet Union, but it had been no freer or less brutal under the Tsars of the Russian Empire, and at least under the Communist Party, levels of starvation and destitution hugely declined for the first time in centuries.

Kruschev introduced a major stabilising influence on day-to-day life in 1961 when he imposed indefinite price controls on essential goods; the same number of rubles that could buy a loaf of bread in 1961 could still buy an equivalent loaf in 1986. This had an unfortunate effect in the wider economic picture, as the costs of manufacture were rising constantly, and to keep manufacturers and farmers funded, the Government was forced to keep printing more and more money, causing international inflation of the ruble.

After Kruschev was effectively overthrown by the Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1964, he was replaced by his Ukrainian deputy, Leonid Brezhnev, a comparative doctrinaire hardliner who lacked imagination or energy. Brezhnev had positioned himself to take over by blaming Kruschev’s policies for the country’s mounting economic difficulties. Once in office, Brezhnev spent the remaining eighteen years of his life in Government doing very little to change them. Meanwhile, he restored repressive powers to the state police force, the KGB (‘Chekhists’), that Kruschev had taken away from them, and restarted the Stalinist practise of imprisoning political and cultural dissidents.

In the 1980s the ailing Soviet economy began to break down. One key cause of this was intervention in a civil war in Afghanistan, between the communist Government in Kabul and Islamist guerrillas, beginning in 1979. It proved to be a calamitous ten-year mistake that ultimately took a terrible toll on Soviet resources without ever achieving a victory to which to point. The sluggish economy was crippled by the burden of trying to support a failing and unending war-effort. Necessary production capacity that should have been used for consumption goods was instead allocated to manufacturing military supplies. At home therefore, industries that had advanced over a century’s-worth between 1929 and 1945 were stagnating once again, and producing fewer and fewer goods, as the ongoing price-controls slowly transformed currency inflation into a production deficit.

To add to the terrible burdens on the Soviet economy, in 1986, the entire population of Pripyat in Ukraine had to be evacuated permanently as a result of reactor unit 4 at the local nuclear power station, Chernobyl, exploding, condemning the region to literally thousands of years ahead of inhospitable radiation poisoning. The phenomenal resources needed to prevent the spread of the radioactive fall-out, to rehouse over 30,000 people, and to adjust to the enormous loss to the electrical power supply on the Soviet Union’s western frontier, were perhaps a final tipping point.

Brezhnev was long dead by this time; he had died in 1982 at the age of 75, and had been replaced by a former KGB chief, Yuri Andropov. At 67 when coming to office, Andropov was another old man rather stuck in his ways. His main policy platform was a necessary but largely ineffectual campaign to end political corruption within the Communist Party. It did not help the stability or conviction of the Soviet economy that he died a little over a year after taking over. His successor, Konstantin Chernenko, was even older (72 years old) than Andropov, and was already in dire health when he became General Secretary in March 1984. He too died after just over a year in office.

In 1985, a young (by Soviet Union standards anyway) new General Secretary was elected, Mikhail Gorbachev, the first leader of the USSR to be born after the Revolutions of 1917. At 54, he was not such a hardline stick-in-the-mud as his predecessors, and while he remained a dedicated communist, he recognised the urgent need for reform. He embarked on two side-by-side programs of reforms. The first, going by the name of Perestroika, very roughly translating as ‘restructuring’, was a campaign to reform the economy, including loosening the state controls over industry and the markets. The second, going by the name of Glasnost, very roughly translating as ‘open-ness’ or ‘transparency’, was a campaign to reform the country politically.

Glasnost allowed far greater freedom of expression, making it easier for people to speak out about the hardships they were increasingly facing, and making it easier, in turn, for the Government to identify failings that needed correcting. But it also made it a lot easier for fundamentally different ideas about the way the country should be governed to proliferate. (The USSR had, to this point, been a one-party state, but Gorbachev legalised the formation of political parties other than the communists.) One idea that became popular among pro-reform groups was that life in the West was much better than life in the USSR. TV and photo images began to appear in Russian media in the mid-to-late 1980s of the glossier side of life in the USA. Spectacular technology, colourful, glamorous ‘showbiz’ lifestyles.

Of course, there was no mention of the uglier side of Western life, including the tendency not to take much care of the poorest, or the horrendous poverty and misery of, say, being black in Ronald Reagan’s America. Naturally, Western life looked superior when the focus was on the rich and privileged in the richest, most privileged country.

Therefore, growing numbers of Russian people around the turn of the 1990s, fed up of waiting hours in queues just to buy bread, began to get the idea that the way the USA operated was the way the USSR should do things too. So the reformers began to push for, not a reformed communist economy, but a full-scale free market economy.

This was not what Gorbachev wanted. Despite his reforms, he remained a communist, and was deeply suspicious of what might happen if state controls of the economy were loosened to the degree found in the USA. But growing public unrest, and pressure from a reformer faction within the Communist Party itself, gradually dragged him into changing the market more severely than he had intended.

Gorbachev’s reform programs were not helped by the fact that he had no coherent plan in place, and he was largely improvising. That he recognised the need for reform had made him the best option for General Secretary, but that really just showed what a collection of dinosaurs the other options had been. Knowing something needed to change was a step up from his colleagues, but knowing how to do it was another matter. With no clear framework for reform, his every policy decision could lead to problems, and they frequently did.

Furthermore, the reformer faction had gained a figurehead in the shape of Boris Yeltsin, who was developing a popular reputation as an ‘anti-establishment’ figure after taking the unprecedented step late in 1987 of resigning from the Politburo. Gorbachev had responded to this by firing him from his secondary role as First Secretary of the Moscow Communist Party, while the Communist Party started smearing Yeltsin in the media. All of this just seemed to increase Yeltsin’s popularity, while motivating him to seek revenge on Gorbachev. Over the next several years, Yeltsin piled pressure on Gorbachev to increase the scope and pace of reforms.

