Friday, 1 February 2019

Losing friends and not influencing people

I am sorry to say this, so soon after Burns Night, the annual commemoration of the poet Robert Burns’s birth on 25 January 1759, but the great man was dead wrong when he suggested that we humans should have been given the gift of seeing ourselves through others’ eyes.

You probably know the line: ‘O wad some Power the giftie gie us, To see oursels as ithers see us.’  (Translation: ‘Oh would some power the gift give us, To see ourselves as others see us.’)

Thanks to such wonders of modern communications technology as newspapers, the internet, and social media, we have now been given that gift, and we can see, for example, what our endless Brexit agonies look like to outsiders. It is not the sort of gift any sentient being would wish for.

Are you feeling strong? Here’s Tagesspiegel of Germany: ‘The fog over London’s government district just will not clear … [Tuesday’s vote] was nothing less than the biggest political crisis on the island since World War II.’

De Volkskrant of the Netherlands: ‘The Scots do not want a Brexit at all, Labour wants to keep one leg in the EU, the Brexiteers want to go into battle against the EU like Don Quixote, and the Northern Irish unionists want to drag as much money out of London as possible.’

Evenimentul Zilei of Romania: ‘We are facing the second moment of British political obduracy combined with stubbornness.’

You could argue, of course, that it doesn’t matter a damn what our erstwhile EU partners think of us. The louder they complain, the more they prove that we’re better off out than in. Since when was being popular a priority goal of any nation’s diplomacy?

Well, since quite a long time ago, in fact. If you want to influence people, it’s usually a good idea to make friends with them first. Being rude about them, à la Trump, tends not to pay dividends.

As anyone knows who has had the misfortune to talk about Brexit to a non-Brit over the last year or two, the overwhelming reaction is of stupefaction, bewilderment, pity – yes, and scorn. ‘Call yourselves a major European democracy? Look at yourselves …’

It matters. Here’s how the New York Times explained why: ‘Nothing has brought the European Union together quite as much as Britain’s chaotic breakdown … Even successful populists and nationalists like Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio in Italy, Victor Orban in Hungary, Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland and the Alternative for Deutschland have dropped the idea of leaving the euro or the European Union and are instead working to alter the functioning of the bloc from within.’

In other words, Brexit has turned the UK into a by-word for what not to do, and how not to do it. It is not the kind of reputation a nation should strive for if it hopes to retain any influence at all on the global stage.

Nor is it clever politics if you’re still hoping for more concessions from Brussels. We must surely be getting perilously close to the point at which EU leaders throw up their hands in final exasperation: ‘You know what? Just leave. Go. And close the door behind you.’

Remember this: Mrs May agreed a withdrawal deal. She told MPs it couldn’t be changed, it was her deal or no deal. Then last Tuesday, in yet another attempt to appease her ultras, she changed her mind: oh well, she said, maybe it can be changed after all, and gaily trooped through the lobbies to vote for an amendment that shredded it.

If I was across the table negotiating with UK representatives, I wouldn’t trust them if they promised to bring me a cup of coffee and a sticky bun. Theresa May’s word counts for nothing, she has neither authority nor credibility.

I am not among those who argue that the result of the referendum two and a half years ago should be reversed, or that there should be another referendum. I believe in the principle that losers should accept that they have lost. I do think, however, that Theresa May and her government have done more damage to this country’s long term interests than any other administration in living memory.

It could have been so different. And I don’t say that merely with the benefit of hindsight: as long ago as June 2017, immediately after Mrs May’s catastrophic election campaign, I wrote that what was needed was a new Conservative party leader, a rethought approach to Brexit and a cross-party negotiating committee.

How different would the picture look if they had followed my advice. And how different would it look if Jeremy Corbyn had been guided by anything other than a cold calculation of what would be in his own party’s narrow electoral interests. Let the Tories cock it up, then we’ll reap the benefits. Nice.

Philip Stephens put it well in the Financial Times: ‘From the moment she replaced David Cameron in Downing Street, Mrs May faced a choice about Britain’s departure from the EU. She could prioritise the unity of the Conservatives by bowing to the theological fundamentalism of the party’s English nationalist wing. Or she could try to build a wider, cross-party coalition around a softer version of Brexit.’

We know which path she chose, because she is just as terrified of being reviled in Conservative party history as a second Robert Peel, who split the party to repeal the Corn Laws, as Corbyn is of being branded by Labour tribalists as a second Ramsay MacDonald, who formed a National government with the Tories to deal with the aftermath of the 1929 crash.

One final Brexit thought – and yes, in case you were wondering, I’m getting as thoroughly sick of this as you are. According to Bronwen Maddox of the Institute for Government, since the referendum, the UK civil service has hired twenty thousand more people, ten thousand of whom are working on Brexit. There may well be another five thousand joining them soon. In Whitehall, apparently, they are known as Generation Brex.


Anonymous said...

Brexit for me is summed up by the words of Paul Simon's song The Boxer:

I have squandered my resistance
For a pocket full of mumbles, such are promises
All lies and jests
Still a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest

Will an MP hear anything else? The New York Times said in a few words the lesson that politicians are learning from this across the world - if you don't like something then try to change it from within, don't just walk away.

Anonymous said...

It's embarrassing to be in a nation managed this badly & pitied by most of Europe

I just hope someone manages to find a solution involving Remain, but also appeasing the genuine concerns in rural England

It's also stunning that the Conservative government is increasing the size of the Civil Service by 25K in a period of "austerity"