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Emrys's Journal
Emrys's Journal
December 15, 2019

The current favoured method is to hold another referendum.

But it's possibly not the only way independence could be achieved legally. Maggie Thatcher used to hold that if Scotland returned a majority of SNP MPs, that would be enough to secure independence. Times have changed since then (the SNP currently has 48 out of 59 Scottish MPs).

The SNP's current plan is to clear the way for a second referendum with the co-operation of the Westminster government, under Section 30 of the Scotland Act 1998, which is what secured the first independence referendum. This is unlikely to be forthcoming any time soon, if at all, in which case we're likely to enter uncharted legal territory along the way, involving the Act of Union and later legislation. Andrew Tickell, one of Scotland's brighter legal brains and sympathetic to independence, feels that legal avenues offer no clear path forward if a Section 30 order isn't granted. The headline to the linked article is more categorical than he's prepared to be, but basically concerted political pressure is what he sees as the way forward in the absence of a Section 30 order. This may involve action in various courts, but it may end up offering more of a campaigning tool than an ultimate remedy.

Scotland has a great deal of goodwill in the EU, having undertaken a concerted campaign of quiet diplomacy since the 2014 independence referendum, which may help as the UK's negotiations unfold over the next few years. It's a far cry from the first independence referendum, when the threat of Scotland losing its place in the EU was persuasive for many people and the EU was generally hostile to the idea of Scottish independence, and the boot is now on the other foot, with various EU officials and politicians saying on the record that Scotland would be welcomed with open arms if it became independent and accession could happen very quickly. Whether that would be the best option for Scotland if it did gain independence is another question, as support for EU membership isn't universal even among independence supporters, so it might end up that an EFTA-type arrangement or whatever would suit it better, at least in the short to medium term.

The path to devolution which set up the Scottish Assembly (later the Scottish Parliament) was far from clear, too, and after some 20 years of wrangling it took some clever blindsiding of the UK government by Scottish politicians' recourse to international law courts and international political pressure (threats of legal action even) from the EU before it was granted. There are some very smart politicians and lawyers in the independence movement, so we'll have to wait to see what they can come up with in addition to popular pressure.

Polls since the Brexit referendum have shown that many in the UK aren't that bothered about the Union, whether it involves Scotland or Northern Ireland. That may change if Johnson sees it as a useful rallying cry/distraction from the troubles ahead in exiting the EU. It would be a tortuous argument given the government's repeated claims that Scotland's economic welfare is dependent on the rest of the UK (which I don't intend arguing in detail here as it gets very technical, but basically it's untrue), and many of Johnson's supporters may feel they don't want to "bail out" Scotland any more.

The last independence referendum was agreed at a time when independence was only polling in the high 20s percent, and the closeness of the final result gave David Cameron conniptions. Currently it's more like 50:50, even before last week's general election result, so that may have some bearing on whether the UK government feels it wants to risk going ahead with another referendum. On the other hand, there are Tory voters but precious few Tory MPs in Scotland, so Johnson may feel like it wouldn't be the end of the world for his and future Tory governments if independence happened.

Meanwhile, noises from Johnson et al. so far indicate that they intend to pare back, if not strip, the Scottish Government's powers, which is likely to inflame feelings even more.

Whatever happens, I'm bracing for a bumpy ride.

December 13, 2019

Six reasons why the Left need not despair

Boris Johnson has routed Labour. But his victory could turn out to contain the seeds of its own destruction

Yes, I know. For “progressives,” liberals, leftists or anyone else less than keen on reactionary nationalism, this has been an abject defeat. Boris Johnson has blustered his way to a commanding majority, and Labour has been routed in dozens of seats while the Liberal Democrats went nowhere at all. We’re in for a dose of nasty authoritarianism, with more lives squandered in failing jails, and perhaps more attempts to bully the media too. Truth-telling in public life will fall further out of fashion, and as I wrote in the first hour after the ballot boxes closed, there is reason to fear the ground rules of politics being rigged. It is, then, entirely natural that a very dark mood has descended over progressive Britain.

