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Theresa May Calls A General Election: First Reaction

Theresa May - Conservative Party - General Election 8 June - Parliament - Downing Street

Here we go again

Okay, here is my hot warm lukewarm tepid pretty cold take on Theresa May’s shock announcement that the government will seek to trigger a general election on 8 June.

After a Scottish independence referendum in 2014, a general election in 2015 and an EU secession referendum in 2016, can we really muster the energy and enthusiasm for another vote in 2017?

Well, now we don’t have a choice (not that thinking a bit about the issues and then strolling to your local polling booth is very difficult). Theresa May made a bold decision to reverse her earlier protestations to the contrary and call an early general election, and from a purely party political perspective it was the smart move. Besides the jubilant Liberal Democrats, many of the whiners and naysayers on the opposition benches are unimpressed, bordering on terrified.

Many on the Left have been trying to have it both ways, first by criticising our “unelected” prime minister for daring to lead without an electoral mandate of her own, and now by carping at her decision to go the the public to seek that very mandate. It appears that “put up or shut up” time has snuck up on them.

But how does each party stand to fare in a June general election?

 

Labour

First and foremost, this is a richly deserved disaster for the Labour Party. Dan Hodges has already taken to Twitter trying to pin the blame for the party’s coming annihilation on Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters, but this is to mistake the symptom for the disease.

Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership and retained it following the coup attempt – both times cheered on by this blog – because unlike the third rate nonentities who currently make up the centrist wing of the party, the Corbynites clearly stand for something. You may not like what they stand for – indeed, opinion polls show that most of the country strongly dislikes the hard left agenda – but at least they have clearly demonstrable values and principles which extend beyond the acquisition and retention of power.

What have the Labour centrists offered since around 2005? Nothing but bland, focus-grouped banalities, preaching enlightened compassion while shoring up a failing consensus (pro-EU, pro-mass immigration, eager to reap the benefits of globalisation but even more eager to throw its victims on the welfare scrapheap rather than help them adapt to the new world) that betrays the interests of its core working class (and principled eurosceptic) vote.

The Corbynite revolution gave the indolent centrists a richly deserved kicking, but Corbynism – with is aversion to patriotism, obsession with nationalisation and statism, obsessively anti-American foreign policy and seething hostility toward wealth generation – is not the solution, but rather a fringe obsession. Throw in the fact that even many Corbyn true believers disagree with Corbyn’s principled euroscepticism (one of the few issues where he happens to be right), and there are more faults running through the Labour Party than they can possibly resolve in the weeks leading up to 8 May.

The key test will be the writing and release of the Labour Party manifesto. Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour Party must quickly produce a compelling vision for the country that appeals to Corbynite true believers while not scaring off the rest of the country. Sounds impossible? That’s probably because it is.

And after the election? If (as seems likely) Labour end up treading water or going backwards, will that be the end of Jeremy Corbyn and Corbynism? Maybe, maybe not. You can pretty much find a pundit to tell you exactly what you want to hear on that question, depending on your own proclivities. But the centrists’ only hope is to hang the party’s impending defeat firmly around Jeremy Corbyn’s neck so as to discredit his worldview and leadership.

I half wondered whether some panicked shadow cabinet members might try to engineer another last-minute coup to depose Corbyn and replace him with a caretaker leader to see the party through 8 June, but it seems unlikely. The centrists have proven time and again that they lack all courage and conviction, and since victory seems impossible under any circumstances it is better from their perspective to let a general election defeat do what they themselves could not – rid the party of Jeremy Corbyn.

But if Labour does go on to lose the election and Corbyn then resigns, will what follows be any better? The last Labour leadership contest should tell you all you need to know about the calibre of individuals waiting in the wings to succeed Jeremy Corbyn.

 

Conservatives

One may not agree with Theresa May on all things – this blog certainly has sharp differences, particularly on the manner of Brexit and the role of the state – but one would be hard pressed to argue that she is an incompetent leader, particularly in comparison with the other party leaders. The public sense this too, which is why the Tories currently have a 20+ point lead over Labour in the opinion polls, why even many Labour supporters prefer Theresa May to Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister, and why the Conservatives will increase their majority following the election.

However, the Tories may not gain as many seats as their current commanding poll lead suggests. Some Tory MPs in staunchly Remain-supporting constituencies are vulnerable, particularly those who unseated Liberal Democrat MPs in 2015. Meanwhile, the Tories are potentially poised to pick up some seats from unapologetic Remainer Labour MPs representing constituencies which voted Leave, particularly in Northern England. Therefore we are likely to see a degree of musical chairs, where some formerly Tory seats go LibDem while the Tories pick up a number of seats from Labour. In my opinion, the net effect will favour the Tories (and the Liberal Democrats) at the expense of Labour, but the extent to which this is the case remains open for debate.

More interesting, though, is the likely impact on the composition and mindset of the Conservative Party following the election, assuming that they are returned to government. This will likely be a Tory party where some of its more pro-EU MPs are gone (excellent), but which also suffers from the loss of those MPs who otherwise exerted a more liberal influence on the government. The authoritarians and the head-in-the-sand hard Brexiteers will likely be strengthened and consolidate their grip over the party, which is a problem for anybody who wanted Brexit to act as a catalyst for further liberal reform and democratic or constitutional renewal in Britain.

 

Liberal Democrats

The LibDems did not deserve their electoral drubbing in 2015, in which they were essentially punished for finally behaving like a responsible party of government and abandoning an unworkable campaign pledge (on university tuition fee caps) in the face of fiscal reality. For this act – for graduating from a party of preening opposition to one of government – they were subject to endless hysterical screeds about “betrayal”, and lost the bulk of their parliamentary party in the process.

Just as the LibDems did not deserve the full extent of their defeat in 2015, so they will not have deserved their likely gains in 2017, which will be fuelled by marshalling hysterical establishment opposition to the outcome of the EU referendum. The party will likely pick up a brace of seats – many retaken from the Conservatives – based solely on their pledge to campaign against a “hard Brexit” they will be powerless to stop. At one time, the Liberal Democrats might have presented a potential fallback option for disenchanted Conservative voters unhappy at the more authoritarian direction of their party. No more. Under Tim Farron, the party has descended into screechy europhilia and blind hatred of that half of the country which voted for Brexit. Civil liberties and other one-time LibDem interests will take a back seat to their efforts to subvert Brexit.

