It’s time to cut the Brexitian knot

Tick tock. Tick tock. We are inching inexorably towards the UK’s departure from the European Union (EU).

Yes, the UK is due to leave the EU at 11 pm on Friday 29 March. Even the Brexit deadline will play out according to the EU’s schedule, Brussels time. It will be midnight there. How ironic.

However, it’s hard to fathom that more than 2½ years on from the vote (by a small majority) in the ‘advisory’ referendum of June 2016 to leave the EU, we are essentially no closer to resolving many of the issues (and prejudices) that Brexit has brought to the surface. Indeed, some have become even more deeply entrenched.

Many seem almost insoluble, given the almost even split in opinion (in 2016) among the nation’s voters, and the parliamentary deadlock that currently blights the House of Commons. Party before nation!

It seems as if everyone has a different idea of what Brexit really means or its consequences. Opinion across the House ranges from Remain on one side of the debate, to the hardest of hard Brexits (the purview of Jacob Rees-Mogg and his European Research Group¹ or ERG acolytes).

Much of the criticism can be laid at Prime Minister Theresa May’s door for her (mis)handling of the negotiations, her red lines, and obsession about immigration as I wrote just a few days ago.

Remainers knew what they were voting for in the 2016 referendum. I’m not sure if Leavers fully understood what they voted for. A land of milk and honey, unicorns? From interviews of many Leave supporters I have watched in recent weeks, they do not appear to have the slightest inkling what Brexit means or how it might affect their day-to-day lives. When they voted they had little or no idea about the EU or how it works (the Single Market or the Customs Union), the real level of the UK’s financial contributions to the EU, or the many benefits that membership has brought to the UK (particularly benefits from the EU’s regional funds in impoverished areas of the UK). For many, a vote to leave the EU was simply a protest vote against the status quo, years of austerity, of neglect. A xenophobic vote against immigration. More worryingly, many ardent Brexiteers clearly don’t care about any economic, social, or constitutional consequences of Brexit.

But this week has seen a significant change in parliamentary dynamics. Several groups of MPs of different political persuasions are working to prevent the UK leaving the EU without a Withdrawal Agreement, taking the so-called ‘No Deal’ option ‘off the table’. Incredibly, a not insignificant number of voters understand ‘No Deal’ to mean ‘Remain’!

Even the Labour Party has now publicly come out in favor of holding a second referendum that would give the electorate an opportunity to make its will known about the outcome of the negotiations between the EU and the UK.

But as things currently stand we are facing acceptance of Theresa May’s draft Withdrawal Agreement or No Deal (leaving the EU without any agreement, no transition period, nothing). The parliamentary arithmetic suggests that Theresa May still does not have enough votes for her agreement to pass, having been rejected by the House of Commons in mid-January by a margin of 432 votes to 202. Yet, with nothing new to offer, she is bringing the deal back to Parliament by 12 March for yet another ‘meaningful vote’. Funny how this second vote is seen as the epitome of democracy, yet asking the electorate to pass its verdict on the same deal, or other Brexit options, in a People’s Vote is viewed as a subversion of that same democracy. Meanwhile, we all sit on the edge of our seats, staring into a Brexit abyss.

But talk of a second referendum worries me. For many Brexiteers and the Leave-supporting public, a ‘second referendum’ is or will be seen simply as a re-run of the 2016 referendum. A People’s Vote is not a second referendum per se. The opinion of the electorate, the British people, is now needed on how to move forward because no single Brexit option commands a parliamentary majority. There is stalemate.

So, moving towards another national vote, it’s not like 2016, a simple question of ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’. The choices are more complex and, I think, among the reasons why politicians have shied away from agreeing to a new vote, notwithstanding their faux support of democracy.

So what form should a second vote take? I’ve thought long and hard about this, and as I said, it can’t be described (vilified even from some quarters) as 2016 Mk 2. How will the vote be organized? Must a vote be based only on binary choices, or can a vote be based on three or more choices? This is what the Institute for Government has to say on the matter. I was reminded of this issue yesterday in a tweet from my former colleague.

In my opinion, a People’s Vote has to have two parts, otherwise the expectations of many voters will simply not be captured in a binary choice (while avoiding re-running 2016).

Here’s my take. My wording maybe be naïve or inappropriate, but it gets us to the outcome I think we all want to achieve.

This format allows the electorate to vote to continue with Brexit if it so desires, but under terms they understand and agree with (May’s agreement). It’s a simple choice: support Theresa May’s deal or not. The outcome is a majority one way or the other. If the vote is YES, then that’s it. We leave the EU under defined terms.

In the second part, assuming a NO majority in Part I, the electorate can choose to continue with Brexit (whatever the consequences) or remain in the EU.

