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Brexit – time to break free from the plotters’ playground

In my Brexit-plagued country, 2019 is kicking off much as 2018 ended. Hot air blasting out of every seam of the House of Commons as our elected representatives work themselves up into a frenzy over procedural issues, plot away in the corridors and line up with desperate enthusiasm to get on the telly in order to spout a dozen different arguments they hope will shape the slowest political crisis in my lifetime. And boost their careers, of course.

Last year, about the only positives I can recall were the arrival of my lovely grandson and the England football team not living up to expectations of failure in the World Cup. Of the negatives, take your pick. The long-term biggies, such as climate change and competition for water and other natural resources. The outrages, including Salisbury and Khashoggi. And then the crises of Western democracy: a dangerous, disturbed president of the United States and, for my little island, Brexit.

It looks like more of the same for the next twelve months. Brexit has loomed large, both in conversations and in this blog, since the referendum. I’m not a voice crying the wilderness. Millions appear to share my concern that the will of the people, ineptly solicited and fraudulently influenced, is being used as an ordinance more immutable than the Ten Commandments.

So, kind readers, at the risk of boring you beyond your tolerance, especially those of you who aren’t British and have only a passing interest in our torturous politics, my first serious post of 2019 has to be about the political meteorite that we can all see but don’t seem able to avoid.

The other day I got an email from my brother, Professor Patrick Royston. He works in biomedical research. We don’t meet as often as I would like, and when we do, we rarely talk about politics. I had never asked him how he voted in the referendum. These days, even among family, that seems like an impolite question.

Patrick has always been a quiet counterpoint to my intermittently bombastic persona. He has greater concerns in his life than the implications of Brexit. But an opinion expressed by someone who does so rarely is often more noteworthy than that of someone who shouts all the time.

Here’s what he wrote:

“I know you have written quite a lot about Brexit already, and I have no claim to be adding anything very new or stunning to the discussion. However, I thought my personal perspective on it might be of interest to you and possibly to others if you were inclined to include some suitably edited version of it in your blog.

I recall, around the time of the referendum in June 2016, thinking about which way I should vote. I was aware of being sceptical about the extravagant claims of benefits of various kinds made by the raucous Leave campaigners. I’d noticed also the perhaps rather dour and off-putting attitudes towards the EU of some of our older (and not-so-old) folk in different parts of the land. Nevertheless, I do vividly remember, even up to the last minute, being quite unsure whether to vote Leave or Remain. My main reasons for disliking the EU concerned the bureaucratic and undemocratic way the Commission operated. I was unhappy about the fact that the EU could quite legally impose rules and regulations on the rest of us with no opportunity to demur or discuss. (Rules about the permitted shapes of certain items of fruit and veg come to mind.) At least, that was my personal understanding of how things operated.

In the event in 2016, it turned out that the Bristol area (where I live) voted 62:38 in favour of Remain. Two and a half years on, I feel I know a lot more about the pros and (particularly) the cons of leaving. For example, I wasn’t aware earlier on that the Northern Ireland/Eire border was such a key issue – that re-instituting a physical border would be tantamount to breaking the all-important Good Friday agreement. Not to mention the serious impedance to trade, increased inconvenience and sheer bother that a physical barrier would impose. It now seems quite clear that leaving the EU will impose terrible damage on certain important parts of our economy. Our country will become poorer for some as yet unquantified period of time. Just as important, we will lose credibility as an influential player on the world stage, including of course the EU itself. The effect of Brexit on reducing funding of biomedical research, the area I work in, will be dire. And more, of course.

The upshot of all of this for me is: I want the opportunity to reaffirm my support for Remain. I believe there is now increasing evidence of a significant national majority on the Remain side. People’s vote, second referendum, call it what you like, I want the opportunity to re-express my view and I think the country needs it too. After all, the politicians have not exactly covered themselves in glory over the whole Brexit process, and even now, aren’t offering a majority view for anything attractive or sensible. The alternative choice in the ballot: Leave with no deal. Simple binary decision. It is obvious that May’s hard won but ill-fated “deal” is dead in the water, so why offer that?”

I would only add to Patrick’s words an answer to an argument I have heard too many times: “if we’re to have a second referendum, why not a best of three?”. The difference between 2016 and now was that then we made a choice while blindfolded, with people all around us telling us which way to walk. Now we can see pretty clearly for ourselves where we’re going. A notional second referendum is not a rerun of the first. End of story.