As a further complication, the kind of Brexit that the LibDems now technically argue for is actually not inherently bad in the short term – retaining single market access, openness to immigration etc. But the LibDems are not to be trusted, because:

  1. Their true agenda is to reverse Brexit entirely, not merely to seek the best form of Brexit, and
  2. Rather than pushing for better models of European cooperation and trade regulation, the LibDems seek only to keep Britain as closely shackled as possible to the existing, failed systems. For a party which likes to present itself as the home of enlightened, grown-up pragmatism, the LibDems take their europhilia like a religion, worshipping the EU as something inherently good and never to be seriously questioned.

Finally, Tim Farron is already picking up a lot of flack in left-wing papers and on social media for his fundamentalist Christian beliefs, particularly as they pertain to homosexuality.

This is a shameful, ridiculous witch hunt. So what if Farron refused three times to say whether he considers gay sex to be a sin, as his moralistic tormentors are currently crowing in a bid to damage him? Does anybody seriously think that the Liberal Democrat manifesto is going to call for the recriminalisation of homosexuality, for putting sodomy laws back on the statute books? Be serious. There is a world of difference between private belief and public policy.

There has to be space for private religious belief in this country. Secularists have a fair point when they worry about the influence of religion on public policy, particularly given that we have a legislature where 26 unelected bishops of the Church of England sit in the upper house and meddle in our lawmaking. But religious faith should not and must not become an acid test of eligibility for public office, where anybody professing faith or traditional beliefs is portrayed as extreme and beyond the pale.

More than anything, this is a witch-hunt against Christianity, one which will be cynically used by the other parties of the left as they manoeuvre for political advantage. Interestingly, Islam also has a word or two to say about homosexuality, and one can argue that Islam has a lot further to go than Christianity in accommodating LGBT people and issues, certainly in this country. But one wonders how many of the perpetually outraged critics of Tim Farron would be as fervent in their criticism if Farron were a Muslim rather than an Evil, Backward Christian?

 

UKIP

I voted for UKIP back in the 2015 general election, not as an endorsement of that party’s more nativist, reactionary tendencies but as a means of expressing disgust in a Conservative Party which had drifted far from conservative principles under the leadership of David Cameron, and whose slide toward bland centrism did not deserve rewarding with my vote. I stand by that decision.

Needless to say, the landscape has changed in two years. Nigel Farage – a man with considerable political courage, if also numerous faults and demagogic tendencies – has retreated to the sidelines, if not quite sailed off into the sunset. And after a period of instability the party has settled on Paul Nuttall, who has shrunk into his leadership position, more of an inept clown than an existential threat to Labour’s Northern base.

Furthermore, the party’s raison d’être was essentially accomplished with last year’s referendum vote to leave the European Union. The party limps on, near bankruptcy and desperately insisting that its existence remains necessary as the guard dog of a hard Brexit, but most people either feel that the job is done following the triggering of Article 50 or realise that a party in such turmoil will be in no position to influence events any further, regardless.

The writing has been on the wall for some time. I attended the UKIP Party Conference in Doncaster in 2015, and spent my time interviewing various party figures and supporters about what role they saw for the party in a post-referendum Britain. Most senior UKIP figures, including Nigel Farage, spoke only in bland banalities.

Only Douglas Carswell had a plausible answer – a return to small-government, free trade, small-L libertarian platform – but this side was never likely to win out over the leftward turn to appeal to disaffected Labour voters. And indeed, Carswell has now left the party to stand as an independent candidate, firmly closing the door on any move in this direction.

At present, UKIP seem doomed to lurch incompetently to the Left, willingly shedding any remaining libertarian voters as they court the disaffected Labour vote by promising the same kind of consequence-free safety and security that Donald Trump promised to his supporters in America. A sad decline of a briefly promising political party.

Nobody can deny the influence that UKIP has had on our national politics. Nobody can say for sure that UKIP will not bounce back from their current political near death experience. But we can say with relative certainty that the party will fail to impress in 2017.

My take from the UKIP conference two years ago seems increasingly prescient:

I can’t help wondering if UKIP might not pay a price in 2017 or beyond for failing to pay enough heed to the type of party they want to be – and the type of supporters they want – by the time of the next general election.

I think it is fair to say that UKIP will now pay in a lump for their lack of foresight.

 

Scottish National Party

Nicola Sturgeon was quick to declare that Theresa May’s decision to call for a general election is a “political miscalculation”.

Sturgeon said:

“She [Theresa May] is clearly betting that the Tories can win a bigger majority in England given the utter disarray in the Labour Party.”

“That makes it all the important that Scotland is protected from a Tory Party which now sees the chance of grabbing control of government for many years to come and moving the UK further to the right – forcing through a hard Brexit and imposing deeper cuts in the process.”

Because in Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP’s mind, Scotland is a nation of adult-sized, diaper-clad babies requiring constant protection from the Evil Tor-ees, who are constantly threatening to do Bad Things like lower the tax burden and unleash free enterprise.

Will the SNP manage to sweep the three Scottish constituencies they failed to capture in 2015, or will they lose seats? One can only imagine that they will do very well again, and use their strong showing as an excuse to prance around acting as though the couple of million votes they received from a tightly concentrated part of the United Kingdom represent some God-given, stonking mandate to thwart Brexit for the rest of us or else attempt to sever Scotland’s historic union with the UK through another pointless referendum (they would lose, since the choice would be between remaining in the UK or being outside both the UK and EU).

At some point, one might hope that Scottish voters might look around them and realise what godawful, incompetent government they are receiving by lending such overwhelming support to the SNP. One might hope that those Scots who love liberty might balk at a party which introduces an authoritarian “named person scheme” giving the government oversight of every Scottish child, and whose decision to centralise the fire and police services into single unitary authorities is already costing lives. One might hope that Scots who are against independence or ambivalent about it might decide to stop rewarding a party which has abdicated any responsibility for government in favour of a single-minded obsession with independence, even after the 2014 referendum, to the extent that no legislation has passed the Scottish Parliament for over a year.