In 1990, Gorbachev created new fundamental reforms to the political system. As part of a reorganisation that ended the permanent link between the Communist Party and the Executive branch of Government, a new office was established of ‘President of the USSR’, to which Gorbachev was elected in March. At a secondary level, the Russian Republic was given a Presidential office of its own. Yeltsin, to Gorbachev’s despair, was elected to the role in May. If Gorbachev was worried, conservative Marxists within the Communist Party were horrified. They had spent the last four years or so becoming increasingly alarmed by the amount of authority the party had surrendered due to the reform programs. Yeltsin, their ideological nemesis, was now in a position of real power within the largest federal Republic in the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev had appointed Gennadi Yenayev, Chairman of the nation’s Trade Unions Council, to become the Soviet Union’s first (and only, it would transpire) vice-President. He was a known conservative who opposed the reform programs. If Gorbachev expected gratitude from the hardliners for making such an appointment, he was soon to be disillusioned. For in the summer of 1991, Yenayev led a group of the hardliners in Moscow in a poorly-planned attempt to overthrow Gorbachev, and to restore pre-Perestroika communism.

The coup, or ‘Putsch’ as it was called, failed, due to its dependence on support from the military, which in the event refused to open fire on the civilian population of Russia. Opportunistically, Boris Yeltsin spotted the chance to shine by very publicly heading up civilian resistance to the coup. In one major moment of showmanship, he actually climbed onto a tank outside the Russian Parliament building and addressed a crowd of resisters from there.

In truth, opposition to the Putsch among the population was not nearly as large as the Western media likes to portray it; with growing political chaos, including the collapse of the so-called ‘Eastern Bloc’, and ever-worsening shortages of goods in the shops, Gorbachev’s popularity had rapidly eroded. So while there was a disapproving recognition that what the plotters were doing was anti-democratic, there was no great wish to defend the Soviet President. But still, the opposition proved just strong enough, and once it was clear that the military would not support Yenayev, the ‘Putsch’ quickly collapsed, and the conspirators surrendered.

In the weeks that followed, Yeltsin got enormous praise and adulation, both at home and in the West, for rescuing Gorbachev and for thwarting the hardliners. Seeing the opening to complete his revenge on Gorbachev, Yeltsin used the hype, in effect, to seize control.

Knowing that the coup had effectively severed his relationship with the Communist Party, Gorbachev felt compelled to resign as General Secretary. Yeltsin then shut down the party by ordering nationalisation of all its assets and suspending all of its activities inside Russian boundaries. At the same time, most of the different Republics of the Soviet Union began declaring independence, rendering the Soviet Presidency a powerless role. All its authority was devolved to the Heads of State of the individual Republics, including Russia itself. As Yeltsin was President of Russia, and Russia was the largest of the Soviet Republics, this made him more powerful than Gorbachev.

From there, Gorbachev had no option but to terminate the Soviet Union completely. On Christmas Day, 1991, he formally resigned the office of President of the Soviet Union, and the USSR had been formally dissolved.

The USA and its allies had always hated and feared communism, and so were delighted to see the USSR break up. The hope in the West was that, under Yeltsin, Russia would go further than Gorbachev had so far dared, and try to create a full free market economy. To this end, the USA despatched groups of right-wing economists to Moscow to advise Yeltsin on how to transition to full capitalism. Their advice was to remove state operations within the market entirely, including remove all price controls set by the Government. All businesses were to become completely privately run.

The problem was, the price controls that the Soviet Government had imposed since the early-60’s had kept people’s money safe. As mentioned before, the price of a loaf of bread in 1989 was the same as it had been in 1962. The price of all manufacturing goods had been subsidised by the Government, so prices in the shops did not have to go up. At the end of 1991, all these price controls were removed, and all state interference in the market was ended, including the subsidies for manufacturers. Manufacturers and retailers were now free to set their own prices for all of their goods.

Frankly, almost anyone could have predicted what was to happen next, yet somehow the very people who were supposed to be the experts were completely unprepared for it. The manufacturers of goods were no longer being subsidised by the Government, and no longer being regulated by the Government either. They were given freedom, therefore, to put prices up. So they put prices up. A long way up. And so the shops had to put their prices up as well to make an honest profit. It meant that the Russian currency, the ruble, became almost worthless within weeks. People’s life savings were used up in weeks as desperation led them to pay massively inflated prices for the most basic items.

Prices had quadrupled before the end of the first week, and they just kept ballooning up and up and up. This was partly due to the well-intentioned but ill-advised decision of Viktor Geraschenko, chairman of the Russian Central Bank, to try to offset the sudden price-jump by increasing the size of the money supply, which simply led the ruble to inflate even faster.

Within a year, Russia was in chaos. Vast numbers of people were struggling to afford food, it had become so expensive. Entire industries were teetering on the brink of shutdown as markets were unable to sell goods to a population whose income was no longer adequate to afford them. By August, industrial productivity across Russia had declined by worse than forty percent. Many people resorted to selling their most prized possessions just to get the extra money they needed to buy bread.

Tiny numbers of entrepreneurs who happened to be in the right place at the start of the 1990s were now able to hog all the consumption goods, and with the markets cornered, they could hold the population to ransom. Wealth was absorbed by these tiny handsful of people, while millions of others went hungry. The hoarders would eventually become known derisively as ‘The Oligarchs‘.

The privatisation of state assets led to the development of a voucher system so that the public could own shares in former public property. But because of the desperation of hunger, many people ended up desperately selling off their vouchers in exchange for the money they needed to buy food. The vouchers were almost invariably sold to the Oligarchs, cementing their grip and control over the new Russia.

