On Brexit, the Observer Pulls No Punches With a Suitably Savage Editorial Just Before Theresa May Triggers Article 50


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It’s nine months since normal life in Britain came to an abrupt end after the EU referendum, when, by a narrow majority, 37.4% of the eligible voters in the UK voted to leave the EU (while 34.7% voted to remain, and 27.9% didn’t vote). Never mind that the outcome of the referendum was only advisory; never mind that everyone agrees that events involving cataclysmic constitutional change should never be decided by less than a two-thirds or 60% majority — the Tories, most of the rest of Britain’s political class, and the media all behaved as though the “will of the people” — the will of the 37.4% — had to be obeyed.

After a leadership bloodbath, in which David Cameron resigned, and the Leave campaign’s leaders, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, were also revealed as toxic, home secretary Theresa May, nominated by just 199 MPs, became the Prime Minister, and set about becoming nothing less than a tyrant. Although Leave voters had tended to insist that their vote was about restoring sovereignty to the UK, when it came down to it they seemed not to care that sovereignty in the UK resides with Parliament, and not the PM and/or her ministers, and were content to let May insist that she alone — with the assistance of her three Brexit ministers, the hapless David Davis, the dangerously right-wing Liam Fox, and the clown Boris Johnson, recalled from the dead — should decide everything about how Brexit would take place without consulting with Parliament at all. When concerned citizens took May to court and won, the Daily Mail called the judges “enemies of the people,” and far too many Leave voters agreed, showed their true, violent colours.

However, when it came to acknowledging Parliament’s role, May continued to treat MPs with contempt. After appealing, and losing again in the Supreme Court, she and her ministers issued a tiny Brexit bill, and then told MPs to vote for it, disempowering themselves despite the judges’ best efforts to empower them. Rational and/or morally necessary amendments to the bill — guaranteeing EU citizens the right to stay in the UK, for example, and guaranteeing Parliament a final say on the final deal, two years from now — were defeated, with Tory MPs in seats that voted Remain whipped into silence, and Jeremy Corbyn attempting to whip all his MPs to follow suit. When the Lords reinstated the amendments, MPs voted them down again.

The humiliation complete, May is triggering Article 50 of the 2009 Lisbon treaty on Wednesday, beginning a two-year process of the UK leaving the EU, despite it being, very probably, the single most suicidal act by a nation state in living memory. And although 16.1 million people voted to remain in the EU, we have been almost entirely silenced since the referendum, with the corporate British media continuing to push the anti-European agenda it aggressively pursued in the run-up to the referendum, the BBC revealing regular pro-Brexit bias, and most pro-European MPs (three-quarters of them, before the referendum) self-silenced.

For honest, impassioned criticism, the 16.1 million of us who voted to Remain have had to rely on the likes of Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell, Nick Clegg, John Major, Michael Heseltine and Ken Clarke, with all the baggage that all of them, except Ken Clarke and John Major, bring with them — Blair and Campbell the unindicted war criminals and sellers-out of Labour’s history, Clegg the facilitator of the Tory-led coalition that attacked everyone vulnerable in the UK with a hideous austerity programme, and Heseltine — a cheerleader for the EU in the Lords — an old henchman of Margaret Thatcher.

I’m not sure there is a “better late than never” category in the Brexit coverage, as it seems nothing can stop Theresa May, but in the next two years all of us who care about preventing the disaster that Brexit will need to be as aware as possible of the damage it will cause, if it is not prevented, and will need to find every way possible to prevent it from happening

To that end, I recommend everyone to read Ian Dunt’s magnificent — and terrifying — book, Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now? and also to read his article, ‘Everything you need to know about Theresa May’s Article 50 nightmare in five minutes.’ I also recommended looking at how the Parliamentary Labour Party may finally have found its spine, via Keir Starmer and his article, ‘Theresa May wants a Brexiteer’s Brexit. She won’t get it without a fight’ — and see Ian Dunt’s commentary here — but I also wholeheartedly congratulate the Observer for publishing a suitably savage editorial on Sunday, which I’m cross-posting below because it is so accurate and so important.

The Observer view on triggering article 50
Observer editorial, March 26, 2017

As Britain hurtles towards the precipice, truth and democracy are in short supply.

Like sheep, the British people, regardless of whether they support Brexit, are being herded off a cliff, duped and misled by the most irresponsible, least trustworthy government in living memory. The moment when article 50 is triggered, signalling Britain’s irreversible decision to quit the EU, approaches inexorably. This week, on Black Wednesday, the UK will throw into jeopardy the achievements of 60 years of unparalleled European peace, security and prosperity from which it has greatly benefited. And for what?