But all such hopes will be in vain. The SNP will perform well once again, racking up credulous low-information votes in defiance of their abysmal governing in Scotland and the scandal-plagued, ineffectiveTartan Tea Party in Westminster. By their actions and apparent preference for living in a one-party SNP statelet within the United Kingdom, Scottish voters are choosing to deliberately sever themselves from our shared national political discussion.

If the SNP is all but guaranteed to clean up regardless of their abysmal record in government and the ineffectiveness of their Westminster caucus, what incentive do the other parties have to make compelling pitches for Scottish votes, since these pitches will always be ignored? By choosing to half sever themselves from our United Kingdom with blind support for the SNP, Scottish voters are in danger of completely severing themselves from our national political discourse.

This is a tragedy, but it is a tragedy very much of Scotland’s own making.

 

Britain’s Rainbow, Unicorn-Spangled Progressive Alliance

Ah yes, the super-secret, silent progressive majority which is going to come together in the spirit of unity to lock the Evil Tor-ees out of Downing Street forever and save Britain from the evils of conservatism. Didn’t exist then, doesn’t exist now.

Disregard any breathless commentary about a Labour-LibDem-Green-SNP alliance.

 

Conclusion

One wonders what was the point in instituting a Fixed Term Parliaments Act if we were only to discard the idea of fixed terms for political expediency at the first opportunity.

Generally speaking, fixed terms of government are a good idea, but it must be acknowledged that they usually do not work well in a parliamentary system. Excuses can always be found to justify circumventing the normal timelines and going to the polls early, particularly when the government’s majority is small or when the country faces a particularly contentious issue which bisects normal party lines. The present situation meets both of these criteria.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early general election was clearly motivated by the opportunity to extend the Tory advantage in Parliament, with her stated rationale about “Westminster being divided while the country is not” being a convenient smokescreen. But that’s politics. If people didn’t like the idea of snap elections held for partisan reasons they had every opportunity to become more involved in campaigns for electoral and constitutional reform. Those who spend their time watching Britain’s Celebrity Horses Dancing On Ice and ignoring the nuts and bold of how their country is run have limited standing when it comes to complaining about outcomes they dislike.

Furthermore, those on the Left who spent the last nine months complaining that Theresa May has no mandate to govern can’t very well also complain when the prime minister responds to their wailing by seeking to claim an electoral mandate of her own. This applies particularly to snivelling Labour MPs (Liz McInnes) who seek to use the death of their own family members as political capital.

Brendan O’Neill perfectly critiques this attitude:

The speed with which Remainers went from saying “May doesn’t have a mandate for Brexit” to “How dare May seek a mandate for Brexit” is breathtaking. All that “no mandate” talk was such hogwash. They know there’s a mandate out there for Brexit — a historic, populous, swirling mandate — and they are horrified that it is being tapped into once again via a General Election.

It’s clear now that by “no mandate” they meant “ignore that mandate”. They thought they had wrestled the issue of the EU, and the whole question of Britain’s political and economic future, back from the people and into the hands of their expert friends and legal minds and level-headed lords and MPs. Wrong. Here come the people again!

When it comes to a summary of where we stand and predictions as to the likely outcome, Pete North makes the most sense as it relates to the election’s impact on Brexit:

If it is to be a shadow referendum then remain has already lost it given that their options are split and they’ve spent the last year telling most people they’re thick and xenophobic. I think it’s fair to say that the Lib Dems will achieve a restoration of a sort but there’s not much to get excited about. It is possible that they could form the next official opposition but by then Mrs May will have all the mandate she needs to do whatever she wants. There will have been a referendum, a parliamentary vote, article 50 and a general election. We are leaving the EU and that’s the end of it.

If I had to make a bet, I would predict that the next two months will see a lot of noise and intrigue followed by an electoral outcome not dissimilar to the one we have today, only with a slightly larger Conservative Party caucus gained at Labour’s expense and a moderately revitalised Liberal Democrat party who then go on to strut around as though their 30-odd seats represent some kind of stunning repudiation of the referendum result. UKIP and the Green Party will go nowhere, and by reaffirming Scotland as a de facto one-party statelet by rewarding the SNP for a job disastrously done, Scottish voters will continue to make themselves increasingly irrelevant to the UK-wide political debate.

Maybe I’ll be proven wrong. Maybe the Independent will come out with a hidden video recording of Theresa May murdering puppies a week before polling day, or maybe some of our EU “friends” will make some kind of infantile play to destabilise the British political situation for their own sadistic gratification. Perhaps Theresa May will astonish me and turn out to be pursuing an expanded Tory majority because she does in fact have an ideological backbone, and needs the wiggle room in Parliament to ram through a proper reforming Conservative agenda. Perhaps.

But if I had to guess right now, I would say that on 9 June we will be looking at “the same, but more of it”.

 

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What Is The Point Of Theresa May?

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Right now, Britain needs a leader, not a placeholder – Theresa May needs to step up and set some ambitious national goals, or else be swept aside to make room for a real conservative leader

David Mellor doesn’t know what Theresa May stands for. And as Christopher Hope writes in the Telegraph, Mellor has good reason to be confused:

Theresa May is proving as Prime Minister that she is no Margaret Thatcher, a former Thatcherite minister has said, because she is not “seizing the initiative”.

David Mellor, who served under Baroness Thatcher for three years, said “the description of Theresa May as the new Margaret Thatcher is as wide of the mark as it could possibly be”.

Mr Mellor urged Mrs May to call a general election next year and win a larger House of Commons majority. The Tories have a consistently strong polling lead over Labour.

Mr Mellor was a minister in Lady Thatcher’s last government in four departments from 1987 to her resignation in November 1990.

He said Mrs May had shown herself “infirm of purpose”, most recently over the Christmas strikes at post offices, Southern Rail and Heathrow airport, where action will take place later this week.

He told Sky News’ Murnaghan: “When I was a minister for four years she treated me with even more disrespect than my mother did, but Margaret Thatcher knew what she wanted do and did it.

“I don’t think Theresa May knows what she wants to do. Her advisers appear to be the ones that create the headlines. I think she is sitting there and she is infirm of purpose, and she needs to seize the initiative.

“The main initiative she needs to seize is to have an election and get herself a mandate.”

