Thursday, 23 February 2017

Is there any point in Brexit any more?

“We must not forget that a key motivating factor behind the vote to leave the EU was to control immigration,” Andrea Leadsom, UK Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has assured us.

She was responding to concerns from farmers. According to the Guardian

Meurig Raymond, president of the National Farmers’ Union, told the body’s annual conference in Birmingham that … the industry would require 90,000 season workers a year by 2021, on top of more than 250,000 permanent workers – more than three-quarters of whom now come from the EU.

Meurig Raymond of the National Farmers’ Union
A stark warning on the potential consequences of Brexit on agriculture
This comes on top of the statement from David Davis, the Brexit secretary, in the Latvian capital of Riga. The Guardian tells us:

He said that it was not plausible that British citizens would immediately take jobs in the agriculture, social care and hospitality industry once the UK had left the EU and repeated comments made in Estonia on Monday that immigration restrictions would be phased in.

He said: “It will be a gradual process. That will take some time; yesterday I said it will take years.

“Don’t expect just because we’re changing who makes the decision on the policy, the door will suddenly shut: it won’t,” Bloomberg quoted Mr Davis as saying in the Estonian capital of Tallinn on Monday.

That certainly chimes with the fears of the National Farmers’ Union:

“Quite simply, without a workforce – permanent and seasonal – it wouldn’t matter what a new trade deal [with the EU] looks like. Food will rot in the fields and Britain will lose the ability to produce and process its own food.”

Hold on, though. It certainly doesn’t chime with the comments by Davis’s colleague Leadsom. “Controlling immigration” was, she claimed, a key motivation in the vote for Brexit.

That at least has the merit of honesty. Many of us on the other side of the debate have long felt that what was behind the vote was xenophobia. The great leave campaigner and then-leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage, once famously claimed to be made uncomfortable at being in a railway carriage in which no one around him was speaking English.

My own feeling is that if you’re made uncomfortable by people speaking a foreign language, then the problem is with you, not with the others. There are, however, enough Brits upset by hearing Polish in our streets to have put together a majority for leaving the EU.

In vain, it would seem. If Davis is to be believed, there will be no let up in immigration for many years to come. So we may achieve Leadsom’s goal of controlling immigration, but not that of reducing it. Yet a reduction is what people really mean when they talk about control: they want fewer immigrants.

It won’t be happening. Certainly, not at any time soon. Probably never, unless you want crops rotting in the fields and Britain to lose self-sufficiency in food.

So that only leaves the other motivations for Brexit.
  • Taking back control over our affairs from Brussels. Sadly, that seems only to mean that we have to crawl on our bellies to the US, even under Trump. That’s because we need to try to find other trade deals that might compensate for the loss of exports to the EU. That’s a tall order anyway, since we might be suffering a 30% drop in trade as a result of Brexit, but in the meantime it means losing all control over our destiny as we try to beg deals with the Americans and other nations.

  • Saving money. We were told by Brexiters that leaving the EU would generate savings of £350m a week. That figure was always a lie and it certainly isn’t going to be produced. Indeed, we’re now beginning to count the cost of Brexit, and it’s clear it will far outweigh any possible savings.
In the past, I agreed with Brexiters who said that there was no case for a second referendum. You can’t keep consulting the people and ignoring the decision until you get the one you like. But now that we’ve established that Brexit will generate none of the promised benefits – absolutely none of them, not even the base xenophobic ones – mightn’t there be a case for a second consultation after all?

I mean, now that it’s clear that there’s no point in Brexit whatever.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

On the train to Wales

I strongly believe, and often say, that rail is the luxury form of travel of our time.

It’s also romantic. The sound of the wheels on the tracks. The sense of speed as the lights from the windows flash on the houses, fields and embankments as we race past. No car, no plane, perhaps only a ship can rival the sense of adventure coupled with wellbeing.