Is this format too complicated? Maybe. But it does provide clear binary choices. There is no guarantee, however, that all voters would complete both parts. Maybe a ballot paper would be void/spoiled unless both parts are completed. I don’t know enough (which is very little) about the electoral process. I do know that a People’s Vote must avoid language or outcome ambiguities.

Some way has to be found to cut the Brexitian knot,  resulting in a clear decision for a defined option. The nation is sick and tired of the constant Brexit bickering that meets the aspirations of neither Leavers nor Remainers.


¹ European Research Group – yes, these MPs are a group, a definite caucus within the Conservative Party. As a scientist, however, I object to them using the term ‘Research’. They don’t appear to understand even the basic principles of what research is all about.

The perfect Brexit storm

I have voted Conservative just once, in the June 1970 General Election that brought Ted Heath to power. It was the first election in which I was eligible to vote, aged 21 (although the voting age had been lowered to 18 in January of that year).

Now, wild horses couldn’t drag me into the polling booth to vote for the Conservative Party. Nor for Labour either, while Jeremy Corbyn remains Leader.

I can’t remember a more chaotic situation in British politics than we are currently experiencing. Politics is broken. Indeed, it’s hard to remember when politics was held in such low esteem nationwide; respect for politicians has evaporated.

And the cause? Brexit, of course, which has thrown politics into disarray. And while the same tribal party loyalties affect most parliamentary decisions, perspectives on Brexit or No Brexit, Leave or Remain, cut right across party lines and policies.

No wonder then that eight MPs resigned from the Labour Party last week and formed The Independent Group (TIG), joined by three Conservative MPs. Another Labour MP has resigned from the party, but not joined TIG.


Prime Minister Theresa May is the Death Star of British politics and Leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn is a politician of low intellectual calibre which, alloyed with rigid and obstinately held ideological beliefs, renders him stupefied, or stupid, or both.

Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May

Not my descriptions, I should add, although they are ones that resonate with me. No, they come from the pen of  long-time Conservative supporter, former Conservative Member of Parliament for West Derbyshire, and newspaper columnist, Matthew Parris.

Writing in The Times last Friday, 22 February, he wrote what is probably one of the most damning indictments of two party leaders that I have ever read. But particularly damning of Theresa May. Click on the image below to read the article in full.

With just 32 days before the UK is due to leave the European Union (EU), potentially crashing out without a deal if the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated over many months with the EU is once again rejected by Parliament, Theresa May has again kicked the ‘Brexit can’ down the road. Parliament will not hold a ‘meaningful vote‘ to decide the future of that agreement until 12 March. FFS! Pardon my language.

You can imagine some of the reactions. Mike Galsworthy is a leading Remain campaigner.

And this, despite the EU and European Commission consistently stating that negotiations over the Withdrawal Agreement will not be re-opened to rework the wording over the Irish backstop.

Now listen to former Conservative MP (and TIG member) Anna Soubry commenting on Theresa May’s leadership and her obsession with immigration that seems to be driving her Brexit ‘strategy’.

Anna Soubry is not the only person concerned about Theresa May’s approach to Brexit. Philosopher and author AC Grayling tweeted this message a couple of days ago.

Here’s another view from Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley Jess Phillips.

Corbyn has led a totally ineffective Opposition throughout the whole Brexit process. Labour should be points ahead in the polls. Instead they are lagging behind the Conservatives. Extraordinary! Corbyn appears more concerned about winning a General Election, and implementing a ‘real’ Socialist agenda than he is about Brexit and its impact on the nation. Post-Brexit, the country won’t be able to afford his vision.

Because of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, Parliament will have to vote to hold a General Election, if Theresa May decides to call one. Corbyn will find himself on a very sticky wicket. Because of his consistent calls for an election, Labour can hardly vote against such a motion even though recent polls don’t give them much hope of success.

Unless . . . ?

Unless Labour openly support a second referendum or People’s Vote (that seems to be the favored option among the electorate). Clearly, there is a groundswell of support for such a vote, even within Labour.

So, with the nation staring down the barrel of a Brexit gun, who knows what the outcome will be, after 29 March. Brexit has opened fissures in both main political parties that are unlikely to heal very quickly. Is this the beginning of a realignment in British politics? Only time will tell. Brexit has caused the perfect storm.

 

 

 

 

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 23: An Anglo-Italian connection

I’ve twice traveled by train, in 2004 and 2006, from my home in Bromsgrove in northeast Worcestershire to Rome in central Italy. And if I had my way, I’d travel everywhere by train, if that were possible.

