29 March – Article 50 Day
Paddy Ashdown

William Hazlett’s advice to travellers was “take your common sense with you, but leave your prejudices behind”. It’s not bad guidance for Theresa May as she sends her Article 50 missive to Brussels.

We know there are many among the Prime Minister’s closest advisors – Liam Fox, for example – whose prejudices have always been for rupture, rather than a deal, with the EU.

The question today is: does Theresa May secretly agree?

Why else choose to put Brexit Britain as far away from our neighbours as possible?

Why else the foolish early threat to walk out if we didn’t perfectly get our way (thank goodness, the government is now back tracking on this)? Why else all the insult-laden invective against the 48 per cent of Remainers, which left our country more divided today than we were on the morning that the Leavers won?

Make no mistake: this reckless brutal Brexit, yanking us out of the world’s largest single market even before she has started to negotiate, is Theresa May’s choice.
In her letter to Brussels today, the Prime Minster said she has enacted the “democratic decision of the people of the United Kingdom”. She has done no such thing. It is not those who sought to soften the Brexit blow by challenging the Government who do not respect the Brexit vote. It is May, who has hijacked that vote to feed the anti-European prejudices of her own party.

Few in Britain voted to leave the Single Market; remaining in it was proposed by many Brexiteers and promised in the Conservative election manifesto. Estimates put the cost to Britain of this kind of ‘hard Brexit’ as high as £200bn over 15 years. Already companies are leaving, taking with them livelihoods, expertise and the futures of many citizens. We are now embarked on a course which will bewilder future historians as the most remarkable example in modern history of a country committing an act of monumental self-harm while still in full possession of its faculties.

So why has May moved her party onto policies indistinguishable from those of Ukip? For the same reason that Mr Cameron insisted on the Referendum in the first place: the best interests of the nation are once again being held hostage to the internal management of the Conservative Party.

Spare a thought for those Conservatives who still adhere to their Party’s proud internationalist tradition. Who is as lonely as them now?

It is still possible to stop this madness and keep Britain inside the Single Market. It is even still possible for the British people to remain in the European Union. Democracy didn’t end on 23 June 2016, and it hasn’t ended today either. The people can have their say over the final Brexit deal – and they should.

Meanwhile, the phony war of recent months, fuelled by insults against all those who dared to challenge the Government and prosecuted by a stream of completely unsubstantiated claims and undeliverable promises, is over. Now the Government will be held to account for what it does, not what it says; now we will see whether all those promises plastered on the side of campaign coaches and blithely scattered about in ministerial statements can ever be delivered.

First up will be the Great Repeal Act, devil-infested with detail and to be measured against that David Davis promise that no EU right, protection or advantage enjoyed by British citizens now will be diminished.

At the same time, we plunge into the most complex negotiations in our history. There is no chance these can be completed with a good deal inside 18 months. If that proves to be so, then the Prime Minister demands we all join hands with her and jump off a cliff into national isolation, accompanied by disaster for our trade, our influence and our economy.

If you feel depressed today, don’t be. Be fighting mad. There’s everything still to fight for.


Article 50 – Prospect Magazine 15 March 2017

Prospect Magazine 15 march 2017

Oscar Wilde said “In a democracy, the minority is always right”. This thought has given me much comfort during nearly half a century fighting for liberalism.

But the post-Brexit debate has been different. A minority we still remain – but only slimly so and that has been wonderfully comforting.

I am fairly certain (Liberals don’t do certainties) that history will marvel at Brexit as the most bewildering act of national self-harm knowingly and willingly committed by an advanced nation in full possession of its faculties. And yet that is the decision we took and we must now enact – at least for the foreseeable future – unless and until the worm turns.

But the Brexit decision is only one of the puzzles we have had to deal with these last few months.

The other is why did Mrs May – again willingly and knowingly – choose to make a difficult path much, much more difficult?

Any good Prime Minister inheriting a country so at war with itself as we were after the Referendum would have placed healing national division as their first priority. But from her first unwise Conservative Conference speech with its demonization of the “liberal elite” and the assertion that those who see themselves as citizens of the world, are citizens of nowhere, Mrs May has, quite again deliberately, sought to widen the divisions between the 52% who said YES and the 48% who said NO. She followed this divisive rhetoric with divisive action, choosing a Brexit that puts the country as far away from Europe as it is possible to get (for which she has no mandate whatsoever), moving her Party onto policies indistinguishable from UKIP and attempting to bully her way to her chosen destination by steam-rollering a by-pass around Parliament – until the Supreme Court gave her a lesson in what it is to govern in a democratic country.

And so, our country launches itself down Mrs May’s Article 50 path to exit more divided even than it was during the Referendum. The public discourse is uglier, the entrenched positions are deeper, the level of vitriol is higher and the hate crimes grow and grow. For these divisions at such a difficult time, there will be a price to pay – including in the end, by Mrs May’s Government itself.

So what now?

As an exercise in whistling in the dark, the recent budget was about as good as you get. The Chancellor’s sepulchral style is not given to optimism. His speciality is calm. But even he could not hide the fact that this was a budget focussed, not on the sunlit uplands ahead, but on the monster of Brexit hard-times stirring beneath our feet. That’s why he’s not spending windfalls, but hoarding them. Big business, also awash with money, is doing the same thing for the same reasons. They both know that true pain of Brexit will increasingly be felt the further down Mrs May’s Article 50 track we go. If public opinion is to turn, watch what happens after inflation begins to bite around the turn of the year.

But the ambushes along Mrs May’s way are not just economic ones.

We are now facing the real possibility of the break up of the United Kingdom. Viewed from the moment, it does not seem likely that a Scottish referendum would succeed. But Mrs Sturgeon knows what most modern politicians have forgotten, that politics is dynamic. Snap-shot opinion polls tell you where things are, but not the direction in which they are heading. Status quo was yesterday’s dynamic. Fissipariousness is today’s.

For evidence, see Northern Ireland. Observers have long predicted that the time would come when the demographic balance in the Province would tip away from the Unionists, towards the Nationalists. Northern Ireland now teeters on this historic knife-edge after the recent Stormont elections. In part this is because some Unionist middle class voters now see a united Ireland inside the EU, less terrifying than a Northern Ireland forced to be outside it and isolated from its neighbours by a hard border. By the way, whisper it softly, some in Gibraltar are also beginning to view the competing claims of British and Spanish sovereignty through the same prism.

Mrs May’s ridiculous attempt to persuade us she is Mrs Thatcher reincarnated in kitten shoes has brought the country to the edge of a disastrous rift with the EU and given the nationalists in Scotland and Ireland cause and space to play fast and lose with our unity.

The problem with breaking things up, is that it’s easier to start than to stop.

Finally there is, as always, the famous devil in the detail. The complexities of the Brexit negotiations are as nothing to the whole roiling devil-fest waiting to break out when the Government launches the Great Repeal Act repatriating tens of thousand of EU laws to Westminster.

What does all this add up to? It may not be in Mrs May’s mind, or in her programme, or her agenda, or her intentions. But my guess is that as the next months tick by, the temptations of an early election will become almost irresistible.