Does Brexit solve anything that matters?

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The Gas Museum at Fakenham Norfolk

Recently much of my energy has been devoted to promoting the arguments that I presented in my paper The Impact of Brexit on North Norfolk (this can be downloaded from the link on the left).  In this way I feel that I have made my own modest contribution to prevent the catastrophe that is EU withdrawal.  How much effect my efforts have had is questionable.  However I have been gratified to find that the paper and its arguments have been well received by those who are facing the practical employment challenges in the area where I now live.

For some time I have been particularly aware of the problems faced by local school-leavers – especially those who are seeking vocational employment, qualifications and training rather than a University education.  The opportunities for what might be called 21stcentury apprenticeships are worse in Norfolk than for comparable coastal and retirement areas.

My wife and I are voluntary mentors at a secondary school in the area: currently we offer support to a group of Year 12 (first year 6th) students at Fakenham Academy.  Almost all of the students we meet have undertaken some part-time or vacation work in the local hospitality industry; this has taught them the importance of reliability, working in teams and, above all, dealing with customers. They produce hilarious tales of the frequently ignorant and often patronising behaviour of posh townies who visit the area.  What the students lack at this stage is the practical skills base that would prepare them for work in the science or engineering based industries. Similarly, on the arts side, limited accessibility, with rural transport a major problem, means that it is difficult for local young people to get exposure to music, theatre and exhibitions.

I have been campaigning on youth employment issues since my retirement some four years ago.  In all my subsequent research activity I have been impressed by the quality of the work undertaken by the local authority staff at both District and County Council level.  Rather than being defensive they welcomed new ideas.  I was also pleasantly surprised when Councillor Nigel Dixon, the District Council Cabinet Member for Economic Development and Tourism, sought the opportunity to meet me and comment on the work – he had evidently read my paper in detail. Councillor Dixon is a Conservative; I will never be anything but a Labour Party member but we had a constructive exchange on the challenges facing the area.

What this brief interlude brought home to me is how unproductive the economic debate has become since the June 2016 referendum.  The current Labour leadership is ambivalent about the role of business, something that should be central to the Brexit debate. Moreover the key players – Corbyn, McDonnell, Abbott, Thornberry and indeed Keir Starmer – all have London constituencies and have little practical knowledge of rural employment issues.  On the other side of the divide the Conservative Party appears to have no ambitions beyond political survival and the installation of a new leader after EU withdrawal on whatever terms in March 2019.

Brexit has been a damaging distraction.  Right across the political spectrum it has sucked in energy that is desperately needed elsewhere.  Enhanced employment opportunities for school-leavers in rural areas are but one example of a difficult problem that needs urgent consideration, imaginative new policies and determined application if we are going to the right thing by our children and grandchildren.

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The people have spoken – or have they?

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Many of our politicians – both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are prominent here – are proclaiming that, while we have much to lose and little to gain, ‘Brexit must mean Brexit’ or variants thereof.  However wrong they think it was, in some way or other, the 51.9% no vote in June 2016 (37% of the electorate) must be treated as sacrosanct.

Amongst those who expressed this view is my own North Norfolk MP, the LibDem Norman Lamb.  As a Labour Party member I have crossed swords with him on many occasions – most notably on student fees – but he has always been courteous.   He is an assiduous member and is the sort of person who remembers everyone’s name.  He has established a formidable local machine, though it was not mobilised in any way that I could see in the 2016 Referendum. His energy has allowed him to continue to hold on to what, demographically, should be a safe Tory seat.  He is however flaky on Europe.  Like his local party, he kept a low profile in the 2016 Referendum campaign and was one of two LibDems who, just over a year ago, chose to abstain rather than vote against the Article 50 Bill.  He justified his stance in a New European podcast *.

In a careful studio interview, Norman Lamb was a model of politeness. He began by saying that he voted and campaigned for Remain and the result was “A mistake… fuelled by a fairly dishonest campaign”.   However he continued by saying that he held ”a basic view in terms of democracy that if you voted in Parliament to hold the referendum…  which we did, you can’t just pretend it hasn’t happen.  If you actually played through that the consequences for the reaction in the country would be pretty bleak”.

I wrote to Norman Lamb asking him if he would elaborate and, to his credit, received a detailed reply.  He said: “The point I was making was that, as I had voted to hold the referendum, I do not feel that I can simply seek to block the outcome of that vote – and that if we were to do that it could create a dangerous divide in the country and the risk of people concluding that their vote had been ignored.  I fear that that would undermine democracy and potentially create the conditions for anger to boil over”.  Here I must disagree.  For my part I cannot envisage local Norfolk pensioner groups grabbing their pitchforks, taking to the barricades, and then marching to London to capture the citadel should the dreadful decision on withdrawal be reversed.