This blog has never joined the calls for an early general election, not least because the laudable idea of having fixed term parliaments is rather undermined if we suspend the rule on the first occasion it becomes politically inconvenient. But if triggering a general election is what it takes to force Theresa May to really think about what kind of prime minister she wants to be (and hopefully give the British people a clue as well) then maybe we should just get on with it. Because right now Britain is idling in neutral at a time when we should be setting a firm course and all striving to pull in the same direction.

The underlying problem is that having succeeded to the office of prime minister unexpectedly in the most turbulent of times (in the wake of David Cameron’s resignation and Andrea Leadsom’s surprise departure from the following Conservative Party leadership contest), Theresa May evidently took office without ever having clearly thought about what it is that she wanted to achieve through her leadership of Britain (the recent Sunday Times interview is heavy on temperament and almost completely lacking in vision).

And it shows. Mellor cites Theresa May’s supposed “infirmity of purpose” when it comes to things like tackling the strikes on Southern Rail, but those are side issues. More troubling than May’s failure to get tough with striking railway workers is the fact that she used her first party conference speech as prime minister to declare war not on Labour and the vested interests of the Left, but on the libertarian Right.

What’s worrying is that Theresa May’s government has passed the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, dynamite for privacy and civil liberties, and is still toying with the idea of enforcing section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act and Part 2 of the Leveson Report, further curtailing freedom of the press. It is not just that we do not know enough about Theresa May’s agenda for Britain – what little we do no should give small government conservatives everywhere cause for concern.

Contrast this to the last great transformative Conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, who had four years behind her as Leader of the Opposition in which to solidify her worldview and flesh it out with policy (notably from the Stepping Stones Report and Centre for Policy Studies think tank) before taking office. By the time Thatcher entered 10 Downing Street in May 1979, she had not only diagnosed Britain’s ailments but formed a fairly clear idea of how she intended to tackle them, even though the road ahead was inevitably marked by missteps and challenges.

Theresa May appears to have no such plan. If she has a burning ambition to change Britain from an X type of country to a Y type of country then she is keeping her cards very close to her chest, for there is no evidence of such a goal. All we have is her reputation of flinty-eyed authoritarianism and aversion to publicity, earned during six years at the Home Office, a grammar school fetish and some woolly words about focusing her government’s attention on helping the JAMs (people who are Just About Managing).

The danger, therefore, is that with Brexit on her plate, a populist rebellion afoot in the country and challenges abroad, Theresa May’s government will become so preoccupied with fighting fires and engaging in daily damage control that the big picture vision never emerges at all. Mellor is right to say that most of the useful tidbits of information about the government’s intentions have come not from the prime minister but from public spats between rival cabinet members. And who can be surprised that such turf wars are underway when there is no clear drumbeat emanating from Number 10?

Of course, Theresa May is by no means the first politician to reach 10 Downing Street without a plan for what to do in government. Gordon Brown famously spent so long plotting his own ascension and the downfall of Tony Blair that he cut a uniquely uninspired and uninspiring figure among world leaders, at least until the global financial crisis breathed some fire into his belly (even if his “solution” was hiking the top income tax rate up to an immoral 50 percent).

There are times when a bland and uninspiring individual, a technocrat, is the right leader for the moment – primarily when times are good and the key imperative is not to rock the boat. This scenario does not describe Britain in 2016. Brexit may be foremost of our challenges, but there are others, too. And from Theresa May’s cautious and unambitious start in office, it is difficult to see how she – and we – are to best confront them.

 

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What Conservative Government? – Part 8, Theresa May Is Wrong To Embrace Socialism In Defence Of The Nation State

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By openly declaring war on the libertarian wing of the Conservative Party, Theresa May reveals that she cannot tell the difference between defending the nation state (good) and shoehorning the state into every aspect of citizens’ lives (bad)

Why does British politics suffer from the scourge of unambitious, technocratic centrism which does more than anything else to drive voter apathy and disengagement?

Largely because of the enthusiastic and approving reception that such acts of ideological cross-dressing as we saw from Theresa May at Conservative Party Conference yesterday receive from Tory-friendly Westminster journalists who seem to care far more about whether the Conservative Party gains and keeps power than what they actually do with that power while in office.

From Matt Chorley’s Times Red Box morning briefing email today:

Theresa May used her impressive speech closing the Tory party conference yesterday to make a direct appeal to the Labour voters which Ed Miliband used to think he could count on.

Perhaps she just forgot but it was quite something from someone who had been in the cabinet for six years to suddenly declare herself the agent of change. (She used the word 29 times).

The PM promised to go after rogue bosses, tax dodgers, rigged markets and powerful companies giving people a bad deal. “I’m putting you on warning. This can’t go on any more.”

She boasted that the Tories were now the party of workers, the NHS and public servants, claims which would have had Labour HQ spluttering on their lattes. The call for state intervention where government can “do good” will have brought some Tory traditionalists up short too.

The high-wire act was all the more impressive because it also had Ukip fuming about her stealing all of their ideas too. Much of the language might have been to the left but the policy, including grammar schools and tackling immigration, was lifted from the right. May ranged across the political spectrum. Because she can.

While Times columnist Philip Collins notes:

This is a clearer endorsement of state activity than David Cameron would ever make. Throughout the speech there are paeans to the power of government to make the world better which makes for a paradox. “The elite” politicians have featured early on as the problem yet here, ten minutes later, they turn up as the solution.

Typically, political journalist types are impressed with – and subsequently choose to focus on – what they see as clever political manoeuvring rather than matters of substance. They are interested in the game of politics, not its higher purpose.

So never mind that Theresa May’s rhetoric and wholehearted embrace of the state effectively puts the final nails in the coffin of Thatcherism, the ideology which saved this country from previous national decline – instead we are to fawn over the new prime minister for spotting a wide open political goal in the absence of an effective Labour opposition and deciding to shoot left instead of right.

And “semi-socialist Tory” Tim Stanley immediately proceeds to do so:

May understands what Corbyn understands, that people want to be a part of something. Oh the capitalist gifts of a Starbucks mug and a cheap flight to Ibiza are nice, but what about identity? Community? The most appealing parts of Labour’s programme reach back into folk memories of Attlee and the world of unionised factories.