Still, for the third time in four days? I’m learning the hard way that you can have too much of a good thing. Especially when your train isn’t due to get you to your destination until a minute past midnight. Tomorrow, for Pete’s sake.

I started the journey in Luton. Well, it’s where I live. So I guess that makes sense.

Across the aisle from me was a strikingly elegant young woman, by which I mean a young woman who had obviously gone to great lengths to appear elegant. There was perhaps just a touch too much makeup on the face, the lack of a coat was a trifle too obvious a way of highlighting the tightly-fitting dress, the heels were perhaps just a smidgeon too high.

I became aware of all this as I paused between a series of phone calls, remembering how irritating I find it when people make calls in a carriage I’m sharing with them.

“My apologies,” I told her, “I hope I’m not disturbing you by making these calls.”

“Oh, no,” she said, “I was trying to see if I could understand any of the French you were talking. I think I got a word here and there but no more.”

I’d been talking to my (French) wife and it’s true we tend to switch to that language when there’s a stranger close by (at least in England). And the strategy had worked. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted this fashion plate understanding anything I was saying, however innocent.

Especially as I’d noticed that she was resting her fine high heels on the seat in front of her. That’s a gesture I usually associate with young men in dirty jackets and low-hanging trousers. With boots.

It seems to me that elegance is what elegance does.

We left the train at the same station, Farringdon, in the City of London. I thought basic courtesy at least required me to acknowledge our brief contact half an hour earlier. Since she was obviously heading for an evening out, I thought I’d offer some appropriate wishes.

“Enjoy your evening,” I said.

“You too,” she replied.

I suppose the length of the journey ahead must have caught up with me because I couldn’t resist answering, “oh, I won’t be enjoying it. I’m travelling to Llanelli.”

There was a couple ahead of us, by the door. She smiled. He burst out laughing.

“Well,” he said, “there really is no answer to that.”

I felt I’d perhaps gone too far.

“Oh, I’ve nothing against Llanelli. I’m sure it’s a lovely place.”

It’s true. I like Wales. I like the Welsh, unless there are fifteen of them in red shirts facing the England rugby team. I had no reason to suppose that Llanelli would be anything but lovely.

“It is, it is,” he picked up from me, “but you just don’t want to spend the evening travelling there.”

“Quite,” I confirmed.

Llanelli. Charming place. In the daylight...
The young woman left the train with never a backward look. She may have suspected my motives in addressing her, worse still in leaving the train at the same station. But if she had found my air of satisfaction questionable, she was entirely mistaken: it was due to my managing to leave the train with my suitcase. Last time I arrived at Farringdon, I left one behind on the train, with lots of annoying (and expensive) consequences, not least the need to buy a whole new set of relatively formal clothes before my 11:00 meeting the next morning.

The couple headed for the exit. They were still, I swear, chuckling. 

 I made for the Hammersmith and City line platform to get a tube to Paddington.

And the not-quite-so-elegant-as-she-imagined young lady went tripping along the platform, her heels clicking her off to the evening ahead of her.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

A month in, Trump tells us what to think of him

Of the many bosses I’ve had the privilege to meet over a long career, one of the more memorable impressed me particularly when he called his entire team together and announced to us that, “I’m very good at what I do”.

Most of my fellow-attendees seemed to agree with him. They were smiling and nodding, their eyes shining with admiration. My own different sentiments probably left me in a minority of one, making me something of a jarring note in a company that was otherwise no doubt entirely to his taste.

It may be old-fashioned of me, but I feel that if someone needs to tell me he’s good at his work, he probably isn’t. I’ve worked with a great many people who do a good job and generally you can see from the results of their efforts. You don’t need them to point it out.

We hadn’t worked together long by then and I realised in the meeting that we wouldn’t be working together much longer. At the time, this man who was so good at his work had been twelve months without winning a single sale of his inadequate, defect-ridden product. By the time I left, he’d been eighteen months without sales of that same inadequate product.

At least I came away with a clear measure of the impressive quality of a man good at his work.

