Category Archives: Politics

Now what the hell is going on?

For those of us in Northern Ireland is was another bemusing and baffling political week, even by the standards of, well, Northern Ireland.

What actually happened?

Brexit

Firstly, at UK level, the UK Government wanted to put through a “meaningful vote” motion as required by an amendment forced long ago by now whipless Conservative MP Dominic Grieve, to accept the deal it has done with the European Union over the UK’s withdrawal, then due this coming Thursday (31 October).

However, an amendment forced by Mr Grieve’s fellow Conservative “rebel” Oliver Letwin declared in effect that no such vote could be “meaningful” until the actual Act enabling the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union and fulfilling the deal had passed Parliament. This is designed to ensure the UK does not exit the EU with no deal, which could still potentially have happened had Parliament passed the Meaningful Vote but not the legislation that needs to go with it.

Losing to Mr Letwin’s amendment as the ten spurned DUP MPs switched sides, the Government then withdrew the Meaningful Vote but continued on Monday with legislation to implement the deal. This reached third reading, the first time that Parliament has actually shown majority support for any particular means of leaving the EU (although it is not true, as some media outlets reported, that the deal ever went “through Parliament” as the process is not yet complete). However, losing a “programme motion” meant that the Government could not proceed with the legislation as quickly as it wished, meaning that it would run out of time by 31 October and under the Benn Bill (a piece of legislation passed before “prorogation”) be forced to accept an extension to 31 January if offered by the European Union.

At this, the Prime Minister threw the head up and instead said that if he couldn’t get his legislation through in time for 31 October and was forced to 31 January, he would instead prefer to go to the people in an election, for which the soonest date under the Fixed Term Act 2011 is 12 December. However, there he runs into the problem of how to force the election – he is unlikely to get a two thirds majority for the necessary motion, so he would either have to put down legislation for such an election (which could be amended – for example, to force votes at 16 or even simply to change the date) or vote no confidence in himself (this has been done twice in Germany in the last 40 years to force elections, but is liable to misinterpretation in the UK).

Meanwhile, for its part, the European Union has said that it will offer an extension (which will have to be accepted by the UK Government unless it is for a date other than 31 January and Parliament specifically rejects it, which is unlikely) but has not yet said to which date. There is a temptation, particularly in Paris, to offer just ten days or so – enough time to get the relevant legislation through the UK Parliament and approval of the deal through the UK Parliament and the European Parliament. The likelihood will be a fudge, as last time (when 29 March became initially 12 April and then 31 October), with something like 14 November dependent on safe passage of legislation turning back into 31 January or even at the outside 30 April (this date is relevant as it is the end of the current EU budget period).

The UK Parliament will then spend a few days determining whether to have an election on 12 December (or indeed some other date in early 2020) and then whether to continue with passage of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill and a Budget. The threat of a “Government strike” has been mentioned but is just silly.

Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland itself, amendments to the Executive Formation Act which achieved Royal Assent in July had clarified that, if no Executive were formed by midnight on 21 October, same-sex marriage would be legalised and abortion liberalised with exact details to be sorted through regulations by Easter 2020.

For clarification, the UK Government has clarified that same-sex marriage will formally become legally recognised in Northern Ireland in mid-January, with first registrations of marriages (accidentally but appropriately) taking place a month later in the week of Valentine’s Day. On abortion, Sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 (essentially the criminalisation of women seeking termination) have been deleted but the Criminal Justice Act 1945 (rendering the “destruction of a child capable of being born alive” illegal) continues to apply. The confusion here is that the latter Act refers to 28 weeks as the term after which a child is definitely capable of being born alive, but it should be noted the reverse logic does not apply (so this does not mean that a child under 28 weeks is definitely not capable of being born alive); in practice termination is a medical procedure which by law must be carried out by regulated medical professionals and under the law no professional is going to risk carrying one out other than in a case of Fatal Foetal Abnormality (i.e. not capable of being born alive under the 1945 Act) until regulations clarifying legality are completed around Easter time.

What happened in the Assembly on Monday was high farce. It is worth re-emphasising that an Assembly can only sit to scrutinise and legislate upon appointment of an Executive; and an Executive can only be appointed once the First and deputy First Minister accept their offices (appointment is automatic to the largest party and then the largest party in a different designation). As has been noted here before, Northern Ireland is unusual in that regard because other jurisdictions allow legislatures (Assemblies) to sit and allow Ministers (i.e. Executive office holders) to retain their role as caretakers after elections until they are replaced; in Northern Ireland, however, Ministers lose office on election day and the newly elected Assembly cannot function before new ones are in place. In practice, this means the Assembly can only function if both the DUP and Sinn Fein agree to let it function.

That does not mean that the Assembly cannot meet, but previous “talking shop” Assemblies have never worked because ultimately they consist of demands being made with no one taking responsibility for carrying out the Executive functions which would deliver them. Meeting (via “recall”) is not the same as functioning (via “restoration”), in other words.