[..] But her sympathies do lie with a Britain that is more suburban or rural than metropolitan, more ancient than contemporary. What is wrong with this? Often I’ve heard Remainers – who will be as irrelevant in a few years’ time as Corn Law advocates or the NUM – saying that Britain risks becoming smaller in outlook. Good! There have been too many wars. Too much hypercapitalism. Too little of the local, of the familiar, of building the kinds of bonds that you get when people know each other and take responsibility for each other. Far too little Christian socialism – which, in the British context, was always more Christian than socialist.

How utterly depressing. It is entirely possible to promote that sense of community and belonging for which people yearn by doing a better job promoting British values and the cultural integration of thousands if not millions of people who have made their homes here yet have no intention of regarding themselves as “British”. Wouldn’t this be a good place to start, rather than responding to the Brexit vote by co-opting Labour’s collectivism and elevation of the state?

As my Conservatives for Liberty colleague Chris Manby laments in his new blog:

Mrs May wants the Tories to be the party of “ordinary working-class people”. That is an admirable ambition, one best delivered through a strong economy.

Libertarians hate poverty too. But we know it is not government that creates economic growth, jobs, and prosperity. It is the actions of millions of individuals living in a free society under the rule of law. Want to eliminate poverty? Free up markets, cut taxes and enforce the damned rule of law.

We’ve been down this road before. The social-democratic consensus of the postwar years left British industry stagnant; British democracy under siege from militant trade unionism; and the British economy a high inflation, high unemployment laughing stock. It took Margaret Thatcher’s hard-fought revolution in the 1980s to restore national confidence. That revolution was left half finished.

The government already does far too much. We pay nearly half our income in taxes. Britain’s tax code is so long and complicated it rewards big business who can afford to pay shrewd accountants and lawyers. Planning restrictions and cheap money drive up the cost of housing and penalise saving. State investment in renewables drives up energy bills. Government borrowing is still out of control.

The problem with staking out the “centre ground” of politics is that you allow your opponent to control the terms of debate. There can be no compromise between good ideas and bad ones. The last female Tory Prime Minister grasped this point. I fear that Mrs May does not.

While Allister Heath warns:

Thirty years [after Thatcher and Reagan] free-market ideas are in retreat. The drift began well before the financial crisis, and was at first camouflaged by the ongoing march of globalisation, technology and consumerism. New Labour increased spending and intervention; likewise George W Bush, who also subsidised sub-prime mortgages; central bankers injected moral hazard into everything; and David Cameron introduced new workers’ rights, property levies and environmental rules. He increased far more taxes than he cut and bashed bankers. Sir John Major’s government was the last to make, if falteringly, the case for markets, competition and choice; and Michael Howard was the last Tory leader to advocate capitalism.

It is in this context that Theresa May’s speech needs to be understood. It was as emphatic a repudiation of the Thatcher-Reagan economic world-view as it was possible to get without actually naming them: time and again, she said that government was the solution, not the problem. She took explicit aim at small-state libertarians: the subtext was that collectivist, paternalistic Christian Democrats, not individualistic classical liberals, are back in charge of the party. She believes in a large, powerful, aggressively interventionist state that can, she feels, regenerate the country and protect ordinary workers. It will have helped Lord Heseltine get over Brexit; ironically, her vision of conservatism is very continental.

And makes an important and welcome rebuttal to Theresa May’s declaration of war on the libertarian wing of her party:

Yet the speech went further than toughening language or extension of policies. Cameron’s Big Society was based on the correct notion that society is separate from the state; May blurs those concepts. Classical liberals and libertarians believe in voluntary action; they believe in the family and communities, in charities and helping those who cannot help themselves. It is a basic error to confuse their philosophy with atomism or extreme selfishness.

Peter Oborne, though, sees Theresa May’s speech in an altogether more positive light:

Here is another, crucial difference between Mrs May and her predecessor. David Cameron was, in essence, a liberal prime minister. Mrs May marks a reversion to traditional conservatism.

She intends her premiership to challenge the liberal internationalism of Cameron and Blair. They assumed that nation states — including Britain — count for less and less in the modern world.

They accepted the liberal dogma that nations are essentially powerless against huge international corporations, mass immigration, the relentless advance of communications, and untrammelled free movement of international capital — the cumulative process often known as globalisation.

But now Mrs May has rejected this consensus, and in doing so she is attempting to define what it means to be British. Her speech amounted to a passionate statement that she believed in the nation state, and she spelt out her reason: that it has a fundamental role in supporting the weak and vulnerable.

I’m not unsympathetic to a lot of what Oborne says. This blog has been banging on about the need to defend the nation state as the primary guarantor of our fundamental rights and freedoms for years now, and I’ll take no lectures in that regard. But supporting the nation state and acknowledging the negative effects of globalisation does not inherently require adopting more left-wing, interventionist policies. Supporting the nation state should not mean advocating for its involvement in every aspect of our lives, especially when small government conservative policies have been proven time and again to be a much better generator of wealth and better for working people.

Furthermore, a full-throated embrace of capitalism needn’t be at odds with the politics of community and national identity. Just look at the United States, that exemplar of capitalism, where small government is celebrated (in theory if not always in practice) yet there is open pride in the flag, the national anthem, the military and shared national holidays and traditions which transcend ethnic or religious lines.

Americans embrace capitalism and have an inherent cultural distrust of an overbearing centralised state, yet they also stand and pledge allegiance to the flag at school, stand for the national anthem before even school sports events and celebrate Independence Day together whether they are white, black, Hispanic, Asian, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh or atheist. And one of the reasons that the American national identity is strong is because the state does not insert itself into every aspect of life, meaning that there is then more respect and appreciation for the state where it is visible.

What a devastating pity that Theresa May seems (from her hugely concerning conference speech) unable or unwilling to reconcile support for markets and capitalism with support for community and identity. She is turning British politics into a zero sum game, forcing conservatives to choose which core principle – economic freedom or a strong and cohesive sense of nationhood – they wish to preserve. And many voices in the conservative-friendly media seem more than willing to enable the prime minister in her destructive, short-termist scheming.

No good can come of forcing conservatives (or the wider country) into making the arbitrary and entirely unnecessary choice between a strong nation state and freedom from the state in our personal lives – and Theresa May is making a grave mistake by interpreting the Brexit vote as a call for bigger government.