Earlier this month I arranged to see Norman Lamb at one of his regular surgeries.  I went with two objectives.  First to see if he could encourage the significant number of LibDem North Norfolk District Councillors to develop an agenda to ameliorate the disastrous effects of Brexit on his constituency (see my earlier blog https://wordpress.com/post/leftyoldman.wordpress.com/1040) . My second objective was to persuade him to move away from ‘the people have spoken’ and to display more courage in his convictions.  Unsurprisingly I was achieved more progress on the first objective than the second, though he will clearly support a fresh referendum.

The sad truth is that many Parliamentarians are convinced that it is in the UK’s short and long-term interests to remain in both the customs union and the single market, but that would mean saying that the 2016 referendum decision was just plain wrong.  While this continues they are obliged to put forward convoluted arguments to justify indefensible positions.

 

*The podcast can be downloaded on http://www.theneweuropean.co.uk/top-stories/jeremy-corbyn-brexit-labour-1-5406396.

 

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Two glimmers of light amidst the gloom

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This last week has been a dispiriting one for those of us of a progressive, international disposition. On Sunday (15thApril) Sir Patrick Stewart of Star Trek fame launched the long-awaited ‘People’s Vote’ campaign for a fresh referendum.  The timing could not have been worse; it could hardly have made less impact.  Understandably it was entirely overshadowed by the attacks on Syrian installations that manufactured, stored or supported the use of chemical weapons.  This catastrophe puts all our economic concerns into context.

Later in the week it was revealed that the Home Office had behaved disgracefully in its treatment of long-standing British citizens who settled in the UK from Commonwealth countries before 1971 – with the highest profile victims being the Windrush generation, so-called after the ship that arrived in 1948.

The Government’s performance has rightly been criticised: on Syria for not recalling Parliament; on the treatment of immigrants for its slow response and late apology.  We need an effective opposition and moreover one with the courage to put an unequivocally international perspective. Sadly Jeremy Corbyn has retreated into his comfort zone of pious platitudes on international conflict.  Worse still he seems incapable or unwilling of dealing with continued evidence of antisemitism in the Party he leads.   A House of Commons debate was held on the subject on Tuesday.  Veteran Labour MP Margaret Hodge, once my Councillor In North Islington when Jeremy Corbyn was my MP, was moved to say,  “I never ever thought I would experience significant antisemitism as a member of the Labour party…I have, and it has left me feeling an outsider in the party of which I’ve been a member for over 50 years… I have never felt as nervous and frightened as I feel today about being a Jew. It feels that my party has given permission for antisemitism to go unchallenged. Antisemitism is making me an outsider in my Labour Party.” (and this is 21stCentury Britain).

If ever there were circumstances that underlined the need for Britain acting as a progressive voice as part of the international community they have been abundantly evident over the last seven days.  So, in a gloomy blog, let me offer two threads of comfort. First, French President Emmanuel Macron delivered an inspiring speech to the European Parliament showing the leadership so sadly lacking this side of the channel.  He warned that “there seems to be a European civil war between liberal democracy and rising authoritarianism…where nationalism and egotism takes precedence over what brings us together”; he urged the EU to renew its commitment to democracy. Secondly the House of Lords inflicted a major defeat on the Government by requiring ministers to report on steps to negotiate a continued EU-UK customs union. This may be no more that the latest stage in a long battle but, at last, we can chalk up a win.  The campaign for a Peoples’ Vote may have been derailed, but there are some glimmers of light to beckon us forward.

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Citizens of nowhere unite

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With a year to go from the formal EU withdrawal date it is possible to offer a prediction of the most likely outcome.  A starting-point is the House of Commons Exiting the European Union Committee report on The future UK-EU relationship, which was published earlier this month *. This excellent analysis treads carefully on the politics but suggests a possible end position: the UK will re-enter EFTA (the European Free Trade Area: Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein) as a preliminary step to joining the EEA (European Economic Area: EFTA plus Switzerland). This solution will do the least long-term damage to trading relationships while allowing both Tory and Labour leadership to tell the electorate that they have respected their wishes as expressed in the referendum.   If this is indeed what transpires, this shameful chapter will end with us having achieved nothing and dumping a political problem on the next generation.