While the Oligarchs counted their ever-growing stockpiles of money and assets, the state had become so weakened as the 1990s wore on that before long it was largely powerless even to enforce the law. Business in Russia had leapt from one extreme to the other. Gone were the days of excessive state-intervention, to be replaced with a kind of ‘frontier law’, rather like the Old West; if a businessman had trouble with a strong competitor on the market, the solution was literally to hire a bounty hunter and have the competitor blown away. It was almost possible to measure how successful a businessman in Russia was by the number of bodyguards he needed surrounding him.

The courts in Russia became largely useless. Officials within Government were open to bribery as they were desperate for money themselves, which meant that any Russian with a genuine grievance could not expect help from the law unless they were rich enough to buy a court’s time. And even then, if the defendant was richer, the case would almost certainly be dismissed. With most of the old ‘Soviet’ councils disbanded, every local state office was now basically operating as a front for the Russian Mafia, including the courts. Crime and disorder were everywhere. The majority of people across Russia were living in horrendous poverty, of a kind hard to imagine in the UK or the USA, and many had to turn to crime themselves just to avoid outright starvation.

While all this was going on, the political instability of the previous decade proved to be ongoing. Indeed, there was a near civil war between different branches of the Government. Yeltsin was still President, but the Russian Parliament (‘Supreme Soviet’), dominated by former members of the Communist Party (leaders were Aleksandr Rutskoi and Ruslan Khasbulatov), wanted him impeached over his handling of both the economy and the new constitution of the Russian Federation. In response, Yeltsin issued a controversial Presidential decree, Decree Number 1400, dissolving the Supreme Soviet. He did have the authority to do this under the constitution, but he was also compelled under the same laws to call a Presidential election to happen within three months of the dissolution, which he refused to do. Therefore, the Soviet refused to stand down. In October 1993, the two factions started firing at each other.

On 2nd October, tens of thousands of civilians gathered outside the Parliament building – the Russian ‘White House’ as it is known – to protest as Yeltsin’s military forces approached. After a lengthy stand-off, the military opened fire. A prolonged and convoluted skirmish across central Moscow continued through the 3rd and 4th of October, at the end of which, the official number of civilians killed was one hundred and forty-nine. The real death-toll, we will probably never know, but from eyewitness accounts, it seems likely to have been well in excess of a thousand. Thousands more were injured, thousands of others were arrested and/or tortured.

In the next few days, the Russian media tried to spin events as the military ‘heroically’ rescuing the country from ‘Marxist thugs’, ‘terrorists’, ‘bandits’ and ‘gangs of assassins’, all roused into armed insurrection by the Supreme Soviet. Yeltsin himself delivered a very cynical address on television while the insurgency was going on, calling the protesters ‘mercenary troops’. In reality, only a tiny proportion of ‘mercenaries’ were armed at all, and a great many of them were older generation Muscovites peacefully protesting against the effects of the Government’s ‘Shock Therapy’ economic reform program.

The whole bloody chapter demonstrated that Yeltsin was as capable of deceit, ruthlessness and authoritarianism as any Soviet leader or Tsar had been before him. The end of communism in Russia was not the end of brutality or oppression in Russia. Communism was clearly not in itself the reason for the decades of tyranny after all, and ending it was not bringing about the promised social liberty. Society was not freer; what oppressed people was now crime and poverty rather than harsh policing. Even the markets were not freer; markets had merely exchanged domination by the Soviets for domination by the Oligarchs

None of this was what people had expected at all when they had struggled for an end to the grip of communism two years earlier. Many were left wondering why on Earth they had sided with the reformers back in the early-1990s at all. For sure, times had often been hard under communism, but at least back then, more often than not, they had enough to eat, the money in their pockets was not completely useless, and crime and disorder were largely kept under control. Now the Russian people were living in a kind of purgatory. It was only a return to state authoritarianism under Vladimir Putin that brought an end to it.

The scary thing is – and I realise this may not seem obvious at first glance but stay with me – I see worrying parallels between what happened in Russia a quarter of a century ago, and what is starting in Britain now.

See the USSR and the European Union.

See the Russian reformers and the Leave EU campaigners.

See Mikhail Gorbachev and David Cameron.

See Boris Yeltsin and Nigel Farage.

Farage is to Brexit what Yeltsin was to the end of the USSR.

Nigel Farage is the Boris Yeltsin of modern Britain. Seriously.

I am quite serious about the parallels; –

The USSR was a stagnant, bureaucratic mess. The Union arguably was beneficial to its members, but at the same time, it did a lot of harm to them in certain ways. The EU is sometimes weighed down by its own bureaucracy. It is often stagnant because of the constant squabbles amongst its members. And while sharing a common market and many laws with the EU does its member-populations a lot of good, its treatment of some countries such as Greece shows it also does harm in a lot of ways.

The Soviet reformers promised the Russian people the moon around the turn-of-the-1990s. They promised far greater freedom, unlimited prosperity, happy lives-of-plenty for everybody. The Leave EU campaigners have promised the people of the UK the moon. They have promised far greater freedom, an end to bureaucratic inconvenience, more prosperity, less money taken from British pockets to go to Brussels; happy lives-of-plenty for everybody.

