Mend the Kingdom – roll up that map

Give me the map there. Know that we have divided In three our kingdom

King Lear, Act 1, Scene 1

If Whitehall is to be tasked with mending the tattered relationships across the United Kingdom, it must first reverse its two-hundred year practice of driving it apart.  It may start by shredding all the maps in every Government office. They are three hundred years out of date.

When Great Britain was united three hundred years ago and more, it was the consummation of a process of unity that had been moving on since the Reformation, and the actual incorporating union of the mediæval kingdoms into one was intended to began a process of integration to the benefit of all. Something went wrong.  That may be the subject of another article on this site shortly. Now though the priority is fixing it.

Firstly, there is no shortage of Scots in the civil service: the service takes the best and brightest, or most complaisant, and none is disadvantaged through having been born far from the din of London. The issue is found in a deeper structure.

Many Whitehall departments have become, since devolution and often before it, mainly England-only, with some responsibilities across the nation. I once asked a high-level mandarin in one such department whether his was a England-and-Wales department with some UK functions, or a UK department with some England-and-Wales-only functions: the result was an embarrassed silence. This equivocal quality in such departments will ensure that the mindset in those departments ends at the Tweed and just has add-ons for Scotland and Northern Ireland (when they remember Ulster at all). That is not serving the residents of Scotland or Ulster with equal consideration.

Furthermore, where functions do legally extend only to England, that paper boundary can become too real, forgetting that there are people beyond it who are affected by the decisions made. Their needs are just as much a part of the responsibilities of a British government department.

Responsibility is the key, not power, for the one does not come without the other, and even if a particular power is for some reason legally limited to one regions there is responsibility for every Briton who is affected by it even those not usually resident in the region in question.

I recall some government guidance which gave (and I believe still does give) details of how to get particular documents signed in England and Wales and how to get them done in foreign countries, but with no hint on having them signed in Scotland or Northern Ireland. My enquiry about this to the office in question was brushed off with the assertion that they are restricted to England and Wales and cannot look at Scotland or Northern Ireland; and this to the extent of pretending they do not exist, even though the rest of the world was considered.

Maps are deadly. There are maps in Whitehall that end at the River Tweed, and others where the mediaeval border is so heavy it looks like an impassable frontier. Others omit Northern Ireland, though it is barely 12 miles of water apart from Great Britain. Such maps discourage those who look at them from thinking beyond. Maps mould the mind.

Shred the maps – all of them. Make a big heap in the courtyard and consign them to the flames. Let no more like that pass the portal.

Wipe the data maps. These are more frequent and pernicious: those with statistics, which show England as an island on its own. Wipe them from every database. No map in government, unless it is of a narrow region, should show anything less than the whole of the United Kingdom (or of the British Isles as that is the spatial reality, and all things must be based on reality). Where a map is used as a graph of statistics, those statistics may well relate only to England or England and Wales, but there will be equivalent statistics for Scotland and Ulster, so include them: the welfare and status of Britons of those parts are equally the department’s responsibility. If they can shy off that responsibility, nevertheless without a full picture of statistics for the whole of Britain, you have a partial and misleading picture. There may be lessons too to be learnt from the wider picture.

As to those hermaphrodite departments; split your teams. There are those whose concerns day-to-day are with a limited area, and they should not then be trusted to do Scotland as an afterthought. Where the responsibility is national, there are no internal borders. There should be maps with no borders to illustrate to those concerned that there is no border, nor has been one for over three hundred years. Borders on maps make borders in the mind, so have none.

Recently Holyrood adopted a law that the Scottish devolved government may not buy any map of Scotland that shows Orkney and Shetland in a separate box. Whitehall should adopt a rule like it: no government office may acquire nor produce any ‘national’ map that does not include the whole of the United Kingdom, nor any map that includes ‘the border’ as anything beyond normal administrative boundaries. That way our governors may lift up their eyes to the full extent of their responsibilities.

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One small step for the Isle of Man

I was bemused recently by the fuss over the naming of a planetoid in the Kuiper Belt. The name chosen for that celestial body, ‘Arrokoth’ means ‘sky’ in the Algonquian language (that is to say the ancient speech of the Powhatan/Algonquian tribes of America, not the acerbic tongue of Dorothy Parker and her Algonquin Round Table). It is a good name, as I said at the time, and my bemusement was just over the treatment of the old holding name, “Ultima Thule”.