Finally, my preferred way forward, assuming that a second referendum doesn’t have the support of parliament. We are only running out of time to decide our future if we allow ourselves to do so. If we are not to have a second vote, the most sensible comment I’ve heard in the past few days came from Ken Clarke, who suggested that we stop the clock by revoking Article 50, thus giving ourselves more time to reach a consensus on the way forward. That way we can restart the clock – or not – at a time of our choosing, rather than sticking to a deadline that has become increasingly destructive.

We have reached the point at which in normal times we would agree to differ, and spend our energy solving the innumerable pressing problems that governments usually face. If we must set a deadline for revisiting Brexit, it should expire in five years. That would give us ample time time to re-align our politics, to re-visit the terms of our leaving and prepare for the orderly Brexit that is not in prospect today. If necessary, we could have a second referendum in year four to seal the deal or revert to the status quo. By that time, much is likely to have happened within the European Union and elsewhere in the world that would influence that decision. What will a political landscape without May and Merkel (definitely), Corbyn, Macron, Trump and Putin (likely) look like?

You could argue that calling a temporary halt to Brexit would be an act of kicking the can down the road. True, but better that we kick it down a friendly road we know reasonably well than boot it into a minefield, as seems likely at present. In five years’ time we might need all the friends we can get.

That, it seems to me, is how we take control, at least of our immediate future.

21 New Year’s Resolutions I Will Never Keep

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, largely because I don’t enjoy setting myself up for failure. But I quite enjoy thinking about what I might resolve if I had the strength of character to see them through. Here are a few that I’m bound to break in 2019:

I will no longer have a favourite cup for my coffee. All our other 15 cups are perfectly acceptable.

I will not trust Google Maps not to send me into a ploughed field.

I will not correct other peoples’ pronunciations, even when they say “nucular”.

I will not stack the dishwasher other than in the wife-approved manner.

I will not eat porridge with cream and kid myself that I’m going for the healthy option.

I will not rest until I’ve found a vegan hyena.

I will not speak ill of those who like Strictly Come Dancing.

I will not count the dead bodies at the end of every Scandi series I watch on TV.

I will not eat spaghetti and speak at the same time.

I will not discuss the unsavoury habits of our ancient dog over dinner.

I will not blame the dog for my own indiscretions.

I will not try and plough through crap books just because I bought them.

I will not worry about Alzheimer’s every time I lose the car keys. After all, at least I still know what the keys are for.

I will not think about dying more than three times a day.

I will not pack three pairs of trousers, eight tee-shirts, three pairs of shorts, sixteen books and the entire contents of Boots pharmacy next time I go on a week’s holiday.

I will stop complaining about boilers, washing machines and laptops having to be replaced every five years, because without planned degradation the economy would collapse.

I will stop complaining when my loved ones drop their phones in the bath, because that’s the way they’re designed. My loved ones or the phones? That’s for you to guess.

I will not curse President Trump more than thirty times a week.

I will not get over Brexit until either we’ve revoked Article 50 or re-joined the EU.

I will not forget, for one minute, how lucky I am not to be starving, in jail, living in a refugee camp or residing in East Grinstead.

I will stop dreaming about emigrating, because I’ve never visited a country that suits me better than my own, and probably never will. Besides, who would have me?

Thant’s all I can think of for now. Good luck with yours, should you be foolish enough to make them.

Chernobyl in the garage? Mustn’t grumble…we’re British

Six days ago, early in the morning, our house was attacked by a phantom intruder with a baseball bat. At least it sounded like that. A furious banging and crashing broke out as I sat innocently downstairs catching up with Trump’s daily shenanigans and the latest in our government’s slow political suicide.

Before I could recover from my surprise and grab the family Uzi (actually, my weapon of last resort is the leg of a long-demolished coffee table), the noise stopped. After checking that there was no intruder and none of my family members had gone berserk, I next considered the possibility that the culprit might be a herd of angry super-squirrels in the attic.

I finally found the answer when I discovered that the central heating pump was dead, and that the boiler had done a Chernobyl. Which was strange, because the damned thing was only serviced two months ago.