Mikhail Gorbachev was a Soviet leader who saw a need for reform, promised change for the better, an open, freer relationship between the peoples of the USSR, a revival of the economy and of industry. But once he was in power, he had no coherent plan in place to bring it all about, and so largely resorted to improvising, reacting, blundering, and making it up as he went along. His programs attempted to find a middle ground between all-out reform and staying-the-course, and the compromise fell flat. Ultimately, Gorbachev’s reforms were rejected by the Russian people, who chose all-out departure from communism. David Cameron was a British leader who was rather forced into trying to reform the UK’s relationship with the EU. He promised change for the better, an open, freer relationship between the British people and their neighbours on the continent, and negotiated amendments to the treaty with the European Union. His program attempted to find a middle ground between leaving the Union altogether and allowing the relationship to remain unchanged, and the compromise fell flat. His deal was rejected by the British people who chose all-out departure from the EU.

Boris Yeltsin was a popular, charismatic, ‘everyman’ figure in Soviet politics, with a reputation for being anti-establishment, and he demanded a major shift of the country towards the Right. He was a member of the Communist Party, but left it to pursue a radical political agenda. A cynical showman wanting change entirely for the advancement of his own interests, he convinced substantial numbers of people to support him, and eventually led them to force a fundamental change of the country’s entire way of life. Nigel Farage is (sadly) a popular, charismatic, ‘everyman’ figure in British politics, with a reputation for being anti-establishment, and he demanded a major shift of the country towards the Right. He was a member of the Conservative Party, but left it to pursue a radical political agenda with the UK Independence Party. A cynical showman wanting change entirely for the advancement of his own interests, he convinced substantial numbers of people to support him, and eventually led them to force a fundamental change of the country’s entire way of life.

Gorbachev had no coherent plan for reform before the death of the USSR, and neither did Yeltsin after it. The UK Independence Party had no coherent plan in place for what to do after leaving the EU, and it has become painfully clear in the months since the Referendum that the Conservative Party lack one either. Gorbachev and Yeltsin despised each other, despite having much common political ground. Cameron and Farage despise each other, despite both being right wingers.

Furthermore, if you look at the Oligarchs, and if you then picture what most of the key figures in the Leave campaign would like to become i.e. stinking-super-rich while the rest of the people are ground into abject poverty, and there is little distinction to be found. (There seems little doubt that Farage’s own wish when seeking to leave the EU has been to make it easier to exploit workers, and to get richer quicker.)

With the majority of Britons who expressed a preference voting to leave the EU, they have done to themselves what the Russians did when they fought to end communism. The British have cut their own lifeline, under the delusion that disconnecting it will make them ‘freer’.

But a baby does not become free and independent when the umbilical is cut. The baby requires a fully-working pair of lungs in order to breathe without the help of its mother, and even then will need the mother’s care for years and years to come. The UK, with its almost total butchery (for better or worse) of key industries since the 1980s, has removed its own lungs, and, in the shape of its largely-parasitical Financial Services Industry, transplanted a couple of balloons in their place. It is only with the umbilical cord of Globalisation that such an industry can keep Britain breathing in and out. This is one of the reasons why leaving the EU, at least before we properly replace critical industries that Margaret Thatcher discarded, is foolish.

Now, I need to stress that what happened to Russia will not necessarily happen to Britain, but it is something that needs to be guarded against; many EU regulations that quarter-informed Britons endlessly moan about present an obstacle to ‘Oligarchism’ (for want of a better word), and these regulations are going to be repealed in the UK when ‘Brexit’ goes ahead. Perhaps the parallel that makes a British repetition of early-90s Russia likelier than it should be is that far too many Leave supporters assume, just like the Russian reformers before them, that the changeover will work simply by default. It will not. It can be made to work for the betterment of the country, but it must be made to work, it cannot be left simply to work itself. The process will be too easy for opportunists to subvert that way.

So too many are not guarding against a repetition of what happened in Russia, and there are some hawkish people out there who, for reasons of pure greed, actually want a repetition. They have been allowed to control much too much of the public discussion to this point, partly because, as I say, there is no plan in place for leading the country in an alternative direction. Just like there was no plan in place in the former Soviet Union.

Destitution, political chaos, economic turmoil, war, mass-deprivation. Yes, these can be avoided, but more of the UK population need to work to avoid them. At present, too many are either assuming that leaving the EU will solve everything by itself, or sulking about the referendum result and looking for ways to derail the process rather than to guide it to a satisfactory conclusion. How effective was Yenayev’s attempt to simply ‘undo’ all the changes in 1991, rather than to influence their outcome?

The reformers v the hardliners.

The Leavers v the Remainers.

As Mark Twain is (wrongly) credited as saying, “History never repeats itself but it rhymes.”

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by Martin Odoni

In some ways, after weeks of witnessing constant deceit and visceral hatred from almost all sides, I am so plagued by referendum-fatigue that I am past caring, but I have to ask a question to the ‘Brexiteers’; –

Do you people have an inkling of what you have set in motion?

Doubtless many of those who have voted to leave the European Union will stand there, chests puffed out with pride, and say, “‘Course we do! We’ve taken back our liberty. We’ve brought our country back, given it its independence, we’ve started the resurrection of Britain!”

No, you have not. You have set in motion all sorts of other effects, but that one? No. Indeed, it could be argued that you have done the opposite.

To make myself clear, while I did vote for Remain, and did some campaign work for it near the end, I was not that strongly committed to it, and only made my decision in the last few weeks before the polls opened. I am a fan of the idea of European unity, but I am not a fan of the EU, which is, when push comes to shove, something of an ‘Austerity Club’. Just see its brutal bullying of Greece over the last couple of years to see the very ugly side of the European Union, and why its single currency is increasingly looking like a scam to crowbar Europe into sweeping away all semblance of a public sector. They are genuine reasons to want to distance ourselves.

So I was always open to the idea of withdrawing from the EU. However, it is an absolutely huge step – bigger perhaps than most Leave voters realise – with monumental knock-on implications. So if I was to be swayed, I needed to be presented with a clear, workable and coherent framework by the Leave campaigns, outlining what Britain would do next once it had withdrawn.