A meeting took place on Monday at the behest of enough Unionist MLAs (30/90 MLAs overall is the required number), but Sinn Fein did not even attend, far less accept the role of deputy First Minister as required for the institutions to be re-established. However, a bizarre attempt was then made to skirt around standing orders so that the election of a Speaker and an Executive would not be necessary for the Assembly to resume its legislative functions. Even more bizarrely, it turned out there had been an exchange of correspondence over the previous 24 hours between a DUP MLA and the Attorney General (who, note well, advises the Executive not the Assembly and is also a long-standing anti-abortion campaigner) about a Bill which a DUP MLA had drafted to remove the amendment referring to liberalisation of abortion. Somewhat ludicrously, despite the DUP needing majority support and holding only 28 of the 90 seats including the Speaker’s, this had not been shown to anyone other than the Attorney General. Inevitably and correctly, the whole charade was ruled out of order by the Speaker on his own legal advice.

This piece is to outline factually what occurred and why the consequences were what they were, but it must be pointed out that this was in no way a serious attempt by the DUP to overturn the amendment liberalising abortion from midnight that night (21st/22nd). Even had the Speaker chosen to ignore his own legal advice and allow the sitting, the legislation and even any appointments made would have been struck down by the Courts anyway. Had the DUP really wished to act, it would have spent the previous 3-4 months working out how to restore the Executive, a move which automatically would have rendered both amendments (on same-sex marriage and abortion) void on their own terms. It chose not to do this, and thus it chose to allow the legalisation and liberalisation to proceed. What happened in the Assembly on Monday was an attempt at diverting blame, even though the simple fact is that had the DUP carried through the deal to restore the institutions in February 2018, there is zero chance that such liberalisation would have occurred by now or even imminently.

The local parties were given another three months by the Secretary of State to reach a deal to restore the institutions otherwise, under the existing law, he will have to set a date for an Assembly Election on 13 January. In practice, however, he can always have that law amended by Parliament.

What now?

Who knows? File the below under “somewhat educated conjecture”…

Clearly Brexit is the priority for everyone in politics both around Westminster and Stormont, and in practice there is close to zero prospect of a deal to restore the Executive (and thus the Assembly) before there is some clarity on it.

If the UK Government is determined to have an election on 12 December there are some risks it could take to try to force one, but it will probably not be minded to – it does not really want an election on that date, it just wants to accuse the Opposition of being chicken.

The EU will likely offer a “flextension” – something like 14 November in case of relevant legislative and administrative requirements to implement the deal being met, 31 January otherwise; in practice this will automatically be accepted by Parliament.

There is a chance (to be filed under “possible but not probable” but still higher than most commentators think) that the UK Government is not serious about its “strike” and that the UK Parliament will pass the Withdrawal Agreement Bill in early November, with the UK thus proceeding to leave the European Union under its terms in mid November. An election will suddenly be deemed less urgent in such circumstances, particularly if a Budget passes, and may well then be delayed until the spring.

There is also a chance that the Bill will be amended in such a way that it requires the deal itself also to be reworked. Quite where such a chaotic outworking would lead us is unclear.

There seems scant evidence of a majority in Parliament to force a deal versus remain referendum (a so-called “People’s Vote”), but if such evidence does emerge it could be one reason the Government is keen to avoid proceeding with the legislation this side of an election (since a referendum could be forced via an amendment).

In the end, the best bet is to be prepared for anything…

 

 

 

Northern Ireland joins the modern world

Rainbow flag

I would like at this juncture, as same-sex marriage is confirmed as legal in Northern Ireland as of early 2020, to congratulate all the campaigners who have fought for this hour in Northern Ireland.

It was an unnecessarily complex fight. Contrary to commonly stated belief, Northern Irish society is no more backward than anywhere else. The population has favoured legalisation for as long as it has in neighbouring jurisdictions. However, the requirement for a “double majority” in the Assembly, and then the collapse of that Assembly, let to the law in line with popular opinion never being passed.

Also passed as of now is the decriminalisation of abortion and the requirement to legalise abortion in line with the recommendations of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against All Women (CEDAW). I think, broadly, almost everyone will be content with decriminalisation – I would suggest most pro-life campaigners (albeit not always the most vocal ones) have no desire to criminalise young women in a crisis. Clearly, this is otherwise a highly sensitive issue and although my own view is that UN Committee recommendations on Human Rights should long ago have been adhered to, I do understand why some people (particularly but not exclusively those of strong faith) have concerns about precisely how this is being done.

For the record, my own view is that it needed to be done via Westminster (even if not necessarily in the exact way it has been) given the DUP showed no interest in serious talks about restoration of devolution. This is evidenced by the fact they did not bother even to draft legislation until yesterday (a Sunday), nor to show it to other parties (whose support, obviously, would be required to pass it) even after bizarrely showing it to the Attorney General, who has no role in advising MLAs. Indeed, other parties were only leaked a copy of the legislation after midday yesterday (the scheduled Assembly sitting time).

There was in fact no prospect of any functioning Assembly liberalising abortion to the extent it has been liberalised as of this minute. The DUP rejected the deal available in February 2018 which would have restored that Assembly; and then messed around for four months from June 2019 without even attempting to win support for its proposal to stop Westminster’s liberalising intervention. Therefore, whatever your view on this highly sensitive issue, the DUP bears prime if not sole responsibility for the fact that, as of right now, Northern Ireland has (theoretically at least) the most liberal abortion laws in Western Europe. If you agree with Arlene Foster that this is a “sad day for Northern Ireland”, you also have to accept that she played a greater role than anyone in bringing it about.