Since we have emergency household insurance, my wife called the company, and the first of many plumbers was summoned. Said plumber reported that the guy who did the annual service had not made a key check on the boiler, with the result that the top had blown off. Had the pump not failed and we continued to use the boiler, the entire house would have filled with carbon monoxide in short order. The dog and random domestic insects would have gone first, followed by us.

The next little problem was that the immersion heater that was supposed to warm up the water tank when the boiler died had itself failed, perhaps as a consequence of all the other bits crashing and burning.

So here we were, in the deep midwinter, no heating except for a couple of blowers kept for such emergencies, and no hot water. Six days before Christmas.

As I write this, we still have no heating, but this afternoon a modicum of civilisation was restored when the immersion heater was fixed. A shower at last. Between then and now, my wife has been on the phone to the insurance company and any number of plumbers and electricians for at least six hours a day. Wires to be uncrossed, mix-ups at the insurers’ end to be unmixed, and constant chivying for approvals for this that and the other bit of work.

On Monday, Christmas Eve, we are due to have a new boiler and a new pump installed. Assuming they’ve been sourced by those have undertaken to do so and have been installed in the right order, there’s a chance we might have heating by Christmas Day. If not, six of us, including our eleven-month-old grandson, will be huddling around our fairly ineffective wood fire. Oh, and warmed by the heat of the oven.

Not that I’m complaining. At least we have a home, central heating, hot water and all the other stuff we take for granted, even if some bits aren’t working at the moment. Many people don’t. Perhaps these crises are sent to remind us how lucky we are.

Be that as it may, every difficulty is a learning experience, unless, of course, you happen to be Donald Trump. And I have learned several things over the past few days:

Central heating boilers are malevolent entities. They choose the worst times to break down, such as when you have a baby in the house suffering from gastric flu.

Insurance companies do everything they can to avoid spending money on you. They obfuscate, fail to pass information on to their colleagues and make it obscenely difficult for you to contact them. Hardly news, but good to be reminded every time you’re thinking of taking out another useless policy.

Some plumbers take great delight in blaming other plumbers for the quality of their work. When it comes to fixing stuff, they specialise in the sharp intake of breath, followed by a litany of things they need to do. The heroes are those who call out the bullshit and get the job done with a minimum of fuss.

The “music” the insurance companies play when you’re waiting for them to pick up the phone is designed to drive you insane, or at least to abandon the call. If you’ve sat for an hour at the teacup ride in EuroDisney waiting for your spouse to return with daughter (before there were mobile phones) and listening to It’s a Small, Small World on a perpetual loop you will know what I’m talking about.

Washing with cold water is quite invigorating. Not as exciting as swimming in the Serpentine on Christmas Day, but definitely good for the soul. Which is just as well, considering that not one of the twenty people who came to a party we hosted last week offered us the use of their facilities. Clearly we didn’t appear sufficiently distressed, nor were we obviously malodorous.

You don’t need a shower every day, every second day or even every week – something I’d forgotten since my days as a student living in freezing houses. You just wash in the right places and claim a virtue out of necessity.

Three electrician visits and eight plumbers later, I’m left with the sense that if our little problem was the result of divine intervention, the motive was unlikely to be to punish us for our affluent complacency.

Rather, I suspect that the Supreme Entity Who is Neither Man nor Woman (according to the Archbishop of Canterbury) is preparing us for a no-deal Brexit. For a time in a future when you can’t get a boiler or a pump for love nor money because the supply chain has broken down; even if you could, there will be no Poles or Bulgarians available to deliver it to you. And when you ring the insurance company to complain, you will be grateful that an Indian, Irish or South African voice answers you from far away, because there won’t be enough Brits trained up to staff the UK call centres.

But hey ho, we will have had our taste of the Brexit experience in advance. We’re telling each other that we mustn’t grumble, that we must keep calm and carry on and all that jazz.

Our minor inconveniences serve to remind me that we’re not sleeping on the streets or living under canvas in a Greek refugee camp. Not only that, but for all our problems, present and soon to come, we’re incredibly lucky we are to be living in this country at this time. After all, a hundred years ago Britain was grieving for its war dead and burying flu victims in their thousands.

No, we mustn’t grumble. On that note I wish everyone kind enough to follow this blog, regardless of faith and political belief, a very happy Christmas.

