Tag: politics

Pity the Poor MP

Pity the Poor MP

The journalist Ben Goldacre has a favourite saying, and now the title of one his books:  “I think you’ll find it’s a little more complicated than that.” It applies to many things, but most of all to politics.

We ask a lot of our politicians. They work long days, and unless they escape somewhere far away, they’re never really on holiday. Family life is difficult and the divorce rate is high. A UK MP’s salary, currently £84,000, seems high, but that’s not so high if we’re trying to attract candidates who have already proved themselves highly competent in their own fields. At least it’s not if we expect them to give up their second jobs and become full-time MPs.

Once upon a time, the great majority of MPs were lawyers, doctors, farmers, journalists, trade union officials and so on, who were allowed to continue their extra-parliamentary activities so long as it didn’t interfere with their Commons work. I accept that there were MPs who effectively treated Westminster as their second job, and that wasn’t right. However, Parliament now seems filled with full-time career politicians, which can have unintended consequences. Some of those consequences are being seen now.

Nowadays, if an MP loses his or her seat at an election, they’re unemployed. Out of a job. On the dole, receiving benefits. There’s a short three-month parachute payment, but after that…? If there’s a landslide defeat, and many MPs suddenly all come onto the labour market at the same time, it can be really hard to find work. When the Conservatives were swept out of office in 1997, half of all the defeated MPs were still out of work six months later. Some lost their homes. It’s a genuinely scary prospect for an MP. As the Tory MP Charles Walker put it, “There’s nothing so ‘ex’ as an ex-MP.” That’s particularly the case in today’s job market.

So they’ll do anything they can to stop becoming ‘ex’. If that means defending the indefensible, they’ll do it. If it means supporting some dimwit to become party leader, they’ll do it. If they’re asked questions on party policy by media journalists, they’ll talk gibberish in support of the party line rather than give the honest, considered answer they’d really prefer to offer.

Most MPs – of all parties – are usually described by their constituents as “hard-working on behalf of their constituents”. They enjoy attending uncontroversial local events, or helping individual constituents with housing or financial problems. I can’t imagine they enjoy being ordered to give open public support to tripe.

Many of these MPs know there should be an election. They’ve had enough, but they’ve nowhere to go, the inevitable result of our insistence that politicians work full time. Perhaps the time has come to provide a softer landing for ex-MPs. It’s not the first thing that comes into your head when you look at the current circus act that calls itself Westminster politics. But it’s a little more complicated than that.



For the European Union:

Back in June 2016, Alyn Smith , now SNP Shadow Foreign Affairs Spokesman in the House of Commons but then an MEP, addressed the European Parliament directly following the Brexit vote. His cry was “Remember, Scotland did not let you down – do not let Scotland down!” Yet that’s exactly what the EU did.

Over 48% of UK voters wanted to remain, and 62% of Scots, but the UK Government chose to ignore them, dismiss them even, on the grounds that ‘those were the rules/we voted as a United Kingdom’ – notwithstanding that the public generally didn’t actually want a referendum in the first place. (It was only held to appease Tory activists.) Had such minorities been cast aside in Bosnia, Kosovo, Myanmar, in Syria, in the DRC, Rwanda or Burundi, the EU would have responded very differently. Democracy is not majority rule.

Yet when it came to Brexit, the EU did indeed let Scotland down, and spectacularly. To a lesser extent, it let Northern Ireland down, too, although there at least the vote was close. It even let one of the R27 down: the Irish Republic – it should have made it far harder for the Good Friday Agreement to be unpicked.

And why? Two reasons. First, because it wanted to discourage any other country from such making such a rash move. It probably succeeded there, but it was like using the death penalty to discourage double parking. Second, because it cow-towed to Madrid, which was afraid that allowing special arrangements for Scotland and Northern Ireland would open the door to Catalonian separatists. By the time it became clear that the three situations were very, very different, it was too late.

For the UK Government

Although the Conservatives clearly forced the pace of Brexit and take the lion’s share, it isn’t only the Tories who are to blame for where we’re at. Sure, a couple of weak Conservative Prime Ministers failed to stand up to their own backbenchers, but Labour also allowed itself to be infiltrated by anti-EU activists. Sure, the EU is a capitalist free market with a great many faults, but leaving the EU doesn’t help to change it.

But both the major parties were guilty of using the UK’s relationship with the EU to get elected. And it’s a lot easier to point out the weaknesses in any institution than its strengths: defending anything instinctively sounds negative. For decades, too, successive UK governments have been all too happy to allow EU bureaucratic regulation to shoulder the blame for actions the UK strongly supported itself: over safety requirements, in the environment, safeguarding fishing stocks, data protection, human rights and many others. It was cowardly to hide behind Brussels, and now we’re paying the price for it.

For the British Public

At some point in the future, history will allow us to look in the mirror and recognise that the principal driver in the Brexit vote was out and out racism. We’re all a little bit racist; anyone who tries to say ‘I’m not a racist’ is virtually shining a light on their own racism. Racism is underpinned by fear of the unknown, of the different. Just imagine if you were sitting on a sofa, and a big friendly green Martian sat down beside you: you’d instinctively want to move away slightly. Or if every Middle East refugee in the world was to settle in your city: you’d not be happy, complaining that your housing, services and economy was overwhelmed, and that communication was impossible. And of course that some of these refugees could be terrorists seeking to return home, with all the collateral implications for your local area.