It should be emphasised that some fears of what Northern Ireland’s abortion law means in practice, while no doubt felt genuinely, are overstated. The law on “child destruction” (a ghastly term but the one used in the 1945 legislation still in effect) continues to apply and, legally, medical procedures have to be carried out by regulated professionals. In the absence of legal clarity, it is highly unlikely any more than were already occurring will take place (aside perhaps from some tragic cases of fatal foetal abnormality) before that clarification comes (probably at the end of March). The fundamental change is the decriminalisation of women; what is legal for medical professionals is still to be clarified and given killing a child capable of being born alive is still a criminal offence, no professional will take any risks in that regard today any more than they would have yesterday.

Meanwhile, let us just reflect on the good news that Northern Ireland now has equal marriage legislated for, and that as a society we can join the modern world. Now we just need to take the opportunity in no doubt imminent elections to un-elect the incompetents who have delivered nothing but uncertainty, concern, and the precise reverse of what they profess to support.

Time now for Government of National Unity

I had no intention of restoring a political aspect to this blog, but recent events require more than Twitter threads!

We have now seen an utterly laughable proposal from the UK Government to the EU, even more laughably put forward on a “Take it or leave it” basis. Obviously, it is designed for the EU to leave it, and for the political blame game thus to be neutralised.

As a matter of fact, this is unlikely to work. Far from being evil geniuses, Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings are in fact evil charlatans. The EU will bat it back, offering the original Withdrawal Agreement or an extension, and clarifying the UK is responsible for the consequences if it rejects both (particularly since rejecting the latter is illegal).

The facade has gone on long enough. What is required immediately, as I wrote some weeks ago, is not an election or a referendum but a Government of National Unity.

Let us now state clearly what such a Government could do:

  • declare a national emergency (the current Government is bound to do this anyway) on the basis that the whole process of leaving the European Union is tainted by lies, misinformation and, particularly, corruption;
  • publish “Yellowhammer” in its entirety and announce an inquiry into that corruption (the Hedge Funds and foreign-based interests pursuing “No Deal” in their own selfish interest) and into those threatening to stoke violence;
  • revoke Article 50 on the basis that the inquiry needs to be complete and placed before the public before the issue is returned to them;
  • clarify that the “leave” promises people voted for in good faith were in fact utter codswallop (presenting the details publicly as necessary) and that “no deal” means chaos and then endless negotiations (a million miles from “getting it done”), and instead state an intention to hold a referendum, once inquiries are complete and published, to leave the EU on EFTA-Association terms;
  • increase funding for the NHS by £350m/week;
  • reform the BBC charter to stop the nonsense of “impartiality” between fact and fiction and between knowledge and ignorance; and
  • reform referendum rules (to include an “Independent Advertising Standards”-type body scrutinising claims made during them) and change the electoral system (to PR-MMP, as in Scotland and Wales).

Wouldn’t such a government be illegitimate and undemocratic? It would command a democratic majority in the House elected by the people, and would certainly be more legitimate that one which is in the pockets of foreign-based Hedge Fund managers who are making big money by bettering against the UK…

#Brexit’s fundamental dishonesty exposed

I fully respect that a majority of people in the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016 and, I believe, that it is still the case that a majority of people in the UK would rather not be in the EU. Whether they can really be bothered with the hassle of leaving is the question now.

I can also grasp why people, even for reasons of purely emotional nationalism, would be attracted to notions of “taking back control”. I do not share but I think I understand the fear, particularly in post-industrial landscapes, of globalisation in general terms.

What I will never comprehend, however, is how people continue to support positions which blatantly veer from one extreme to the other.

Firstly, we were told that we would “take back control of our borders”.

Then, however, we were told the precise opposite: “Let them put border posts up, we’re not going to!”

Those two positions are diametrically opposed. They could not be more opposite. The notion that you take control of your border by leaving it completely unprotected and unmanned is obviously ludicrous. Frankly, a two-year-old could grasp how these are absolutely opposing things.

Now we are told that there will be border posts. So actually we will put border posts up. That is diametrically opposed again to what the Prime Minister himself said 40 days ago.

Logically, one of three things must apply:

  • you supported the Prime Minister 40 days ago when he said there would not be border posts;
  • you support the Prime Minister now when he says there will be border posts; or
  • neither.

In other words, on this issue and leaving aside all the practical consequences, you cannot possibly have supported the Prime Minister 40 days ago, and still support him now.

This is the fundamental dishonesty with Brexit. People will literally propose something as an advantage and then, just a few weeks later, support something diametrically opposed to that supposed advantage. Not for a second will they consider that this is an obvious logical fallacy, nor that Brexit is underpinned by a raft of logical fallacies.

Ultimately, it does not matter how many people vote for something, if it is underpinned by logical fallacies it is underpinned by logical fallacies. In other words, the whole thing is fundamentally dishonest; and is creating a further dishonesty as people refuse, almost by definition, to be honest enough to admit it! The Prime Minister knows the whole thing is based on fundamental dishonesty, and so does every one of his “supporters”. He has no plan and no idea, so he randomly presents ludicrous ideas in the hope no one will point out the emperor is wearing no clothes.

Unfortunately, matters are made worse by the fact we have a Government and an Opposition who engage only in logical fallacies and the inevitably consequential dishonesty on any issue at all (combined with outrageous extremism and sheer incompetence of a scale never seen before in UK politics in living memory).

The honest and logical truth, if anyone is interested, is that there are only two types of Brexit – pointless, or damaging. (And, by the way, since we are on the subject of the honest truth: the bridge is daft; we don’t need 40 new hospitals, we need properly paid and equipped staff; and the magic money tree won’t fund any of this anyway. We could also do with some honest reporting that this is all classic “dead cat strategy” every time.)