 

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Top Image: Carl Court / Getty Images, International Business Times

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What Conservative Government? – Part 7, 2016 Party Conference Edition

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Fiscal incontinence, a bizarre grammar school obsession and a new crackdown on civil liberties – forgive me for not cheering along as Theresa May’s Conservative In Name Only Party assembles, victorious, in Birmingham

Theresa May would never have been this blog’s choice to be Britain’s new prime minister, but I have tried to maintain a spirit of cautious optimism in the months since the EU referendum toppled David Cameron and upended our national politics.

And there have been some genuinely positive signs along the way. For one, healthy national pride and patriotism – dead and buried for so long, with New Labour the principal executioner – is starting to make a comeback, no longer automatically scorned by all of Britain’s leading politicians.

Indeed, the Telegraph reports that Theresa May made patriotism one of the lynchpins of her keynote speech to Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham today:

The establishment must stop sneering at the patriotism of ordinary Britons, Theresa May will say today.

During her keynote speech to the Conservative conference, the Prime Minister will proclaim that the Tories are now the party of working class people.

In a bid to attract millions of disaffected Labour voters across the country, she will add that concerns about immigration have for too long been dismissed as “distasteful” and “parochial”.

She will attack the condescending views of politicians and establishment figures who are “bewildered” by the fact that more than 17 million people voted for Britain to leave the European Union.

[..] “Just listen to the way a lot of politicians and commentators talk about the public,” Mrs May will say. “They find their patriotism distasteful, their concerns about immigration parochial, their views about crime illiberal, their attachment to their job security inconvenient. They find the fact that more than seventeen million people voted to leave the European Union simply bewildering.”

This is good. While sneering, elitist anti-democrats like Matthew Parris may suffer convulsions any time somebody outside Zone 2 or with an income of less than £100,000 dares to utter a political opinion, great (and deserved) political rewards potentially await a major political party which stops treating working and middle class patriotism like an infectious disease.

And there was more to admire in today’s keynote speech, not least the fact that Theresa May delivered it from behind a lectern while reading from a printed transcript rather than adopting the tiresome Gordon Brown / David Cameron habit of prancing around the stage while reciting from memory, like an over-eager Shakespearean actor or a Silicon Valley executive delivering a TED talk.

But unfortunately, in that same speech Theresa May also declared “I want to set our party and our country on the path towards the new centre ground of British politics”. In other words, gifted a blank canvas and meaningful opposition only from the ranks of Conservative backbenchers, Britain’s new prime minister is going to play it safe and stubbornly occupy the same tedious middle ground marked out by David Cameron and George Osborne, only a couple of steps further to the left.

But the worst part of Theresa May’s keynote conference speech came when she declared:

“A change has got to come. It’s time to remember the good that government can do. Time for a new approach that says while government does not have all the answers, government can and should be a force for good; that the state exists to provide what individual people, communities and markets cannot; and that we should employ the power of government for the good of the people.”

Excuse me, but no. What is this Miliband-esque, woolly Fabian nonsense?

Opinions differ as to what ails modern Britain, but almost nobody remotely serious would suggest with a straight face that we currently suffer because the state is not yet involved enough in our daily lives, or that it is not performing activities which the market could reasonably undertake. Nobody apart from our new prime minister, that is.

With a new Conservative prime minister singing hymns of praise to an activist state constantly meddling in the lives of its dependent citizenry, we may as well be back in the 1970s. At least David Cameron used to talk about the Big Society (even if he never made it a reality), and suggested that there might be a whole world out there beyond the suffocating reach of the public sector. If we take Theresa May at her word, she seems to believe the opposite – that we should expect to rely on the state in all matters of life, and that markets are terminally “dysfunctional”, requiring constant state intervention.

I’m sorry, but this is unforgivably leftist fluff coming from a supposedly Conservative prime minister. One appreciates that Theresa May has come to office at an exceedingly difficult time, with Britain’s EU secession by far the most ambitious enterprise which this country has attempted in decades. But that is absolutely no excuse for kicking ideology and founding principle to the kerb and engaging in what can only be described as flagrant socialist cross-dressing.

Furthermore, Theresa May’s sloppy wet kiss to Big Government presupposes that until now we have somehow been living in a Hayekian, libertarian nirvana, where the government stayed out of our lives, the successful didn’t have to fork over half of their income in taxes and everybody was left to sink or swim according to their merits. This was hardly the case. The terrible “austerity” inflicted by David Cameron and George Osborne was in reality nothing more than the meekest, politest attempt to stem the constant increases in public spending. Six years on and the deficit remains, the national debt is larger and interest on Britain’s sovereign debt rivals our annual Defence budget.

In other words, Theresa May’s speech made it seem as though working British people had up to now been left to starve in some awful libertarian dystopia, when in fact we remain prisoners of the welfare state/public sector prison created decades ago and put on steroids by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

And yet the parties of the Left uniformly fail to realise just how lucky they have it with Theresa May in charge of the country. A Britain led by David Davis, Liam Fox or Jacob Rees-Mogg would quite possibly offer a taste of real austerity for those parts of the country which have grown fat suckling on the taxpayer teat, but with Theresa May they don’t have to worry about any of that. For the prime minister is every bit as much of a champion of the state as Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or Ed Miliband ever were.

Not that you would know it, to read hysterical, weepy editorials like this one in Left Foot Forward:

Theresa May’s speech to Conservative Party conference was supposed to showcase her philosophy. And it did.

It showcased a nightmarish new Conservative ideology that cloaks drastic social illiberalism in the language of inclusive economics, panders to one section of the working class in order to marginalise another, and brands anyone who dares to disagree as unpatriotic and sneering.

And it takes the vote to leave the European Union as a justification for extreme, inward-looking and divisive policies, completely disregarding the 16 million people who voted to remain, not to mention all the decent leave voters, who voted for change, not for for xenophobia.

The delicious irony of a weepy leftist complaining about being disregarded and demonised when such flagrant hostility is the default left-wing attitude towards anybody with remotely conservative opinions is almost too much to bear, but it gets better:

However, the truly frightening aspect of this speech was its divisiveness, its aggression towards anyone who doesn’t fit into the prime minister’s definition of ‘ordinary’.

