Memo to Brits: Get a Constitution — and Fast

The Brits have always been so proud that we (I have dual citizenship) have no constitution.  While there are writings that attempt to capture the custom of centuries, in the end there are no formal rules.

Well, today, Politico has a US focused article that highlights the dangers.  With the heading “Trump writing his own White House rules,” and the subhead “He is shining a light on how much of the American political system is encoded in custom and how little is based in the law,” the article reports:

President-elect Donald Trump has said he might do away with regular press briefings and daily intelligence reports. He wants to retain private security while receiving secret service protection, even after the inauguration. He is encouraging members of his family to take on formal roles in his administration, testing the limits of anti-nepotism statutes. And he is pushing the limits of ethics laws in trying to keep a stake in his business.

In a series of decisions and comments since his election last month — from small and stylistic preferences to large and looming conflicts — Trump has signaled that he intends to run his White House much like he ran his campaign: with little regard for tradition. And in the process of writing his own rules, he is shining a light on how much of the American political system is encoded in custom, and how little is based in the law. .  .  .

“If it’s not written down, you can get away with it. That’s the new premise. And that’s pretty staggering,” said Trump biographer Gwenda Blair, author of “The Trumps: Three Generations that Built an Empire.”

It is a measure of how seriously this is all taken that discussions of overall permanant changes and how to minimize them are already on the table.

“It will expose how well other institutions function when one of them is operating outside the normal framework,” said attorney Robert Bauer, who served as White House counsel to President Obama. “If you have a president who is going to push hard against standing limits and expectations, are other institutions, like the Congress, going to step into the breach? Are they going to take on a more muscular role than they otherwise would?”   .  .  .  .

As the Trump transition figures out the biggest hurdle of all — how to separate Trump from his business interests at home and abroad — experts said the next best thing to following any legal requirements will be catastrophizing the consequences Trump risks opening himself up to if he does not divest and place his assets in a blind trust.

Wow, “catastrophizing.”  In other words, maximizing the overall consequences.

For the US, this highlights we are already in a very high stakes time, at least at large as during Nixon’s reign, but surely much larger, since operating on so many fronts.

For the UK, or indeed its fragmented parts if that is what is happening, the message is “write it down now, in enforceable form, with an enforcement mechanism.”  If not, regret will be in order.

The Politically Legitimate Path to Reverse Brexit

Many seem to feel that Brexit is somehow irreversible because “the people have spoken.”

While the UK, of course, has no written constitution, making this all much more complicated, there actually is a clear constitutional and legitimate path to reverse Brexit.

If a party were to campaign on a promise to hold a second referendum on Brexit, and that party were to win the next election, and conduct a referendum, then there would be no doubt about the legitimacy of the process and result.

I would even go further and say that were a party to campaign on a promise to only enter a coalition if its partners promised to conduct such a referendum, and that party’s votes were needed to form a coalition, then the result would be nearly as legitimate.

The problem is that neither of the remaining “national” parties is sufficiently united to run such a campaign.  The Liberal Democrats could, but they have such little credibility after the coalition debacle that their path would be uphill.  The Tories are here out of the question, which leaves Labor. Only two paths here, either the willingness to take the risk of losing a major slice of their supporters in return for the hope that they would pick up the liberals who defected to the conservatives last election, or Labor splits, and one wing links with the Liberals to form a clearly EU party.

I suspect that the last option is the most practical.

There is a point about timing.  Really that is in the control of the Government.  If whoever the new PM starts post-Art. 50 negotiations soon, then things might be well advanced by the time of the election, and a firm stance from the EU would raise to costs of secession for England and the UK.  If the election were to happen before the negotiations, a lot of uncertainty might be avoided.

In any event, time is needed for  the pro-Europe group to solidify for this campaign.

P.S.  One plank in the platform would be allowing folks like me who have been away from the UK for a long time to vote, because we might lose our right to live and work in the EU.  The failure to do so is one the factors tending to de-legitimate the prior result.



I Went to School with Twits Like Blair and Cameron

I went to an English so called “public school” in the 60’s.

The behavior of first Blair and now Cameron comes as no surprise to me.  At the risk of seeming judgemental, I knew lots of these kids, and believe me, they all run to type.  (Not to say that all the kids at that school were like that, indeed no.)

These kids were (and remain) entitled, utterly self-confident, with a belief in their right and obligation to reshape the world.  This came from class, from socialization, and from arrogance.  (This is not the arrogance that defends against uncertainty which many of us might be accused of being guilty of, but rather the real, necessarily un-examined, thing.)