And yet. These are mercurial times, in which nothing stays frozen for long. Indeed, a number features of this result make it feel more like the product of surface currents, rather than deeper tides. Most obviously, it was a case of a new prime minister shrewdly seizing his moment of novelty to define himself against everything his party has done in office for a decade. Beyond that, in the embers of election 2019 I can spot several glimmers of hope for those who dream of a world beyond Boris Johnson.

1- Labour’s biggest problems look easily fixed. ... If the party can only find a leader who is remotely cut out for the job, and if its MPs can learn to direct their energies against the Conservatives rather than within their own tribe, then its position would immediately be greatly improved, if not transformed.

2- Meanwhile, the Conservatives now have one almighty and immediate problem that can’t be fudged—Brexit. Johnson showed remarkable skill in cobbling together a unified Conservative position. It got him through the campaign handsomely. But remember how he did it. ... London has only six months to give notice about whether it wants to breach the Conservative manifesto by staying longer in the single market while a trade deal is negotiated, or crash large parts of the economy by dropping out of Europe before a comprehensive trade deal can be agreed. I cannot see how Johnson’s winning Christmas coalition within his party and the country beyond can survive either choice.

3- The dramatic result is more about the way the vote split than any dramatic lurch to the right. If you look at the popular vote, Labour has done very badly, but not exceptionally so by the often-dim standards of its modern record. ... If the anti-Conservative forces had acted with less of the sectarianism that has often dogged the left, but this year infected a liberal centre that also dug in against any co-operation with Labour, things could have been very different. And herein lies an opening for the future.

4- The new Conservative coalition in the country now includes Bassetlaw, Blyth Valley and Bolsover. It is an extraordinary thing, but as a result it is surely also frail. ... Voters don’t do gratitude at the best of times, and there will be no retrospective glory in many of last night’s stunning Conservative gains for having “got Brexit done” if its practical effects turn out to disappoint.

5- In contrast with the last chunky Conservative wins, in 1983 and 1987, there is no sense of the party riding the tide of ideas. ... Sound money is forgotten, along with all the old free market nostrums of the party Johnson joined. They have been replaced by crowd-pleasing moves to raise the minimum wage and grip energy prices. And the crowd is indeed pleased. But there is no sense of any coherence, or even direction.

6- Most fundamentally, Johnson has triumphed by playing to the past, as opposed to the future. This is true at the level of campaign messages—that significant “back” in “take back control”—but also at the level of sociology. Number crunchers will soon give us estimates for which age group backed which party, but we can already see from the electoral map that there is a deep generational divide. ... Locked out of the housing market, and educated enough to ask searching questions about why, the rising cohort is unlikely—even as it ages—ever to be won over to recreating a lost world of more sovereignty, humming factories and fewer migrants which it has no memory of.


Posted as an attempted antidote to the sense of doom that's pervading today's post mortems. Tom Clark and Prospect are by no means lefties.

I'd add that it will be interesting to see how things pan out in the House of Lords, which may continue to put a spanner in Johnson's works until he no doubt packs it out with a spray of new peerages. His time in office so far has consisted of picking fights - and losing. Even with his majority and mandate, there are only so many fronts he can engage battle with at once and succeed. The problem for the rest of us will be sifting the dead cats and squirrels from issues where pressure can most productively be brought to bear.

And there's always "events, dear boy, events". Already the much-trumpeted fallback of "WTO terms" is unravelling as an option:

UK's post-Brexit trade at risk as WTO's top court shuts down

Shutdown of court will leave UK at mercy of EU in its trading relationship after transition period


Johnson's government has been flat-footed in the face of even mundane challenges. The makeup of the new Tory intake doesn't give much confidence that will change for the better. Meanwhile, we have many vulnerable minorities - from Travellers to immigrants to the destitute - we'll need to look out for. And each other, of course.
December 9, 2019

Johnson refuses to look at picture of boy forced to sleep on hospital floor

PM refuses to look at picture of boy forced to sleep on hospital floor

Boris Johnson accused of not caring after refusing reporter’s requests several times

Boris Johnson has been accused of not caring after he repeatedly refused during a TV interview to look at a photo of a four-year-old boy forced to sleep on the floor at an overcrowded A&E unit, before pocketing the reporter’s phone on which he was being shown the picture.