I’m not saying that there aren’t plenty of folk out there with genuinely held anti-EU views, but they were more than happy to allow swathes of racist xenophobes to latch on to them. That was certainly shameful. On the other hand, though, ordinary people want the right to vote, and with that comes a responsibility to use it wisely. Too many people in the UK freely admit that they voted in 2016 when they hadn’t a clue what they were voting for. Astonishingly, huge numbers of Brexit voters did so in order to protest against the influx of illegal Asian and African migrants.

It’s extraordinary that antisemitism and Islamophobia have dominated the news so much recently, yet the UK public couldn’t relate that to its own complaints about Poles and other Eastern Europeans. Perhaps it was appropriate, then, that we left the EU in the same week as Holocaust Memorial Day. Despite the fine words, we’ve clearly learned nothing at all.


(Image: Banksy on Brexit/Flickr)

7 Lessons from the 2019 UK General Election

Screenshot 2019-12-15 at 20.47.58
(Map courtesy of BBC News)

  1. The Brexit debate is over: we’re leaving the EU. The General Election was, if anything, more of a ‘People’s Vote’ than a Parliamentary Election, and a ratification of the original decision. For all that, there’s little evidence that the public is any less divided on EU membership, as voting for anti-Brexit parties including the Lib-Dems, Greens, SNP and Northern Irish republicans actually went up. All that’s happened is that Remainers (at least in England and Wales) have accepted the inevitable, and everyone has had enough.
  2. Conservative leader Boris Johnson might have had his faults, but he was seen as a safer pair of hands than the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. In this, he had two advantages: first, he was an incumbent Prime Minister, and second, he had been Conservative Mayor of London, a traditional Labour stronghold.
  3. Scotland is not happy, and will continue to be unhappy. As much as the result was a triumph for the Tories in England and Wales, it was a triumph for the SNP in Scotland. That might not be a vote for independence but rather howling at years of being ignored by Conservative Governments in Westminster. The SNP is beginning to build a credible case that Scots should at least be able to decide if and when it should hold future independence referendums.
  4. Northern Ireland is fed up with the way its established parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, have behaved in recent years. Voters are becoming increasingly weary of the petty squabbles that led to the suspension of Stormont. But there was also a swing towards republican parties and against Brexit. Ireland will be on the front line of the new UK-EU border, and it doesn’t want to be.
  5. Campaigns are most effective when kept simple, appear to respect the will of the people and are united. The Conservatives’ ‘Get Brexit Done’ worked; the Lib-Dems’ complete rejection of the Brexit result was a disastrous insult to the voters; Labour’s completely confused position on Brexit was arguably worst of all. Labour MPs and trade union leaders seemed utterly at odds with each other.
  6. The predominantly right-wing media played their part. Most of the UK press ran screaming anti-Corbyn headlines each day, while ‘backing Boris’. The use of first or second names is subliminally very powerful. In Scotland, ‘Nicola’ benefited from a similar bounce, despite right-wing press references to her as ‘Sturgeon’.
  7. The general public, through social media, is now as much part of the political scene as politicians. Reaction to comments on Leader Debates or BBC’s Question Time trended on Twitter instantly, so much so that the parties had to manage it themselves.

…but One Note of Caution for Conservatives…

  1. A large majority means the entire Westminster dynamic could change. When a PM has a large majority, he can afford to ignore some of his party’s extremists at both edges, so he really could mean it when he promises to be a ‘One Nation’ PM. However, it cuts both ways: those on the extremes can afford to vote against their party more, safe in the knowledge that it won’t bring their government down. It was in these circumstances that the anti-EU groups on both wings of politics coalesced into something cataclysmic. A lot can change in five years. It’s worth recalling that in 1997, the Conservative Eurosceptic wing that eventually became Brexiteers turned its party’s majority of 20 into a record Labour landslide of 197.

You Can’t Always Have What Ya Want…

LeadersIt’s hard to understand why Theresa May and others on both sides of the House of Commons are so fixated on delivering Brexit. It’s not just that Brexit will bring make Britain immeasurably poorer – although it will – it’s that it has to be in the EU’s interests to punish the first country that leaves “pour enourager les autres.” No amount of negotiation can airbrush that away. There is no solution: the sort of ‘dream Brexit’ we were promised is, and always was, utterly undeliverable.

Yet still we hear that “the public will never forgive us if we don’t deliver on Brexit”. Well, UK politicians, the public are a little more forgiving than you give them credit for, and the concept of “you can’t always get what you want” is quite an easy concept for most people with a mental age of over 5 to get their heads round. Sure, that excludes Jacob Rees-Mogg, Nigel Farage, Britain First and so on, but most of the rest of can grasp, for instance, that there’s no way to fund the NHS if we abolish all taxes. Much as we might like it, some things are just not doable.

That’s the line our politicians should be taking right now: “Sorry, can’t be done.” Put it to a second vote if you insist, although our politicians got us into this mess and I’m not sure why the public should be expected to dig them out of it.

It’s what statesmanship demands. Anyone know what ‘statesmanship’ means? How many of the current generation would be prepared to lay down their career for the sake of the country? The festive answer is correct: Ho, ho, ho.