Now the Isle of Man has gone one better: a star and a planet have been named in the Manx language.

In case we forget the Manx language, it is a part of daily life on the Isle of Man. It is dead as a mother tongue, but it is so recognised as a part of the island’s vital heritage that the language is learnt in school, and bilingual signs have sprung up all over the island, and some ne foundations use Manx first – the island’s coastal path is the “Raad ny Follian“, not “Way of the Gull” (which is what the name means). Manx is a Gaelic language, influenced by the Old Norse of the islands’ old rulers, but its spelling is taken from English, giving it more of an earthy look. With such a unique language in such a unique island, the loss of its own tongue is a wrench and it is worth preserving, even if it is no longer spoken at home.

As the BBC report, a star formerly known as WASP-13 is to be named ‘Gloas’, which is Manx for ‘to shine’, and its planet WASP-13b is ‘Cruinlagh’, which is Manx for ‘to orbit’. (Quite why Max has a distinct world for ‘orbit’ when even English has had to borrow from Latin is not clear, but that is as it is.)

The Beeb also report that Gloas “was first observed in 1997, is 1.5 times bigger than the Sun and is visible with the naked eye from the British Isles”. If it is visible to the naked eye, how was it observed only in 1997 then? When I first wrote this post I wondered aloud if the science reporter were on holiday, but I have since been corrected by student astronomer who points out that the number of visible stars in the night sky is innumerable, and many are ‘hidden’ in clusters or nebulae, and so only a fraction which have been individually observed and named. It is pleasing to add another to the list.

Innumerable as the celestial bodies may be, a star in the firmament is now a testimony to one of the dying native languages of the British Isles.

The names were chosen in a public competition. Thank goodness we got those we did and not “Starry McStarface”.

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The work begins: Get Brexit Done

I’m still celebrating, but the work is beginning at once. Just as after the office party the ’phone will ring, so now the new, giddy MPs must get to work at speed, to get done all those things that should have been done in the last three and a half years, and more.

First of all: get Brexit done finally.  It is almost a year late.

A Withdrawal Agreement Bill will be introduced on Friday, and a programme motion to push it through the Commons before Christmas – or alternatively a Section 13 motion. One problem facing the renewed Government is that the Surrender Act is still in force and obliges the Government to go for the Malthouse Compromise and nothing else:  that must be cleared away and all the tripwires the awkward squad imposed during the Zombie Parliament, and so a Bill is needed.

We had a commentary on the Withdrawal Agreement Bill on the day it was published.  If the same Bill is introduced, the same issues are there; it is unnecessarily complicated because it was done in a hurry and appears to duplicate powers which are already in the existing European Union Withdrawal Act.  It also has provisions with a burdensome procedure for the Government to have to keep referring back to the Commons on the course of the negotiations for a new trade deal. Maybe that was a way to win some wavering support in the hung House of Commons. The voice of the Commons should be heard in the negotiations as they will be required to pass an Act to implement the resulting treaty, and they will want to voice priorities in terms of the extent to which Britain will be bound by agreements, and this will include important areas such as intellectual property, state aid, level-playing-field tendering and co-operation in VAT and data-sharing. However too much structure can make the negotiation slow and encumbered, and since it has to be concluded by December 2020, that is worrying.

In one element though the government can properly be hobbled in its negotiation, and that is where there is the possibility of extending the Transition Period (the ‘vassalage period’ as it has been called). The Withdrawal Agreement provides for an agreed extension, but it would be unwelcome and against the Manifesto pledge. It is hinted that the Bill to be brought on Friday will bar the government from actually extending. That is wise: it was the possibility of extension of the Article 50 period which made that extension inevitable, and the possibility of extending the vassalage will be very tempting to Brussels as they prevaricate in their negotiations over the course of 2020.

Never forget in all of this, that although there is a large Conservative majority and the will to get this through, and though all the blue rebels have been ousted and swept into obscurity, the Labour benches still contain the likes of Hilary Benn, prime mover of the Surrender Act, and Keir Starmer, co-author of Section 13 and one of those who gave aid and comfort to the enemy in Brussels. They may be overpowered, but they will not be silent.

This morning Michel Barnier made a useful observation: he said that a complete negotiation of an international trade treaty would take far longer than twelve months, but that it should be possible to do enough in that time to continue the trading relationship. That is a constructive way ahead.