In an ITV interview during a campaign visit to a factory in Sunderland, the prime minister was challenged about the plight of Jack Williment-Barr, who was pictured sleeping under coats on a hospital floor in Leeds as he waited for a bed, despite having suspected pneumonia.

Johnson refused to look at the photo and, out of camera shot, eventually took the phone from the reporter and put it in his own pocket. ...

The reporter challenged him on this: “You’ve refused to look at the photo, you’ve taken my phone and put it in your pocket, prime minister. His mother says the NHS is in crisis. What’s your response to that?”

At this point, Johnson removed the phone and looked at the picture for the first time: “It’s a terrible, terrible photo, and I apologise, obviously, to the family and all of those who have terrible experiences in the NHS. But what we are doing is supporting the NHS and on the whole, I think patients in the NHS have a much, much better experience than this poor kid has had.”


Joe Pike

Tried to show @BorisJohnson the picture of Jack Williment-Barr. The 4-year-old with suspected pneumonia forced to lie on a pile of coats on the floor of a Leeds hospital.

The PM grabbed my phone and put it in his pocket: @itvcalendar | #GE19

[Twitter video]

If this wasn't such a grim story, you could be forgiven for assuming it was from The Onion or NewsThump.

It wasn't just grim for Johnson and his infantile instinctive attempt to hide an inconvenient truth which he couldn't immediately spin - on a par with his attempt a few weeks ago to claim to a distraught father in hospital that there were no media present when they were actually filming their confrontation.

Realizing that Johnson's "gaffe" over the boy's picture and his attempt to hide it were potentially embarrassing, Tory campaign managers dispatched the cavalry in the shape of Nick Hancock (some measure of desperation) to try to salvage the situation.

They then briefed the media that a Labour activist had "punched in the face" one of Hancock's advisers in the hospital car park. This was a blatant lie, but it was immediately parroted on social media by the BBC's Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg and ITV's Political Editor Robert Peston. Unfortunately for them, this dead cat counter-briefing couldn't survive scrutiny for any length of time.

Tories forced into climbdown over claim aide was hit by Labour protester

The Tories were forced to make an embarrassing climbdown after aides briefed that an adviser to Matt Hancock had been hit by a Labour protester in an incident that it later emerged had been innocuous.
Aides initially briefed that Hancock’s adviser had been “punched in the face” and tried to point the finger at a Labour “thug”. But a video emerged that appeared to show the adviser walking into a protester’s arm.
Having seen that footage, aides were forced to acknowledge that it looked like the adviser was hit in the face accidentally, but still tried to turn the story on Labour by claiming the activists’ behaviour and language had been unacceptable.


So it wasn't just the Tories who were "forced to make an embarrassing climbdown", but Kuenssberg, who's been accused in recent times of serving as a conduit for government propaganda by tweeting unquestioningly whatever "government sources" want her to propagate, Peston and many others who were apparently taken in by this shoddy, clumsy, blatant ploy.

Laura Kuenssberg

Have video from Hancock leaving Leeds General just come through so you can see for yourself - doesn’t look like punch thrown, rather, one of Tory team walks into protestor’s arm, pretty grim encounter

[Twitter video]

Robert Peston

It is completely clear from video footage that @MattHancock's adviser was not whacked by a protestor, as I was told by senior Tories, but that he inadvertently walked into a protestor's hand. I apologise for getting this wrong.

[Twitter video]
December 8, 2019

Frankie Boyle's election countdown: 'You'll be praying they prorogue the next parliament'

From a Dickensian Tory cabinet to the ghosts of Brexit promises past, the comedian brings you his take on the election

As the body politic convulses, as the abyss avoids our gaze, we near the end of another election at the behest of a political class that has paid as much attention to David Cameron’s fixed terms as he did to people with emphysema slowly dying over a wood lathe. Christmas seems a strange time for a Tory government to call an election; possibly they guessed that it would be hard for Labour to sell hope in winter; possibly they judged that goodwill to all men would be at its lowest after people had endured a December of accidentally answering the door to a canvasser because they thought it was an Amazon package. Then again, Conservatives would say that the story of Christmas chimes with their values, as it involves a pregnant refugee being treated quite badly.

