Boris Johnson’s Blue Wall Starts to Crack

Boris Johnson Angela Merkel
British prime minister Boris Johnson and German chancellor Angela Merkel pose for photos at the G7 summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, June 11 (10 Downing Street/Simon Dawson)

British Conservatives woke up Friday morning to the news that a once-safe seat in Parliament was no longer blue.

Liberal Democrat Sarah Green overturned a majority of 16,000 in Chesham and Amersham, bordering the London Green Belt, with a remarkable 25-point swing away from the Conservatives. It is one of the largest swings away from the ruling party since the early 1990s, when Tony Blair launched New Labour.

Extrapolating from a by-election is risky. Britain has had many by-elections which were heralded as the dawning of a new political era that never arrived. But a center-right party losing the suburbs after lurching to the populist right sounds like a familiar story. Read more “Boris Johnson’s Blue Wall Starts to Crack”

Great British Railways: Neither Public Nor Private Enough

London England
Railways in London, England seen from The Shard tower, June 17, 2017 (Unsplash/Simon Mumenthaler)

This week, the British government published its long-awaited and somewhat delayed review into the British railway network.

The proposals — putting infrastructure, timetables, fares and tickets back into government hands but allowing private companies to run the trains — are a step in the right direction, but they would keep the network in a twilight zone.

British rail is neither fully private nor fully public, despite the government and the Treasury in particular having control over many aspects of the railway. Accountability is murky. Industry fragmentation — 29 train companies, fifteen leasing companies — has only made it worse. Read more “Great British Railways: Neither Public Nor Private Enough”

Labour’s Problems Go Deeper Than Starmer

Tracy Brabin Keir Starmer
British Labour Party leader Keir Starmer campaigns with Tracy Brabin, mayoral candidate for West Yorkshire, in Pontefract, England, May 5 (Labour)

Former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters are out in force arguing his successor, Keir Starmer, must surely resign after losing the Hartlepool constituency, a Labour bulwark since 1974, to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservatives.

Corbyn lost all seven elections (local, national and European) during his five-year leadership and still his supporters refused to accept he might be damaging the party, but Starmer loses one seat and it’s all the proof they need to conclude that he can’t defeat the Conservatives?

Big if true. Read more “Labour’s Problems Go Deeper Than Starmer”

Three Things to Watch in Britain’s Local Elections

Bristol, England
Aerial view of Bristol, England (Shutterstock)

Scotland’s will be the most closely watched election, but voters across the UK go to the polls on Thursday.

In addition to the 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament, all sixty seats in the Welsh Assembly, all 25 seats in the London Assembly, thirteen mayoralties and thousands of seats in 143 English councils are contested.

There is also a parliamentary by-election in Hartlepool, which has voted Labour since the constituency was created in 1974.

Polls opened at 7 AM local time and will close at 10 PM. Due to coronavirus restrictions, many localities won’t start counting votes until Friday. Full results aren’t expected until the weekend.

Here are three things to watch: Read more “Three Things to Watch in Britain’s Local Elections”

The Arguments For and Against Scottish Independence

Eilean Donan Castle Scotland
Eilean Donan Castle in the western Highlands of Scotland (Unsplash/Manu Bravo)

Scotland’s ruling National Party (SNP) has staked a second independence referendum on the outcome of Thursday’s election. If separatists defend their majority in the Scottish Parliament — in addition to the SNP, the Greens favor independence — they propose to hold another vote even over the objections of London.

Scots voted 55 to 45 percent against dissolving the United Kingdom in 2014. Nationalists argue Brexit has changed the calculation. 62 percent of Scots voted to remain in the EU in 2016. They were overruled by majorities in England and Wales. Polls found majorities in Scotland for leaving the UK and rejoining the EU through 2020 and early 2021. Unionists have recently closed the gap. But the SNP is still faraway in first place in election polls with up to 50 percent support.

There are many arguments for and against independence, and each one could be debated at length. I’ll summarize what I find to be the most persuasive ones. Read more “The Arguments For and Against Scottish Independence”

EU Can’t Trust Britain to Keep Its Word

Boris Johnson
British prime minister Boris Johnson answers questions from reporters in Brussels, October 17, 2019 (European Commission)

How is the EU supposed to manage post-Brexit relations with a United Kingdom that won’t keep its word?

For the second time in six months, Britain has reneged on its Irish border commitments without consulting the EU or Ireland.

Northern Ireland is still in the European single market for goods under the EU-UK treaty. The rest of the United Kingdom is not, creating new regulatory barriers for British companies. They have struggled to cope. Supermarket shelves in Northern Ireland have gone empty. Parcels are stranded in Great Britain. The government of Boris Johnson has temporarily lifted the new rules to give businesses more time to adjust.