The ultra-hard Tory Brexit break with Europe that is now seen as the most likely outcome when the two-year negotiation concludes is the peacetime equivalent of the ignominious retreat from Dunkirk. It is a national catastrophe by any measure. It is a historic error. And Theresa May, figuratively waving the cross of St George atop the white cliffs of Dover like a tone-deaf parody of Vera Lynn, will be remembered as the principal author of the debacle. This is not liberation, as Ukip argues, nor even a fresh start. It is a reckless, foolhardy leap into the unknown and the prelude, perhaps, to what the existentialist writer Albert Camus described in La chute – a fall from grace, in every conceivable sense.

It did not have to be this way. Like others who favoured Remain, we have reiterated, ad nauseam, our acceptance of the referendum result. But whether you were for or against, what confronts us all now is drastically different from what was on the table last June. The hard Tory Brexit in prospect represents an epic act of self-harm. A more enlightened Conservative prime minister, better attuned to the “one nation” tradition of the party of Disraeli and Macmillan, less in thrall to Little Englanders, and less intimidated by the peculiarly vicious and Manichaean worldview of the Daily Mail, would have taken a more consensual approach. Yet despite her promises when she became prime minister, Theresa May has failed to heal the divisions caused by Brexit.

Far from reuniting a fractured kingdom, she has divided it further, perhaps fatally, as the SNP’s unsettling decision last week to push for a second Scottish independence referendum implies. As Lord Heseltine has suggested, a more imaginative, braver and more consistent leader could have used the referendum result to propel an immediate negotiation with the EU on much-needed reforms. If, at the end of that process, Britain’s demands remained unmet, the divorce could have proceeded or, if a deal were agreed, been put to a second vote. Instead, May, more sheep than shepherd, has feebly allowed herself to be driven ever further towards an extreme, inflexible, take-it-or-leave-it stance for which she has neither mandate nor credible grounds.

The main reason that May and her ministers now say that no deal would be better than a bad deal is that even the most blinkered Brexiters have belatedly realised what an impossible position they have placed the country in. They simply cannot deliver what they promised. Nor will an affronted, alienated Brussels help them do so. Rejigged single market access? Forget it. A bespoke customs union? Not a chance. A free trade deal within two years? In your dreams. It has become crystal clear that none of this is possible while ministers continue to reject freedom of movement and other basic EU principles, including European court of justice jurisdiction. On this, the other 27 countries are united. So now the hard Brexiters say, with astonishingly cynical mendacity, that Britain would be better off going it alone. This approach plays fast and loose with ordinary people’s livelihoods. Yet still, with jingoistic horns and trumpets drowning out the roar of the deep, the stampede towards the cliff’s edge gathers pace.

Every day produces more evidence that this hard Tory Brexit is a disaster in the making. Carmakers and other export manufacturers, fearing swingeing tariffs, are demanding special protections and exemptions or else they leave. Professional bodies, ranging from lawyers to economists, warn of endlessly damaging business consequences. The NHS faces the loss of tens of thousands of qualified doctors and nurses it has no prospect of replacing. Care homes are in a similar plight. Banks, financial institutions and airlines face unavoidable decisions about moving jobs and operations to mainland Europe.

Environmentalists rightly fear the cleaner rivers and cleaner air ensured by EU regulations (red tape to the Europhobes) may soon become a thing of the past. British citizens living and working in Europe fear the chaos that would surely follow all-out rupture; likewise EU citizens living here. Britain’s farmers, like its academics, surely realise by now, if they did not before, that they cannot trust this government to replicate the research funding, subsidies and employment freedoms that EU membership currently bestows. The average British family is now hemmed in by multiple, authoritative predictions of stagnant or falling wages, higher food and fuel prices, an ongoing sterling devaluation, collapsing social care and public services and increased, regressive indirect taxation. Be you a Remainer or a Leaver, you would have to be particularly obtuse not to see that May’s hard Tory Brexit will cost this country and its families more than it can conceivably afford.

The prospective political, diplomatic and reputational cost is every bit as daunting. Take the damage to Britain’s democracy. Last week, parliament was at its best, uniting in defiance of terrorism. The week before, it was at its worst, agreeing to deny itself a meaningful vote on any final deal. The government argued that to do otherwise would tie its hands. This is baloney. David Davis, Liam Fox, Boris Johnson and the other Brexit blowhards know they have no chance of achieving their stated aims, such as a £350m weekly NHS payback. So they pre-emptively reject parliamentary scrutiny, dismiss any criticism as unpatriotic and hope, like the cheap chancers they are, that they will get away with it. They’ve peddled a fake Brexit, full of false promises. The reality is beginning to dawn.