When visiting government agencies that provided financial support to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) when I was Director for Program Planning & Communications (DPPC), I tried to combine as many visits into a single trip as possible, thus making the best use of my time on the road. In Europe, traveling by train was by far the most convenient (and comfortable) way of visiting several cities on the way, rather than hopping on and off planes for relatively short flights. Not to mention the inconvenience of additional waiting time at airports and the hassle of actually getting to and from them.

Train travel in many European countries is reliable and, compared to the UK, competitively priced. Purchasing a Eurail pass was by far the cheapest option, even for First Class tickets, and could be bought online from the Philippines.

This was my itinerary on both occasions:

  • Bromsgrove – Birmingham New Street – London Euston (into Birmingham on London Midland—now operated by West Midlands Trains—then Virgin Trains to London; around 2 hours or so; map)
  • London Waterloo (Eurostar now operates from London St Pancras) – Brussels Midi (on Eurostar; around 2 hours; map)
  • Brussels Midi – Cologne – Bonn Central (on the Thalys to Cologne, and Deutsche Bahn, DB; just over 2 hours; map)
  • Bonn Central – Basel – Bern (Deutsche Bahn to Basel, then Swiss Federal Railways, or SBB/CFF/FFS), along the Rhine Valley (around 5½ hours; map)
  • Bern – Milan Central (on Swiss Federal Railways; around 4½ hours; map)
  • Milan Central – Rome Termini (on Trenitalia; 3 hours; map)

On the second trip I traveled with IRRI Director General Bob Zeigler (and his wife Crissan) to visit donor agencies in Brussels (Directorate General for International Cooperation or DGCI of Belgium, and the European Union, EU), the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) in Bonn, the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC) in Bern (and a side trip to Basel where Bob gave a seminar at the Syngenta Foundation), and finally, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD, an agency of the United Nations) in Rome – all members of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research or CGIAR.

Crissan and Bob Zeigler


We met at London’s Waterloo station for the Eurostar service to Brussels, arriving there mid-afternoon. Since no meetings had been arranged that same day, we enjoyed the warm afternoon sunshine for a stroll around La Grand-Place (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), before enjoying our dinner at one of the many cafes close by.

Bob and Crissan feasted on one of the local delicacies: moules (mussels).

I like mussels, but in moderation, just a few added to a fish pie or a fish soup. Not a whole meal. In any case, our meal was accompanied, of course, by several glasses of excellent Belgian beer.


The day after our meetings, we caught the Thalys (the Belgian TGV) to Cologne, and then a regional service for the short hop to Bonn. We had just one day of meetings in Bonn, with the German aid ministry (BMZ), and then spent an excellent day touring the vineyards of the Ahr Valley just south of Bonn. Our main contact was my old friend Marlene Diekmann who I’d known for many years before she joined the BMZ when she was a plant pathologist at the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI, now Bioversity International) in Rome.

On previous visits to Bonn, in all weathers, Marlene and I had gone walking along the terraces of the Ahr Valley, as I described in this blog post. On this current trip with the Zeiglers, as in the past, we sampled some of the fruits of the vintner’s art. And very good it was.

Each time I have visited the Ahr Valley I have never failed to be impressed at the cultivation of the vines on such steep slopes. In the early evening we headed to Rheinbach (map) to join Dr Hans-Jochen de Haas, who was Germany’s representative to the CGIAR, and became a good friend.

I’d last seen him the previous year in Bonn and presented him with a book on rice culture.

A few years later (and before I retired in 2010) he sadly passed away after contracting Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease or CJD.

Bob and I (with Marlene) also made a one-day visit to Hannover (again by train) to visit the Volkwagen Foundation to try and tempt them to support a research project on rice and climate change involving a German scientist seconded to IRRI.

Commitments in Germany completed, Switzerland was our next stop, so we took the train along the River Rhine to Basel, and transferring to Swiss railways to Bern.


I first visited Switzerland in July 1984 when I attended the 9th Triennial Conference of the European Association for Potato Research (EAPR), that was held in Interlaken in the heart of the Bernese Oberland.

A group of us from the UK flew from London Gatwick to Bern (Switzerland’s capital city) on a Swissair BAe 146, and then taken the train for the 1 hour rail journey to Interlaken. There are no flights to Bern nowadays; Switzerland is served by two major international airports in Geneva (in the west) and Zurich (in the north central part of the country). And, in any case, rail services across the country are frequent, convenient, and comfortable.

In 1984, I’d taken a trip up to Wengen (1274 m) from Interlaken, with the last leg on the funicular railway from Lauterbrunnen. The Zeiglers and I repeated this trip. And after lunch in Wengen, we took the cable car up to Männlichen (2343 m), before dropping to Grindelwald (1034 m) on Europe’s longest gondola cableway (and third longest in the world).

