Coup d’état by Johnson

I am so angry and depressed by what is happening in Britain that I cannot raise the energy to write anything that is not a prolonged rant. Suffice to say that centuries of British democracy and the tradition of an unwritten constitution are under threat.

On a personal level my future in France continues to be an exhausting uncertainty. I have my carte de séjour as an EU citizen. I will have to apply for a new non-EU carte after Brexit but hope this will be a simple exchange (we will see).

The big questions are whether the drop in the value of sterling affects my pension too much to live here (and indeed there is the possibility that my state pension will no longer have inflationary increases) and, even more important, whether I will continue to have healthcare.

Nobody seems able to say with assurance what will happen in the event of a no-deal brexit. Earlier this year the May government said it would guarantee paying for treatment for existing conditions for a year. Big deal. I think the French are going to allow cover for two years, but this is not certain. My fear is that to continue to have treatment, I may have to make an additional payment of 8% of income, over and above my current income tax. This would prove too much – already I have difficulty meeting all costs without dipping into my declining savings.

“Boris”

He’s only been in power for one day and already I have a chilling presentiment that with Boris Johnson at the helm, the United Kingdom is heading for a new and nastier era – if that is possible. Why, incidentally, do we give him the honour of calling him by his first name?

What makes this so scary is that unlike Trump he is not stupid. He has ruthlessly collected a team of like-minded right-wing hard men – and women (Priti Patel’s position on the death penalty, overseas aid, which she sees as overseas trade, her championing of the tobacco and drink industries, and her dubious activities for the Conservative Friends of Israel, does not make for Priti reading. Sic.). As Nick Bowles said this morning, the Conservative Party has been hijacked by the Brexit Party.

Johnson has Dominic Cummings (what a sinister character) and Michael Gove at hand to mastermind the details of the Big Plan, while he seduces the masses with his beguiling (aka disgusting) brand of optimism and Churchillian (ha!) leadership. All he has to do is to get Sajid Javid to cut taxes and then borrow a fortune to spend on a sudden flurry of public works et voila, he is all set to brazen out the nightmarish no-deal brexit – and call a general election to ensure this crowd can do their worst for another five years.

And facing him: Jeremy Corbyn (I won’t get started), a shadow cabinet fraught with divisions and a party frustrated and impotent. There is little hope that Labour’s problems can be resolved in time to present what should have been a dangerous challenge to the Tories.

My French friends observe Johnson with a mixture of distaste and incredulity. We have to hope that enough Brits see through the charm offensive to give him a nasty surprise if, as seems likely, a general election is his big gamble to get him through a no-deal brexit.

As to my position in France, Johnson was ominously silent about support for the 1.2 million Brits living in mainland Europe. So the uncertainty which has existed for the past three years about my pension and healthcare rights will continue. One thing is for sure: if I manage to continue to living here it will be on a lower budget; I can’t see the exchange rate returning to previous levels.

Powerless

Why do I faff on here about losing my specs when the world around us is falling apart? When I was young we spoke, demonstrated and acted against racism and war. We did so because we believed our voice could be heard and we could change things.

Today we appear to be able to nothing, as we watch Trump join the other two great powers, Russia and China, in lurching the world towards a new era of hate, violence and insecurity.

Now Britain is in danger of finding itself led by Trump Mark II. There is the same disbelief as before Donald Trump was elected. Surely in the end people will see through this unpredictable, dishonest, uncaring self-promoter? But we can no longer be sure.

After all, this is the electorate that allowed itself to be seduced by the Brexit promises, which hankers after a nice, safe old world, when Britain could do its own thing (take back control) and not rely on others. It is an electorate swayed incredibly by the media (including the Telegraph, currently Johnson’s second paymaster).

When the two candidates reach the final round and the Tory Party at large choose between them, imagine – it is a small section of the population, some 160,000 Tory Party card holding members who will be choosing our next prime minister. Not only are they not representative of the British people but they are probably not representative of the Tories, with a bias towards ageing, white, probably mainly better off, probably mainly home counties home owners, favouring the non-liberal end of Tory values.

Assuming Boris avoids major clangers and reaches the final two, what of the other candidate? This will most likely be Jeremy Hunt. True, he has done better than Johnson as Foreign Secretary (who wouldn’t?), though of course I don’t approve of the ongoing policy of cosying up to the US and its allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel. But let’s not forget his long stint as Heath Secretary, when he battled uncaringly against junior doctors and A&E departments and misreported the drain on NHS resources by foreigners.

