Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Getting on with the in-laws

Pont d'Europe
Pont de l’Europe, Strasbourg. France on this side, Germany on t’other.

 

The marriage vows of the Christian church revolve around the notion of lifetime commitment. If there is a lack of commitment, or a failure to take those vows seriously, the chances of the marriage lasting are immediately weakened . So it has been with Britain and the rest of the E.U.

A few brave souls have recently been suggesting that there should be more rather than less European engagement in Britain, and it is perhaps instructive to consider what might have happened had British domestic power decided to encourage the nation fully to engage with the E.U.

I wonder how many people know that the southern counties of England and the northern regions of France technically constitute Trans-Manche Euro-Region. It is part of a policy called Interreg dating from the 1990s to foster cross-border co-operation in all parts of Europe.

Here is how the Daily Mail reported it in 2006:

New map of Britain that makes Kent part of France…and it’s a German idea

For centuries the people of Kent have called their county the Garden of England. So they might find it quite a surprise that – according to the European Union at least – they are actually part of France.

Along with next-door Sussex, Kent has been rolled in with the Calais area on a map drawn up for Brussels.

The Tories accused the EU of plotting to undermine nation states and even “wipe Britain off the map”.

Never failing to use the E.U. to make domestic capital, Eric Pickles claimed:

“Under the Labour Government, Britain has already been subdivided into regions as part of John Prescott’s empire building.

“I fear Eurocrats could literally wipe Britain off the map and hardworking families and pensioners should be concerned that Europe wants the authority to build a database of their homes – this threatens to lead to an EU-wide property tax.

The Daily Telegraph reported the same development thus:

New EU map makes Kent part of same ‘nation’ as France

They have tried to redraw the map of Europe before. Now a German-led “conspiracy of cartographers” stands accused of trying to use a new European Union directive to give Brussels the power to change national boundaries.

Under the changes, those living in Kent and East Sussex would find themselves not inhabitants of Britain, but the TransManche region, where their fellow citizens would not be their English-speaking neighbours but the French-speaking population of northern France.

North of the TransManche would be the North Sea region, taking in all of eastern England and vast areas of Scandinavia, Germany and the Low Countries.

Western Britain and Ireland would become the Atlantic region, a huge zone that also takes in parts of France, Spain and Portugal.

Perhaps most bizarre would be the Northern Periphery region, lumping together the population of north-west Scotland with their very distant cousins in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Greenland and Iceland.

The barely-disguised xenophobia made no attempt at balance, barely even at accuracy, beyond a footnote to the effect that the Euro-regions were largely intended to co-ordinate economic, environmental and transport planning, and that they were chaired by local authorities. There was no attempt whatsoever to consider why such co-operation might have been beneficial.

No matter that plenty of people in northern Scotland do not consider Scandinavians to be ‘very distant’ cousins, or that there is already a healthy cultural exchange going on between the ‘Celtic fringe’ nations of Europe.

The implications of such reporting for British perceptions of Europe hardly needs further explaining.

Our failure in Europe became a self-fulfilling prophesy. Had we joined Schengen and the Euro and –yes – shared the associated risk, the practical impact would have been significant. For example, the planned trains from the British regions to the continent would have remained viable because domestic passengers could have filled empty seats (as happens every day on the continent), rather than their being neurotically ‘sealed’ on departure. Without the deterrent of airline-style check-in at the Tunnel, it would become as easy to commute from say Ashford to Lille as it is across any continental border. The Channel would have become no greater barrier than the Alps. Had we joined the Euro, there would not even be the inconvenience of differing currencies.

I have a friend who lives in Basel; every day, his son used to travel to school in Germany and thought very little of it. Every day, thousands of people travel from Belgium into the Greater Lille area, from Kehl in Germany into Strasbourg, and from France into Basel and Geneva to work or shop. It is a non-event. But we British have never been allowed to find out what benefits this could bring. Our political classes have utterly failed to see that the world has moved on. Their every action still reeks of a colonial mindset where Britain’s supposed ‘sovereignty’ needs to be defended against hostile outsiders, no matter what cost to the nation. They cannot get their heads around the fact that Britain is now – and should be – just one amongst the many partner-nations in Europe. They never even got round to removing European Affairs from the Foreign Office. Which says it all.

In fact, the real issue here is the refusal of the British Establishment to relinquish power even when it is clearly in the nation’s interest. We see the same thing evident in their reluctance to move power down the scale to the regions as well. It is all about keeping maximum power in Whitehall.

I believe we would be in a very different place now, had British opinion-formers decided to commit to the European marriage rather than remaining the frigid, stand-offish partner who only ever wanted to remain single anyway.