At Männlichen there are fabulous views of the Eiger, Jungfrau and other mountains.

Watch this video that I found on YouTube of the cable car ride to Männlichen and the gondola cableway down to Grindelwald.

All too soon, our Swiss visit was over, and we took the train to Milan, an impressive journey through the Alps and the Italian lakes.

In Milan, we transferred to the high speed train to Rome. That was an interesting journey. In 2006, the 18th FIFA World Cup was hosted by Germany. Although Mexico had been eliminated from the competition by then, our train was full of supporters from Mexico on their way to Rome to enjoy the sights. Bob, Crissan and I all spoke Spanish. Bob and Crissan had actually lived in Mexico for a few years before returning to IRRI in 2005. So we had a great time with the Mexicans, and our fast train journey to Rome (a city I have visited numerous times) passed even faster it seemed.


 

The will of the British people?

A common (but misleading and annoying) refrain, frequently repeated by Prime Minister Theresa May and other Brexit supporters, is that delivering Brexit is ‘the will of the British people’, respecting the vote of the June 2016 referendum. Delivery of Brexit and hang the consequences!

Will of the British people? Whatever does that mean? And who are the British?

Yes, the Leave campaign was supported by more voters, 52:48% and ‘won’ the referendum. However, only 37.4% of the electorate (of 46.5 million) actually voted Leave. Not even 50% or more. Had they supported Brexit to that level then it would be appropriate to make that claim. As it is, it’s just a ridiculous platitude that Theresa May repeats ad nauseam.

So voting to leave the EU was the will of the British people? Well, let’s see how they voted.

Blue: Leave; yellow: Remain (2016 referendum result)

Actually, voting to Leave was the will of a majority of the English and the Welsh, although listening to the antediluvian Democratic Unionists of Northern Ireland, you might be led to believe that the Province also voted overwhelmingly to Leave.

There is now strong evidence that voting preferences have changed (in favour of Remain) since the referendum as the potential impact of Brexit (especially a No Deal Brexit) has dawned on a naïve electorate.

L: the actual results of the 2016 referendum by local authority. R: voting intention in a Channel 4 survey in November 2018, by local authority. Yellow = Remain; Blue = Leave.

Naïve? Just listen to these British expats who live in or frequently visit Spain. I feel embarrassed (ashamed even) to be part of the same age demographic.

Immigration was a serious driver of the Leave result. I find it incredible that so many voters thought that ending free movement (under the Single Market, if they indeed ever understood what that was) only applied to those EU nationals coming into the UK. Not to the British moving around the EU! And, regrettably, ‘British’ is often perceived (especially by those on the Far Right of politics) simplistically as white English.

As I recently wrote, Brexit perspectives will be forensically dissected at some time in the future when the histories of this debacle come to be written.

If the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal, I believe (and fear) the United Kingdom will soon disintegrate. And this once proud, but increasingly impoverished nation, will descend to a state of insignificance on the world stage. Scotland will, in a second referendum, overwhelmingly vote for independence. And who could blame them? Northern Ireland will, within a decade, probably draw even closer to the Irish Republic. I’m not sure about Wales.

Brexiteers (predominantly Tory English MPs) continue to see a role and influence of the UK projecting ‘neo-colonialist’ power (‘lethality’ even) far beyond what this small island nation with a shrinking economy can hope, or should ever again aspire, to achieve. Just take the ludicrous comments of Gavin Williamson, MP for the South Staffordshire constituency and the miserably inadequate Secretary of State for Defence, just a few days ago.

And on the trade and diplomatic front, things aren’t going so well either.

What is also lamentable right now, is that the ‘will of the people’ appears to be cast in stone. Theresa May can bring her failing deal back to Parliament for multiple votes, yet hypocritically denies the electorate the opportunity of comment on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations through holding a second referendum or so-called People’s Vote.

With only 39 days left to Brexit, and nothing clearer appearing on the horizon, it’s about time to recognize that the will of the people has changed. Politics in the UK is broken. Party politics (and survival) have taken precedence over the well-being and future of the country.

I’m a citizen of the United Kingdom, British by nationality. I’m British from England, and I want my British voice and will to be heard and felt along with those from Brits from Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales.

I feel and am European!

 

A stroll in the park

14 February 2019. Valentine’s Day. Bright and sunny, hardly a cloud in the sky. Just a gentle breeze. What a better day for a nice long walk in the Worcestershire countryside.

So Steph and I headed off to Hanbury Hall, just over 6 miles from home, the closest National Trust property¹ where we often enjoy the garden and parkland. This short video shows the last couple of miles of the trip, through Stoke Prior, past Hanbury Woods before turning right on to School Rd just outside Hanbury.