But how many of us are interested?

Labour caught in Brexit headlights

Ostensibly, Labour’s position of giving the public a choice between a “Workable Brexit” and not leaving the EU after all is a highly sensible and usefully moderate one.

But it is not going to fly.

There are three main problems with it.

Firstly, it is blatantly an attempt at compromise to keep as many in the Labour tent as possible. It is likelier to achieve the reverse. Labour Remainers now have the Liberal Democrats closer to their view; and Labour Leavers can always opt for the Brexit Party. Having everyone slightly unhappy, especially when they have alternatives, is no way to treat the defining issue of our times.

Secondly, the type of workable Brexit Labour is offering is just daft. Remaining in a Customs Union while maintaining all the benefits of the Single Market (basically, the EFTA Association I wrote about last week but further tied to the Customs Union) genuinely is a Brexit In Name Only, effectively withdrawing the UK from any influence over the rules while forcing it to abide by them all. At the very least, Labour needs to remove the Customs Union bit and just take the “Norway option” off the shelf, so at least it is clear what the option is.

Thirdly, most people just want Brexit ended. This is emotional rather than rational, but they are fed up with it. What Labour is offering, however, is yet another negotiation followed by a referendum some time down the track (all, bizarrely, while the Prime Minister himself doesn’t take a position on that referendum). It’s all very complicated and confusing – the precise opposite of what most people want and feel they need.

In other words, it has the makings of a responsible policy but it is badly delivered and, fatally, electorally unpopular.

If Labour really wants to lead the next government and differentiate itself, it should just openly support an EFTA option and risk the loss of a few hard core Remainers while at least stopping people leaping to the Right. Alternatively, it could just openly support Remain to take out the Liberal Democrats’ USP, risking the loss of a few hard core Leavers but stopping the flow to the Centre. The halfway house just confuses everyone and leaves no one happy.

Hard though it is for the media to grasp, the forthcoming election will not be solely about Brexit. People have all sorts of reasons for choosing a particular party. However, having the least clear and most awkward policy on the biggest issue of our times is not going to work. It is symptomatic of a rudderless leadership which should long ago have been replaced.

Suspension of Parliament – what now for the Opposition?

The Liberal Democrats earned headlines this week for its policy – but here it is vital to be specific – that it would revoke Article 50 (and thus “cancel Brexit”) in the event that it won a majority at a General Election.

The specific pledge, therefore, is dependent on the party winning a majority of seats in the House of Commons, in which case it would have won a mandate from the electorate for that pledge and thus to overturn that same electorate’s decision from three-and-a-half years ago.

Clearly, this is politics. The Liberal Democrats are not likely to win an overall majority, in which case it will still be mandated to negotiate its way into a coalition government offering, perhaps, a “Final Say” referendum.

The Labour Party has taken a stance of campaigning for such a “Final Say” referendum. The choice would be between a “sensible” or “workable” Brexit deal, and remaining in the EU. In principle, this is an extremely reasonable position – once the electorate sees what the UK’s future relationship with its large neighbour and chief trading partner would look like from outside, it should have the chance to decide whether that is what it really wants.

This stance will come under two main lines of attack. Firstly, it is simply unclear – what is this “sensible” or “workable” deal of which they speak and how do they know it is negotiable? Secondly, Leavers will argue that offering a “Remain” option in a subsequent referendum will mean the EU will not negotiate seriously.

The first of these will be effective, particularly if there is an election, because the voters rarely reward a lack of clarity on the big issue. The second, however, may not be quite as effective as Leavers think. It will only point to the reality that there are only two types of Brexit – calamitous or pointless. As Leavers accuse the EU of being likely either to offer a Brexit so soft that voters will reject it as pointless, or so hard that voters will reject it as calamitous, they only prove the pointlessness of the entire exercise.

For all of this, there remains the distinct possibility that the next General Election will take place with the UK already having left the EU, rendering these positions pointless.

The Conservatives will recognise this as being in their interests. Specifically, what is in their interests is to leave imminently with a deal, thus avoiding any immediate cliff-edge (in fact, leaving with a deal would probably see an economic boost as Sterling would likely gain value). Whether the current incumbent of No. 10 knows how to get a deal, and how to get it past Parliament, is another matter.

So, what could the Opposition do on 14 October? Here, we need to raise something which thus far too few are talking about.

Remember, the theoretical reason for the suspension of Parliament was for a Queen’s Speech (in other words, an outline of the Government’s proposed Programme for Government). However, the Government now lacks a majority. There is a fair chance that the Queen’s Speech will in fact be rejected. By convention, this would be regarded as a Vote of No Confidence, thus setting the clock ticking either to a change of Government or to the announcement by as early as (but no earlier than) 28 October of a date for a General Election.

There is, of course, always the potential for the Convention to be ignored, forcing an actual Confidence Vote during which the Opposition may yet decide to leave the Prime Minister to stew a little longer until he carried out the requirement of seeking an extension of the UK’s EU membership. The Opposition needs to be careful here, because it could soon be the side charged objectively with breaching Convention and good faith.

Ultimately, this does mean that the chances of the Opposition being in effect forced to form a caretaker administration are higher than commentators currently seem to suggest. Opposition MPs all need to contemplate that.