I don’t reckon much for the chances of Gove, he of the unfortunate time as Education Secretary (since redeemed in Environment), his cocaine past (conveniently – for others – dredged up just now), and unfortunate look when emerging from his house in running shorts. I can’t take Sajid Javid seriously since reading Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, and Dominic Raab is, I hope, with his gungho no-deal line, an unlikely winner.

I fear Rory Stewart has no chance at all of being the second candidate. Pity, as I always side with the quirky. He comes across as intelligent, genuinely caring, and unafraid of sticking his neck out against a no-deal Brexit, although I don’t reckon much for his preference for a citizens’ assembly over a second referendum. Let’s not forget though, that interesting as he is (and yes, ambitious), he is still very much a Tory and therefore ultimately for me a member of another planet.

Well, what of the other planet? What of Labour? I despair, I really do. I don’t have a parliamentary vote any more (anywhere). But if I did, would I really vote for the party which I thought was built into my genes (despite having cancelled my membership in 1997, when Brown ended the Labour Party commitment to use income tax and public spending to reduce inequality)?

I suppose I have always seen myself as somewhere left of centre within the Labour Party, a genteel sort of Fabian who tried to remain optimistic about the advance of democratic socialism (though completely against the Fabian closeness with New Labour).

It is difficult to judge the impact of Momentum, living as I do outside the UK and no longer involved in Labour Party politics. I share many people’s unease with some of its methods and style. But I agree with many of its positions, for example, on opposition to government austerity.

What really makes me despair is the disastrous leadership – if you can call it that – of Jeremy Corbyn. I suspect that I would agree with many of his domestic policies, but he has been utterly incompetent, rigidly stuck somewhere in the past in key areas, and incapable of engaging with modern media for putting his messages across. I think I may agree with him, for example, about the lack of evidence (so far) that the Iranians were behind the oil tanker attacks, about Israeli oppression of Palestinians, and that the British Government should not be working so closely with Saudi Arabia (or the Americans), but he has not put his position across effectively. And his complete failure to stem the accusations of anti-semitism in the party has been disastrous. His failure to persuade the Labour movement to give up on the nuclear deterrent has deprived him amongst other things of funds to promote social equality. Worst of all is his complete fudging of the Brexit issue. I simply cannot imagine him as a viable Prime Minister.

If I still had the vote my MP would be the only Green, Caroline Lucas, and I would continue to vote for her – with enthusiasm. If not, the Liberals? I suppose so, but I never forget rounding on my parents when they abandoned Labour for the Social Democrats!

It brings me no comfort to watch the rest of Europe going through similar turmoil. Here in France the Front National (I refuse to go with its ridiculous name change) was triumphant in the European elections. Our little commune of Bréau was only one of three in the local area in which the FN did not come out on top – just. The Socialists are pretty much extinct.

In Germany the Socialist Party’s record low support means it is no longer the obvious alliance candidate for the CDU (conservatives). Merkel’s successor Kamp-Karrenbauer, is hard right, and there is a danger of a drift towards the right-wing nationalist AfD. The rise in the popularity of the Greens remains the small hope this will not happen. Politics in Italy, with the horrible rise of the League, is very worrying. And let’s not get started on countries like Poland and Hungary.

Oh dear. What to do? I could go on to consider why politics has broken down and what could be done. Well, I have my spectacles, so that diversionary tactic is not available. Instead I will go away and eat a late lunch.

Voting in EU elections

Earlier this month I received my carte électorale, which shows that as a citizen of another EU country I am entitled to vote in France in elections for the EU parliament and in local council elections.

These will almost certainly be the last European elections in which we will vote. I suspect this means that in the future I will also not be able to vote in the local elections in France.

I will be well and truly disenfranchised as, having lived over 15 years out of the UK, I don’t have a vote in UK Parliamentary elections.  I would also not have a vote if there was a second referendum, even though this affects me so directly.

The EU elections in France take place on Sunday 26th May – by which time I will be in Portugal. So last week I set about organising a proxy vote – Margaret will vote for me.

It turned out to be very complicated. I went online, found the formidable form I have to complete- but the instructions said I should download the (pdf) file and fill it in on the computer – handwritten entries were not accepted. It was only later that I spotted a note at the foot of the page saying alternatively one could write on a printed form available form the counter (didn’t say what counter…). I tried typing on the Mac and the text insisted on appearing vertically on the form, so the I had to download it onto my iPad. Having at last printed the completed form I took it, as instructed, to the gendarmerie.