The Wrinkly Whisperer

British politics is so chaotic that if professional analysts can’t make sense of what’s going on I’m damned if I can. But I do have a hunch about Jacob Rees-Mogg and his relatively new-found popularity.

Over the past few days I’ve been surprised at the number of people I’ve met who support him because they think he’s a jolly good chap, and they’re very convinced by what he says. Most of those people are over sixty. Could it be that they like him not because of what he says but the way he says it? Quiet, studious, gentlemanly. A throwback to the kind of person who would have been a respected personage in the Middle England of the fifties and sixties. A magistrate, a bank manager or a benign member of the landed gentry who lives in the Big House up the road and invites the villagers every year to Christmas drinks. In politics, his style analogues would have been Harold Macmillan, Sir Alec Douglas-Home and, before his fall, Jeremy Thorpe.

His appearance – the double-breasted suit, the pinstripes and the hairstyle of a Cambridge spy from the thirties – reeks of the kind of authority that was imprinted in the DNA of the middle-class English of a certain age. Not a style that they would adopt themselves, but one to which they would instinctively react with respect. Ronnie Barker looking up to John Cleese in the timeless Frost Report sketch.

He is a man who, even when he spouts poisonous insults – such as describing Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, as a second-rate Canadian politician – does so with sweet civility. Details he reveals of his private life – his devoted nanny, his six children whose names come straight from the classroom of an English public school, his country pile – project him as the epitome of a bygone gentler, kinder England. Downton Abbey personified.

It would be hard to imagine a public figure more different from Donald Trump. Yet in a sense he is a Trump in toff’s clothing. He appeals to a section of his population that harbours deep resentment – for different reasons perhaps, but resentment nonetheless – against the established political order. Trump’s snake oil is the border wall, repatriating jobs, America First, with the undertone that a threatened majority, America’s whites, will regain their natural primacy in society. Rees-Mogg’s is taking back control, regaining sovereignty, reining in immigration and all the other nostrums of the Brexit faith that seeks to return his country to a proto-imperial nation of free-trading buccaneers.

Whereas Trump’s style is spittle-flecked and neck-bulging, our man’s act is designed to assuage the quiet desperation of the English. Polite, superbly articulated and laced with venom. Education masquerading as wisdom.

The upper classes, I suspect, don’t buy into Rees-Mogg’s young fogey shtick. Where ancestry is concerned, they know a johnny-come-lately when they see one. And besides, most genuine upper-class types are the shambolic heirs to falling-down country estates full of moth-eaten carpets and furniture ridden with woodworm. They survive by opening their houses to the plebs and selling an old master from time to time. Rees-Mogg, the wealthy co-owner of an investment fund, would not allow his castle to fall into such disrepair.

No, his catchment area is the middle classes. Since there is no such thing as a lower class any more (just as Britain’s trains no longer have a third class), his admirers aren’t limited to peppery colonels who run golf clubs. They also include the descendants of Alf Garnett (of Till Death Us Do Part fame) and others who used to be referred to as working-class Tories. Those who have not been tempted to join UKIP or the English Defence League, that is.

Imagine if he became Prime Minister. Unlikely, as his elderly admirers steadily die off, but anything is possible these days. But if it were to happen, it would most likely be after a car-crash Brexit. If we look five years ahead, what sort of Britain would he be presiding over? A nation whose economy has tanked. Perhaps not a nation at all, if Scotland peels off and Northern Ireland in desperation seeks unity with the South in some sort of federation that satisfies all but the most diehard Unionists.

One can hardly imagine a more appropriate Prime Minister of a chocolate box England, devoid of power and purpose, sustained by promises of future prosperity uttered in impeccable Queen’s English, supported by American hedge funds, Russian oligarchs and the Chinese state. A nation of zero-hours contractors, tourist bus drivers and marketers of nostalgia. One gigantic theme park.

It might not be that awful. We would still have our technologists working for Facebook and Google, our neurosurgeons in the employ of American healthcare providers and, if we’re lucky, we might still have a few outstanding universities sustained by a multitude of students from China and the Middle East.

We might also have one or two warships still afloat, and an army capable of quelling an insurrection in the Isle of Man while still having a few soldiers to spare for guard duties at Buckingham Palace.

The good news would be that we wouldn’t need much of an army, because we wouldn’t be able to afford our NATO dues. And besides, we would be immune from invasion because our Chinese, Russian and American owners would be keen to protect their investments against unnecessary conflict.