It’s not unreasonable to ask for a few more months of delay. But such a request should have been discussed in the Joint Partnership Council, which was created by the treaty on future EU-UK relations to manage precisely these situations. Instead, Britain acted unilaterally.

Not for the first time. In September, it weaseled out of its promise to respect EU regulations in Northern Ireland claiming it was breaching an earlier agreement with the EU in only a “specific and limited” way. As if that made a difference. Read more “EU Can’t Trust Britain to Keep Its Word”

Scotland Is a Country!

Scotland flag
The flag of Scotland (Paul Morgan)

My most recent article about Scottish independence, from last summer, got more than a hundred angry replies on Twitter today.

Not a lot of substantive comments, unfortunately, although I had good discussions with those Scots who argued I had overstated the risks of dissolution and underestimated the opportunities.

No, nearly all replies hounded me for describing Scotland as a “region” and not a “country”, which I know it is.

The reason I use “country” as well as “region” is that Scotland’s constitutional status — a country within a country — can be confusing to readers who aren’t familiar with the UK. That’s all. I meant no offense. Read more “Scotland Is a Country!”

Be Wary of the Return of Big Government

Union Station Washington DC
South Front Entrance of Union Station in Washington DC, July 4, 2019 (Unsplash/Caleb Fisher)

Big government is back.

Massive rescue programs have prevented business failures and unemployment on the scale of the Great Depression, even though last year’s economic contraction was nearly as bad. The European Union agreed a €750 billion recovery fund, financed, for the first time, by EU-issued bonds. The money comes on top of national efforts. The United States Congress passed a $2.2 trillion stimulus, worth 10 percent of GDP, in March and added $484 billion in April. An additional $900 billion in relief was included in this year’s budget.

Joe Biden, the incoming American president, wants to spend $2 trillion more over the next four years to transition the United States to a greener economy and create a public health insurance program. Corporate tax would go up from 21 to 28 percent.

In Spain, a socialist government has introduced the biggest budget in Spanish history — partly to cope with the impact of coronavirus, but also to finance digitalization, electric cars, infrastructure, renewable energy and rural development. Taxes on income, sales and wealth are due to increase.

In the United Kingdom, the ruling Conservative Party is building more social housing and it might renationalize rail. Unlike during the last economic crisis, it does not propose to cut spending even though tax revenues are down.

Same in the Netherlands, where all the major parties agree the government needs to do more to reduce pollution and prevent people at the bottom of the social ladder from falling through the cracks.

I’m not opposed to more government per se. I’ve argued the United States should imitate policies in Northern Europe to improve child care, health care and housing.

But let’s be careful not to throw “more government” at every problem. Sometimes government is the problem. Read more “Be Wary of the Return of Big Government”

Gibraltar Brexit Deal is Victory for Spain

Gibraltar
View of the Rock of Gibraltar from the territory’s airport, September 29, 2015 (Shutterstock/Nigel Jarvis)

Gibraltar is joining the Schengen free-travel area and will accept European border guards in its ports.

The agreement, reached shortly before New Year’s between the governments of Britain and Spain, avoids the need for a hard border and pulls the Rock closer into the European Union than it was before.

It is a victory for Spanish nationalists, who have long dreamed of regaining a foothold in Gibraltar after three centuries of British rule.

Accomplished, ironically, by a left-wing government. Read more “Gibraltar Brexit Deal is Victory for Spain”

What to Make of the EU-UK Trade Agreement

United Kingdom European Union flags
Flags of the United Kingdom and the European Union outside the Berlaymont building in Brussels, January 29, 2016 (European Commission)

I haven’t read the 1,246 pages of the EU-UK trade agreement, so I’m going to rely on trusted sources to make sense of the accord.

First, a couple of notes on terminology.

This treaty, the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, governs the future cross-Channel relationship. It is due to go into effect on January 1, although it will still need to be ratified by the parliaments of the European Union and the United Kingdom as well as the European Council.

Last year’s withdrawal agreement regulated Britain’s exit from the EU. It provided for a one-year transition period, which expires on December 31, and included a protocol for Northern Ireland, which keeps the province in the European single market for goods and effectively (but not legally) in the EU customs union to avoid the need for a border with the Republic of Ireland.

Both treaties have been unhelpfully referred to as “the deal” in the English-speaking press, but only the withdrawal agreement was crucial. The trade agreement, while good to have, since Britain does most of its trade with the EU, was always optional. Read more “What to Make of the EU-UK Trade Agreement”