Brexit supporters are surely among the most likely to get out and vote, especially now Jeremy Kyle isn’t on in the daytime any more. It was impossible to predict that the whole country would be thrown into crisis by middle-aged men outraged about Europe making decisions for them (these are people whose wives buy their socks), but I can understand their subsequent disillusionment. If 434 MPs vote for a general election, we instantly get one; if 0.14% of the populace vote for Boris Johnson, we instantly get him; but if 52% of the electorate vote for Brexit, they get three years of what feels like trying to shit out a pool table. Essentially, Brexit has proved impossible to deliver: turns out it’s tricky for English voters to take back control of their borders when one of them is in someone else’s country. Many people wish David Cameron had never called the referendum in the first place. It says a lot about how badly the last couple of years have gone, that there’s a guy who destroyed Libya, presided over needless austerity and fucked a pig, and we wish that he’d just used his own judgment.

Let’s begin with the Tories. The cabinet is Dickensian in the purest sense: the sort of people who would need more than two ghosts to change their behaviour. After an uncertain start, Jacob Rees-Mogg has had a pretty good campaign, onboard an Arctic clipper ship, nailed into a coffin of earth from his constituency. It’s interesting that someone who thinks ordinary people lack common sense is so heavily invested in upholding the result of a referendum, but like so many lesser ironies in this election, we simply don’t have the time. When people say “The mask has slipped!” after various cabinet gaffes, there must be a moment when the minister wonders whether they have accidentally come out wearing one of the actual masks they wear to the various Eyes Wide Shut-style parties that dot their social calendar at this time of year; their fingers moving reflexively towards their face to see if they’ve worn the head of a golden ibis to talk to Phillip Schofield.

The Conservatives seem to have focused on the phrase “Get Brexit Done”, which has all the conviction of your dad hitting the arms of his chair and saying, “Right…” We also seem to be hearing a lot about “Unleashing Britain’s potential”, despite most of our potential being for food riots, and perhaps some kind of race war. The Conservative manifesto contains elements of both Thatcherism and Reaganism, in that it seems to have been written by someone with dementia. There was probably a discussion about whether to release a manifesto at all or simply airdrop scratchcards over key marginals.


The usual mix of Boyle's savagery and underlying intelligence, possibly NSFW in places, but highlights include:

Of Rees-Mogg: "It’s interesting that someone who thinks ordinary people lack common sense is so heavily invested in upholding the result of a referendum ..."

Of Johnson: "... who looks like something you’d keep your pyjamas in, and who no reasonable person would choose to lead them into a chorus, has a strangely hunched demeanour; perhaps from all the time he spends crammed inside married women’s wardrobes, like a randy jack-in-the-box." and "... a face that looks as if it’s been kneaded by a baker going through a particularly bitter divorce ..."

Of Dominic Cummings: "... has the air of a startled testicle ..."

Of Gove: "... looking like someone took all the flesh out of a serial killer’s drains and forced it into some brogues; like Davros fell out of his Dalek; like a rushed cartoon of a horny snail ..."

Of Swinson: "... the gravitas of a re-education camp supply teacher ..."

Of Corbyn: "... perhaps weighing up whether he could have more influence by simply dying and haunting his successor ..."
December 7, 2019

How the right's radical thinktanks reshaped the Conservative party

In the wake of the Brexit vote, ultra free market thinktanks have gained exceptional access to the heart of Boris Johnson’s government.

When Boris Johnson assumed office as prime minister in July 2019 and proceeded, without the mandate of a general election, to appoint a cabinet that was arguably one of the most rightwing in post-second world war British history, many commentators called it a coup. The free market thinktank the Institute of Economic Affairs felt self-congratulation was more in order, however. “This week, liberty-lovers witnessed some exciting developments,” the IEA said in an email to its supporters. The organisation, whose mission is to shrink the state, lower taxes and deregulate business, noted that 14 of those around the Downing Street table – including the chancellor, Sajid Javid, the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, and the home secretary, Priti Patel – were “alumni of IEA initiatives”.