We completed the circular walk that we had part enjoyed last August, taking in the extra mile or so that we had omitted then.

This is the route we took, clockwise from the car park, and ending at the shop and plant sales.

In all, this walk was just over 3.6 miles and took us almost 1½ hours. From the car park, we headed round the south side of the hall and through the parterre, northwest across the fields (sown with soybeans, we think) before joining the Worcester and Birmingham Canal towpath at the Hanbury Park lock, then following the towpath north to the next lock at Astwood Lane.

Here we turned east along Astwood Lane, heading towards Hanbury Church of St Mary the Virgin, before once again turning south on to National Trust land and back into the park and along an old oak avenue.

Along the way we enjoyed the stark magnificence of Hanbury’s parterre and its box hedges and cones, banks of snowdrops and emerging and soon-to-flower daffodils.

Along the canal there was hardly a breath if wind, so the reflections in the water were particularly strong.

We came across two badger carcasses, roadkill perhaps or maybe victims of TB? Near the church a fox came out of the undergrowth and trotted along the lane ahead of us. We think it had been inspecting one of the dead badgers, an easy meal in the middle of winter.

In a field attached to Webb House Farm we saw a flock of perhaps a hundred fieldfares (the largest of the thrushes that visits these shores in winter); and rabbits skipping along in the warm sunshine. Everywhere there were flocks of heavily pregnant ewes.

Male fieldfare

A full album of photos from our walk can be viewed here.

It was certainly a beautiful day to be outside. And remarkably, it was almost a year to the day that we visited The Firs (the birthplace of composer Sir Edward Elgar) near Worcester, and had enjoyed equally fine and warm weather.


¹ Actually, Rosedene is closer by two miles, but is open only on a few weekends each year.

 

 

 

When the history of Brexit comes to be written

23 June 2016 will forever be remembered as the date when the UK (or parts of it at least) collectively committed an act of great folly, by voting by a slim margin to leave the European Union (EU). No doubt there will be, in due course, a flurry of Brexit histories.

Historians will take the facts and interpret them through a prism of their Leave or Remain beliefs and opinions, prejudices even, and analyze the roles and motives of the dramatis personae.

Facts are facts (despite Donald Trump’s best efforts to disabuse us of this). They can be checked and verified, and nowadays, at the drop of a hat. But they can come back to bite you—as many politicians are finding to their cost during this whole Brexit debacle. Social media like Twitter and Facebook are being used to hold politicians to account.

Here’s just one example, recently resurrected, of Prime Minister Theresa May talking about the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic (when she was Home Secretary, and before the referendum), a position on which she has now backtracked to appease and gain the support of the hard Brexiteers on the right of her party.

So when the histories of Brexit come to be written, here’s one suggestion:

I have my own opinions and prejudices. So let me be clear, upfront. I voted to Remain in the EU. I never wanted to leave, and am having a hard time trying to understand why any government would deliberately try and impoverish the nation.

Brexiteers are optimistic about the future; Remainers, like me, are pessimistic. I fear what a No Deal Brexit will mean. And given the appalling use and misuse of facts during and after the 2016 Referendum, I’m not surprised that a small percentage of the electorate actually believe that No Deal means staying in the EU. They have an unwelcome surprise in store should this come to pass.

I think what has depressed me most about the whole Brexit process is the sheer level of ignorance of many who support Leave (many of my generation, 65 and over, who look back through rose-tinted spectacles to a Britain that never was), the mendacity and the documented illegality of the Leave campaign, the dismissal of expert advice (and facts) as Project Fear, and the complete breakdown of commonsense in Parliament as party tribalism reared its ugly head. Party before country!

I can’t help feeling that the ending to the 1991 film Thelma and Louise is a great allegory for Brexit and how Theresa May seems to be leading us to a No Deal Brexit, hang the consequences.

Over the months, I have posted various opinions about Brexit, so I’m not going to go over those points again in any detail.


I’ve consistently argued that the UK should have been, from when it joined in 1973, an enthusiastic member of the EEC/EU, helping to push forward its common agenda, and iron out the idiosyncrasies that inevitably emerge when 28 nations are working on a ‘common’ agenda. The UK should have contributed its well-known (and appreciated) pragmatism to the (often) difficult issues that face the EU. But perhaps UK membership has always been ambivalent. Let Sir Humphrey explain:

We have squandered opportunities, and consistently hectored and whined from the sidelines, even while securing special status for the country in several respects (like the annual rebate, non-membership of Schengen or the Euro, just to mention three). The EU has wasted a considerable amount of time on the ‘British question’. I’m surprised the other EU members didn’t already ask the UK to leave. But no, they loyally stuck with us. And now that we are leaving, many on the Leave side can’t or won’t understand the EU position of the remaining 27 members. They consistently view the EU position as bullying the UK. But any difficulties we brought on ourselves. Well, some of us did. We are leaving of our own volition, not being pushed. We started this sorry state of affairs. The consequences must be laid at our door. No one else’s.