I jest, of course. Such an outcome would take ten years, not five. All this assumes that our decline is so gradual that we don’t notice it enough to elect a Labour government or, if we do, they are even more incompetent than the current incumbents. In 2028 Rees-Mogg would still be only fifty-nine, but most likely looking even more like a national monument than today.

I bear no ill will towards Jacob Rees Mogg, even though his political views, especially on Brexit, are in my opinion profoundly misguided. In fact I admire him for rising so far, although Eton undoubtedly helped him along the way, as it did clowns like Boris Johnson and David Cameron.  The House of Commons is full of grey people whom you wouldn’t notice if you were riding on the tube. He’s definitely not one of them – more like charcoal. He’s a character. His refusal to behave like a 21st Century demagogue screams authenticity, though in politics there’s a thin line between being true to yourself and turning your quirks into a personal brand.

But should he ever become Prime Minister I shall do one of two things. Either I shall move to New Zealand, which really does live in the 19th century, or I shall crowdfund the creation of a theme park called Moggland, the centrepiece of which will be an ancient house with coal fires, chamber pots and unplumbed bathtubs. I shall then await the hordes of Chinese visitors who will be desperate to partake in an authentic English experience. The services of a nanny will be extra.

The Wrinkly Whisperer may yet have his day, but I’m afraid I’m deaf to his murmuring.

Oi you – welcome to the United Kingdom!

In my last post I had a moan about the fact that nobody in my country, the United Kingdom, knows what new arrangements we will have to endure when we travel to European Union countries after Brexit. Perhaps it won’t be that bad, especially if by some miracle we are still be able to go through those sexy e-gates that are being installed in most major airports within the EU.

The trouble with e-gates is that in the UK we’re approaching the point at which we have no option but to use them, which is fine as long as the computers don’t break down. This can cause chaos. When my wife and I arrived at Heathrow the other day the system seemed to be working well. But about 150 people had been kettled into line for the e-gates. There were, however, only ten people waiting at the two desks manned by humans. So we decided to go for them.

When I reached the desk, the officer, who was quite young, asked me if I was travelling alone. I said no, and pointed to my wife at the next booth. For some reason that she didn’t make clear, she ordered my wife to line up beside me. She then ticked us off for bothering her when we could have gone through the e-gates.

Given that if we had gone through the e-gates, we would have done so separately, I have no idea why this official insisted that my wife joined me at the same booth. I can only assume that she was having a bad day, or that donning the uniform of the so-called Border Force turned her from a normal person into a gauleiter every morning. Or perhaps even that she was taking Theresa May’s recent ravings about immigration queue-jumpers a little too literally.

Feeling tired and testy myself, I was tempted to bite back, but being mindful that the “Force” bit might lead to a few hours in a cell somewhere in the bowels of Heathrow, I bit my tongue.

This, I concluded, is what happens when a Service, or in our case an Agency, turns into a Force. A few years ago, the folks that checked our passports wore ordinary clothes. More often or not, they were courteous and friendly. Then they became the Border Force and squeezed themselves, some with difficulty, into snazzy uniforms. My experience of the older officials is that they continued to be courteous and friendly. But the younger ones, like the person we encountered the other day, are sometimes less so.

At around the same time as the Border Force was emerging from its chrysalis, the immigration officials of Saudi Arabia, who from time immemorial were dressed like soldiers and were notorious for their arrogance, were undergoing a happiness transplant. They flung off their uniforms in favour of their traditional white thobes, and started treating those who had arrived in their country to work, do business or carry out the pilgrimage as something close to customers. What’s more, they were seated at desks rather than armour-plated booths. The transformation, about which I wrote at the time, was startling. This was Saudi Arabia, after all – hardly a haven of liberal values, as subsequent events have abundantly proved.

It’s a bit of an irony that while the Saudis were dressing down, our officials were dressing up, and in their shiny new paramilitary uniforms are now staring from their elevated booths at the supplicants below.

Regular readers of this blog would be disappointed if at this point I failed to note a political dimension.

I have no idea whether or not the decision to create a uniformed Force coincided with the policy of the UK Home Office, under the direction of our current Prime Minister, to create a “hostile environment” for immigration. It was certainly a reaction to years of bumbling failure on the part of senior officials who were supposed to be controlling our borders. Uniforms, shaping up, esprit de corps, that sort of stuff.