It is true that as an island nation, we Brits probably had more work to do to get used to our new marriage: visiting the in-laws is rather more involved than walking across a bridge. But had those in government taken a different line, by now we would be seeing the benefits of a seamless relationship with our partners.

Instead of declining post-Tunnel, the channel ports might have connected and thrived – and the shameless Brexit-disdain that the residents of Dover have shown for their opposite numbers in Calais might never have happened.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Notes from beyond 4: Are we all together in this?

teaching personally

If Gaby Hinsliff is to be believed, it seems as I’m not so much on the scrap-heap as in the vanguard of a revolution against the long-hours culture. If she’s right, people are tiring of the amount of time they are being required to give to their employers. Of course, there’s more to it than that, particularly in a vocation like teaching – but it is possible that a combination of stagnant wages, the country’s ever-growing wealth disparity and the sense that those in charge really don’t care very much really is causing the blinkers to fall.

In my case, I put my all into my career for thirty years, to an extent to which that was so is really only apparent now I have stopped. It is what we were told we should do – by people whom, it turns out were offering illusory rewards, and who were interested…

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Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

A very British revolution.

EU-UK-flag
Image: wintonsworld.com

Britain is one of the very few European countries that have not experienced a revolution or other significant national trauma in the recent past – by which I mean the past couple of centuries. France, Spain, Russia and more have all come to a point where the old regime was sufficiently unpopular to endure; radical action was the way forward. Of those who did not experience this, the majority were forced into a fundamental rethink of their raisons d’être by virtue of World War Two. Only in Britain, despite the difficult conditions, was continuity the theme.

Further back in time there was the English Revolution of the second half of the 17th Century – but it was such an uncertain affair that historians cannot even agree on which event is best labelled as such. While it did bring an end to absolute monarchy, the fact that the Restoration took place shortly afterwards might cause one to doubt whether it really constituted a significant new start.

In the meantime, British national identity has come to be defined by two surprisingly short interludes, the first deriving from its economic prowess between around 1850 and the early Twentieth Century, and then the country’s military-political role in the Second World War, neither of which were as unequivocal or unilateral as the national story would have us believe, and certainly neither embedded in popular democracy.  Combined with its insular outlook, it has arguably given this country a self-perception based on past glories which has seen no need to adapt to the immense changes in the world in the meantime.

Events like the Suez Crisis in 1956 perhaps dented the nation’s sense of pre-eminence – but did not destroy it. Deindustrialisation in the 1970s caused the last vestiges of economic dominance to fall away, and is perhaps the source of the country’s schizophrenic superiority-inferiority complex that we see today.

But adapt it could not. As U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson said in 1971, “Britain lost an empire and has not yet found a role”. It is still true today – but as it became increasingly impossible to ignore this fact the country simply retreated further and further into the nostalgia that is the root cause of the Brexit decision. Despite having the outward appearance of a modern democracy, this country is still largely run by a small elite, in some cases the descendants of the aristocracy, but supplemented with those who have gained power through money. The old social calendar is still there, albeit largely unseen, for those with the money and connections to access it. Even being charitable, they can have little sense what life is now like for the ordinary people of the country.

The European Union represents a huge threat to these people’s hegemony – for a start it emanates from countries that have known real trauma in a way the British have not – and who have had to rethink their societies from the ground up. Post-war idealism set in place in many of those countries institutions that while by no means perfect, are based on a fundamental assumption of Equality. The E.U. is the greatest expression of that; anyone studying its workings or watching it at first hand (as I have) can be left in no doubt about that, even if the reality is not above criticism.

Such ideas threaten (or are perceived to threaten) the old order that still holds the reins of power in Britain. Principles such as Proportional Representation and consensual politics in general threaten the long-standing hegemony of the British Right, and are therefore to be panned. The E.U. was resisted at every turn when it tried to speak directly to the British People, and its implementation of policy that was not directly beneficial to the British Establishment was rejected or diluted in the form of opt-outs.

It would not be accurate, I suspect, to suggest that everything the British did to resist the E.U. was done for nefarious reasons; some of it is probably the entirely genuine response of an established patriarchy to perceived threats to its existence. But the British Establishment has a view of the world that has changed even less than that of the rest of the nation; it simply cannot get its head round the fact that Britain is no longer the pole around which the world revolves, and it simply does not ‘get’ the fact that the E.U., for all its imperfections, is a body intended to benefit ordinary peoples.