I voted Remain, proud to have done so, and deeply regret the situation the country now finds itself in, with a Parliament in stalemate, and an electorate that is thoroughly disillusioned with politics and the whole Brexit fiasco. And equally, for many, confused about what Brexit really means.

11 pm GMT on Friday 29 March 2019 is fast approaching. Just 49 days. That is the time and date when the UK will leave the EU, withdrawal deal or no deal, unless some miracle happens during the intervening period. And the country is not prepared in any shape or form. Just read this article from today’s The Guardian.

Recently, former Prime Minister David Cameron was asked—just after the House of Commons had soundly rejected Theresa May’s negotiated Brexit deal—whether he had any regrets about holding the 2016 referendum. Given that he resigned immediately after defeat in that referendum, after he’d committed himself to a lame Remain campaign (because I do believe that no-one, not even Leavers, expected that the electorate would support Leave), he took no responsibility for the genie he’d released from the Brexit bottle and its consequences. This is what he said.

It seems that David Cameron never expected to hold a referendum, because he never thought the Conservatives would win the 2015 election outright, and would have to go into coalition again with the Lib Dems who, he thought, would oppose a referendum. Having secured a majority for the Conservatives in that General Election, Cameron was a hostage to fortune to his own party. He was committed to a referendum.

Thus holding a referendum and delivering Brexit has little to do with the future well-being of the nation. It had much to do with internal Conservative Party politics and coherence.

The referendum took place. Just a binary question: Leave the EU or Remain. With no thought given it seems, to how Brexit might be delivered and what its consequences might be. I believe that everyone, on both sides of the argument, thought that the referendum result would be to Remain. Just look at Boris Johnson and Michael Gove (key players on the Leave side) the following morning, hardly believing what had happened. As Michael Gove’s wife Sarah Vine supposedly said after the referendum: You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!

The morning after . . .

No wonder a frustrated Donald Tusk (President of the European Council) commented just a couple of days ago:Well, cartoonist Matt (in The Daily Telegraph) responded appropriately*:

I often argued that the referendum (if indeed it had to be held at all) should have been a two stage process.The first would be to gauge what the nation favored: IN or OUT? Then, after any deal had been reached to leave the EU and we had a better idea of its consequences, we should have been given the opportunity (in a second vote) to agree with any deal, Leave the EU with No Deal, or Remain a member.

I also strongly believe that, given the constitutional, economic, social, and political implications of leaving the EU, then the first referendum should have met certain thresholds: more than a certain percentage of the electorate had to cast a vote, and an absolute majority had to vote to Leave. As it is, although the turnout was more than 70% in June 2016, Leave won the referendum by a margin of 52:48%, representing only approximately only 37% of the electorate. So it’s disingenuous for Theresa May to claim it’s the will of the British people.

For so long this has been the Leavers’ mantra, but what does it mean?

There’s more immigration from countries outside the EU than under free movement from EU countries. The UK net contribution to the EU is between £8 and £9 billion annually (less than £140 per person, or <2% of government spending, and less than the ‘annual subvention to Northern Ireland‘), after the rebate and other funds that come back to us (such as regional funds that have supported, in particular, less favored parts of the country).

Data (probably 2016) from Business Insider/HMRC (article published in 2017)

And in terms of laws, I haven’t seen Parliament slacking in passing new legislation. But the Brexiteers don’t like the role of the European Court of Justice or the ‘imposition’ of regulations that facilitate industry and business.

So many lies!


So what will the forthcoming histories of Brexit focus on? There are so many perspectives to explore, but I’m not qualified to do so. I can only draw your attention to some of them.

Will it be Theresa May’s pathetic leadership, running from meeting to meeting in recent days like a headless chicken, listening to no-one. Here’s a cartoon by Peter Brookes in today’s The Times that sums up the situation we now find ourselves in:

Or the duplicitous Jeremy Corbyn leading the Labour Party into the electoral wilderness through his tacit support of Brexit. He’s certainly anti-EU as this speech in 2009 (at the time of the second Irish referendum) shows.

If Corbyn claims that his views have changed since then, why will he not support a #PeoplesVote on whether to support Theresa May’s deal or Remain? There is good evidence to suggest that many Leavers have now become Remain supporters now that they can see what Brexit actually means.