This includes anyone not born in Britain, despite May’s claim to want ‘a country where it doesn’t matter where you were born.’

It comprises most of the 48 per cent of people who voted to remain in Europe — May seems to have forgotten she was one of them — and all those who envision a more progressive approach to crime, immigration, human rights, healthcare or education.

Here is a prime minister who did everything but daub herself in red paint and sing the Internationale right on the stage of the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, and still it isn’t enough for the leftists because the Big Mean Scary Lady apparently used “non-inclusive” language. Truly there is no winning with these people.

In fact, the hysterical reaction from the Left only shows how far Labour’s metro-left ruling class have diverged from their party base and from traditional left-wing thought. Theresa May promises German style corporate governance, more wealth redistribution and the state as an overbearing, omnipresent parent – all of which which would have delighted 1980s socialists – yet the modern metro-left pitches a hissy fit because Theresa May didn’t sing paeans of praise to unlimited immigration or bow down before the altar of corrosive identity politics.

The goalposts keep moving and the ratchet keeps tightening and dragging us leftward. But ordinarily one might at least reasonably expect a Conservative prime minister to act as an anchor and a drag on that influence. Theresa May, though, seems eager to beat the centrist, metro-left in a full-on sprint to the left.

Look: I get that Theresa May is not a socialist herself. But the mere fact that she is comfortable using the same woolly, often meaningless language of Ed Miliband should be a real cause for concern among libertarian-leaning conservatives because it shows that she is far more interested in hoovering up centrist Labour voters than making a bold, compelling case for small government, conservative policies. It is undoubtedly the correct approach if one wants to pursue the path of least resistance, but to tack to the authoritarian centre at a time when the Labour opposition has all but disintegrated is an almost criminal waste of an opportunity to radically reshape Britain – not just through Brexit, but in terms of the relationship between government and citizen.

I know I can be a bit of a bore when it comes to analysing political speeches, but it is also depressing to see Theresa May adopt the short sentence / no complex paragraph style also favoured by Ed Miliband.

An excerpt:

theresa-may-conservative-party-conference-2016-speech-transcript

 

And another:

theresa-may-conservative-party-conference-2016-speech-transcript-2

Put aside for a the obscenity of a Conservative prime minister neglecting to talk about the importance of a flexible labour market to a dynamic economy in favour of trying to outdo Labour in promising counterproductive employment rights, and focus instead on the speechwriting style.

This is the same choppy, disjointed, machine-assembled soundbite speech favoured by Gordon Brown and honed to dismal perfection by Ed Miliband, as this blog explained some time ago:

Behold the short, stunted phrases, written with the news editor’s cropping software in mind while the poor listener’s brain isn’t given a second thought. This is nothing more than a word cloud, a jumble of phrases and platitudes deemed by a focus group to be pleasing or reassuring and then awkwardly bolted together by a computer and beamed onto a teleprompter.

Britain is about to embark on the most complex national endeavour that we have attempted in decades. In seceding from the European Union and deciding to forge our way once more as an independent country, the people of Britain are serving as a case study to the world in how best to maintain and strengthen democracy and accountability in the age of globalisation. Is it really so much to ask that we have a prime minister capable and willing to speak in complete paragraphs rather than ten-word soundbites?

Is it honestly unreasonable to expect that the first major set-piece speech of Theresa May’s premiership should make reference to history, to human endeavour, to our national destiny, rather than simply be a laundry list of bribes to the British people, promising them newer, better public services and an easier life?

This is Milibandism all over again. And while Theresa May is more traditionalist authoritarian than Fabian socialist, alarm bells should be sounding that she intends to govern using the same tired New Labour playbook. May’s conference speech reveals a depressingly small conception of what it means to be the prime minister of the United Kingdom, casting Theresa May as a mere Comptroller of Public Services or a puffed-up cruise ship director rather than a consequential world leader.

Nonetheless, Conservatives seem to be streaming away from Birmingham in a very cheerful mood – some almost outrageously so:

Et tu, Montie?

Yes, libertarian individualism is indeed “THE Tory weakness” if one is trying to appeal to people who love socialism and a big, activist state. Which is why a healthy, virile Conservative Party should either seek to make such people see the error of their ways or else quit pandering to them entirely.

But this is clearly not Theresa May’s approach. She has a different strategy. And what has it wrought thus far?

After three months of reflection over the summer, the Tories are absolutely nowhere when it comes to tackling Brexit, but every indication we have seen suggests that they are toying with the unnecessary self-harm option which would see Britain forsake the single market in a couple of years at the time of EU secession, well before any comprehensive replacement could possibly be negotiated.

We were supposed to be wowed by a so-called “Great Repeal Bill” to undo the 1972 European Communities Act, until five seconds of reflection revealed this grand piece of posturing to be nothing more than a statement of the bleeding obvious – if Brexit is to happen at all, the primacy of EU law and courts must be brought to an end at the moment of departure.

Flagship proposals to build new grammar schools only scratch the surface of problems with British education, but jubilant Tories seem to be treating this policy as the alpha and omega of their plans to create a more educated and skilled workforce when in fact so much more needs to be done to make the British education system the best in the world.

The last Chancellor of the Exchequer was bad enough, with his limp deficit reduction targets, obsession with white elephant infrastructure projects and shameful Brexit scaremongering. But his replacement, Philip Hammond, has taken what little authority the Tories retained on fiscal responsibility and thrown it out the window. Now Conservatives are mocked by John McDonnell of all people – John McDonnell! – for failing to grapple with the public finances, and the national debt will have increased every year after a decade of Tory rule.

And to add insult to serious libertarian injury, Theresa May’s steely-eyed authoritarian side is revving up, with planned new laws to criminalise insulting the army or advocating shariah law for Britain veering from the unworkable to the stupid all the way to the totalitarian.

So I’m sorry, but I can’t get excited about this revamped Conservative In Name Only government. While Theresa May is off to a bright start in terms of tone and temperament, what we have seen so far in terms of policy suggests a shift even further to the economic left than Cameron/Osborne, balanced out by a rise in authoritarianism and government meddling in every aspect of private life.

And for what? To beat Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party by a slightly greater landslide in 2020 than is already expected?

