There’s a joke told about the British in Brussels. Actually there’s a few but this one’s my favourite: ‘How can you tell when the Eurostar from London has arrived… ? They turn the engines off and it still keeps whining.”
In truth I’d already heard it some years before I came here. In Sydney, only then, of course, it was “ How can you tell when a BA jumbo has landed?”
The world over it seems the British have a reputation as whiners. And while, as these things often do, it’s grown somewhat in the telling there’s certainly more than an element of truth to it.
I actually know a man from Newcastle who complains about Belgian food.
They have a reputation as eccentrics too so having this morning watched an English woman in a million pound hat make a speech about austerity I guess it’s as good a time as any to have a think about both.
And then perhaps to ponder on what she had to say about the British in Brussels and why.
The Queen’s Speech is one of those eccentricities which the British (actually more and more these days just the English, but we’ll come back to that) cling to in a world that many of them struggle to engage with and few fully comprehend.
The Monarch is the only person able to call the Lords and the Commons together to form, with her, the Parliament. So the Commons are summoned to the Lords by The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, Lt. Gen. David Leakey CMG CBE.
British readers already know all that. It’s the sort of stuff we’re taught at school. But did you know that there are also Gentlemen Ushers of The Green, Scarlet, Blue and Purple Rods too? A sort of a rainbow coalition of the rods.
The Scots even have one of their own apparently. Though disappointingly that turns out not to be the tartan rod, Rod Stewart, but the white rod, Dr. John Armes, Lord Bishop of Edinburgh.
But I digress. The Queens Speech is delivered from her throne in The Lords. And although it’s her lips that are moving the words are written by her government to outline their policies and their legislative programme for the new session of parliament.
This one was the first entirely Conservative Queen’s Speech since the start of John Major’s last government in October 1996. It was also, for the record, one of the shortest, with the Queen on her feet, as it were, for just eight minutes and twenty-six seconds.
Surprising then that was so much in it and still so little that was traditionally rabidly blue. Save for some fairly modest stuff on home ownership, tax cuts, strike ballots, legal highs and illegal immigrants. Oh, and fox hunting, of course.
No, its substance aimed higher and looked further: getting rid of human rights, getting shot of the Scots, and then the Romanians, the Bulgarians, the Latvians, the Lithuanians, the Estonians and the Poles in pretty much that order. No surprises so far.
Big asks all of them. The abolition of the Human Rights Act is folly and spiteful folly at that. An act so clearly conceived with the intention of deliberately pissing people off to no conceivable gain whatsoever that it might almost be worthy of a previous incarnation of Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary.
Widely trailed in the last few days it did rather sound today as if the brakes are being applied to it now though. Which given that it will in all probability prove the graveyard of Theresa May’s political ambitions as she sinks beneath its legislative and constitutional quicksand, while simultaneously gifting the SNP an early opportunity to stand their ground, that’s actually given me rather mixed feelings.
For the SNP the Scotland Bill at first sight looks likely to be another gift that will go on giving. Even if the Smith Commission’s proposals are delivered in full the powers devolved to Edinburgh will be nowhere near those contained in the SNP manifesto that delivered them their electoral tsunami.
And in any case that’s a big if. While the Conservatives campaigned in Scotland to create “the most devolved government anywhere in the world” (and much good it did them). The Queen spoke today only of “one of the most powerful devolved parliaments.”
And that’s not Her Majesty fluffing her lines.
Leaving aside whether it’s to be ‘the most’ or just ‘one of the most’ any Monarch worth her or her subjects’ salt will tell you there’s a bit of a difference between a government and a parliament. As much difference in fact as between a union and a community.
Which finally brings us back to Brussels. And to Berlin and to Paris and to Warsaw and to Riga and to Athens and to Madrid. Because the Scotland Bill and the European Referendum Bill, both published tomorrow, are nothing if not two sides of the same coin. Be it a groat or a pound or a euro.
In reality home rule for England within the EU could look not unlike home rule for Scotland within the UK. It just takes a bit of imagination to see it. Which, of course, is precisely the reason that it remains completely invisible to politicians.
I’ve argued for years with anyone who’d listen, and you’re right, there were never that many of them, that England is utterly incapable of engaging as an equal in a union in Europe while it remains in charge of a union all of its own in Britain.
One is a union of bureaucrats and the other a union of monarchs. That’s called history so there’s really no point in either case of whining about democracy now.
Merkel will help Cameron out with a few cosmetic concessions just as Kohl did for Major. A few more opt outs for Britain perhaps while Germany and France get on with creating the stronger fiscal and political union that the eurozone at least so desperately needs.
Cameron will spin whatever he gets skilfully. At least he’s good at that. The mainstream media in Britain will find their own reverse ferret trickier to execute but they’ll manage. Their paymasters will insist on it. And in the end they’ll do as usual and do as they’re told. Interestingly The Daily Telegraph seems to have started already.
Beyond the MSM’s largely irrelevant comment threads I can’t see social media having anything like the same impact this time around as it did for ‘Yes’ in last years Scottish referendum. Thankfully UKIP have so far at least proved rather inept at it. And there’s markedly less grass roots organisation or enthusiasm this time on either side of the argument.
And so Britain will vote to remain in the EU. But it will be close. Very close. And the campaign and how it is conducted, and crucially by whom, will be vitally important.
Because like it or not it’s the Conservatives and the YESNP (any campaign that ignores Nicola Sturgeon’s considerable skills does so at its peril) who must now between them make Europe’s case to Britain’s voters.
If you’ll pardon the pun there’s no-one else left.
But improbable as that may sound I think already there are some encouraging signs. And at a breakfast briefing here the other day I think maybe I might just have seen one of the first of them.
It came in the slightly Thatcheresque form of Vicky Ford, a Conservative MEP and the party’s spokeswoman on the internal market and consumer affairs.
Her calm, rational, intelligent, persuasive and at times even rather human case for Europe and for Britain in Europe was as welcome as it was surprising.
I even rather liked her voice. There wasn’t a hint of a whine in it anywhere.