Instead, all I could find was an ugly, distasteful mixture of irresponsible, scarcely-relevant rhetoric about immigration, and obviously untrue claims about the expense of being in the Union. I had concluded, by the start of June, that there really was no coherent plan for a post-EU future – and there still is none* – and so the Leave campaign must have been entirely focused around the very questionable view that leaving the Union is an end in itself. “Anything replacing this has to be better.”

(I imagine people in the Weimar Republic were thinking that of their own country around 1930…)

In fairness, I was disgusted by the most vocal elements of both the Leave and Remain campaigns. Although Leave was more frequently deceitful, in one sense the dishonesty of the Remain campaign was even more inexcusable, as they really had no reason for it. The knock-on effects of the withdrawal ahead will be enormous, very, very complicated, and deeply destabilising. Had they simply laid out those details more fully and more often, instead of resorting to the usual preferred David Cameron/George Osborne tactic of threats and hyperbolic scaremongering, I honestly think Remain would have won handsomely.

Those knock-on effects are substantial, and some of them will be the opposite of what Leave campaigners imagine.

Most particularly, that very large core who keep telling us they are not racists i.e. the ones who want to slow down, or put a stop to, immigration, have scored a spectacular own goal. They fear the refugees in the camps around Calais are terrorists trying to get into the UK, and think that the EU’s ‘open borders’ under Schengen will let them sneak in.

What these people do not realise, of course, is that the UK is not even part of the Schengen Area; see the map here (Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland, incidentally, which are not members of the EU, are Schengen countries). Furthermore, Britain, under the 2003 Treaty of Le Touquet, has the right to take part in policing the Channel Tunnel at Calais. The withdrawal from the EU actually jeopardises that treaty, and sure enough, there are already demands in France that it now be re-negotiated. Of course, a re-negotiation is not necessarily the death of that, but it will be an intricate, time-consuming extra process, at the end of which the UK will not have recognisably better control than it had previously. So was it worth it?

Control of immigration is in fact far easier within the EU, where the processes are co-ordinated with far more integration between different police forces across the continent. Step outside of that network, and the police forces on the continent will feel no obligation to carry on sharing the burden our own police have to bear. So again, was it worth it?

“Well at least we can reduce the number of EU migrants coming into the country to steal our jobs!” declare the strictly non-racists who keep using identical rhetoric to all past racist groups. But is it even true? Well not exactly, no. Pro-Leave MEP Daniel Hannan, (about whom there will be more later) has admitted that he expects Britain’s future relationship with the EU to be something akin to that of Norway. Norway is a Schengen country (see above), which means it has open borders, and is more or less compelled to follow EU rules when trading with EU countries. It just has no say over what shape those rules will take. We do have influence over that at present, and that is what we will be surrendering when we leave. So once again, was it worth it?

Even if immigration really did become easier to control outside the EU, that does not necessarily mean good news. The ancient mantra about foreigners ‘coming over here stealing our jobs’ is not only unfair, it is simply untrue. An influx of people make for a larger economy, and that is especially good news in a service economy like the one with which we are presently encumbered. More people in the country means more customers who need services. That in turn means more work for the service sector, which means more jobs are likely to become available. It is with high emigration that people’s jobs are most likely to be taken away. You might just as well grumble about babies ‘being born and stealing our jobs’.

I shall not ask again whether it was worth it.

But as I say, the knock-on effects of Brexit will not include better control of immigration anyway. While members of the Leave campaigns – official and otherwise – try to insist that no promises have been made on reducing immigration, it is very clear that many of their supporters believed it was, and since the vote have been emboldened in their aggressive behaviour towards foreigners and people of colour. (Many anti-immigration activists even seem to imagine that they have voted for repatriation of migrants, which is the form a lot of the growing tensions are taking.)

What the knock-on effects do include is instability. Serious instability, both inside the country and beyond these shores. At home, that anti-immigration unrest is one of the forms this instability takes, and there is already a danger of it turning violent

Add to this the very quick backtracking by Leave campaigners, official or otherwise, on implied promises, almost from the moment that the Leave lead was confirmed to be unassailable. This will also lead to unrest at home. Now the Leave campaigners can argue, and have argued, that such promises were not made word-for-word, but they did their best to give the impression that they were, and certainly made very little attempt to disabuse people of the notion. The aforementioned Daniel Hannan was a lot louder about immigration not going down after he had the result he wanted, than he had been before.  Particular condemnation of course for Nigel Farage of UKIP, who also waited until the win was in the bag before disassociating himself from the official Leave campaign’s talk of reassigning £350 million per week in EU funding to the National Health Service. It was a false claim anyway, due to the UK rebate and the knock-on trade stimulus provided by being in the Single Market – the £350 million is simply the ‘priming of the pump’ which will only pump something back to us if we put that opening investment in* – but for Farage to retain any credibility or honour, he should have spoken out loudly and publicly against this fraudulence weeks ago. (On the flipside, the official campaign should equally have spoken out against the false implications of UKIP’s constant talk of Brexit leading to immigration reductions. To their credit, they did speak out against the  racism of UKIP’s poster campaign, but not against the deceit of it. And the ever vile Iain Duncan-Smith, who is already trying to pretend that no pledge to transfer EU funds to the NHS was ever made, is claiming black is white yet again. Why did he never take a chance to clarify what the bus was saying while he was standing in front of it?

An explicit pledge of £350m to the NHS? No. But it's clearly what they wanted people to believe.

IDS denies what this slogan was clearly meant to make people believe.

A verbatim promise? No. But it is plainly very, very misleading, and deliberately so, so it might just as well be a flat-out lie.)