So how did we get to this state of affairs?  To answer this question we must revisit the June 2016 Referendum campaign.  It seemed poor at the time; in retrospect it looks even worse. Across the political spectrum there was reluctance amongst remainers to argue that a move to a global economy and an international society was a good thing.  There was a strong desire, particularly amongst the new Labour leadership, to avoid offending insular Labour voters, and a feeling that the sooner the referendum was over the better. There was complacency amongst progressives amounting to a belief that we could win by stealth.

We must learn from our mistakes.  In any future encounters that lie ahead – in implementing the eventual solution or even, optimistically, in a fresh referendum – we must not be afraid to articulate a positive vision.  We must unapologetically put the case for an internationalist perspective.

A necessary start will be to distinguish between patriotism and nationalism.  My country was at its best during the London Olympics.  There was real buzz in the City.  We delivered a challenging event with remarkable efficiency, made many thousands welcome, and shared something with the world.  As a Welshman living in Norfolk I hold to a particular patriotism. I am proud of many features of the society in which I live.  We have a robust welfare state; we have a system of government that is free of corruption; we care for our heritage, and make it accessible to all; we have many of the world’s leading Universities.  However I have been fortunate, in my professional capacity, to have worked overseas alongside colleagues from many different countries. What has struck me is that our aspirations are the same: people I respect want the best for their children and grandchildren but not at the expense of others.

To her shame, in her October 2016 speech at Conservative Party Conference, Prime Minister Theresa May said: “But today, too many people in positions of power behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass in the street.  But if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means”.

Having something in common with someone who carries a different passport is not elitist, nor does it mean that you have nothing in common with people down the road.  Still less does it make you a poor citizen.  Sadly Theresa May’s speech set a tone and encouraged the surge of xenophobia that we are now witnessing. Speaking at a conference of EU nationals living in the UK Gina Miller, the British-Guyanese businesswomen who initiated the 2016 legal challenge (pictured above), said, “prejudice is worn as a badge and a sleeve of honour in Britain post-referendum”.   She is right; this is shameful; such attitudes must be fought with vigour, irrespective of the eventual outcome of withdrawal negotiations.

 

* The Select Committee Repot can be downloaded at https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmexeu/935/935.pdf

 

Norfolk small businesses face uncertainty

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It was concerns about future employment prospects, together with an abhorrence of the growing xenophobia, that made me return to political activism in support of Remain. Subsequent researches on the impact of Brexit on local employment have drawn my attention to the gravity of the local problem.

Generally North Norfolk can be described as an area of low unemployment, with below average wages and productivity, and a higher than average number of smaller, or micro, businesses. I was therefore pleased to take up an invitation to attend a ‘Brexit: Opportunities & Challenges for Small Businesses’ organised by the East Anglia branch of the FSB (Federation of Small Businesses). The event, which was held in Norwich, took the form of a panel discussion; it was well-organised and well-attended.

It was also thoroughly depressing. Small businesses face an uncertain future and, half way through the negotiation process, we are no clearer on the shape of any trade deal.

There were some impressive performances by knowledgeable panelists at the FSB event. Professor Hussein Kassim of the University of East Anglia argued that large companies can take care of themselves but small business are vulnerable. The former are always able to ‘up sticks and go elsewhere’. The Norfolk Chair of the National Farmers Union, Tony Bambridge, tellingly stated that ‘at present I can put my potatoes on a lorry to Spain as easily as I can put them on a lorry to (nearby) Shipdham’. The FSB’s national Policy Director, Martin McTague pointed out that ‘negotiating trade deals is a minority sport’. For most small businesses the challenge was meeting the needs of the immediate customer base. Moreover his evidence suggested, that, given the current uncertainty, many of them were avoiding borrowing and putting any expansion plans on hold.  He also pointed out that 20% of small businesses currently employ EU labour.

Another panelist was the Norwich North Tory MP, Chloe Smith. After a shaky start to her Parliamentary career (she was famously mauled and accused of incompetence in a television interview by Jeremy Paxman) she is now an assured and polished performer. She has clearly positioned herself as a loyal and unquestioning supporter of Prime Minister Theresa May and set out to defend the indefensible. Her line was that the Government was ‘doing things in sequence’ and small business must continue to apply common sense when coping with uncertainty. She made a half-hearted attempt to suggest that the extended transition period agreed on 19th March represented some form of clarification and even went on to imply that a solution was in sight on the Irish border.

