Sunday, February 28, 2016

The first of the Brexit red herrings

The Brexit lobby has raised the first of what I expect will be many red herrings in the lead-up to the June referendum on whether the United Kingdom should remain or leave the European Union.

It is crying foul over the decision by the head of the UK Civil Service, Sir Jeremy Heywood, to ban his workers from providing support to the Ministers seeking the country’s UK withdrawal.

There have been howls of anger from the United Kingdom Independence Party, with a European Parliament Member, Nathan Gill, saying it was a “stitch-up”, denying senior Eurosceptic figures the “significant bodies of work” that Civil Servants must already have done on the impact of a Brexit victory in the referendum.

Sir Jeremy is completely right in his decision. Keeping Britain in the European Union on the terms negotiated by Prime Minister David Cameron in Brussels is official Government policy and Civil Servants work for the Government — end of story.

Mr Cameron is perfectly entitled to rely on the resources of the Civil Service to promote his policies as he would in any other Government campaign, for example to warn of the dangers of smoking.

The Brexit campaign is simply a lobby group putting a contrary view. Like any other lobby group it must employ its own experts, researchers and propagandists to deliver its message.

What makes this a little different is that some Ministers in Mr Cameron’s Government have been given leave to campaign against his policy and promote Brexit. This is unprecedented and a huge concession on the part of the Prime Minister.

Ordinarily Ministers would have been forced to resign their office and campaign as ordinary Members of Parliament. They might even have faced the withdrawal of the whip in the House of Commons — in effect suspension from the party.

The fact that Mr Cameron has not taken this course is partly pragmatic — he does not want to split the Conservative Party — but also because he understands the deeply held conviction of some Ministers and MPs that the UK has no place in the European experiment. He has been extraordinarily generous.

But of course the Brexit lobby group wants more — and will continue to shout discrimination through the campaign in order to promote the fiction that it is the gallant, patriotic underdog fighting against the dead hand of the Brussels and Whitehall bureaucracies.

It balks at a frontal attack on Mr Cameron. Instead it savages Sir Jeremy, a thoroughly decent but defenceless Civil Servant, for doing his job.

Sadly a preview of what is almost certain to come.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Boris scents Cameron's blood

The decision by Boris Johnson to support the campaign for a British exit from the European Union has nothing to do with the rights and wrongs of the issue, which will be thrashed out over the next few weeks, and everything to do with Johnson’s political ambitions.

The Mayor of London, who also sits on the back-benches of the ruling Conservative Party at Westminster, has long been looked upon as a potential successor to Prime Minister David Cameron. That might have happened had Cameron lost last year’s United Kingdom General Election.

Cameron won and until now has looked unassailable, but he has staked his political fortunes on a deal he has negotiated with Brussels which he says is good enough for Britain to remain an EU member.

Of course it will not satisfy the most rabid anti-Europeans such as UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage — if Brussels had voted to give every man, woman and child in Britain a free flat on the Costa Brava, he would still have wanted out — but Farage and his skinhead acolytes could never have led a successful exit campaign.

Nor could the political figures that have rallied to the so-called Brexit — Minister for Justice Michael Gove, Pensions Minister Iain Duncan Smith,  Leader of the House of Commons Chris Grayling and Employment Minister Priti Patel — all low profile technicians short on charm and charisma.

But Boris Johnson changes all that.

A vote to leave the EU means the end of Cameron’s career. It will have been a stinging rebuff and he will have no choice other than to resign.

That leaves Johnson as the face of the Brexit triumph and a shoo-in as Cameron’s replacement.

Then comes the hard work of disengaging the United Kingdom from the EU: A pound in free-fall, recession, flights of capital and a possible second Scottish independence referendum — Boris will take it all in his stride, won’t he?         

Sunday, February 14, 2016


A woman’s journey of discovery

Latika Bourke always hated it when people asked her where she came from. As far as she was concerned she was Australian with a brown skin. The first eight months of her life in an Indian orphanage was something to be put aside as she made her way in the world, becoming a successful broadcaster and journalist.

The reawakening began when she realised one of the characters in the Indian movie Slumdog Millionaire had her name, and with the support of her partner, decided it was time to discover something of her origins in the country of her birth.

What follows is a story of discovery. Not so much of herself because Latika is Australian to the core and nothing will change that, but of a country like no other, whose fascination has captured and engulfed people (including this writer) down the ages.