In fairness, I should point out that those who staff the e-gates look more like airline cabin crew than terminators. But for those arriving at British airports who are not EU citizens, e-gates are not an option. They have to face the robocops.

I’m exaggerating of course. The vast majority of officials are still courteous and professional. But unfortunately the minority defines the majority. And I suspect that the officious person my wife and I encountered is not the only one. In fact, my daughter had a similar experience a couple of years ago when she was accused of not being the same person as the one in her passport photo. Nobody seemed to have pointed out to this official that between the ages of 18 and 26 people often change their appearance quite a lot. It’s called growing up. My daughter was quite intimidated by the questioning.

No doubt there are large numbers of people in the UK who are quite happy to see entrants to the country being given the third degree. I needn’t say how they would have voted in the EU referendum. But even they would surely admit that without the millions of tourists who visit the country every year we would be much the poorer.

So when I see massive lines of people at Gatwick and Heathrow waiting for their grilling, I wonder how many would wish to repeat the experience. We are in danger, in this and many other ways, of becoming facsimiles of the United States, whose Homeland Security officials seem to start their questioning on the basis that you’re a terrorist or mobster at worst, and a liar at least.

Yes, I hear you say, but “the world is a very dangerous place”, as the most dangerous US president for a century is also fond of saying. We have to be on the alert for the bad guys trying to get into our country. True, but let’s not forget that there’s a difference between calm, intelligent questioning and bullying.

I fear that once the old-timers have retired, we’ll be left with a “Force” of officials whose personalities are defined by their uniforms, and whose model of best practice is that of the shaven-headed hominids who think their mission is to keep America safe from child migrants, Muslims and Mexican drug mules.

I know, I’m exaggerating again, but in an era when authoritarian behaviour seem to be the coming fashion, if we don’t want our country going that way, we shouldn’t let examples of such behaviour go unnoticed.

At least the Border Force hasn’t been privatised yet. Those who are caught in their net are, it seems, in for a rougher ride. Staff running an immigration removal centre, who work for the private security giant G4S, have been accused in a newly-released report of being both draconian and laddish towards the inmates. An interesting combination.

Time for a bit of training in both organisations, perhaps. But I doubt if the Home Office budget would stretch to that, especially as we’re battening down the hatches in preparation for Brexit.

Civis Europae Sum – for now

Passports are interesting things, especially those belonging to other people. I occasionally snigger at friends’ passport photos (with their permission of course), while conveniently ignoring the fact that mine bears a distinct resemblance to that of a Russian hit man or a recently deceased member of the ‘Ndragheta.

Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, who recently obtained British citizenship, presumably now has three passports: from Britain, from Ireland, the land of his ancestors, and from Canada, his place of birth. Lucky man.

I have only two, and they’re both British. And in case you think I’m an international man of mystery, they both bear my name. Don’t ask me why I have two. The answer is boring.

My wife, on the other hand, has an Irish passport. Despite being married to me for 35 years and spending most of that time in the UK, she has never expressed any desire to become a Brit. Sensible her.

The other day she and I re-entered the European Union after a trip to Asia. We both went through the EU channel in Copenhagen. It was quick and easy. At that point it dawned on me that before very long she would be able to breeze through every immigration point in the EU, and quite possibly I wouldn’t. I face the prospect of joining the line that says “non-EU citizens”. I would be joining the Chinese, Japanese, Americans, Russians, Afghans and Brazilians. In some countries that would mean that my wait at immigration will be at least twice as long as hers.

If this is how things work out, it will be very annoying for her, but the fringe benefit for me will be that by the time I get through the line, she will have gathered the bags.

What prompts this meditation on passports is that despite having two, I’m running out of clean pages. This is a problem when you visit a country whose immigration officers like to splurge their stamps across a virgin page. I have no idea whether after we leave the EU countries like France, Spain and Italy will want to stick their stamps on our passports, but if so, I shall probably need to get a new one before the existing ones expire.

Being a man, I occasionally amuse myself with lists. So this morning I counted all the visa, entry and exit stamps on my passports. I was quite shocked to discover that over the past seven years I have acquired over 250. In that time I have visited thirteen non-EU countries, some of them many times, hence the multitude of stamps. In addition, I have visited eleven countries within the European Union, again on multiple occasions. Fortunately there is no physical evidence of these visits, otherwise I would have ran out of space ages ago.