It didn’t surprise me that the gendarmerie bell wasn’t working. I tried knocking on the window without success. So then I walked up to another window which I knew was in the back room where the gendarmes sit.

When finally I came face to face with a gendarme the first thing he did was to reprimand me for daring to tap on this window! Then he scrutinised the form, searching for a problem. And he found one. There were three boxes: proxy for the first round, for the second round, or all rounds. I had ticked all rounds. Aha, said the gendarme, that is wrong: there is only one round in European elections, so you should have ticked first round. I murmured that all rounds included first round – but no: I must redo the whole form – all three pages of it.

He then produced a properly printed copy of the form I had painstaking downloaded from the internet and stood over me as I filled it in. As I entered today’s date, I muttered the figures in English as I usually do. Magic: the gendarme said “Two thousand” to show he knew some English – and actually smiled.

Now I have to think who I will vote for. The nightmare facing us sounds horribly familiar: the threat of the populist right.

The polls show that party dominated for so long by the Le Pen family – the RN (Rassemblement National – though everyone still calls it by its old name, FN Front National) has taken the lead over Macron’s party, the LREM (La République en March – which is in coalition with Modem, another, soggier, centralist party. Well below these two front runners come the Conservative party, the LR (Les Républicains, formerly the UMP), and then in ever descending order: the LFI (La France Insoumise – an equivalent to Momentum), the Greens (EELV – Europe Écologie Les Verts ) and the Socialist party (PS – Parti Socialiste).

As in all European countries, interest in the European elections is low and people are likely to vote based on national rather than European issues. So what should I vote? I have been havering between the EELV and the LREM. I don’t trust the LFI and the poor old PS is in a mess. The most important thing is to stop as many Front National candidates as possible from getting elected. On that basis I am, with some reluctance, currently inclined to vote for the LREM.

The screws tighten

What a surreal day. We lurch even closer to the abyss. Monday’s indicative vote is the last chance.

Brexit is high up on the news here as well. People are baffled, sad at what they see as the collapse of everything they thought the British were – pragmatic, calm, dignified (well, yes, also arrogant, cherry pickers).

Last week my English neighbours, here on a brief visit, were shopping in my favourite veg shop and the owner asked them with sympathy how they were coping. (The assumption is that any Brits here are not for Brexit.) She told them that she had several British customers worrying about their futures in France

At lunch with my friends Charles and Pierre we returned to the old question, what made people vote for Brexit. In the afternoon I went to the pharmacy (where I am greeted by name – a sad réflection of where I shop these days!) and again was asked what I thought might happen now.

Then, on to the vernissage of an art exhibition – a vernissage is the opening, to invited guests, with drinks and nibbles. There are quite a few artists in the region and this was a gathering of le Vigan’s cultural set, of which I appear to be a member. I was hardly able to look at the paintings and sculptures as I was accosted again and again by people wanting to express sympathy and to exclaim at what a catastrophe this was for le Royaume Uni.

People here are under no illusions about the problems facing the EU, but there is a strong sense of what it has done to unite people beyond nationalism. They are worried about the forthcoming elections and the rising right wing populism.

Nobody was surprised I am still waiting for my carte de séjour; the French are only too aware of the shortcomings of their administrative bureaucracy. One woman said she had an American nephew who had been told by the Paris prefecture that his application for French citizenship might take three years to be considered.

More pressing than my desire to retain European nationality is my need to be in the health system. Friends were appalled to hear that my carte vitale (the crucial health passport here) might only last for a year after Brexit.

They understand when I say that for two years my life has been on hold. Sadly the Resume button may soon be pushed, but who knows what will be playing.

French or Irish?

I find it hard to concentrate on anything other than the political mess in Britain. I weep for my country of birth; and I fear for my future in my country of adoption.

I won’t rehearse yet again all the reasons why I am so angry and despairing about Brexit. I think I am more depressed and upset about it than any other event that has happened in my life – yes, including the failure of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which dominated my life as a teenager.

It is not simply witnessing the country stepping ever closer to the cliff, with all the potential damage to the British economy, industry, health system, universities, research… … It is the realisation that Britain is a broken country, with polarised views, a rising populism, and a parliamentary system in crisis. Whatever the result – and goodness knows where we will be in two months – how can attitudes be changed, how can the damage be repaired? How can parliamentary democracy regain credibility, for example, and how can we again believe in and respect politicians, statisticians and journalists?

Meanwhile, what can I personally do? Not a lot. I signed the petition to revoke Article 50 of course (on day one). I can’t demonstrate (but I am glad that Kate and family – as well as at least one cousin – are currently marching in London).

