Masha Slonim: The «silly season» in British politics isn’t so silly after all
Once, in more normal times, August in Britain was called «the silly season». News in August was largely ridiculous, journalists published them because of a lack of other news: somewhere in Country Durham a two-headed calf was born, some star married, some star divorced. There was nothing else to write about. Parliament has its summer recess, and life stands still. It was like that in the past, but not now.
This August is full of political events and dramas as never before. The Conservative government has become bogged down in Brexit. Labour who seemed to be able to get ahead of conservatives in the polls, got stuck in their own problems.
This political impasse isn’t surprising – Article 50, the start of the process of leaving the EU, has to be activated at the end of March next year, there’s not more than half a year left, and nothing has been done yet. Britain is the first country to leave the European Union. It’s hard to be pioneers, so the drafting of an agreement on the conditions of leaving has been a daunting process so far.
May’s government must not only work out an agreement acceptable to the other 27 countries of the EU, but to somehow pass it through the Parliament where conservatives have a very wobbly majority. Overall, it appears that the question of how this Brexit would be carried out had been hardly thought through when the Brexit question became the subject of a Referendum two years ago. Probably nobody believed in the possibility of Brexit back then.
It now appears that everything isn’t that easy. Both sides have to agree on customs control (now all members of the EU don’t have this problem because there’s the Customs Union), on the movement of people and goods, the rights of British citizens to live and work in Europe and Europeans in Britain. There are many problems, but the most complicated of all, both in a political and practical sense, is a matter of Northern Irish border – a border between Northern Ireland, a part of Great Britain, and the Irish Republic, a member of the EU. After the 1921 Irish riots special border and customs relationships developed there that existed up to this day. Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic are now separated by the «soft» border that stretches for 310 miles (around 500 kilometres). Along this border, there are more than 200 unpatrolled border crossings. There’s no immigration control at this border now because both Great Britain and the Irish Republic have a full access to the Common Market. The citizens of both countries don’t need to show passports in order to cross the border.
In order to imagine how strong this link is between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, it’s enough to look at the following numbers: around 117,000 lorries, 208,000 trucks and 2 million cars cross the border every month. In addition to that, about 30,000 people cross it every day to get to and from work! Just imagine the mess at the border crossings if the «hard» border is established there.
Everybody – the government of the Irish Republic, the government of Great Britain and even the representatives of the EU – are against the «hard» border. This question is too sensitive, considering the complicated history of the relations inside Ireland. The EU’s proposal to establish a «real» border between Northern Ireland and the rest of Great Britain caused indignation among British people – to create a border inside Great Britain! And it’s understandable.
Because the clock is ticking, all is leading to the acceptance of the motto «No deal is better than a bad deal!” thrown by May. But is it really better?
Because of the mere thought of Brexit in the two years after the Referendum British economy has turned from the most rapidly growing in the world among developed countries to the most slowly growing among them.
In the lead-up to the Brexit businesses have put their investments on hold, there’s already an outflow of the European workforce from the country. I’ve heard the interviews with the business owners who rely on migration of workers. They are in a panic. Europeans themselves who worked here are not really worried. The other day the barista from Romania in the pub in answer to my sympathetic question about what his life is going to be from now on serenely said: «I’m not scared. I’ll find a job anywhere». On the other hand, some British businesses and services such as healthcare are already suffering from the outflow of the European workers and don’t know how they will cope after Britain’s exit from the EU.
And a picture emerging right now is really grim – long queues of lorries, trucks and cars at the border extending for many days, shortages of products, medication and services, bankrupted businesses.
So far there’s no good deal in sight. The draft agreement with the EU formulated by the Government is objected by the EU and caused a rift between Tories inside the Government itself. As a result, it lost several ministers who had resigned as a matter of principle, including a Brexit minister.
Now Theresa May is waging a battle on more than two fronts. She has to keep her Cabinet and party from a division, make sure that the European Parliament approves the conditions of «the Deal» and pass this deal through the British Parliament.
European Union’s bureaucrats are obviously vindictive and are reluctant to compromise. It’s important for them to make an example of Britain to other EU members - what it means to leave a European structure.
Passing «the Deal» through the Parliament isn’t going to be a very easy task either. If Theresa May loses the support of 7-10 members of Parliament, «the Deal» won’t get enough votes. It will be a huge blow both to the Prime Minister and her Government and for the country as well, of course.
Ask Labour for the support in the voting process? Really?
And here we smoothly transition to the situation in the Labour party that potentially could benefit from turmoil in the Conservative party and the Government.
But the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has his own issues to wrestle with. Not only there’s no full agreement on Brexit in his party, but he has to fight off the accusations of anti-Semitism as well that has already led to the discord in the party. Some of the notable Labour members have already left the party, some of them made a statement that they wouldn’t vote for Labour at the next elections.
A month ago three leading Jewish newspapers of the Great Britain with the support of the Board of Deputies of British Jews that has existed since the times of King George III simultaneously published editorials with a chilling warning: «if Jeremy Corbyn’s government comes to power, the very existence of the British Jews will be in danger».
What happened? Why did British Jews raise the alarm?
For me who lived in the USSR and Russia, knows a literature on the subject and a little bit of history of anti-Semitism it was strange to hear these accusations against the leader of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition. In my mind, the word and the term «anti-Semitism» is associated with hate at the bestial, pogrom, racial level, with slogans like «Beat the Jews, save Britain!». But no, here this term has a slightly different meaning.
Jeremy Corbyn has for many years supported Palestine and condemned Israel; Jeremy Corbyn praised Hamas and hugged its leaders; in the last 30 years Jeremy Corbyn attended almost all rallies in defence of Palestine; Jeremy Corbyn laid a wreath (or, as he claims, was present at a wreath-laying) at the cemetery in Tunis where the alleged members of the terrorist group Black September that killed people from the Israeli Olympic team at the 1972 Olympic Games are buried; Jeremy Corbyn tolerates anti-Semites in his own circle… Recently a video has emerged online in which Jeremy Corbyn in his speech at a pro-Palestine rally compares the blockade of the Gaza Strip to the sieges of Stalingrad and Leningrad.
Jeremy Corbyn is being accused of many other things, but the main thing is that the Labour Party hasn’t yet adopted a universally agreed, international definition of anti-Semitism, and the leadership of the party insists on excluding several things from this lengthy definition. It includes 11 examples of how anti-Semitism manifests itself in a public life. Here are two examples with which the Labour Party doesn’t want to agree: «Claiming that Israel's existence as a state is a racist endeavor». «Comparing contemporary Israeli policies to those of the Nazis».
It’s not clear how Jeremy Corbyn, a principled supporter of Palestine, can adopt these examples. It runs counter to his leftist principles and views. Is he an anti-Semite? Yes, according to the definition adopted by the European Parliament, US Senate and 31 governments, including Great Britain. Jeremy Corbyn and several of his fellow party members are anti-Semites, and it will be the case until their party hasn’t fully adopted the international definition of anti-Semitism.
Truth be told, I know the Jews, the citizens of Israel, people with leftist views who compare the policy of their country towards inhabitants of Gaza to Nazism as well. Are they anti-Semites too? They are not in charge of the British Labour Party though.
The accusation of anti-Semitism isn’t the only problem the Labour leader faces right now. The dissatisfaction with Corbyn inside the party has been bubbling since 2015 when the left wing of the party under his leadership won the fight for power. Present accusations of anti-Semitism, a vague, fuzzy position of Corbyn on Brexit have renewed the hope of the disgruntled members for a transition of power in the party.
According to the latest polls, Conservatives and Labour are neck and neck, so it can be said that the country is divided in half not only over Brexit but political preferences as well.