So, if the Opposition were to form a caretaker administration, what policy would it pursue, given that some of the goals established here last week have already been accomplished and given the difference in policy of the two main (English) Opposition parties?

It seems to me that the policy most likely to unify the Opposition would be one closer to Labour’s, noting that this implies no loss of face for the Liberal Democrats as they have been clear that their policy of revocation applies only in the event of their gaining an absolute majority in Parliament. It therefore remains the case that the Opposition’s best bet is surely to take office, to recommend that the public should decide between seeking an EFTA-Association-style Withdrawal Agreement and remaining in the EU.

The EU has said it will not re-open the Withdrawal Agreement, but that position is predicated on the UK’s maintaining its current red lines. A new administration pledging to offer an EFTA-Association-style relationship would essentially be abandoning the red line that there should be no freedom of movement (of workers) in future, and thus enabling the rewriting of the political declaration of the Withdrawal Agreement sought by the EU to allow a transition period potentially to the end of 2022 without the backstop needing to apply. Since an EFTA-style relationship would maintain regulatory alignment in most areas, with divergence likely only in agriculture and fishing (for which there are already partial checks in the Irish Sea), maintenance of an open land border with Ireland would be relatively straightforward.

Nor does an EFTA-Association-style agreement necessarily require actual membership of EFTA. As noted last week, it may be preferable for the UK to do what Finland once did and operate as an associate. EFTA would continue as is, but could bring in the UK to its agreements (and vice-versa, for that matter) if it were mutually beneficial.

Thus, it would be perfectly possible for a new administration to put to the public in a referendum this strategy for withdrawal from the EU (it can have the referendum as early as possible in the new year with a withdrawal date of 30 April, the end of the current budgetary cycle – the details can then be worked out over a transition period lasting potentially up to two and a half years), in the knowledge that the EU and EFTA would surely be relatively content with it. This is, essentially, the “workable” Brexit of which the Labour Party speaks.

What happens if the Opposition does not act, and the Prime Minister remains in post with his hands tied? Then the money remains on an election around 28 November or even 5 December, although it is increasingly hard to see what purpose such an election would serve except if the UK has left the EU with a deal in advance. In the event of a genuinely chaotic Brexit, surely a national government rather than another five-week suspension of Parliament would be required? In the event of no deal agreed with the EU by 31 October, the next step from everyone’s point of view (including, Remainers should note, the Prime Minister’s) would surely be a referendum rather than an election?

This points to another potential difficulty for the Opposition. Either the Prime Minister will blame them for having his hands tied so he cannot get a deal, or in fact he will return to the Commons before the end of October with a deal agreed. If at least some of the Opposition agree to such a deal, he can then move to an election with a fair likelihood of success (as there will no or very limited immediate chaos and he will have delivered as he said); if they do not, he will be able to paint them all as closet Remainers and can then head into a “People versus Parliament” election (with or without a prior referendum) just as he originally planned. This is why a deal with the EU is so clearly in the Prime Minister’s strategic electoral interest.

Given all of this, it may prove better for the Opposition to force No Confidence and form a caretaker administration as soon as possible to move towards a referendum under which they set the terms as above. Leaving it to the Prime Minister to come back with a deal is high risk in every sense, leaving open a route either to an election or to a referendum on his own terms which could yet result in the very “No Deal” Brexit they are trying to avoid (plus five years of dangerously incompetent Populist-Conservative Government).

The stakes are high, but predict nothing with certainty!

On bridges and Brexit

Shortly after the EU referendum in 2016, as Sterling plummeted, I received from Berlin the largest translation/editing contract I had ever received. The irony of being a Brexit beneficiary was not lost on me, but I set to work.

The translation concerned the environmental statements for a construction project known as the “Fehmarn Belt Fixed Link”. Why would I mention this? Because it is relevant to explaining just how fanciful, ignorant and idiotic the people currently trying and failing to run the UK actually are.

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The Fehmarn Link would cross from the Danish island of Lolland to the German island of Fehmarn, each themselves connected to the mainland respectively of Sealand (the island on which Copenhagen is located and thus also connected directly via the Oresund crossing to Sweden) and Continental Europe – marked yellow above. It is particularly important because the car ferries which currently cover the route cannot take Heavy Goods Vehicles, and thus freight traffic has no option but to head around via the island of Funen and the peninsula of Jutland to access mainland Europe from eastern Denmark (and thus most of Sweden) – marked red above.

While Denmark was busy building impressive bridges (not just across the Oresund but also across the Great Belt between Sealand and Funen – on the red route above) in the 1990s, plans began for the connection to Germany.

However, having even awarded provisional contracts, the bridge plan was changed in 2010 to a tunnel, largely because this would be less likely to be a victim of closure and also because it would be less disruptive to shipping. In 2015 the bill to proceed with construction subject to EU funding (supported by Germany and Sweden) passed the Danish Parliament. Tolls on the crossing would see the total cost recouped in perhaps 30 years.

Let us be clear about a few things here:

  • the total length of the crossing would be less than a quarter of that between, say, Scotland and Northern Ireland;
  • construction would be less than a quarter of the cost given the sea is not so deep so masts/pillars would not be so high, and even at that is now projected at €5.5 billion (itself surely an underestimate);
  • the connection benefits more than half of the population of Scandinavia (so, 12.5 million or so) linking them to German-speaking Europe, Benelux and beyond (100 million upwards);
  • motorway links (but for 25km the German side) already exist to either end of the proposed crossing;
  • there is a very specific benefit for freight traffic which literally cannot use the existing ferry service.