If there is another referendum I can’t vote as I have lived in France for more than 15 years and the overseas voters bill, which would restore my right to vote, has been held up by Brexit. It is a private members bill, introduced in 2017, and was only debated in Parliament last week – to a virtually empty Chamber.

But I can try to obtain dual nationality, to remain a citizen of an EU country in the event of Brexit happening. Unlike my Carte de Séjour which I am still waiting for), becoming the citizen of another European country would have no practical benefit – other than my childish pleasure at being able to continue to walk through the EU Citizens gate at the airport.

It is more a personal statement, that I am a European, that I wish to distance myself from these horrible nationalistic, xenophobic views in Britain. They are elsewhere as well, of course, and whatever his other faults, Macron made a good distinction last November between patriotism – love of your country, which can be an inclusive sentiment, and nationalism (https://francais.rt.com/france/55302-patriotisme-contraire-nationalisme-tres-politique-discours-macron-centenaire-armistice-paris).

I am not proposing to give up British citizenship, but rather to have dual nationality. The question is, which country? Well, the obvious choice is France and last year, in between hospital crises, I started to collect together the information required, though it was clear that the priority should be applying for residency.

There are three problems about applying for French citizenship. The first is that I have to gather together an enormous amount of documentation (as well as writing yet another essay about why I am applying). This includes a host of birth, marriage and death certificates (which all have to have official, legal, costly translations). And in due course there will be difficult interviews no doubt.

My second problem is that I do not have a birth certificate for my father, who was born in India, and it is impossible to obtain a copy. Thanks to my cousin, Ursula, who works in the British Library, we found the record for his baptism, and the Library has produced a letter saying that government departments sometimes accept their official evidence of a baptism in lieu of a birth certificate. I can but try, though I worry about the word “sometimes”.

My third problem is that I might have to wait years rather than months to get French citizenship. Every time a French person asks if I have applied yet, I mention the problem of delays in the process and they raise their eyes in shared frustration at the tortuous workings of “l’administration franchise”.

So how about joining the apparently growing queue of Brits using their familial links with Ireland to seek Irish citizenship? Both my paternal grandparents were Irish. My grandfather was born in Portaferry in northern Ireland and my grandmother in County Cork in southern Ireland.

The procedure should be so much more straightforward than applying for French citizenship. But that is before one takes into account the amazing lack of documentation for my Irish family. Apart from my father’s missing birth certificate, which could be a problem here as well, there is the question of evidence of my grandparents’ marriage. They were married in Ceylon (don’t know why, as my grandfather was in the Indian Police in Madras). There is no marriage certificate, just a newspaper report recording the wedding and what the bride wore.

Yet another complication, I do have my grandmother’s birth certificate, but there is a blank in the box for her name! I have paid Irish genealogists to track down her baptism records, but they have drawn a complete blank. (What they did throw up was something else I had not known. My great grandfather was a leading light in the Church of Ireland, but it turns out he was married in a Methodist church and that his father was a Methodist minister.)

All of this might prove to be too many dodgy records, even for the Irish. So I am currently thinking of returning to my French citizenship papers. Big sigh.

Future in the balance

“Eh! Eh….le Brexit?” Everyone asks me, with a mixture of incomprehension and sympathy.

Yesterday I was asked at least four times – by my hairdresser, the pharmacist and a couple of friends in ‘my’ cafe. 

One friend was typically optimist: don’t worry, he said, you’ll end up staying with us in Europe. Theresa May will give in. Don’t be so sure I replied. You are not familiar with the tribal loyalties of the Conservative Party. Plus there are the Labour MPs representing Brexit constituencies. 

The pharmacist, M. Bresson, had a different view. He had been told that his English counterparts are all stocking medicines in preparation for a no deal. 

I reflected on these comments as I tried to get past the blockage caused by the gilets jaunes at the roundabout at the entrance to le Vigan. 

When I see them, I see people who feel ignored, not listened to. Just like the Brits in the North East. And I fear that here this will transform into votes for the Front National. 

British pensioners in the EU

There are apparently about 200,000 British pensioners living in Europe and of course I am one. I am glad to say that at least the Guardian is beginning to report regularly on our plight.

Today’s edition has a good article on the efforts of British MEPs to get the EU to ensure that the 1 million Britons (about a fifth pensioners) do not find themselves in a legal abyss on 30th March.