These kids really believed (and believe today) that their privileged education was some kind of earned reward.  To the extent that it might really be a reward to their ancestors, that was just as, perhaps even more, fine.

Moreover, that education prepared them to rule the world, again not so much as a matter of technique, but of utter self-confidence.

John LeCare, in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, perhaps got it best when he had Connie Sachs, the forced-out British intelligence research head (quote reconstructed from memory) say, with more sympathy than I can muster, even now:

“Poor dears, born to rule the waves, and now with a voice that hardly caries across the water.”

Its no surprise that being Bush’s poodle might have some appeal.  Nor that one might grossly misjudge ones ability to manage a referendum process.

The Brexit/Chilicot Juztaposition

Hard to ignore.

Two weeks ago, the Brits tell the world they can do better without Europe.

Today we learn, or rather relearn, that the Iraq invasion decision made in the face of European opposition, was indeed Britain’s arguably worst ever foreign policy mistake.

Some have described the Iraq decision as merely the worst since Suez.  That decision, was made, 60 years ago, with European complicity, and against American opposition.

Hmm.  Maybe these decisions need to be unanimous.  What a thought.


A Chilling Coincidence

Today we have lunch with a man who was telling us his memories, from being ten years old, of Krystalllnacht.

This afternoon, I saw this photo and article in the Guardian, showing how the Brexit referendum has authorized not just racism, but violent racism.  Headline:

‘A frenzy of hatred’: how to understand Brexit racism

Please look at the photo.  Looks just like Krystallnacht.




Contrarian Reponses to Brexit #1: Why Such a Big Deal?

There is such a massive world media response after the vote because the result was so inconsistent with Britain’s long-term image, and self-image, in the world.

As one brought up in a country that still believes that “[limted] executive power derives from some farcical [non-aquatic] ceremony,” I sometimes find it hard to remeber how distorted the UK image in the world is.

We (meaning all including the UK here) think of the UK as educated, intelligent, witty, tolerant, calm, principled, classy, well-governed, and above all as living in the world so well portrayed in what my family has long called “Master-Race Theater.”  At its core has been the idea of Britain “standing alone” against Nazism.  At some level, we all thought we could rely on the UK, if not to save the world again, at least to act as a real anchor against chaos.

But last week forced that image into conflict with the reality of a small, short-sighted, disunited, unpredictable and selfish island with a non-functioning political system.  In other words, it is not so different from the rest of the world.  It is a bit scary.

Now indeed the world wonders if “standing alone,” was less about principled “standing,” and more about being “alone.”  And, let me tell you, British exceptionalism may be more self-deprecatory (at least for some of the people, some of the time), but it is a far more subtle, pervasive, and deeply ingrained version than, for example, the American one.

US exceptionalism, in an idea-driven  pluralistic country, is more about the specialness of the country as a whole .  But British exceptionalism, in a country that all too often still thinks of itself as racially unique, is at least as much about the special character of all its citizens.  That is impossible to budge.  Changing it would require asking people not to think about the world differently, but rather to think about themselves differently.

So the rest of the world, disabused of its faith in the reliability of Britain, is not only disoriented, but a little frightened, as the whole world seems to change in its orbit.


Would Brexit Renew the “Brain Drain” From the UK?

When I was a young person in the UK in the 60s, the so called “brain drain,” the loss of educated folks, particularly to North America, was a constant source of anxiety and debate.  Inevitably, the topic pops up again periodically, often in the context of the internal tax debate.

But now, the question is whether a “Brexited” UK, maybe even without Scotland too, would become a less attractive place to stay for a new generation.  My very strong instinct is yes.  Its not just the practicality of the options available in the future to an EU citizen, with the ability to move in an area of a quarter of a billion people even after the exit, versus those likely to be available to an English/Welsh/NI citizen.  More importantly, the basic choice of insularity versus looking outward will have been made, and the message to the restless will be clear:  “This  is a smaller country, determined to get smaller.”  Not the way to ensure faith in the future, particularly those for those who chafe under remainders and reminders of caste and class.

All the ex-pats from the UK I have talked to recently, from a wide age range, are literally unable to understand how Brexit could be a serious question, currently polling close.

A recent article in the Guardian reports research showing that almost half of thos who applied to, or contacted UK universities said that a Brexit would make the UK a less attractive place to study.  Moreover, non-UK students did far better both in and after university than their UK classmates.  Hardly surprising, the voluntarily mobile are usually the risk-takers and achievers, as any student of immigration patterns will tell you.  For an academic who has spent his life studying the economic of such movements, see here.

It is hard to imagine the pro-leave forces being impacted by this analysis, but that’s the point.