Despite this, and despite the proven aptitude of the Danes for such things, the project has inevitably become embroiled in legal wrangles and as we approach the 2020s, a generation after planning began and a decade after the current proposal was agreed, construction still has not started.

The population of the entire island of Ireland and Scotland combined is less than the 12.5 million just one the minority side of the Fehmarn Belt; the cost would be many times greater and never recoverable from the vastly lower amount of traffic using it (given it links such low and sparse populations); the crossing would connect a primary A-Road to a secondary A-road the latter two hours’ drive from any motorway; and in any case no constructor would take on the work as it crosses the site where unmapped munitions were dumped in 1946.

So tell me this, what kind of complete idiot would you have to be even to suggest such a thing?

It is fanciful nonsense borne of utter ignorance about the realities of finance, engineering, geography, history or frankly anything at all.

Is there any chance we could stop electing such idiots? (Oh, and could we now stop talking about it? Talking about it is exactly what the Prime Minister wants us to do to avoid discussion of his other crazed delusions.)

Suspension of Parliament – now what?!

Last week‘s update proved slightly more prescient than the previous week’s, with the Opposition rightly avoiding the trap of a pre-Brexit election and instead forcing the Prime Minister to wait for his election.

That, plus the passage of a Bill blocking a “no deal” Brexit on 31 October, led to the departure of two Cabinet Ministers from the Government and 22 Conservative MPs from the parliamentary party, leaving the Prime Minister well short of a parliamentary majority even with DUP backing.

This leaves us in uncharted waters, given that the Prime Minister needs a two-thirds majority from the total house for an election (when he tried this week and last week he did not even get half) or to lose a Vote of No Confidence. The Opposition parties are united, however, in their view that they want no such Vote until the Bill blocking a “no deal” Brexit is actually implemented – for fear of a default crash-out on 31 October during or immediately after an election campaign.

This is particularly clever by the Opposition, however, because it flushes out the Prime Minister’s “strategy”. Either he gets a deal and can leave as he said he would on 31 October, or he does not and is obliged to seek an extension of the UK’s membership of the EU into 2020. Since it is now evident the Prime Minister had no idea how to get a deal, his choice appears to be either to break his word on the date of departure or to be entirely responsible (and in fact criminally liable) for a crash-out Brexit on 31 October.

As was evident from a farcical trip to a police training college during the week, the Prime Minister had not reckoned on the Opposition being so clever. His ventures in public have clearly been the stuff not of a Prime Minister focused on the job, but of a Party Leader in full election campaign mode. However, he has been denied that election.

So, what now?

Firstly, ignore the nonsense that somehow the Prime Minister does not have to seek the extension if there is no deal by the end of October. He will have to. There is no way out of that. (That does not absolutely mean that he will, of course – but note again that he will be politically responsible and criminally liable if he does not). Note also that the Prime Minister cannot veto his own extension bid (that has to be one of the other 27 Governments, under the terms of Article 50). Politically, the extension will be offered, though conceivably to 30 April rather than 31 January.

Secondly, there will have to be an election at some stage reasonably soon, for the simple reason that no party is anywhere near a governing majority even with natural supporters. That said, it has been possible in the past for minority governments to stumble on even for a year – after the breakdown of the “Lib/Lab pact” in 1978, James Callaghan’s Labour minority government managed to do deals with other parties, including interestingly the Ulster Unionists, in order to stay in office for a further year. The issue currently is that Parliament is so sharply divided that this would likely be impossible even if the Prime Minister wanted to wait (which, evidently, he does not).

The Prime Minister is unpredictable and his best bet to enforce an election is in fact to resign. (The problem there is that he has to advise the monarch on who she should send for to form a government – he no longer has the right to recommend an election without the agreement of two thirds of MPs.)

His second best bet is to try to do a deal with the EU. However, since he has not been seriously trying, he has left it very late and the only deal available which is not identical to Theresa May’s would be the original one with the Northern Ireland-only backstop. As it is far from clear this would pass the Commons (given the alternative is an extension of the UK’s membership, more pro-European MPs are unlikely to feel it is a risk worth taking; and of course the DUP will vote against as well), the EU may well not even offer it openly. However, it is really the only route the Prime Minister can pursue to keep his word on the withdrawal date.

In other words, the Prime Minister has walked into a trap of his own making.

The question becomes what should the Opposition do now? There is surely a case for it seeking to take office prior to an election, even if only briefly, to do a few things; or at least to force legislation through for the following:

  • publish the “Operation Yellowhammer” documents outlining the likely impacts on the public (and proposed Government response) to a “No Deal” crash-out [this would ensure no nonsense from the Government on yesterday evening’s motion and it is unlikely any of the MPs in opposition to the Government would have a problem here];
  • as a consequence, pass legislation barring a “No Deal” Brexit in any circumstance [conceivable that one or two ex-Conservatives would be concerned about this but there is no doubt there would be a clear parliamentary majority for it];
  • as a further consequence, pass legislation for a referendum between leaving on EFTA-associate terms (similar to Finland’s relationship prior to joining the EU in 1995) and remaining in the EU [this would no doubt be more controversial among the Opposition parties, but it is a logical consequence of the previous two];
  • change the electoral system to PR-MMP (i.e. that used for legislative elections in Scotland and Wales) to avoid the nonsense of 35% being enough for an overall majority [Labour itself may oppose this because it denies Jeremy Corbyn the same opportunity, but it should at least be looked at].