Although the meeting was polite in tone, and concentrated on preparation for, rather, than the politics of Brexit, Chloe Smith was given a rough time by some sections of the audience. There is little prospect of new international deals replacing any loss of existing EU customers and, for many of our local small businesses, this is a serious immediate concern. Given the tone I left feeling that we could win the political battle in a fresh referendum. Unfortunately, on the drive home, my car radio informed me that Jeremy Corbyn had just sacked Owen Smith from the Shadow Cabinet for suggesting just that.

 

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A shameful episode in Labour’s history

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This column was written on 29th March, a year to the day before the UK ends its membership of the European Union and enters a transition period. Ideally I would be out with the local Labour Party handing out leaflets in Cromer demanding a fresh referendum. I doubt if it would do much good up here but it’s a sunny day and a nice place to be.

Instead I was obliged to undertake two activities that I sincerely wished had not been necessary. The first was to send an email to a valued family friend in New York to say how ashamed I was about the outbursts of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. The second was to undertake an interview for BBC Look East expressing my view on how such incidents had arisen and the way that they had been handled.

For overseas readers the facts are these. Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn has issued an apology for declaring support for those opposing the removal of a mural, unquestionably anti-Semitic in tone, in London’s East End. Secondly, Christine Shawcross, who Corbyn’s supporters had made Chair of Labour’s Disputes Committee, was obliged to resign. She had sought the reinstatement of a local council candidate who had circulated material which denied the holocaust. These facts are not in dispute and we have witnessed an entirely understandable reaction from leading Jewish organisations, and many others from all sections of the community who support them.

Jeremy Corbyn has repeatedly emphasised that he is not personally anti-Semitic and will not tolerate such views. What I said to Look East was that we should take him at this word. The charges against him and his leadership are different. First he has always been injudicious in his choice of allies and in the company he keeps. I was an active member of his local party in Islington for many years and know that be especially true on the politics of Ireland and the Middle East. Secondly there was an unwillingness on the part of both Jeremy and Christine Shawcross to investigate and research the detail before pronouncing; an aversion to detail is a characteristic of the extreme left with their preference for a slogan that you can put on a coffee mug or a t-shirt. Thirdly Jeremy Corbyn himself was slow to recognise the extent of the problem and even slower to act up on it.

So there we have it. At this time, more than any other, the Labour Party should be looking outwards and offering hope for the future by making common cause with European social democrats. Instead all the focus of the last few days has been on limiting the damage – a terrible reflection on the style and quality of current leadership. I was able, in my BBC interview, to offer one slight ray of hope for the future. There are many members of the Labour Party who feel like this and we do not intend to leave, however ashamed we feel. We will stay in and fight for the values of the party we joined.

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An invitation to change colours

NNDC Council offices

On March 9th I launched a research paper on the Impact of Brexit on North Norfolk. The full twelve page version can be downloaded from the link on the left of this page.   I had two objectives: one political and one economic. The first was, in a modest way, to help shift opinion in any fresh referendum. The latest poll I have seen shows 53% Remain and 42% Leave – some progress but not enough. The excellent David Cowling, the former editor of BBC political research, commented in his latest mailing that “The country seems just as divided as in 2016”. However you don’t have to change minds in a fresh referendum, just get more of us to vote than them.

My economic objective was to persuade all our local decision-makers and influencers here of the dire consequences for Norfolk of a hard Brexit, and of the need to anticipate these consequences and take action. I therefore sent the paper to the 51 District and County Councillors who represent areas within North Norfolk.

So far I have received six polite replies and two ‘out of offices’, though in fairness the paper is detailed and others may be taking time to digest it before returning. A particularly welcome response came from the District Councillor, a Liberal Democrat, who represents my home area of Glaven Valley. She wrote: “I will circulate it to my fellow members. Next month, we are due to review the Overview and Scrutiny work programme for the forthcoming year, so this is a timely input to that discussion”. This is exactly the response that I had hoped for; I wish her well and will give her every support.

Another polite and thoughtful response was entirely unexpected. We have a large group of Independents on the Council, all of whom have defected from the Conservatives following internal dissension. One of them, after making some considered comments on the paper, continued, “… if you are minded to secure the best deal that the District can hope for … help us fight for it. In May 2019 there will be elections for NNDC District Councillors, we as Independents feel that we can speak freely on any issues. Obviously I don’t know what your political persuasions are, but your knowledge would be a huge advantage to any group…” I must admit, even at my age, being somewhat flattered, but, after more than 50 years dogged loyalty to the Labour Party through thick and thin, I am unlikely to change my allegiance.  

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