Instability within Government has been substantial, with David Cameron announcing his resignation as Prime Minister (and with usual cynical cowardice, passing on the heavy responsibility of activating Article 50 to his successor), and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn facing an (admittedly opportunistic and fabricated) uprising by his own Shadow Cabinet.

As for effects outside the UK, just look at what this is going to do to Ireland; and heaven knows, it is long past time that the British stopped doing wrong by Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was one of the finest and most remarkable achievements in the history of European diplomacy, as it finally brought about what, throughout the previous quarter of a century, had seemed impossible. It brought an end, more or less, to ‘The Troubles’. And ‘Brexit’ has endangered it. This is because the Republic of Ireland is still going to be in the EU, but Northern Ireland is not. The border between them, which has been little more than a formality for a generation, will have to be enforced again, especially to prevent it from becoming a ‘back door’ route into Britain for immigrants who have entered the Irish Republic. Tensions will be increased, especially for Catholics in the north who will be cut off once more from the south, but also along the border in general; it was always easily breached during The Troubles, even while it was patrolled by the British Army, and will have to be policed very strictly post-Brexit, which is sure to cause some unease among locals on both sides. The Good Friday Agreement included a specific protocol that the people of Ulster would always be able to be citizens of the UK or the Republic, or even both, at their own discretion; but Brexit would mean they are both members of the EU and not members of the EU, therefore subject to the EU’s laws and yet not subject to them, simultaneously. The fact that the people of England and Wales (I will not say ‘mainland British’ as that is unfair on the pro-Remain majority in Scotland) do not appear to have thought about this difficulty implies almost a colonial lack of consideration.

Add to that the reality that the majority in Northern Ireland, perhaps with the above issues in mind, have voted against leaving the EU, and the possibility is raised that it may have to leave the UK. Potentially it could be absorbed into the Republic, or to stand alone as an independent province, but either way, the question is destabilising, especially as it risks stirring up old arguments that the Good Friday Agreement seemed to have settled. While it would be an exaggeration to say that Northern Ireland has been a picture of harmony over the last 18 years, after decades of blood and grief, peace has at least been the dominant condition. Now the agreement that brought it about may have to be re-negotiated.

Scotland, too, voted against leaving. One of the arguments that arguably swung the 2014 referendum on Scottish Independence was that staying in the UK would allow Scotland to remain in the EU without having to adopt the euro as its currency. But the result of Thursday’s referendum has proven that notion completely false, handing the Scottish National Party the ideal pretext for reviving the argument and holding a second Independence referendum. With the current price of oil so low, an independent Scotland’s current ability to function as a trading nation is in a measure of doubt, but the prize may still be seen as worth the price.

The United Kingdom itself is, in short, now in danger of breaking up, and whether you believe that is a good thing or a bad thing – speaking for myself I am quite okay with it – it will certainly not be the resurrection of Britain; it will be its undoubted termination.

Meanwhile, the UK is not the only union that Brexit has imperilled. It has also given huge ammunition to extreme Right groups across Europe, fighting to extract their countries from the European Union. Marine Le Pen of the French National Front, within hours of the referendum result coming through in the UK, was calling for a ‘Frexit’ referendum, while Dutch extremist Geert Wilders was pushing for a ‘Nexit.’. It seems quite certain that at least a few more withdrawals will follow, and with each passing withdrawal, another withdrawal becomes more likely.

Britain’s decision has potentially destabilised Europe. What do I care what they do in Europe once we’re out of it? you ask. Simple, history is what should make you care; if there is one lesson the last three thousand years of European history has taught us, it is that the last eventuality anyone on Earth can afford is a dis-unified, destabilised Europe. People tend to die in horribly large numbers when we have a Europe like that. The British may not want to be a part of that, but if they could hardly stay out of it in the 1940’s, they certainly have no way of avoiding it in the face of the military technology of today.

Further afield, old treaties that were settled with the EU are now going to need re-negotiating by the British, and again, some of them are going to re-open old wounds. Territorial issues overseas with other European countries in particular will now become harder to reconcile without the shared governance of the EU. For instance, if the UK leaves the union, Gibraltar leaves too, even though it voted very decisively to remain in the EU. This immediately scuppers fair access to ‘the Rock’ for Spain. So naturally Spain is now demanding a complete new settlement, including shared sovereignty with Britain, for Gibraltar.

Due to Britain’s imperial past, there are many such issues that will now have to be re-addressed. Long, slow, wearisome, complicated, and individualised. Possibly expensive too. And once again, destabilising.

Add to this the economic instability Brexit has caused. £200 billion was wiped off the stock market’s value in a few hours, during the deepest and most rapid run-on-the-pound in history as sterling becomes less internationally useful, and hence less desirable, and knock-on slowdowns across the rest of the continent and elsewhere. The country’s credit rating has been downgraded. The British have in fact dropped a lit match into a pool of oil.

All of this, and to make a move that has no follow-up plan in place, only the withdrawal move itself. Now call me presumptuous when I say this, but I am very doubtful indeed that the great majority of people who voted Leave really thought of any of this beforehand. I am perfectly prepared to admit that some of them never occurred to me, but I still thought of enough of them, and asked what the alternative future we were being offered would be – and realised that nobody knew – to say no.