The IEA had good reason to boast about its influence. Just a few years earlier, on the occasion of its 60th birthday in 2015, Javid had declared that it had “reflected and deeply influenced my views, helping to develop the economic and political philosophy that guides me to this day”. In a speech to the IEA the same year, Raab also enthused about the organisation’s effect on his younger self. A few years back, he told the audience, he had been on a beach in Brazil. He’d had a couple of drinks, and had gone in to the sea to mull over an idea: that New Labour had “eroded liberty” in Britain and created a “rights culture” that had fostered a nation of idlers. Lost in thought, the tide had dragged him far from his starting point, and back on the beach, he had trouble locating his family among all the “scantily clad Brazilians”. On stage, he thanked the IEA for helping him develop this idea, which became the starting point for the book Britannia Unchained, an anti-statist tract, co-written with other MPs who would go on to join Johnson’s new cabinet – Patel; Elizabeth Truss, now trade secretary; Kwasi Kwarteng, business minister; and Chris Skidmore, then health minister.

The authors were also members of a parliamentary faction called the Free Enterprise Group, whose aim was to rebuild confidence in free market capitalism in the wake of the financial crisis, and for which the IEA has organised events, co-authored papers and provided administrative support. Other members included future Johnson ministers Andrea Leadsom, Matt Hancock, Robert Buckland, Julian Smith, Alister Jack, Alun Cairns, Jacob Rees-Mogg, James Cleverly and Brandon Lewis.

Libertarian thinktanks in the US, such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) have had this sort of close relationship with incoming Republican administrations for years, furnishing them with staff and readymade policies. Thinktanks – non-governmental organisations that research policies with the aim of shaping government – have long been influential in British politics, too, on both left and right, but the sheer number of connections between Johnson’s cabinet and ultra free market thinktanks was something new. In the period immediately before the Brexit referendum and in the years since, a stream of prominent British politicians and campaigners, including Johnson, Michael Gove, Nigel Farage and Arron Banks, have flown to the US to meet with thinktanks such as the AEI and the Heritage Foundation, often at the expense of those thinktanks, seeking out ideas, support and networking opportunities. Meanwhile, US thinktanks and their affiliates, which are largely funded by rightwing American billionaires and corporate donations, have teamed up with British politicians and London-based counterparts such as the IEA, the Legatum Institute and the Initiative for Free Trade, to help write detailed proposals for what the UK’s departure from the EU, and its future relationships with both the EU and the US, should look like, raising questions about foreign influence on British politics.

The organisations involved in this collaboration between the US and UK radical right are partners in a global coalition of more than 450 thinktanks and campaign groups called the Atlas Network, which has its headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. Members of the network operate independently but also cooperate closely in fighting for their shared vision of ultra free markets and limited government. They call themselves the “worldwide freedom movement”, collectively they have multimillion-dollar budgets, and many of their donors, board members, trustees and researchers overlap.

December 7, 2019

Tories investigate three candidates over alleged antisemitism

The Conservatives are investigating three parliamentary candidates over antisemitism and are facing calls to suspend them before the election.

Sally-Ann Hart, standing in the Tory marginal seat of Hastings, shared a video with an image implying that the billionaire George Soros, who is Jewish, controls the EU, and she also liked a Nazi slogan on Facebook.

Lee Anderson, standing for the Conservatives in Labour-held Ashfield, is an active member of Ashfield Backs Boris, a Facebook group where Soros conspiracy theories have been promoted and which includes supporters of the far-right activist Tommy Robinson.

Richard Short, the candidate for St Helens South and Whiston, is being investigated for asking whether a Jewish journalist was more loyal to Israel than to Britain.


Antisemitism isn't the only transgression levelled at Sally-Ann Hart:

Tory candidate defends low pay for people with learning disabilities

Sally-Ann Hart sparks row after claiming some disabled people ‘don’t understand money’
Sally-Ann Hart was heckled as she made the remarks at a Hastings and Rye constituency hustings on Thursday evening, where she is vying to defend the Tories’ wafer-thin majority after Amber Rudd stood down.

A furore ensued after Hart, a councillor in East Sussex, was challenged over an article she had shared on Facebook that said “people with learning difficulties should be allowed to work for less than the minimum wage”.