Or will histories focus on the reasons why people voted to Leave the EU in 2016? Was it just a protest vote against an unpopular Conservative government that was seen to favor the southeast while imposing austerity on the rest of us? Listen to Cambridge economist Dr Victoria Bateman’s interview with John Humphrys on Radio 4’s Today this morning talking about the consequences of Brexit for an electorate that felt left behind and who voted Leave.

What about the anti-immigration issue, whipped up to a frenzy by the likes of Nigel Farage, but tacitly supported by Theresa May as her actions as Home Secretary and Prime Minister have shown?

Commentary must also focus on the illegality of the Leave campaign, and the financial support provided by the likes of Aaron Banks.

Or will historians analyze Project Fear and how the perspectives of experts (in all spheres of business, trade negotiations, economic prospects post-Brexit, and the like) were dismissed by Brexiteers as scaremongering. The odious Marc Francois (MP for  Rayleigh and Wickford) who made these totally unacceptable comments recently.

Then there’s the naivete of politicians like Liam Fox, responsible for international trade, claiming that the UK will strike the best trade deals in the fastest time. The reality is turning out rather differently.

While much debate has focused on the urgency with which Brexiteers want to leave the EU, strike trade deals around the world, and operate on WTO terms, the other advantages of EU membership are glossed over, like our membership in many agencies (at shared cost) that give structure to the way in which we live as a nation (such as air traffic safety, medicines, and the like) that we will have to replicate (at great cost) once we leave the EU.

Yet Brexiteers had no plan whatsoever for leaving the EU—thus Donald Tusk’s outburst a couple of days ago (which was roundly misquoted and condemned by Brexiteers like Peter Bone (but was applauded by many on the Remain side of the argument). Here’s Peter Bone complaining in the House of Commons:

How about the incompetence of David Davis and Dominic Raab, who led negotiations with the EU, but then threw their hands up and left their mess to others? And the likes of John Redwood and Jacob Rees-Mogg and their European Research Group (ERG) acolytes in the House of Commons.

Few politicians have come out of this Brexit mess with honor. But several Tory MPs have consistently opposed the government on Brexit, including Anna Soubry, Dominic Grieve, Justine Greening, and others. They have been vilified in the right-wing media? On the Opposition benches, MPs like Yvette Cooper, Chukka Umunna, and David Lammy have not been afraid to speak out against Brexit and their own front bench leadership (hopeless as it is), to mention just three. And we shouldn’t forget the outstanding Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, Caroline Lucas.

I hope any future Brexit history takes note of this speech by Labour David Lammy MP, speaking during the Brexit debate in the House of Commons on 10 January this year.

And then there are the heroes and heroines among the general public. Steve Bray (Mr Stop Brexit) is a rare coin dealer from Newport who has been protesting for weeks outside Westminster, day in and day out.

Steve Bray

Then there’s Madeleina Kay (EU Super Girl) who has protested Brexit all over the country and in many capitals among the other 27 EU members.

And the articulate Femi Oluwole.

Dr Mike Galsworthy, a geneticist at University College London and co-founder of Scientists for EU and Healthier IN the EU seems to have put his career on hold to fight Brexit.

Well done to him and the others.

So, there you have it. If you’ve got this far you will see that my comments have been presented through my ‘Remain prism’. And I’m not embarrassed to admit it. If Brexit does come to pass, I fear we will be a diminished nation, our Union will dissolve and Scotland will go its own way. How long before this insignificant nation is ousted from its seat on the Security Council of the United Nations? Its world standing will have decreased to such a level that it surely cannot continue as before. Oh, I forgot. Brexiteers look at life through rose-colored glasses. Put ‘Great’ back into Great Britain. Pathetic.


* For my non-UK/EU followers, Ode to Joy (from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony) is the EU’s anthem played on official occasions.

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 22: Iberian capitals

As Director for Program Planning and Communications (DPPC, from 2001 until my retirement in 2010) at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), I managed the institute’s portfolio of research projects, reporting back to donor agencies on progress and outcomes, such as the UK’s DFID, USAID in the USA, or the SDC in Switzerland, to mention just three. And working with them to ensure continued financial support to the institute each year.

On a rolling basis, I tried to meet officials from these agencies on their home turf, so to speak, and would coordinate several meetings in a single trip. I often scheduled meetings with European donor agencies when I was back on leave in the UK each year. And this was the case in early July 2003 when I visited Portugal (Lisbon) and Spain (Madrid).