She also discovers how incredibly lucky she has been, first to survive at all in a nation where childbirth remains a dangerous exercise among the very poor and then to have been one of the infinitesimal number of babies adopted into the relative wealth and safety of Western countries.

I enjoyed her description of travel in Bihar, a State off the tourist route but embedded deep in the Indian consciousness, as anyone who has had experience of the recent election there could testify.

If I have one quibble, it is that Latika spends too long ‘setting the scene’ dwelling on her average childhood and adolescence in regional New South Wales, but it is her story and autobiographies should please the writer first and then hope to please the reader second.

It pleased this reader. I note that Latika is now visiting India regularly and hopes at some stage to live there. This should be sufficient to spawn another book about the country she has come to love. 


Thursday, February 11, 2016

Nothing decided; a long way to go

Watching the progress of the New Hampshire Primary election, it was hard not to feel some sympathy for the harassed media contingent as it desperately sought to churn out instant analysis and comments on the result.

‘Trump and Sanders a step nearer the White House’ was one headline that swam across the television screen. ‘Rebuff for the establishment candidates’ was another.

Apart from the fact that Trump and Sanders couldn’t both be nearing the White House as there can be only one occupant, comments such as these, so far back from the nominating convention, let along the actual election, are utterly pointless.

The 24/7 news cycle is to blame: The requirement is for an outcome; never mind that the outcome could be quite different the following week. ‘New Hampshire – nothing decided; long way still to go’ just doesn’t hack it.

But what has really happened so far? Well, we have had Iowa where on the Republican side Ted Cruz won handily from Donald Trump and Marco Rubio did better than expected. For the Democrats Hillary Clinton sneaked past Bernie Sanders by three tenths of a percentage point.

Then came New Hampshire and in the GOP camp Trump won by a mile, Cruz got beaten into third place by John Kasich, and Rubio was back with the also rans. For the Democrats, Sanders stormed home with 60 per cent of the vote, leaving Clinton struggling.

Clear who the eventual winners are going to be? I thought not.  

So now we go on to South Carolina and Nevada, the latter holding its Democratic caucus-style election on Tuesday and Republicans the week after — yes it gets really complicated.

Amid all this confusion, trying to look ahead to how things work out is not easy, but here goes.

First the Democrats: At present it’s a two-horse race (another candidate could enter the fray late if both Sanders and Clinton look vulnerable, but that’s unlikely).  As time goes on Sanders’ age will become a factor. He’s 74 and should he win the presidency he will be nearing 80 by the end of his first term.

Would he stand for a second term in 2020? If not, the Democrats would be giving up the huge advantage gained by a sitting president running again. They mostly succeed unless circumstances conspire against them (Jimmy Carter) or they lose the plot (George Bush Senior). Party strategists want someone who can hold the White House for eight years, not four.

But Clinton, at 68, is no spring chicken. — and she sufferers from what could be called the Hubert Humphrey Syndrome (really mature readers might also like to call it the Adlai Stevenson Syndrome).

Humphrey — a presidential candidate in 1960, 1968 and 1972 and Lyndon Johnson’s Vice President from 1964-68 — was a decent man, and in the opinion of this writer, would have made a better president than many of the other big names of the time, but he suffered from being around too long, his face became too familiar; Democrats prefer someone, anyone, who is new and different and that led to the George McGovern debacle.

(Interestingly Republicans are not so concerned about recycled candidates, reference Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan).

Moving to the Republican side, there is obvious opposition to Trump among the party establishment, but if the candidate continues to poll well and roll up States in the primaries, that will change, because nothing matters more to the GOP than being in power and if Trump can do it the establishment will grit their teeth and get on his bandwagon.

However, if it transpires that Trump could win the party’s nomination but lose against Clinton/Sanders then watch for a concerted effort among the other Republican hopefuls to form an ‘Anybody but Trump’ coalition through deals done and promises made that could extend to the floor of the nominating convention.

Then there is the possibility of a third party candidate with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg not ruling out the possibility of running as a moderate conservative if Trump is the Republican choice.

On the face of it, this is the Republicans’ election to lose. The two major parties mostly alternate in the White House after eight-year spells. However, the situation is far too volatile for a prediction to be made at this early stage — and certainly not after just two primaries.