All this came back to me when I heard Trump’s words in Florida, where he went to address an audience who felt for him as my colleagues had felt about my boss.

…you've seen what we've accomplished in a very short period of time. The White House is running so smoothly. So smoothly. And believe me, I and we inherited one big mess. That I can tell you, but I know that you want safe neighborhoods where the streets belong to families and communities, not gang members and drug dealers who are right now as I speak being thrown out of the country and they will not be let back in.

Trump in Florida,  with his star-struck fans
The accomplishments have been spectacular indeed. His choice for national security adviser had to stand down, as did his nominee for Secretary of Labor. He orered the exclusion of all visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries, even if they were innocent of any offence against the United States, even though no one from those countries has ever launched a terrorist attack on US soil. As well as being unjust, the measure was probably illegal, and judges threw it out of court.

If these are accomplishments, it’s hard to imagine what failures would look like. And if this smooth-running, it’s hard to imagine what inept amateurs would do.

It’s as though the White House was in the hands of a braggart whose capacity for narcissistic self-delusion was rivalled only by his incompetence.

Or as though my ex-boss had been become President of the United States.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Time for a new Irish joke

It’s been wonderful spending a few days in Ireland. There’s a warmth and generosity to the people here that keeps surprising me, used as I am to the much rougher edge of England. And the place is beautiful.

Dr Steevens' hospital in Dublin
You can query the spelling of the name, but not the charm of the place
Its ironic that the English have the gall to make jokes mocking the Irish.

Not every one of the jokes is bad, as it happens. My favourite is a classic, the answer to a tourist lost in an Irish village who asks, “is this the way to Dublin?”

“Oh,” he’s told, “if I was going to Dublin I wouldn’t start from here.”

Of course, the real reason I like it hasn’t anything to do with Ireland. It applies so much better in the world in which I spend much of my time, that of English business. In serious meetings about such crucial matters as strategy (“whenever I hear the word ‘strategic’,” a former boss once told me, “I get a chill up my spine because I know it’s going to cost me money”), I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told, “we really should have completed that product last year” or “we should have taken on more staff” (sometimes in the variant form, “we shouldn’t have made all those staff redundant”) or “it’s a pity we don’t have more contacts in that area”. Whenever I hear anything like that, I want to scream that we didn’t, or we haven’t, or we don’t, and that we are where we are and that’s the only starting point we can work from.

It was fascinating to see how many Irishmen talked about Brexit. They’re preparing for it, but in discussing Brexit with us, they always have a metaphorical shake of the head, as though to say, “what on Earth are you Brits thinking of? Have you taken complete leave of your senses?”

Actually, one of the people I spoke to didn’t even leave it metaphorical. She just asked what possible form of brainstorm had affected Britain.

Most are a little more polite than that. In words, at least, even when their actions speak loud. One told me that he’d lived and worked four and a half years in London but has just moved back. He had been working in one of the many Europe-wide organisations that have their headquarters in Britain.

“They’ve already begun cutting back on staff, and others have gone of their own accord. I didn’t apply for other jobs but when this one came up, I leaped at it immediately. I don’t want to be around when the whole card castle collapses.”

“You think your organisation will move away?”

“I can’t see how they can stay, can you? And practically every capital in the other 27 states has already put in a bid to house it. You can’t miss the writing on the wall…”

This all leaves me feeling it’s time for a new joke, to be told by the Irish at the expense of the English. It would go something like this:

“Did you hear about the Englishman who decided to leave the European Union?”

“No. What happened?”

“Oh, that’s it. Nothing else. There isn’t a punchline.”

It’s not very funny, I know. But isn’t that the whole point? Brexit may be laughable, but in a pretty mirthless way.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Birds of a Brexit feather?

Birds of a feather flock together, they say. Or to put it the way the French do, tell me who you hang out with, and I’ll tell you who you are.