At that time, one of my IRRI colleagues, Dr Swapan Datta, had a joint research project with Professor M. Margarida Oliveira of the Instituto de Tecnologia Química e Biológica António Xavier (ITQB), a scientific research and advanced training institute of the Universidade NOVA de Lisboa in Portugal. One of her students, Marta Vasconcelos, worked on rice biofortification with ferritin in Datta’s lab. Another, Sónia Negrão, worked with IRRI’s plant breeders for part of her PhD study, and held a post-doctoral fellowship at IRRI as well.

On the beach at Oeiras close to ITQB, with Margarida, Marta, and Sonia (in the left image) and Sonia and Marta (right).

Prof. Oliveira and I visited the Portuguese overseas aid agency to seek funding for joint rice projects. Portugal, at that time, provided only a small amount of funding (if any—I don’t remember the details) to IRRI. I also got to see some rice growing at the ITQB experiment station.

During the visit to ITQB, I gave a seminar about the genetic resources of rice and, with the donor visit, most of my second day in Lisbon was quite full. But, as was often the case in visits to donor capitals, there also was an opportunity for some sight-seeing.

I had arrived to Lisbon the day before, in the early afternoon. After settling into the Hotel Lutécia in the Areeiro district (map), north of the city center, I decided to see what Lisbon had to offer and took the metro to the city center, about a 20 minute ride from the Roma-Areeiro station to the Baixa-Chiado station.

Lisbon is a lovely maze of narrow streets, and large open plazas. One thing that immediately struck me, especially from the heights of the Castelo de S. Jorge, were the orange tile roofs of all the houses spread over the surrounding hills, and the views over the Tagus River, and west to the expanses of the Atlantic Ocean.

Anyway, I made my way from the metro, south along Rua Agustina (mostly traffic free) full of designer shops and cafes and restaurants towards the Praça de Comércio.

And although I’d intended to carry on walking around the city, I did something I’d never done before. Seeing a line of double-decker open top buses to one side of the plaza, I decided to take a city tour. Having only a short time in Lisbon I realized this would be the best way of seeing much of the city.

The tour lasted about two hours, and I certainly saw many of the important sites, some of which I went back to explore on foot afterwards.

The tour took in: Praça da Figueira; Praça D. Pedro IV; Praça da Restauradores; Av. da Liberdade; Praça do Marquês de Pombal; the view down to the coast from the Alameda Cardeal Cerejeira; west to the Torre de Belém; and back to the city center via the Praça do Império and the magnificent Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, passing under the impressive  Ponte 25 de Abril over the Tagus.

Although it was getting on in the afternoon, I decided to walk up to the Castelo de S. Jorge and enjoy the views over the city.

Castelo de S. Jorge from Praça da Figueira (L) and the plaza from the castle (R).

Then, it was back down to enjoy a beer or three and a dish of bacalhau (a typical dish of cod), before heading back to my hotel.

On the second evening I decided to stay near my hotel, write up my notes, and get ready for a mid-morning departure to Madrid the following day.


I had just a couple of nights in Madrid. I’d been through the city’s airport in 1981 on my way to the Canary Islands. That was in June, and I remember stepping outside the airport terminal building to experience the heat. It was over 40ºC. Now, I’d lived in the tropics for over eight years up till then, but I’d never experienced heat like that.

In July 2003 it was pretty hot as well. I arrived mid-afternoon on my flight from Lisbon. I was booked into a boutique hotel near Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu Stadium. By the time I was settled into my hotel, it was late afternoon, and fortunatley it was cooling down. So I took the metro to the Puerta del Sol plaza.

I wandered along the Calle Mayor, taking in the Plaza Mayor and Plaza de la Villa on my left, on on towards the Catedral de Santa María la Real de la Almudena and the Palacio Real.

Nearby there was a cafe where I could sit outside and enjoy a cold beer, before I headed back towards the Puerta del Sol plaza to choose a restaurant for my evening meal. Then it was back on the metro to my hotel.

I had meetings the next day, all day at the Instituto Nacional de Investigación y Tecnología Agraria y Alimentaria (INIA) in the Moncloa-Aravaca district, northwest of the city center.

In the evening I chose a small restaurant close to the hotel. Excellent food!

Then, early the next day, it was off to the Madrid-Barajas Adolfo Suárez Airport, and an Iberia flight to Switzerland (Zurich), where I had a meeting in Bern at the SDC.

Before heading back to BHX, I visited old friends in The Hague, Gordon and Joan MacNeil. Gordon had been IRRI’s Deputy Director General for Finance, and left the institute in 2002.

All in all, an enjoyable trip, but not very fruitful donor-wise, unfortunately.

In 2012, Steph and I had a short holiday in Portugal, visiting my eldest brother Martin and his wife Pauline who live about 100 km north of Lisbon.