This tells me that if each EU country needs to stamp my passport from 2020 onwards, my next one, which will presumably be blue, won’t last long. Unless, of course, I grow so decrepit that I can’t travel any more.

But we don’t know what the new arrangements will be, because the interminable government document on Britain’s future relationship with the EU doesn’t tell us. Just another example, a mere handful of days in advance of the allegedly meaningful vote on the alleged deal, of the bugger’s muddle that is Brexit.

In any event, the imperious preamble in my passport, wherein “Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance etc” is fast becoming redundant. Since we seem to be running through secretaries of state at the rate of one a day, and since these days Her Majesty isn’t in the position to require anyone to do anything outside our sacred borders, perhaps in our new blue documents the preamble should be replaced with “The Queen says pretty please”. My upper lip is wobbling at the prospect.

The twin sagas of Trump and Brexit, and four aspects of Brexit that keep me awake

I’ve been away from the UK for the last month, travelling in Sri Lanka and Malaysia. I’m ashamed to admit that wherever I am in the world, I can’t shake off the damnable habit of checking the news sites on the internet first thing in the morning.

More than ever, it seems, the dominant stories boil down to a constant SOS signal: Trump-Trump-Trump, May-May-May, Trump-Trump-Trump.

There are many aspects of both sagas – Brexit and the Trump presidency – that I still struggle to understand two years after the events that kicked them off. Long ago I lost count of the analyses I’ve read that have attempted to explain them. Some are convincing. Some are bunkum. Others provide answers that lead me to think that they haven’t entirely hit the nail on the head.

Many of the credible theories seem to be centred not on conspiracies – though there are plenty of those drifting about – but on human nature. How easily emotions can be manipulated. How readily people accept lies, even when they know they’re lies. How acquiescent people are of politicians who break laws, yet outraged when others do so. How fearful people are. How angry. How tribal. How entrenched in their views even when presented with evidence that might lead them to other conclusions. Depressing stuff.

That said, the experience of watching Trump and Brexit unfold has not been entirely negative. I’ve learned plenty on the way.  For example, the pervasive and unbalanced influence of the wealthy on the American electoral process; the lengths that politicians on both sides of the Atlantic will go to preserve their careers to the detriment of the national interest; the power of the social media and the ease with which it can be exploited in pursuit of political ends.

There are four key issues that that keep nagging at me.

The position of Britain’s public service broadcaster on Brexit ranks high. There was a time when I would look to the BBC by default for an unbiased view of the political issues of the day. In its international coverage this is still the case. But from the moment that the referendum result became clear, it seems that the Beeb has followed a “line to take” on Brexit. We are leaving, and that’s that. Efforts by large numbers of citizens to advocate a second referendum have been covered grudgingly if at all.

It’s almost as though those that govern the BBC consider any view other than that we’re leaving the EU to be unpatriotic, not to say subversive. They might argue that when World War 2 broke out it would have been inappropriate to present “Herr Hitler’s position” in the interest of balanced coverage of the war. So now that the people have decided, any contrary views on the legality of the process or the possibility of rethinking the decision have, for most of the past couple of years, remained in the background.

Only now, when the awfulness of no-deal and the sub-optimal quality of Theresa May’s deal have become apparent, have the BBC and its flagship programmes started taking seriously the possibility that the situation might be resolved by asking the electorate the in/out question again.

Added to that, the BBC’s willingness, in the interest of “balanced coverage” to invite bigots and cranks, who represent the views of a tiny minority – Tommy Robinson, Gerard Batten and, endlessly, Nigel Farage – to appear as equal debating partners alongside those who speak for major political parties is wrong-headed and misguided. Blowhards like Tim Martin of Wetherspoons might be good value in terms of entertainment, but their participation in shows like Question Time is the reason why I avoid current affairs TV like the plague.

I fear that the BBC has suffered reputational damage since 2016 that will take years to repair.

The next juicy bone of contention is the claim by demagogues that overturning Brexit and the ending Trump presidency would result in civil unrest and violence. You would expect such assertions by the likes of and Farage and his US counterparts. But when the same arguments are made by mainstream politicians and commentators, then we have reason to be concerned.