I did not intend to do these weekly, but a week in an epoch in politics these days…

Suspension of Parliament – update

I wrote this last week on the likely next moves after the Prime Minister secured the Queen’s permission to suspend Parliament last week.

Somewhat contrary to what I wrote, it appears that the Opposition reckons it does have time to pass legislation designed to prevent a “no deal” Brexit (specifically, to prevent one any time before the end of January or perhaps in effect the end of April 2020). Of course, it remains to be seen if the legislation drafted is watertight and if there is time to pass it.

However, in many ways the effect of this legislation would be the same as a no confidence vote. It would, after all, specifically tell the Prime Minister that the legislature does not have confidence in his Brexit strategy. There is also little doubt that the Prime Minister himself will treat it that way, and so the next move will be for him to claim the Opposition is forcing him into an election on the assumption that he lacks the confidence of the House.

However, strictly speaking a “Vote of No Confidence” would not have been passed in such a context, so the procedures after one would not apply. There would be no countdown to an automatic election; instead, there would still be a requirement for two thirds of MPs to assent to an election (as happened in 2017).

(The Prime Minister could attempt to put confidence on the vote on the final Bill requiring an extension of EU membership to be sought, in which case the procedures would apply if this were allowed. This is very risky for all sides, however; for the Prime Minister it risks allowing the other side to form an administration without an election, and for the Opposition it risks an election too late to make any difference to Brexit.)

Remember, an election causes Parliament to be suspended anyway. Even if legislation is passed and receives Royal Assent (and even more so if it has not passed), it is a high-risk strategy to force the suspension of Parliament until close to 31 October, not least because it would be conceivable that no new Prime Minister would be in place by that date regardless of the date and outcome of the election. This again raises questions about just how watertight legislation can be, when it will likely in effect require action by the Prime Minister in the run-up to 31 October in any case. What happens, for example, if there is no Parliament sitting to ensure that he adheres to the law as passed? What happens if a Prime Minister, still in office post-election as the Opposition decides if it can form a coalition to remove him from office, or indeed reinvigorated by having won the election, simply ignores (or repeals) the legislation?

The Opposition needs to proceed, therefore, with caution here. It wants to stop “no deal” but it also has to be sure that, if it comes to one, the current Government carries the entire responsibility. An election close to 31 October, for all kinds of reasons, risks the UK falling out of the EU with no deal by default regardless of what legislation is passed and what the date or outcome of an election would be, with the added political consequence that the Conservatives could blame Opposition meddling for any resultant chaos.

The likelihood therefore is that, despite current overt denials, there will be pressure for an election from the Government. The Opposition (specifically the Labour Party) will still need to assent to one, however, noting that the Prime Minister then decides the precise date. The question then becomes whether the anti-No Deal side has the coherence and foresight to recognise that, in every sense, an election close to 31 October would likely merely add to the problem rather than provide a solution.

It is anyone’s guess what will happen now. For what it is worth my instinct is the Government, advised by people who think militarily rather than politically, will end up overplaying its hand.

NB: These blog posts are written for the purposes of analysis rather the political promotion. Obviously, with the latest Northern Ireland poll (DUP 29%, Sinn Fein 25%, Alliance 21%, UU 9%, SDLP 8%) means from a purely partisan point of view I quite fancy an election…!

How do we know what the Romans sounded like?

Last week’s piece on Classical Latin, particularly the phonology, triggered a reasonable and obvious question: how do we know what they sounded like?

Without recorded voices of any kind, of course, we cannot know absolutely precisely. However, because we can reconstruct languages from what came after (modern languages such as, in this case, Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian and Romanian) and indeed what went before, we can merge this with direct historical evidence of what the Romans said about their own speech to gather a very accurate picture.

Alphabet

Firstly, the Romans were lucky because, although their alphabet mimicked Greek (and thus Phoenician), it was in fact designed specifically for Latin. No modern Western European language has that advantage – all of them use the Latin alphabet and then have to make it fit around a different language from the one it was designed for.

Initially, the Romans required just 18 letters – five litterae vōcāles (of voice; A, E, I, O, U) and 13 cōnsonantēs (with sound; B, C, D, F, H, L, M, N, P, Q, R, S, T). I and U could be semi-vocalic; in fact Q was used only before U as QU to indicate this was the case (versus CU, when it was not).

In time the Romans added G to distinguish from C; X for the combination CS or GS; and K, Y and Z for words borrowed from Greek (although some writers ignored K while others came to use it more widely to replace C even in native words in particular instances, such as frequently before A).

Fundamentally, however, the Latin alphabet remained one letter for one sound, with just the odd exception (notably X and arguably QU; with greater Greek influence this came to change a little more, but we will come to that). This makes it quite straightforward to work out, for the most part, how it was pronounced because there is no reason to believe that each letter would have been pronounced significantly differently from its modern equivalent, assuming such an equivalence can be made.

Indo-European

The contention that we can assume most letters were pronounced as today is backed up by studies of the Proto-Indo-European language from which Latin (and also Old Irish, Old Church Slavonic, Gothic, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit and others) was derived. However, comparisons across the language sets do tell us some things.