Widely- benign legislation such as workers’ rights, an insistence on democratic institutions in its member-states, and environmental and consumer protection have traditionally been far stronger than the British domestic equivalent. Likewise regional aid, which has to date done far more for Britain’s deprived further regions that Westminster ever has.  Unlike the militaristic British it’s role in the wider world has been conciliatory (though admittedly not always effective). But they threaten the established order; why else would this country ‘need’ so many opt-outs from legislation that for the most part suits 27 similar nations well enough?  Just what is so special about this country – except the privilege retained by and for those who run it?

Recent events, of which Brexit is merely the peak – have finally pushed British delusion to the point that it can no longer be ignored. The failure of neo-liberal economic policies to distribute wealth to more than a small minority, while simultaneously eroding both social infrastructure and welfare support for the rest, the failure to restrain the vested interests that now hamstring this country, and scandals such as M.P.’s expenses have finally shown the British that their domestic system is no less rotten than some of those to which they considered themselves superior by birthright.

But the hegemony of the British establishment is as strong as it is concealed. A sense of powerlessness and apathy exists amongst the ordinary people of this country; it is the inheritance of a nation whose ordinary citizens are in fact not citizens at all, but subjects of the monarch – a monarch in whose name many national institutions still technically operate, and who on theory can still have the last word on the laws of the land. Cow-towing to authority (and raging about it privately later) is the national instinct.

Despite the fine words, there is a tacit but distinct lack of the determination to build and defend a just society such as I have seen in those countries that have known still (just) within living memory what it is to lose it. Most people just shrug; I won’t decry the unwillingness to take the barricades – I don’t know if I would have the courage either.

Such is the ‘respectable’ plausibility of the Establishment that they have succeeded in deflecting the anger of many, towards the E.U. itself. Those people are gullible enough to believe the age-old platitudes about British greatness, dished out by those who have most interest in perpetuating the national myth. I fear that even many who march in favour of the E.U. don’t really know much about it – it’s just where they go on holiday. Where were they over the past decades when those of us who advocated pro-Europeanism met universal indifference – that is when we weren’t being shouted down?

But at least we are beginning to see the real state of things. The rottenness of the British political system is now in plain view – from a Prime Minister who claims to execute the will of the people while wantonly ignoring the wishes of at least half of them (that is not how true democracies work) – to the brazen use of public money to cling to office when the normal route fails.  And now a blatant power-grab as laws are repatriated. People are decrying the loss of democracy – but didn’t they notice, we never really had it? A patriarchal, elective dictatorship (hidden behind that veneer of upper class respectability) was the perceptive phrase.

One of the weaknesses of European Integration is the fact that it still relies on stereotypes between neighbours who are still getting to know one another; the British have hidden behind that veneer of decency that our diplomats exude, concealing the rot going on behind it; the continentals were taken in. Now, their delusions have been well and truly shattered; we no longer have any more credibility than those nations on whom we traditionally look down. It is clear to all from the table-thumping that the British political class – let alone the rest – just don’t ‘get’ the fact that running a continent has to be built on negotiation, consensus and the sharing of risk; why would they? They don’t even run their own country that way.

I don’t expect to see blood on the streets if Britain any time soon – and I won’t suggest that that is a bad thing. But what else is it going to take before the order changes in this country? I suspect that many Britons still don’t realise how potentially serious this schism is – after all, national disasters only happen overseas.

My hope is that the continuing impossibility of the task ahead will eventually turn floating public opinion. Much national credibility will have been lost, and the damage to the social fabric of the country will take a generation to heal. But if that can happen, then we may look back on this period as the time when Britain did finally find a new role for itself. Maybe this trauma is precisely what is needed – a form of velvet revolution – for ordinary Britons finally to notice and understand the importance of the project that has been developing on their doorsteps – and choose to take an active role in it after all.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs, Travel

Missed again – or why Britain’s public transport lags behind its neighbours’

657_Electrification_of_Ardwick_Depot__Stabling_and_fuelling_roads_from_eastern_end_looking_west

In 2012, the government announced the largest investment in railway electrification since the 1970s.  Lines to Bristol and South Wales, Sheffield and the East Midlands, and across the Pennines between Manchester and Leeds, and from Southampton to the Midlands were all due to be wired. We were told that it would bring journey savings, efficiency gains, environmental gains, removal of freight from the roads, and more – all of which in technical terms is true.

Last week, the same party scrapped most of the schemes due to cost over-runs on the one that has actually got underway between London and Bristol. We are now told we don’t need electric trains and the ‘visual intrusion’ they bring. They can’t both be right.

