The Ship of Fools


My last post was on 22nd October 2016 just before I left on a trip to explore the possibility of relocating to a warmer climate within the EU – at least for the winter months.   I have been considering this since I retired 2 years ago, but the prospect of the UK leaving the European Union is an added incentive for a move sooner rather than later.

The Ship of Fools

I returned last week to what now seems to be a very different United Kingdom with a government which seems to me to very closely resemble Plato’s allegory in Book VI of the Republic which, in translation, reads:-

Imagine then a fleet or a ship in which there is a captain who is taller and stronger than any of the crew, but he is a little deaf and has a similar infirmity in sight, and his knowledge of navigation is not much better. The sailors are quarrelling with one another about the steering––every one is of opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation and cannot tell who taught him or when he learned, and will further assert that it cannot be taught, and they are ready to cut in pieces any one who says the contrary. They throng about the captain, begging and praying him to commit the helm to them; and if at any time they do not prevail, but others are preferred to them, they kill the others or throw them overboard, and having first chained up the noble captain’s senses with drink or some narcotic drug, they mutiny and take possession of the ship and make free with the stores; thus, eating and drinking, they proceed on their voyage in such a manner as might be expected of them. Him who is their partisan and cleverly aids them in their plot for getting the ship out of the captain’s hands into their own whether by force or persuasion, they compliment with the name of sailor, pilot, able seaman, and abuse the other sort of man, whom they call a good-for-nothing; but that the true pilot must pay attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds, and whatever else belongs to his art, if he intends to be really qualified for the command of a ship, and that he must and will be the steerer, whether other people like or not––the possibility of this union of authority with the steerer’s art has never seriously entered into their thoughts or been made part of their calling. Now in vessels which are in a state of mutiny and by sailors who are mutineers, how will the true pilot be regarded? Will he not be called by them a prater, a star-gazer, a good-for-nothing?”

ship-of-foolsThose of my age may remember that the allegory was taken up by Sebastian Brant in his Societas Factorum (“The Company of Fools”).  The British Museum has some prints  from the Latin edition printed by Petri in Basel in 1572.  The allegory has been taken up and used by other authors and even in film scripts – and, sadly, it is becoming increasingly clear that the allegory very well describes the present government

Teresa May –  Prime Minister

may99It was entirely right for David Cameron to resign after the EU referendum debacle and it was also entirely understandable just why the Conservative Party proceeded to elect Teresa May as his successor.  But thus far, the lady’s conduct has been most disappointing, in particular her decision to treat the outcome of  an advisory referendum vote as a mandate  and her adoption of the of the inane slogan “Brexit Means Brexit

We know that one of the major factors motivating the “No” vote was the issue of immigration and, of course, this was very much the factor upon which UKIP relied with vicious propaganda typified by this disgraceful poster.

BreakFarThis poster was not about EU freedom of movement  but about the Europe-wide refugee crisis which is well described in this article dated 7th September 2015 by Patrick Cockburn in the Independent:  Refugee crisis: Where are all these people coming from and why?

Did anyone from the Cameron government, including and in particular the then Home Secretary, Teresa May, take to the airwaves and explain to people the nature of the problem and the requirement in national, international and moral law to deal fairly with refugees ?   Did anyone bother to make it plain that those obligations would continue whether or not the UK remained in the European Union ?   More importantly, did Mrs May seek to justify her Department’s contribution to the anti-refugee mindset in deprived areas as a result of the Home Office policy of dumping asylum seekers in deprived areas of the country in order to cut the cost of housing them and then leaving them to their own devices without work, and without giving any proper support to the local authorities to enable the asylum claimants to participate in the integration process ?   Did anyone bother to explain that Germany and other EU states have been taking in asylum seekers in far greater numbers than the UK ?

The impact of the refugee crisis on all the EU Member states has fostered in a number of states a negative reaction of the indigenous population to the admission of refugees. The UK is not alone in this respect.  But all European states (whether EU Member States or not)  have obligations towards refugees, in particular as set out in the European Convention on Human Rights.  It is worth taking a look at the web site of the Refugee Council – The Truth About Asylum  which seeks to dispel some of the myths peddled by UKIP and others (including, one is ashamed to say, present and past Conservative ministers).  It is also worth looking at this report in the Financial Times: “Migrant focus raises questions over media’s role in Brexit – Articles doubled to 800 a month after Cameron pledged crackdown on immigrants“.

So the Referendum result was very largely the consequence of refugee issues – not nearly so much about EU Freedom of Movement – in relation to which, however, previous governments had failed to make use of transitional safeguards in relation to free movement from less developed Eastern European member states.

Teresa May’s Brexit Ministers


It was also disturbing to see that the Prime Minister immediately appointed Ministers to her Cabinet charged with implementing her policy of leaving the European Union before there had been any assessment of the impact of Brexit on the UK economy and before Parliament had had any say whatsoever on the wisdom or otherwise of leaving the European Union.

While it would have made some sense to appoint a Secretary for State  for European Union Affairs – the decision to designate the Secretary as “for exiting the European Union” was very much a slap in the face for the other EU Member States, the Commission and the European Parliament.  It effectively precluded any further negotiations with the EU Council and Commission which might well have produced  better results than David Cameron had been able to negotiate.

As it is, various efforts to drum up enthusiasm for trade deals with the UK in other non-EU countries have not achieved anything of any significance.  A good example was the Prime Minister’s visit to India.  See this in the Financial Times: “Brexit Briefing: Theresa May talks tough in India – UK will struggle to boost trade if it does not give ground on visas“.

Mrs May’s obstinacy on  visas for students from developing countries is an economic nonsense.   In any event, most third countries would prefer access to the EU single market to a trade deal with the UK.

The Divisional Court Ruling on the Article 50 Challenge and the Appeal

The case is entitled: The Queen on the application of (1) Gina Miller & (2) Deir Tozetti Dos Santos -v- The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union and the Citation is 2016 EWHC 2768 (Admin).  The case was heard by a strong Divisional Court composed of the Lord Chief Justice, the Master of the Rolls and Lord Justice Sales and the Judgement of the Court was delivered on 3rd November 2016.  It emphatically concluded the the Secretary of State could not use prerogative powers to give the requisite Article 50 notice to to the European Commission.  The Court held that this was a matter for Parliament.

The Financial Times gave a very measured account of the Judgment: High Court delivers blow to UK’s Brexit plans” and there was a good article by Professor Joe Murkins of the London School of Economics: “The High Court ruling explained: An embarrassing lesson for Theresa May’s government“.  Rightly, this latter article concluded with these words:

The High Court’s decision is exemplary in its clarity and reasoning. Anyone interested in a tutorial on the UK constitution should read the first 56 paragraphs. The legal challenge was not supposed to be a major obstacle for the government. All it needed to assert and defend were the UK’s own constitutional requirements. In failing to understand the constitution of its own country, the government was taught an embarrassing lesson by the High Court on the Strand.

and his article starts with this introduction:-

Philip Hammond, the chancellor of the exchequer, has responded to his situation sensibly. Yet nothing can disguise the reality that Brexit is likely to make a UK economy already blighted by low and stagnant productivity still weaker. Inevitably, he ignored the details of Brexit. Even he knows little more than the rest of us what is going to happen. But its baleful shadow hangs over the prospects. The UK is likely to be poorer than it would have been if it had not made the decision to exit the EU. The chancellor, the government and the country must live with the results, not least for deficits and debt.”

That seems to me to be a pretty accurate assessment of the present situation.  Teresa May’s Ship of Fools looks set to blunder on towards Brexit.