I am not, I want to stress, one of the people arguing for the referendum to be re-run. I accept the verdict, no matter how profoundly I disagree with it, and it would be anti-democratic just to overturn the vote. Also, as I mentioned at the start, I have referendum-fatigue after seeing this whole ghastly process shine a light on Britain at its ugliest. Between the ugly post-victory triumphalism and anti-immigrant aggression of Leave voters, the anti-democratic elitism to emerge from people rejecting the result, and the truly evil murder of Jo Cox (without a shot being fired, Farage? An insult has yet to be invented that is strong enough for you), this whole exercise has shown us as a country at our intolerant and intolerable worst. Even growing up among all the unrest of the 1980’s, I have never known my country to be quite as divisive or hate-filled as it has been over the last few months. It has made me nauseous, unhappy, sometimes frightened, frequently horrified, and I have numerous friends who feel the same as I do. Frankly, the atmosphere has been so fraught that I honestly do not know if the British are capable of another referendum campaign on this subject without descending into civil war. On a more personal note, I also do not know if my own health could cope with it. I concede there is a genuine legal basis for re-running the referendum, as all the retracted pledges from the Leave Campaign can be seen as a violation of contract – under, irony of ironies, EU laws. But no, for better or worse, the decision is made, and as the host of a favourite TV programme of mine used to say, “Once embarked, the only way is onward; there is no turning back.”

What I am saying though, is that the country is going to learn a painful lesson in the most painful way it can; that lesson is to stop misusing certain democratic processes to express opinions on subjects that they are not there to discuss. Many Leave campaigners clearly thought this was anti-immigration matter, and it is now starting to become clear to them that it was not. But it should have been clear beforehand, simply because the question asked was whether Britain should remain a member of the European Union, not whether it should throw out foreigners. Some voted Leave while wanting to Remain, because they carelessly assumed Remain would win, and they were just desperate to demand ‘change’. But as there was no way a vote to decide whether to stay in the EU could offer an articulate description of that change, the only form the change could make is withdrawal from the EU. (And no, the votes will not be interpreted as a call for a change of policy at home, only as a demand to leave the EU.)

In 2011, there was a referendum on electoral reform. People plainly voted No in huge numbers to punish Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats for helping the Conservative Party put up tuition fees. But the referendum question was not asking about whether tuition fee increases were a good idea, it was asking about whether there should be a change to the electoral system. Tuition fees in the five years that followed have not gone down as a result of the electoral system staying the same, and an opportunity to make the electoral system (slightly) more representative was spurned for the sake of useless revenge.

I do appreciate that our MPs all-too-often ignore what the public are saying, and I do share the frustration of how difficult it can be to make our wishes articulate and known to those in power, especially when they just do not want to hear it. But misusing a referendum is not the answer to that, and what the country has set in motion in doing so is a machine that will be quite impossible to control. There had to be a clear and workable alternative future available for such a path to be chosen, and there was none. And do the people who did this imagine they got their message across?

So I ask one last time, was it really worth it?

_____

*If you do not believe this, consider the way various Brexit leaders are suddenly insisting that there is ‘no rush‘ to get the wheels turning on withdrawal, while EU officials are saying, “If you’re really going, let’s get on with it.” If the £350 million really were just being wasted when it could be reassigned to the NHS – and if they really cared about the NHS in the way they want us to believe – they would surely want to get started straight away so they could stop making the payments at the earliest opportunity.

 

Furthermore, it is all the evidence we need of my earlier point, that the Brexit leaders really do not have – have never had – any coherent or workable framework for what the country will do in the event of a Leave vote. They are now playing for time while they try and make up a policy platform as they go along, while hoping they do not look like they are making it up as they go along.

by Martin Odoni

Media people often get hot-under-the-collar when they are blamed for what goes wrong in other walks of life, and in all fairness to them, in many cases, they are correct to take umbrage. In the sporting world in particular, when a team or player is off-form and the coach is asked uncomfortable questions about it, the questioner is liable to be given a nasty rebuke for asking. “You media types, you make such a fuss about so little!”

That accusation is sort of true as well though, and we have seen a lot of that this week. Jeremy Corbyn has been leader of the Labour Party for precisely seven days now, at the time of writing, and during that time he has been on the receiving end of attack after attack in the media, be it over the way he dresses, his refusal to sing along with the National Anthem, his decision ‘only’ to appoint more than half the positions in his Shadow Cabinet to women, or his decision not to attend the opening match of the Rugby World Cup.

My personal response to the, clearly-manufactured, outrage expressed in the media over these largely trivial details has been, “Oh will you people please grow up?” But of course the media will not grow up, and so they are throwing tantrums when they see things are not going their way. They do not like socialism, by and large, and so when they see a socialist doing well, they have to invent reasons for other people to get angry with him. In the cold light of day, Corbyn has done nothing notably wrong all week – certainly nothing that merits one-tenth of the controversy that should be raging over David Cameron violating an Election pledge – and it is clear that all of the controversies surrounding him are entirely artificial. And yet even supposedly ‘reasonable’ assessments are making Corbyn’s start as leader sound hapless and blunder-riddled.

Tantrums have been the general tendency of the media, especially the right-wing tabloids, for at least a hundred years, and they have sad consequences that go far beyond Jeremy Corbyn.

Now it has been commented on this week, including by Corbyn himself, that there was a time in the distant past when David Cameron had argued for an end to what he called ‘Punch-‘N’-Judy’ politics in Parliament. Once Cameron was a regular at Prime Minister’s Question Time, he seemed to lose interest in that reformist idea rather rapidly. However, Corbyn, very conscious of how nauseated many in the public are by the stagy artificiality of debates in Parliament, decided for his first appearance at PMQ’s as Opposition Leader to attempt a fundamental change-of-approach. Instead of following the usual formula of theatrical outrage and verbal laying-of-traps, which has not fooled any member of the human race in decades, Corbyn decided to, as it were, throw the despatch box open to the public, by asking them to submit questions to him that they would like put to the Prime Minister. This they did in their many thousands, and he chose six of them to ask.