At the same time campaigning groups like British in Europe is pressing Theresa May to ensure that the British Government continues to reimburse pensioners’ medical bills and to apply increases to state pensions, even if there is a no deal Brexit.

I know three or four other British pensioners locally, including one in his mid-eighties, who are equally anxious about what is going to happen to us in less than two months.

The main concerns are health protection and money (reduced income because of fall in sterling combined with potential increase in taxes once the EU ban on double taxation goes). Most of us are pretty confident that rights of residency will be respected. The French Government has said that we will have a year to get the – not yet finalised – residency permit.

But we must not be blasé about residency. Both the French Interior Minister and the British ambassador have strongly urged people to obtain the current carte de séjour. I applied for mine in July last year, got my interview at the start of January and was told that I should have my carte within two months. Hmmm.

Other Brits in the area applied later than me and are even further down the queue. One still has his head in the sand, and done nothing, but has now agreed to let me help him.

Brexit – another screw turns

Yesterday I kept turning on the television and watching with growing anger and horror. The unthinkable is happening: we are not just heading for Brexit, but a no-deal brexit. The ultimate in precipices.

As I watched the noisy and often stupid contributions I could not help but see this through the eyes of a European – I mean a European living this side of the Channel. The arrogance and ignorance of what I often heard is unbelievable.

How can so many Tories assert that they (the EU) are being difficult and intransigent? It is the UK which wants to leave and is making a total ballsup of it. What really got my goat yesterday was the repeated statement, with the knowing look of businessmen who know how to do deals (not), that we had to keep no-deal on the table as a bargaining counter because, you know, these EU types wait till the last moment before blinking and caving in.

As for Corbyn. Don’t get me started. I can understand his historic lack of warmth about the EU back to the Seventies (I shared it), but the world has changed since then. I won’t go into a defence of being in the EU here. Labour’s position in 2015 on whether to have a referendum was already highly problematic. But since the results of the referendum, Corby has done nothing but prevaricate, blur and confuse.

Corbyn and May bang on that “the people has spoken”. Of course we all needed to take into account why so many people voted for Brexit, starting with examining how far incompetence, dishonesty and intrigue during the campaign affected the result. The people have spoken, yes (at least, just over a half of those that voted at that time). But there is nothing in our weirdly constructed constitution or the badly drafted referendum bill which said that Parliament (which should be making the decisions) is legally bound to implement the vote. And now that the full horror of what the Government has achieved, or rather, not achieved, is apparent, and the Government and Parliament are fragmented and paralysed, surely the only way out (if it is a way out) of this mess is to ask people to reflect again – and after that, decide to think very hard indeed before ever having a referendum again.

Both May and Corbyn are putting party interests first. May has been desperate to hang on to her loony right plus the DUP, Corbyn has been obsessed by the opportunity, he thought, for a general election. Brexit is not a party issue – which is why it is such a mess. And now, unbelievably, May has reversed her humiliating defeat (I always thought the Tories would end up toeing the tribal line – along with Labour MPs who fear for their jobs in Brexit voting constituencies. Even more unbelievable is to go back to the EU again, thinking that somehow yesterday’s vote will make European countries change their mind. Dream on.

The No-Deal nightmare has particular significance for Europeans in Britain and Britons in Europe, in particular for British pensioners like me. Why? Because on 29th March our right to health services in Europe will end, unless some miracle happens in the next two months. If this happens, I will not be able to continue living in France. I don’t want to leave, I have no other home, and I cannot expect to receive the level of health care in England that I get here.

To be continued … … …

It rained today

Yes, that is news here.  It has not rained since before Christmas.  Somebody said today that it had not rained since the start of December.

What is certain is we now lurch from periods of extreme rain as in November to complete drought as in January.  The local farmer, Jacques, has been watering his onion seeds, and gardeners more knowledgeable and diligent than me have been watering their flowers.

Now that I have finally got somebody who is re-doing the terrace outside my bedroom, it looks of course as if we are to have some rain and even perhaps snow.

I have to excuse my usual obsession with the weather, but it takes my mind off the nightmarish theatre in Westminster, which could potentially ruin my life in France. Even if my carte de séjour finally arrives,  no-deal Brexit would mean no certitude that my health costs in France would continue to be covered, let alone whether I could continue to live here if the exchange rate goes down again.

Give me one reason why we should be optimistic about the future in this world.  One reason to take my mind off Brexit, Trump, South America, the Middle East, the destruction of the planet … …

postscript on Monday

After another night of violent winds, the surrounding hills were covered in snow this morning..