“It was about people with learning difficulties,” she told the crowd. “About them being given the opportunity to work because it’s to do with the happiness they have about working … Some people with learning difficulties they don’t understand about money.

“It is about having a therapeutic exemption and the article was in support of employing people with learning difficulties, that’s what it was. You should read the article.”


Her remarks at a hustings were not well received by the audience:

Rosie Clarke @Rknepper_

Conservative candidate Sally Ann Heart defending her view that Disabled people / those with learning disabilities should be paid less as they ‘Don’t understand money’! Actually unbelievable. Audience do not agree... #GeneralElection19 #tory #jc4pm

[Twitter video]
December 7, 2019

EU distances itself from Johnson's timetable for post-Brexit trade deal

Leaked communique signals caution over PM’s 11-month timeframe for negotiations
If he wins a majority, the prime minister has vowed to take the UK out of the EU on 31 January and agree a trade deal with the bloc within 11 months, an unprecedentedly short time for such a complex negotiation.

Johnson, who has built his election campaign around the misleading slogan “Get Brexit done”, has promised not to extend the 11-month transition period, seen by many as far too short to agree a future relationship with the EU.
The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has said it would be possible to negotiate a basic free-trade deal with the UK in 11 months. Others are more sceptical, with one senior diplomat saying he could not imagine it in his wildest dreams.
The latest EU text also has a reference to “the level playing field”, meaning the UK must respect core EU standards on workers’ rights, state aid, and environmental and consumer protection, to reach a deal ensuring zero tariffs and zero quotas on British goods.

December 7, 2019

British diplomat in US resigns, saying she can't 'peddle half-truths' on Brexit

Alexandra Hall Hall, Brexit counsellor in Washington, described UK government’s ‘use of misleading or disingenuous arguments’
Alexandra Hall Hall, the Brexit counsellor at the UK embassy in Washington, had been frustrated with the job for some time, according to friends and colleagues.

They said she felt she was not being given enough reliable information to do her job, which was to explain Britain’s departure from the EU to US audiences and help promote a strong US-UK relationship post-Brexit.

Her resignation, which was addressed to the chargé d’affaires, Michael Tatham, and circulated among close colleagues at the embassy, was damning in its description of the Johnson government’s integrity.

“I have been increasingly dismayed by the way in which our political leaders have tried to deliver Brexit, with reluctance to address honestly, even with our own citizens, the challenges and trade-offs which Brexit involves; the use of misleading or disingenuous arguments about the implications of the various options before us; and some behaviour towards our institutions, which, were it happening in another country, we would almost certainly as diplomats have received instructions to register our concern,” Hall Hall wrote in the letter, dated 3 December.
“It makes our job to promote democracy and the rule of law that much harder, if we are not seen to be upholding these core values at home,” Hall Hall said. “I am also at a stage in life where I would prefer to do something more rewarding with my time, than peddle half-truths on behalf of a government I do not trust.”


December 6, 2019

American dirty tricks are corroding British democracy

Super PACs in the US are notorious for smear campaigns and disinformation – now we're seeing them in the UK election. Be careful where you take your phone.
How they are shaping this election

Up and down the country, we’re beginning to see something a lot like Super PACs shaping this UK election.

They aren’t all on the same side. By far the biggest spender on Facebook ads is the pro-EU group Best for Britain, which has thrown nearly three-quarters of a million pounds at sponsored posts over the past year. The legal limit for non-party spending on election campaigning for the year before the vote is £480,000 – though, as Best for Britain points out, many of its ads are non-partisan voter registration messages, which don’t count.

On the other side of the Brexit rift, Leave.EU quickly established almost as much Facebook traction as Labour. With nearly a million Facebook likes, the group – founded by the millionaires Arron Banks and Richard Tice – pillories pro-EU politicians. Like America’s most notorious Super PACs, it courts controversy, incites rage and drives debate.

In a recent post – shared 7,000 times – the pro-Tory group reused an image of refugees from a notorious poster unveiled by Nigel Farage during the Brexit referendum, an image widely compared to Nazi propaganda.


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