In Perspective

Written By: Catherine Macleod
Published: April 7, 2017 Last modified: April 10, 2017

Are we surprised, shocked, resigned?  Only four days after Theresa May signed the official letter signalling Britain’s intention to leave the European Union, Michael Howard, a former Tory leader, was out of the blocks raising the spectre of the UK going to war with a European neighbour over Gibraltar.

Citing Mrs Thatcher’s war with Argentina over the Falklands he was “absolutely certain that our current prime minister will show the same resolve in standing by the people of Gibraltar”.   Was Lord Howard of Lympne, for it is he, trying to ingratiate himself with Mrs May by favourably comparing her to Margaret Thatcher or should we be really afraid.

Coincidentally, in the columns of the Spectator Max Hastings reported another Michael Howard to be depressed by the echoes of the late 1930s on both sides of the Atlantic. This Michael Howard is none other than 94-year old Sir Michael Eliot Howard, OM, CH, CBE, MC,FBA, a British military historian, and a former professor of the History of War, and Emeritus Fellow of All
Souls College.

He can still quote the lines he learned as a schoolboy from Auden’s 1937 Danse Macabre:
It’s farewell to the drawing-rooms civilised cry,
The professor’s sensible whereto and why
For the Devil has broken parole and arisen
He has dynamited his way out of prison.

Sir Michael, who is one of the few still alive to have lived through the 2nd World War, feared last week that President Trump will get the United States into war. I wonder what he thinks now he has heard his namesake’s intervention over Gibraltar.

Whatever the flaws of the European Union, and there are many, the most potent argument during the referendum campaign in favour of continued membership should have been that the fear of coming out would increase tension and hostility. Little did I think it would happen so quickly.

Not enough was made of the EU’s tremendous contribution to peace within its borders. Churchill’s adage from the 1950s “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war” is no less pertinent now.

So far Mrs May appears to think the same. “What we are doing with all European countries in the European Union is sitting down and talking to them. We are going to be talking to them about getting the best possible deal for the United Kingdom and for those countries, Spain included,” she said.

Let’s hope she will talk the gunboats out of sight.

But if it is not Gibraltar it will be something else. That’s the problem with borders. Differences and tensions are entrenched rather than ameliorated, whether between Spain and Gibraltar or within Ireland And there is nothing to believe a border between Scotland and England, if it ever happened, would secure safe and stable relationships between the countries on either side.

Peace should be the overarching goal of negotiations wherever they are. Speak to people from war torn countries and they tell you tales of despair, hopelessness, horror and barbarism. Last week, working alongside decent media people in Tunis desperate for life to get better and safer for people in North Africa, the risks of uncertainty were never more apparent.

It’s too late for the EU. Mrs May has triggered the UK’s exit. She had little choice, and now she needs all the help she can get to deliver the best possible outcome, achieve the best deals on trade, security, spending, globalisation, identity, and migration. Labour could help if they came up with some constructive ideas.

Perhaps John McDonnell, shadow chancellor, and Lord Mandelson, will work out an effective strategy over a cup of tea, if Lord Mandelson takes up Mr McDonnell’s offer.

In Scotland the electorate is facing a double whammy of uncertainty, and the electorate are fed-up. Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, probably had little choice but to talk up the prospect of a second referendum before the SNP’s party conference. Since at least 25% of the SNP’s membership want to break up the UK whatever the consequences she has a party management problem. She will know the electorate doesn’t want a second referendum. They want their politicians to concentrate on delivering jobs, decent health care and a high
standard of education (only last month a headmaster in the constituency of the Scottish education minister was appealing for volunteer teachers) and social care.

The polls suggest the SNP will do well at the forthcoming local elections in May but that will be as much to do with the collapse of Labour’s support as a burning desire for Scotland to go it alone. And only last week Professor John Curtice, the Scottish pollster, who usually calls it right, declared the Scots attitude to Brexit is in line with the rest of the UK. We live in uncertain times
indeed.