Erdoğan, Trump and May. Birds of a feather? 
Germany has just elected a president of the centre-left, backed by both the two biggest parties, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and her coalition partners, the Social Democrats.

It was interesting to be in France last week. Support for the Conservative candidate for the presidential election in May has collapsed, following the publication of revelations about his use of nearly a million euros of public money to employ as political assistants his wife (who claims she did no work or him) and his children (who weren’t qualified for the work they were ostensibly asked to do. Meanwhile, the far-right candidate, Marine le Pen, may we have seen her support peak, at a shockingly high level – perhaps as high as 30% – but with a growing probability that she’ll struggle to raise it any higher and will therefore miss her chance at the presidency. This has raised hopes that  a moderate candidate of the centre left, Emmanuel Macron, may take the prize.

Following on from the defeat of the hard right candidate for the Austrian presidency, it begins to feel as though the unappetising xenophobic nationalism that has gripped Trump’s America and Brexit Britain may not after all be unstoppable. It may, indeed, already have reached its high-water mark.

There’s a glimmer of hope in the darkness, then. A sense that the infection that has been poisoning our societies can be resisted. A growing feeling, even, that Europe can pull together, stand united, and uphold the kind of values we thought, in pre-Trump days, were secure in the democracies.

Sadly, for those nations where the populist currents have already wreaked their toxic harm, that doesn’t make life any easier. Facing a cold, bleak world out there, Britain is having to go, cap in hand, to some dubious friends. In order that it can leave the EU and turns its back on the old friends who may soon be making a stand for the principles we previously believed Britons held dear.

Theresa May was proud to be the first foreign leader to visit Donald Trump. That’s the man who, on grounds of security against terrorism, has been trying to exclude foreigners from seven countries which have never been the source of an attack on American soil. Foiled by the judiciary in his first attempt to impose that diktat, he has resorted to attacks on judges worthy of autocrats anywhere. He’s not keen on journalists who dare to criticise him either.

His visitor, it seems, isn’t that keen on them either. It has been revealed that May’s government is planning legislation against whistle-blowers that threatens them, and journalists who publish the information they provide, with prison. Another hallmark of the authoritarian regime.

Which leads neatly into the tale of May’s next foreign visit, to Turkey. There she called on Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the strong man who hasn’t merely attacked the judiciary in words, but has dismissed 125,000 people from their jobs, including police and judges, on no better grounds than a denunciation by anonymous informers. Indeed, he even has 45,000 in gaol facing terrorist charges.

Trump and Erdogan. These are the people Brexit Britain has to hang out with.

Does that tell us what Britain’s becoming? Because that feels like a pretty dismal picture of the nation.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Warm memories of hard times

It’s a pleasure to write this post in the dining room at Basel railway station in Switzerland, a setting of some historical importance for my family.

Basel station dining room: tasteful, pleasant, even luxurious
Now as it was 70 years ago
1946 was a hard year for Britain. The Second World War finished the country as a world power. By loading itself with debt and throwing all its resources into the fight, along with quite a few from its imperial possessions, the country managed to defend its home soil against Nazi Germany. It couldn’t go over to the offensive without support from the US. There was no question of its playing a significant role in the Pacific Theatre. That lack of strength and its crippling debts would spell the end of the empire in the first couple of decades after the war, a time when the country would also awaken to a sense that it should perhaps be less concerned with playing the world power, and focus instead on internal justice and opportunity.

That’s a lesson the nation could do well to learn again, in the face of the great power nostalgia that expressed itself in the Brexit vote. Why, Prime Minister Theresa May even suggests Britain can be a truly global player, a notion which would be amusingly quaint if it weren’t also a toxic delusion.

One of the organisations that was trying to improve internal conditions back in 1946, was the Fabian Society, one of the founding organisations of the British Labour Party.

“You didn’t work for the Fabian Society,” says my mother, who did, “if you wanted to make money. You did it for the principle.”