Maybe I’m alone in this, but I would rather Theresa May’s government struggle to a 30 seat majority in 2020 based on a really radical, small government manifesto in the model of Thatcher – and then actually go about reshaping the country based on that clear vision – rather than win a 100 seat majority by dressing up in the abandoned clothing of Ed Miliband.

As Margaret Thatcher said in 1968:

There are dangers in consensus; it could be an attempt to satisfy people holding no particular views about anything. It seems more important to have a philosophy and policy which because they are good appeal to sufficient people to secure a majority.

Theresa May clearly disagrees, and there is a very low limit to the respect that this blog can give to a leader who thinks in such unambitious, tactical terms.

 

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Top Image: International Business Times

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The Economic Challenges Beyond Brexit

Bitter, swivel-eyed (and unrepentant) europhile he may be, but the FT’s Martin Wolf makes some valid points in his latest column, warning against any complacency that Britain’s persistent economic weak points will be automatically restored to health upon leaving the European Union.

Wolf writes:

British economic policymakers confront big challenges. They have to manage departure from the EU with the minimum damage. They also need to make the UK economy far more dynamic. The latter cannot be achieved if they do not abandon the myth that Britain is already an economic success, albeit one choked by the dead hand of an over-regulated European economy.

Simon Tilford of the Centre for European Reform provides a far more realistic picture in his Brexit Britain. Measured at purchasing power parity, the rise in the UK’s gross domestic product per head between 2000 and 2015 was smaller than in Germany, Spain and France. Over this period, the UK outperformed only Italy, among the EU’s largest pre-2000 members. In 2015, the UK’s GDP per head was lower relative to the average of the 15 pre-2000 EU members than in 2000: its GDP per head was a mere ninth within this group.

The UK also has the highest income inequality among these countries. Furthermore, notes Mr Tilford, UK real wages fell by 10 per cent between 2008 and 2014, before a tiny uptick in 2015, while German and French real wages rose. In 2015, only London and the South-East had higher GDP per head than the average of the EU-15 countries. Other UK regions were at or below that average. In all, it is hardly surprising so many UK voters feel left behind, as shown in the EU referendum.

True, the increase in French real wages has coincided with high unemployment. But that is not true in Germany. UK workers also work longer hours than those in other EU-15 countries. This is presumably to make up for low real wages, themselves largely due to the UK’s poor productivity. According to the Conference Board’s invaluable “total economy database”, the only EU-15 countries to have lower output per hour than the UK are Greece, Italy and Portugal, while the UK’s productivity per hour has stagnated since 2007. Again, of the biggest five EU-15 members only Italy performed worse on this measure. The UK also now runs the largest current account deficit, relative to GDP, in the EU-15.

The UK, then, has low unemployment. But it also has high inequality, mediocre real incomes, at least by the standards of its European peers, and poor external competitiveness. Above all, recent productivity growth has been truly awful.

These are hard, inescapable criticisms – particularly in terms of productivity growth and purchasing power parity, which is ultimately the only yardstick that matters in terms of whether people actually feel better off.

And concludes:

The implications of a realistic view of the UK economy is that, even without the looming shock of Brexit, the economy suffers from big weaknesses relative to the European economies that many Brexiters despise. Some argue that a real depreciation of sterling is mainly what is needed. If sustained, the post-referendum devaluation should indeed help, though it means a fall in real incomes and wealth. Yet devaluation alone will not cure UK weaknesses.

The UK has to rectify longstanding supply-side failings. The list includes: low investment, particularly in infrastructure; inadequate basic education of much of the population and the innumeracy of much of its elite; a grossly distorted housing market; over-centralisation of government; and a corporate sector whose leaders are motivated more by the share price than by the long-term health of the business. Not surprisingly, given all this, the UK economy is highly dependent on inward foreign direct investment, which Brexit would seem virtually certain to weaken.

If the UK is to thrive economically, it will not be enough for it to manage Brexit, hard though that will surely be. Its policymakers must also start from a realistic assessment of the UK’s mediocre performance. This is no world-beating economy. It is not even a Europe-beating economy, except on creating what are too often low-wage jobs. It will have to do far better if it is to deliver the higher living standards its people want in the tougher environment ahead.

The danger with Brexit was always that the sheer complexity of managing our secession from the European Union would prove too much for a mostly unremarkable generation of politicians and civil servants, nearly all of whom have never known life outside the EU and can scarcely imagine self-government. Even now, three months after the historic Brexit vote, there is little evidence that the government has started to get to grips with the challenge ahead of them.

Therefore, it is not unreasonable to ask – as Martin Wolf does – how much mental capacity will be left to tackle other burning issues like Britain’s low productivity, the low-skill / low-wage segment of the economy or decades-old weaknesses in British management, identified by Thatcher’s Conservatives in the late 1970s but still barely tackled even now.

And I’m not sure there is a quick fix to this problem. Brexit will inevitably dominate the political agenda, probably for the next decade, to the near exclusion of all else. And even if there was excess capacity, there is precious little evidence to suggest that Theresa May’s new government has a blazingly clear vision for reforming Britain anyway – as Isabel Hardman outlines in this excellent Spectator piece.

In short: many of these problems, though long-festering, are probably going to have to wait to be tackled, unless the government surprises us all with its radical zeal and far-reaching reform plans at the upcoming Conservative Party Conference, which seems unlikely at best.

If you wake up to discover your house is ablaze and smoke pouring into the bedroom, you don’t waste precious minutes ensuring that you are beautifully dressed and immaculately turned-out before evacuating the building. Likewise, in whatever shape Brexit ends up happening, Britain will likely emerge from the EU in much the same shape as before, with the same nagging issues and weaknesses clamouring to be addressed.

Inspiring? No. Ammunition for assorted bitter Remainers, EU-lovers and anti-patriots? Sadly, yes. But that is our lot. Brexit is likely to be a grinding, painstaking, lengthy process at the end of which the same Britain will be blinking back at us, largely unchanged, with all the rest of our work to realise the benefits of Brexit still ahead of us.

But does that mean the enterprise is not worth the effort? Hell no. And it is very telling to see those who are prepared to steel themselves for the work ahead, and those who seek to use it as a whinnying justification for giving up.

 

Thousands Of People Take Part In The March For Europe

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