Not about violence, but about what sort of country we are. Either we are a nation that upholds the rule of law or we are not. You can be sure that if the Leave result in the 2016 referendum had resulted in outbreaks of street violence, it would have been dealt with by the police, just as were other outbreaks of civil unrest over the past thirty years, from poll tax riots to anti-globalisation demonstrations. We should not be intimidated in any shape or form by threats of violence in reaction to referenda, legislation or court judgements.

Protests are fine, violence is not fine. And the same presumably would apply to civil unrest in response to the impeachment and removal of Donald Trump, despite the complication that American citizens tend to be armed to the teeth.

In neither country should the fear of violence ever be a factor in the exercise of democracy and the application of the law.

Then there is the issue of whether or not the 2016 referendum result was obtained by illegal means. Our government seems to have determined that the Brexit rollercoaster should not be halted or called into question because it apparently believes that unanswered questions – about the source of the Leave EU funding, the role of Cambridge Analytica and its foreign owners, the influence of Russia and the failure of Facebook to prevent its user data from being harvested for political purposes – are immaterial, and any wrongdoing is unlikely to have affected the result.

The government, and Theresa May in particular, may be right. The big question, though, is whether its failure expeditiously to pursue lines of inquiry into potential wrongdoing around the biggest political decision for 80 years is a legitimate political tactic undertaken in the national interest, or whether it is effectively a coup d’état.

Carole Cadwalladr, the journalist who has been largely responsible for flagging up the torturous web of influence peddlers and money sources behind the Leave campaign, asks why we do not have our own version of the Mueller Inquiry to examine the matter thoroughly and impartially. If that ever happens, it will most likely present its findings after the fact of Brexit. By that time, we will have left the European Union, and the question of whether a coup d’état took place will be academic, except of course for the perpetrators. It will have been a very British coup.

Last but not least, if a second political earthquake were to occur, and in a new referendum the electorate voted to remain in the European Union, I wonder how much thought we will have given to our future within the Union.

Will a substantial portion of the electorate be embittered by having been deprived of “their Brexit”? What will be the effect of a generation of politicians having to deal with EU institutions despite their opposition to our membership? How will the other 27 members of the EU react having to deal with a government formed by a Conservative party that has firmly branded itself as the “Brexit party”, or by a Labour party that has been at best ambivalent? How easy will it be for us to function effectively within an organisation which suspects us of lacking commitment to its raison d’être? Will we encounter the suspicion of a spouse whose partner has been unfaithful?

None of these concerns should prevent us from continuing our membership of the EU. Nor should they stop us from vigorously pursuing our own agenda on reforming EU institutions if need be. But for that to happen there would need to be a cull of the political leaders who got us into this mess in the first place. Perhaps there would need to be new alignments within the existing political structure. A new centre party? I doubt it. Political organisations need deep roots if they are to thrive, and it takes time for those roots to grow. A coalescing of moderates from both of the main parties around the Liberal Democrats? Maybe, but only if the Lib Dems acquire a compelling agenda and leaders who can capture the imagination of the electorate. They have failed to do that since the 2015 general election.

One thing is clear – to me at least. If we remain in the European Union, we should do so with enthusiasm and commitment. It’s hard to see us doing that with Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and their acolytes still at the helm. They should be replaced with leaders capable of adapting to the new reality. As for the Brexit ultras in Parliament, they should either form their own party or go back to running their hedge funds.

In the United States millions of voters have grown tired of Trump’s never-ending reality show. At least they had the chance to register their discontent in the recent mid-term elections. They will have the option to rid themselves of him in less than two year’s time.

Here in the UK I am one of many who are weary of the whole undignified political shambles around Brexit. I’m appalled by the near paralysis of government over the past two years that has diminished our ability to address social, political and economic issues more worthy of our attention. I’m also angry at the distress and anxiety our cackhanded leaders have caused to millions of residents from the rest of the EU who contribute so much to our society and our economic well-being, and to our own citizens who live in other parts of the EU whose lives will be disrupted as the result of our obsession with ending freedom of movement. And I fear for the future of my children and their children, who will have to make a life in an inward-looking country diminished by the mistakes of my generation.

No doubt we will muddle through whatever the outcome from the present mess. But it all seems so bloody unnecessary.

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