The plosives (B, C and P) were pronounced more softly probably even than in modern Italian (and considerably more so that in English or German); B frequently switched to F in Latin in certain environments, suggesting the sounds were not far apart. Furthermore, two distinct C (actually broadly /k/) sounds were inherited by Latin and it seems odd that these were merged only to de-merge again in Late Latin (and thus in all daughter languages) – hence my own contention that C (and subsequently G) was always pronounced slightly differently before a high vowel than before a low vowel (before a high vowel I suggest it was slightly palatalised, with a hint of a y-glide; that some chose to distinguish in writing between K and C may provide further evidence but most speakers probably did not think about it for long enough to consider there was a distinction, in the same way English speakers do not consider the ‘c’ in ‘care’ to be any different from that in ‘scare’).

The letter D was pronounced much more briefly than today (just a short flap), as we know it was unstable – converting initially to B in some instances (even now ‘dual’ versus ‘binary’) and being lost altogether finally except in the most common words (e.g. classical ablative mēnsā or fundō were originally mēnsad, fundod).

H was also destined to be unstable right from the start, deriving from a complex series of Indo-European laryngeals. It was already clearly lost in all but the most careful educated speech well before the time of Christ. (Note that it is conceivable that it came and went; /h/ was lost from English entirely by Shakespeare’s time but was then recovered in learned speech in the centuries after).

We know M and N were already nasal at the end of words as they emerged from Indo-European because they were often not preceded by a vowel; this changed in Latin, which placed vowels before final nasals.

S was likely pronounced as a brief tap (as in many modern Spanish dialects, see below) as it frequently developed into (and occasionally even from) R. This again was an Indo-European thing, as the S/R switch is common to many Indo-European languages (cf. English ‘was/were’, ‘lost’ but ‘forlorn’).

Given its confusion with B but rarely F, as well as other factors, V was pronounced as /w/ or at least somewhere between /w/ and /ß/ (so potentially close to modern Spanish [b] and [v] between vowels).

Indo-European tells us much less about vowels, which change much more through time. One thing we can note throughout the history of Latin is the instability between O and U and, to a lesser extent, between E and I.

Daughter languages 

We can tell much about Latin pronunciation by reconstructing it from daughter languages, most obviously Italian and Spanish.

Italian, based in conservative Tuscan, gives us many of the modern sounds as there is no reason for them to have changed. The most notable shifts are the loss of distinctive vowel length (vowel quality clearly came to be definitive in the Late Latin period as that is the case in all daughter languages) and the switch of the palatalised /k/ and /g/ (i.e. the aforementioned C or G before a high vowel in Classical Latin) to a new affricate sound (equivalent to English [ch] and [j]). Word stress has clearly shifted on some short words in Italian, but there is no reason to believe it is significantly different (even though, as the language is now more vocalic, its rhythm is somewhat different).

Notably, Italian also gives us the most likely location for pronunciation. Generally, the further south you go in Europe the further forward in the mouth pronunciation occurs (just compare a Dutch person or Dane speaking English versus an Italian or a Spaniard). There is no reason to believe this was notably different in ancient times – Latin was surely articulated towards the front of the mouth, thus lacking the lax vowels of Germanic languages.

Spanish in some ways is closer to Late Latin phonologically, and to many of the “errors” Romans themselves noted. It frequently displays [e] where Latin had I just as was apparent in colloquial or lower class speech even by the time of Christ; thus Latin and Italian lingua are Spanish lengua; Latin vices (note Pompeian graffiti veces) is Spanish veces. Spanish also exhibits AU/AL to [o] which was also a marker of lower class or rustic speech in and around Rome 2000 years ago (e.g. Latin alterum, Italian altro, Spanish otro).

Note that Spanish (as well as Sardinian, the most conservative Latinate language) contains only five basic vowel sounds. This is not absolute proof, but it strongly suggests that Classical Latin had only five too.

Contemporary writing

As noted above, Romans themselves often noted “errors” creeping into speech, or commented on how peasants or immigrants spoke. These give us a clear idea of how the language was changing. Many inscriptions themselves contain these “errors” (perhaps most commonly omitting initial h– or post-vocalic final –m) and thus reflect contemporary speech.

On top of this, the meter of Roman poetry also gives us a clear idea about elision. Notably, we can tell from this that final and initial vowels (or nasals or h-) ran into each other consistently in Latin poems, and there is no evidence other than that this was a simple representation of how Latin was actually pronounced.

This is, for the record, a fundamental point because with some exceptions it was the ending rather than the initial sound which was lost in the elision – and thus often the bit containing the grammatical coding (which makes Latin so distinct fundamentally from its daughter languages). Yet studies of Latin literature have shown that this is crucial to understanding in only a minuscule proportion of combinations, and that even then there is no doubt about the meaning from the context. This suggests that in fact one driver of Romans’ choice of word order was the determination to avoid losing a grammatically crucial ending (e.g. if it going to be unclear that you mean agricolā erat nauta ‘by the farmer was a sailor’ rather than agricola erat nauta ‘the farmer was a sailor’ or agricolae erat nauta ‘the farmer’s was a sailor’ because without the ending pronounced in the first word they all sound the same, just say agricolā nauta erat – which indeed was the most common word order). This remains a remarkably understudied aspect of Latin syntax.

Ultimately, all of these allow us to reconstruct very accurately the speech of Caesar. Not that he ever said et tū Brūte, of course – indeed he would likely have appealed to Brutus in Greek…