Pardon me for straying onto territory usually covered by others on the editorial team of this esteemed organ, but yesterday I decided to stay indoors from 11.30am specifically in order to watch Prime Minister’s Question Time from the House of Commons, followed by Philip Hammond, Chancellor of the Exchequer, presenting his first-ever Budget, via a BBC1 programme anchored by Huw Edwards, the easily-parodied Welsh journo/newsreader and heavyweight presenter who likes to be wheeled out for all the most important British state and political occasions and is getting desperate for David Dimbleby to finally retire so that he can succeed as the ‘main man’ for all UK General Elections.
Much as I enjoy the Rust columns of Simon Campion-Brown for his ‘plague upon all their houses’ approach to what he might call the ‘political game’ as played by the British Establishment, I’m not only sympathetic towards the structure and systems of British democracy but – horror of horrors – I’m a Tory by family background and inclination.
First of all, the best laugh I’ve had in quite a while came from watching the first episode of the BBC2 series Meet the Lords, a behind-the-scenes documentary about the House of Lords first aired a week or ten days ago – and I should perhaps add that I’ve recorded the next one but not yet viewed it.
This was a classic example of the self-induced false conceit that of those who occupy secretive and highly-privileged institutions (commercial or political) that, by allowing cameras or microphones to ‘record’ what you do on a day-to-day basis, the viewing or listening public will thereby inevitably be left with a favourable impression, having at last gained an understanding of the arduous, important (and probably greatly under-valued) work that you do and also in the process having warmed to the genial humanity of you and your colleagues as you go about your business.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Almost invariably in such a set-up, the ‘subjects’ of the exercise condemn themselves out of their own mouths to endless derision. Far from the act of ‘letting a window in upon their world’ prompting understanding, appreciation and affection, in fact there is nothing more calculated to provoke ridicule than setting up a camera and encouraging people (even of intelligence and taste) to talk about themselves and what they do when their world is a taxpayer-funded world of privilege and ancient customs so far removed from the humdrum life of ordinary people in the street as to seemingly come from a rather poorly-funded theatrical production of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
I was and remain a Remainer on the issue of Brexit as a matter of principle, but what I don’t quite understand is the logic of the opposition amendments now set in train by the House of Lords to the Bill currently necessarily going through Parliament in order to rubber-stamp the triggering of Article 50. Well, other than if one reads it as the continuing rear-guard action of hard-line Remain guerrillas determined that the population of the UK must be saved from itself by means of de-railing the Brexit process and the UK then remaining in the EU.
On settling the position of the 3 million EU citizens currently living in the UK, I’m with the Government simply because of my career and private life experience of doing negotiations of any description. There is absolutely no point, before negotiations even begin, in setting out the entire sets of goals that you are seeking to achieve – whether that be an exaggerated version or one that is your genuine hoped-for final position.
Why? Because – by the very nature of these things – you very rarely end up with your opposition negotiators saying “You know what? What you’re asking for is entirely reasonable and fair – which is why we’re simply going to rubber stamp it and let you go on your way with everything you want”, this presumably by waving you a fond farewell and bon voyage from a bunting-laden EU headquarters forecourt surrounded with hundreds of thousands of delirious Europeans from 27 countries who want to see the UK going ever onwards and upwards without them.
I can see no advantage at all to the UK in unilaterally ‘sorting out’ the position of EU citizens living and working in the UK unless it forms part of a reciprocal arrangement regarding the equivalent position of UK citizens living in all 27 EU countries. Simple as that.
I watched Liberal leader Tim Farron on the BBC’s Daily Politics on Tuesday telling viewers that the UK Government announcing that EU citizens in the UK could stay would not only send out a heart-warming message to our EU friends but secure the UK the moral high ground.
Yes, Tim – but what is that going to be worth if, somewhere far further down the line, the EU turns round to the UK and says that UK citizens in EU countries won’t be getting similar rights? At that point ‘holding the moral high ground’ will do precisely diddly-squat to help UK citizens living in EU countries. They’ll have been abandoned to their fate, whatever it turns out to be.
You’ve got to begin a negotiation on this issue from the standpoint that “If you don’t do right by our people, we won’t do right by yours either”.
Similarly with the amendment seeking to establish the line that the UK Parliament should have a right of veto/approval of the ‘final deal’ that the UK Government achieves after the two-year period of negotiation. If Parliament rejects whatever deal the UK Government achieves at that point, what the hell does Parliament think is going to happen? That the UK Government turns round to the EU negotiators and says “Ooops, sorry – the deal we agreed with you has been rejected by our parliament … er … can we have a better one please?”
If I was the EU I’d know how I’d respond. The message would be short and blunt. Anything different would result in negotiation by referendum.
In my view, even this little ‘episode’ of Lords rebellion is a distraction and actually a hindrance to the UK’s position in the negotiations to come – simply because it tends to imply that the UK is confused, at war with itself, and potentially, if the EU negotiates hard enough – going to either lose out, or else come back into the EU fold with its tail between its legs one day asking for forgiveness.
I was sitting there, chomping through a bag of wine gums, waiting for little helpful announcements such as the abolition of inheritance tax or the fact that those who support Tottenham Hotspur FC would in future be permanently tax exempt – this as a means to ensuring that those of us descending gradually towards the end of our seventh decade would be able to live comfortably once we have to begin paying for our own social care.
Of those there were none – and indeed not much else. ‘Spreadsheet Phil’ seemed determined to live up to his reputation possibly because, in these days of Trump-dom, nobody expects anything of their politicians other than behaviour in line with their reputations. In Trump’s case, he can now act as unhinged as he likes – simply because that’s what the American people have come to expect from him as the norm.
In Philip Hammonds’ case he can bore for Britain by introducing a Budget that does pretty much nothing in any direction because, of course, that’s exactly what we’re all expecting from a politician who seems to most resemble a metaphorical Mogadon Man.
Yesterday by tea-time I couldn’t help feeling that I’d just endured a Grade A waste of three of my remaining precious hours upon Earth.