Unconscionably, they and their outliers in the hard Brexit media have attempted to stifle debate and question those who demand proper scrutiny of the most significant political and economic challenge to Britain in decades. They have helped foster a corrosive, mean-spirited, angry and divisive atmosphere that May and her lieutenants are too weak to challenge. Into this swill comes Leave financier-in-chief, Arron Banks, who last week announced he was setting up a “Patriotic Alliance” to attempt to unseat 100 Remain-supporting MPs. The Daily Mail, Katie Hopkins, Arron Banks, Nigel Farage, Paul Nuttall – meet Britain’s new patriots. Except they’re not, because divisiveness and intolerance are not the values of patriots.

There is a criticism of one’s country that is born of hate and a criticism born of love. And they are materially different. One wishes to divide us, the other attempts to bind, cohere and support. It fell last week to Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, to throw a cold bucket of reality over the ultra-hard Brexiters’ fantasies. The effect was chilling. Barnier made clear May’s “no deal” option was no option at all. He warned of queues of lorries at Dover, chaos for ordinary citizens and custom controls on trade from day one of the UK’s withdrawal. Barnier also made plain the EU would not even begin to talk about a post-Brexit trade deal until Britain agrees to cough up the estimated £50bn Brussels says it owes in prior commitments. The figure is disputed. But the principle is not. Britain faces a hugely costly settling of accounts, whatever parti pris barristers may advise. For good measure, Barnier insisted the Irish border conundrum and citizens’ rights must be resolved before other Brexit matters can be discussed.

Barnier says the EU wants a deal. And it would be reckless indeed for EU leaders to ignore the factors that produced the Brexit vote, many of which can be observed across the union. The EU itself is becoming uncomfortably aware that as well as a need to show flexibility towards the UK, it also has to demonstrate to its own citizens an awareness of its democratic and policy deficiencies if it is to rekindle the support that has seen it develop since its origins in the Treaty of Rome 60 years ago.

But Barnier’s stance, if unchanged, presages a negotiations humiliation for the government. Yet more threatening for the ultra-hard Brexit brigade and the lie factories of Fleet Street was Barnier’s vow to spell out what leaving the EU really entails for the British people. “We need to tell the truth and we will tell the truth to our citizens about what Brexit means,” Barnier said, his point being that, until now, here and elsewhere, such truths have been deliberately concealed, ignored or distorted. How galling, and how ironic, that the country, the “mother of parliaments” that boastfully styles itself the home of modern representative governance, should need a lesson in open democracy. But needed it is. Truth and common sense are in short supply as Britain charges towards the precipice.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose debut album ‘Love and War’ and EP ‘Fighting Injustice’ are available here to download or on CD via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

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6 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    The day before the deluded authoritarian and would-be tyrant Theresa May triggers Article 50 on behalf of misguided Little Englanders and dirty bankers hoping to turn us into an international tax haven devoid of all public services, here’s my round-up of the last nine months, and a cross-post of the Observer’s hard-hitting editorial on Sunday. Sadly, most of our MPs have deserted the 16.1 million of us who voted to stay in the EU (even though three-quarters of them supported staying), and most of our media is devoted to racism, xenophobia and a backwards-looking isolationism. Tomorrow is a day of mourning for decency, tolerance, fairness, pragmatism, vision and a realistic sense of what nationality and sovereignty can and should mean, but I will be fighting for the next two years to derail Brexit so that it cannot become a reality, and I hope you will join me!

  2. Andy Worthington says...

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Here, with some useful information from behind the scenes, is an analysis of the irresponsibility of Theresa May’s threat to leave the EU without a trade deal – something that the delusional Brexiteers obviously still want, as they plot to turn us into a global criminals’ tax haven with no public services: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/mar/28/brexit-uk-backing-away-from-threat-to-leave-with-no-deal-say-eu-diplomats

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    And here’s the Guardian’s quick guide to what triggering Article 50 means – and what to expect over the next two years: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/mar/27/brexit-everything-you-need-to-know-about-how-the-uk-will-leave-the-eu

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    EU fights back against unreasonable Tory plans – via the Guardian: “The European parliament will veto any Brexit deal that prevents EU citizens who move to the UK during the next two years from having the same rights to live and work in Britain as those already in the country. The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, and MEPs are understood to be concerned by reports that the British government wants 29 March, when it officially notifies the EU of its intention to leave, to be the ‘cut-off date’ for the free movement of people.”
    See: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/mar/28/meps-veto-brexit-early-cut-off-date-european-parliament-freedom-movement

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    And some big news – ‘Scottish parliament votes for second independence referendum’: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/mar/28/scottish-parliament-votes-for-second-independence-referendum-nicola-sturgeon

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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