It was a simple, ingenious, and yet on reflection rather obvious move to make, and one that previous Opposition Leaders would surely have attempted had they truly wanted to end the alien theatrics of Parliamentary debate. Not only does it discourage the childish tendency of Prime Ministers to mock and belittle questions, if they know the questions are asked by the electorate, thus pushing against the theatrics, but it is also morally sound. The purpose of PMQ’s is to hold the Government to account, and in a democracy, it is the people to whom the account is due. This is something that has arguably never happened properly until this week.

Most independent observers, as best as I can tell, seemed rather to enjoy the different tone and more mature atmosphere of PMQ’s this week, at least in the exchanges between Cameron and Corbyn. But the reaction from the so-called ‘professional’ political correspondents seems more mixed. Quentin Letts at The Daily Mail, for instance, called the whole session, “gutless, bloodless, bland and beige“. Ben Riley-Smith at The Telegraph moaned that “the lack of intonation in [Corbyn’s] delivery during PMQs lacked the obvious full stops that act as a hint to the Labour benches to roar in approval.”

What remarks like these underline is a fundamental and never-questioned failing in the British media. Both Letts and Riley-Smith are showing a closed-mindedness that reflects the reason why they are regular political commentators in the first place. It is a failing that works against any attempt to reform the way the Houses Of Parliament conduct their business, while also reducing political commentary to the superficial bitching and belly-aching of football supporters whose favourite team just does not play in an exciting-enough style.

This problem is sort of a parallel of the old saying that people who want to govern are liable to be, ipso facto, the people least-suited to do it. (Most of our recent Prime Ministers have been evidence of that.)

Our media show that, equally, people who want to comment professionally on Government are liable to be, ipso facto, the people least-suited to do it.

Most media people, while paying mechanical lip-service to the almost-universal view that Commons debates are silly, immature and stagy, do in reality love watching them. Do not ask me why, but the theatrics, the snide remarks, the tedious evasions of plain facts, and the tiresome pomp-and-ceremony language-of-discourse all really appeal to them. They would have to, because otherwise the glaring artificiality, the boyish, macho bullying, the posturing and pretend mocking laughter would be so off-putting that they would never have wanted a career reporting on politics.

That inexplicable fascination with Parliament’s counter-productive procedures is what draws many media people into political reporting, while also making them resistant to the idea of seeing it change – even when there appears to be a desire among the wider population for reform, or at least a majority alienation from it.

Letts’ remarks in particular betray this failing. While he makes out that the proceedings were less effective at holding the Prime Minister to account, he fails to demonstrate exactly how Cameron has been made to answer more by the standard confrontational style. “Gutless, bloodless, bland” sounds very much like a complaint about a shortage of entertainment rather than a shortage of substance. “His backbenchers had nothing to cheer,” Letts complains, which makes the backbenchers sound like the crowd on the terraces of a football stadium, becalmed by a shortage of scoring chances during a match. But PMQ’s is not a game, and Letts is showing a narrowness of outlook by insisting it should have the same type of atmosphere. (For what it is worth, I thought Cameron looked decidedly uncomfortable at various points during the session, because he knew he was unable to insult the questions asked without insulting members of the public, and when insulting the question is not an option, he often lacks an alternative.)

Riley-Smith commented similarly about the lack of cheering opportunities, but again, that shows that he is missing the point. He is demanding that Corbyn choreograph and synchronise everything, up to and including pre-arranged cheering. By appealing for this, Riley-Smith is saying he knows better than the people around the country to whom Corbyn has been speaking. They do not want that sort of set-piece, pretend fervour. They do not want to hear opposing benches of MPs hurling cries of “Hear! Hear!” or “Shame!” at each other. Instead, they want debates to be framed around the issues they wish to see discussed, and above all, they want them discussed in language that everyone will find accessible. The contradictory mixture of yobbish bleating from backbenchers, and questions-and-answers directed in starchly-formal tones, makes a very jarring, confusing, and even alien experience to a lot of people, and gives the impression that the whole process is an exercise in avoiding real discussion.

Is it any wonder that much of the public has become so estranged from politics? It is not, I am convinced, because people are complacent, it is because the process of discussion is so obsolete, so hard-to-follow, and so cold and unfriendly. At best, people find it tedious, at worst they find it hooligan-like. Either way, proceedings will seem irrelevant, and with so much done over the last thirty-five years to limit and ineffectualise political activism, it leaves an awful lot of people feeling that there is nothing in politics for them. So they ignore it.

But Letts and Riley-Smith do not care about that. They want a show, and as the theatres of the West End are clearly too expensive for them, Westminster will have to do instead.

So Corbyn’s efforts to change the tone and approach from a ‘Punch-‘N’-Judy’ Show towards a civil and accessible debate are demeaned as somehow ‘neutering democracy’ – Letts’ own words. This accusation is an incredible reversal of the facts, for it was the first PMQ’s in a very long time in which the explicit concerns of the voters were put first. If that is ‘neutering democracy’, what have decades of Opposition Leaders failing to consult the public done?

With the general chorus from the mainstream media being at certain points hostile, any attempt to persist with and develop the new approach is being discouraged. If Corbyn gives in to that, the questions people want him to ask will be overlooked, the process will become a theatrical chorus of bleating noises again, the public will remain alienated, and democracy really will be neutered.

But then this is why reform of Parliamentary conduct never seems to start; because political reporters in the media will not be getting their way again if the process changes, and so they throw tantrums. To rid ourselves of that, we need a new generation of political reporters who do not want to watch the childish posturing, but the Catch-22 obstacle is that it will be difficult to get them interested in a career reporting from Westminster in the first place unless they do enjoy it.

I am truly sorry that they do not like it when this is said, but it remains true; the media really are to blame for why political discourse in this country refuses to grow up. It is because the media themselves refuse to grow up, and because they want our politicians to operate on a similar level.