Why does this county so often fail in matters of national investment? By comparison, virtually all of the French, German and Italian main line networks have been electric for decades – and in Switzerland the coverage is 100% – even down to rural branch lines. Then there is the money that has already been wasted raising bridges and tunnels for wires that will not now appear, and designs for trains whose performance will be compromised from the start by the need to carry round heavy diesel engines.

What the government never admits is that the problem here is of its own making: by privatising the railways, a great deal of technical expertise has been lost: private franchise holders are not interested in this kind of long-term investment, and much of the skill-base that was present under British Rail was simply pensioned off. Replacement expertise can be, and has been bought in – at a cost. The new infrastructure was developed in Switzerland – but as with all private ventures, the costs of the profit motive, delay compensation and legal complexity ratchet up overall costs and have resulted in a huge cost-overrun on the Great Western scheme even before it is finished.

The other unspoken matter, I suspect, is the imminent loss of EU moneys that would have funded some of the work under the Trans-European Network programme and for instance, the follow-on electrification of suburban lines in the Welsh Valleys, which will presumably not now happen either. In the past few years, schemes in this country have been funded to the tune of €43 million by the E.U. Also note that it is the provinces that are going to lose out yet again – I wonder whether the same decision would have been taken for London’s network. The graph below shows per capita investment by English region in public transport in 2016. It makes salutary viewing in that respect.

transport spending

A  fast, modern and efficient rail network is an essential piece of infrastructure for any nation, but yet again our masters have failed to grasp the opportunity to make a radical step forward – a valuable scheme torpedoed by short-term political expediency. Once more, this country is failing to deliver something than many of our neighbours have had for decades, and which will be all the more necessary to allow the British economy to compete when or if Brexit occurs. The contrast is notable between the fanfare with which the programme was launched and the way it was unceremoniously buried on the last day before the parliamentary recess: standard procedure for failed policies. Yet again, our sclerotic, indecisive political system will have wasted money planning but then failing to  deliver what a few years it told us we urgently needed.

 

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

The Long Game

May
photo: http://www.theguardian.com

I wonder how History will judge this period in the story of the British nation(s). Living through it, the predominant impression is of directionless chaos, with all the usual certainties about the State we live in suspended, not least that unspoken national belief that disasters happen elsewhere.

Having encountered grass-roots continentals on an annual basis for the last couple of decades, it has only reinforced my view that by comparison there are some very ugly, uncivilised characters in Britain. We’re not the only ones of course: there is a segment of German society which is pretty brutal too, and no doubt most countries have their equivalent – otherwise we would not have seen the rise in far-Right support that we have. How do you respond to such threats?

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, I suspect like many, was prepared to give her space, if only because the alternatives were worse. Despite her secretive and authoritarian instincts, she is no fool, and at least projected the right image. It doesn’t need me to describe what has happened since.

But I wonder whether History may still judge her more kindly than we currently suspect. When I was teaching, I sometimes used a form of reverse psychology with difficult pupils. If one creates what is admittedly an illusion between the consequences of two courses of action, it is possible to deflect people from self-destruction without a loss of face. It uses a classic cognitive flaw where people fall for a false dichotomy.

I find it hard to understand May’s trajectory on Brexit without recourse to one of two explanations: either she was a closet Brexiteer all along, and she simply kept her powder dry during the referendum campaign – which is disingenuous enough that if true, she deserves to lose her position on the strength of it alone; or she is playing the same cognitive flaw with the nation. Realising the democratic impasse created by the referendum result, could she be giving the nation a taste of the consequences that it will face if hard Brexit goes ahead, in the hope that enough people will recoil before it actually comes to pass, that a rethink becomes possible? Why else would she still be playing hard-ball? It is like my teacher-strategy of outlining consequences to a difficult pupil and then asking, “Do you REALLY want to go down that path? Are you SURE?”

Meanwhile, prominent characters on the EU side seem to be doing as much as they can to leave the door open for Britain. Their motives may be less than pure, of course – but my admittedly-biased impression is that they are showing a concern for the people of this country that many do not show for themselves, and nor indeed do their national leaders. Will they yet save us from ourselves?

The current debate in Britain is not just the one that should have happened before the Referendum, but the one that should have been happening for the last forty years. But maybe at last, the British are starting to realise what the European project is really about.

Events in the interim have clearly not gone to plan for May – but there are some signs that public opinion is indeed beginning to shift about what outcome it prefers. Maybe the brinksmanship is starting to have an impact. There’s a long way to go, and I offer this theory without much confidence that it holds water.

But if it turns out to be correct, May could still go down in history as one of our most courageous Prime Ministers after all.