With a common-sense approach and goodwill it should be possible to do the whole treaty in twelve months, but common sense and goodwill and not among the EU’s known qualities, not alacrity come to that. Theresa May’s team were content to sit back and wait for Brussels to propose things, with the result we saw. This time it will need British will to push the new trade deal at every stage, and an open line to Eire – the one European state which does display common sense on occasion. Then if the treaty text can artfully keep to areas within the European Union’s ‘exclusive competence’ then the treaty need only pass through the European Union’s own procedures and not be tripped up by a troublesome member state; the EU-Canada CETA strayed beyond and was felled by the Walloon regional parliament. If for a full treaty it is impossible to keep to the areas of exclusive competence, Monsieur Barnier’s “enough” treaty could, with detail to follow.

If it is likely then that the trade treaty will be a multi-stage process then the Government must be free to negotiate it in stages and sign up in stages, and the terms of any Bill before the Commons must not inadvertently hamper that.

I may be getting ahead of things though: the first thing is to get Parliament to grant whatever authority the Government needs to sign the deal, and (whether at the same time or following on its heels) to repeal the Surrender Act and the unfortunate Section 13.

Then by December we may see a signature on a new treaty. Not in Rome, as it is too redolent of the original treaty which got us into this mess in the first place, and of the Europeans’ imperial ambitions: may I suggest Wittenberg?

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The Last Tory Government?

A stonking majority, the authority to get things done, a message to Brussels that they can no longer use back-channels to undermine the British government’s negotiating position. Seats in Conservative hands that have never before welcomed a blue rosette – all is rosy, surely?

However, the seeds of destruction are there.  The two major factors which won a Conservative majority were Jeremy Corbyn and Brexit, in that order. By the next election in four and a half years’ time, both of those factors will be gone. Unless the government and the new cohort of blue-team MPs can prove their value to the man on the street, or the woman in the hospital bed, then that swathe of northern seats will start turn scarlet again.

The red wall fell, and when the BBC ventured into those unfamiliar areas they found many new Conservative voters, but not a great deal of enthusiasm: the vote was anti-Corbyn and for good reason: Corbyn promises nothing that works and he is a declared enemy of everything British, but the honest working man (and even the dishonest one) is a patriot first.

The idea that Labour is for the working man is a hard one to eradicate.  They talk a good fight. They can never achieve what they claim they can, but the identity is embedded, that they represent the working class and the Tories the upper classes, and that is a strong draw.

Away from the northern towns and the gritty estates, the enthusiasm for Corbyn’s Labour went beyond class-based identity prejudice and filled a number of fashionable-thinking middle-class, muddle-class people who should have known better and who have more to lose. Much of London remains a Labour stronghold – and patriotism is rarely considered a virtue in those circles, nor sense and logic when it comes to it. In those circles a different approach is needed.

It is difficult for Conservatives to understand the mindset that accepts Socialism as an attractive prospect or which warms to Corbyn – it is bizarre. Why should a teacher break off an English class to harangue her pupils about how they will all be failures because public schools exist, or a history teacher claim that one of the vilest of Nazi thugs was all right really because he enjoyed debauching teenage boys in his authority: two examples reaching my ears only this week – that is incomprehensible to the Conservative mind. That mindset though must be understood if any inroad is to be made into it.

This needs deeper examination, and longer articles, but the myths, the oversimplifications, the unreasoned prejudices (and we all have those) must not remain unchallenged, for if ever there is to be another Conservative victory like yesterday’s, with no Brexit and no Corbyn, the Conservatives must break the internal ‘red walls’ of the mind.

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Knockout

Out all day, soaked to the skin, tired, too early to see the results, but all is looking positive. It looks, at the time of posting at least, as if the nation has chosen to Back Boris and send the Marxists scurrying with their tails between their legs.

Too early though to be sure. Whatever was said on the street and the doorstep, however many times the blue rosette has been cheered and cars have honked appreciation as a team walked the road, it all comes down to every voter, individually, stepping into the wooden booth and making his mind up there and then. There is a world of difference between the doorstep and the sudden silence of the booth, the sudden grip of a spontaneous action.

If all has gone well, then Boris Johnson will step back up to the doorstep of Downing Street and start to get things organised so that a new Parliament can assemble, even before Christmas, to make the first steps in catching up after three years’ stagnation. Yes, Get Brexit Done, as soon as possible, but do not forget the promise of the next part of the manifesto slogan – Unleash Britain’s Potential.

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