Bankrupt Britain was living with rationing. You could go abroad, but couldn’t take more than £10 with you. That’s the equivalent of nearly £400 today, hardly a princely sum – a yearly membership at Trump’s golf club in Scotland costs six times more. On a Fabian Society salary, however, even scraping together £10 wasn’t easy. To enjoy a foreign holiday, only the second in her life – the first had been nineteen years earlier, when she was three – my mother had to find an inexpensive option.

Fortunately, she had a German friend also working for the Fabians. The friend’s mother had managed to get out of Germany with her daughter during the Nazi period, after having spent some time producing clandestine opposition publications. The daughter reckoned she could sleep anywhere, having got used to being put to bed in cellars with the press clattering in the background.

Her friend told my mother about an organisation that was helping Germans trying to put themselves back together after the Hitler regime – Jews in some cases, but generally any Socialists, Communists, or others who’d opposed the Nazis and had suffered mental or physical injuries from which they needed to recover. The organisation had an Alpine chalet in the Ticino, the Italian-speaking Swiss canton. Whenever there were spare places, they could be made available to Fabians who wanted a holiday at reasonable cost.

It turned out to be one of my mother’s best holidays, one she remembers with pleasure and in detail seventy years on.

One of the key moments came after an overnight train journey down to Basel, her first stop in Switzerland. While they waited for the train out, they repaired to the station dining room for breakfast. Where, to use an anachronistic expression, they had their minds blown.

“The piles of fine white bread!” she tells me, “the heaps of butter! The jam! The coffee with creamy milk swimming in it!”

Bankrupt Britain, cold and with food rationed, could offer nothing to rival it. This, for the generation whose youth had been broken by the war, was luxury.

No wonder she remembers it so fondly to this day. So should we, who take such riches for granted. To say nothing of the international collaboration that guarantees the peace on which they rest.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

In resisting an autocrat, does good taste really matter?

“An address by a foreign leader to both houses of Parliament is not an automatic right, it is an earned honour,” House of Commons speaker John Bercow told fellow MPs. “Before the imposition of the migrant ban, I would myself have been strongly opposed to an address by President Trump in Westminster Hall. After the imposition of the migrant ban by President Trump, I am even more strongly opposed to an address b President Trump in Westminster Hall.”

As far as the House of Commons is concerned, claimed Bercow, “I feel very strongly that our opposition to racism and sexism and our support for equality before the law and an independent judiciary are hugely important considerations.”

Pretty blunt. Especially as such values as equality before the law and an independent judiciary are fundamental to the United States Constitution itself. He seemed to be accusing Trump of denying not just international political and moral principles but those on which his own country is founded.

That accusation was made still more harshly elsewhere. This week, the generally sober German weekly Der Spiegelhit even harder, with a cover that has raised an outcry even among people who don’t see themselves as allies of Trump’s. They feel it’s over the top to depict Trump with a knife in one hand and the head of the Statue of Liberty, dripping blood, in the other, over the caption ‘America First’.
A picture that lacks charm, perhaps,
but does it lack accuracy?
Critics view the drawing as tasteless, which it certainly is. But, I’d ask, is Trump a champion of good taste himself? At one end of his violent range, he rails at opponents in abusive tweets; at the other, he tries to exclude from the US people who have already been through severe vetting and issued with a visa.

Surely a visa is a commitment to allow someone to enter? Suddenly revoking it sounds like the breach of a promise. Now that’s tasteless. And those who live by the sword, die by the sword.

This strikes me as a good time to remember words that sum up the promise to the world the US once made, a promise that embodies much that’s best in the country.

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

A land of liberty welcoming the oppressed of any other country straining for freedom.

It’s a vision of the US that makes many Americans proud. Not Trump or his supporters, though, one imagines. Unless they don’t see the contradiction between the words and the travel ban, which is is possible: their mental gymnastic ability is often breathtaking.

Of course, you know where the words most famously appear: on the plinth of the Statue of Liberty.

Could Der Spiegel be on to something?