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Country in Crisis: Part Two

Continuing to Assess the Catastrophic Conservative Government

by Matt Coot

Twenty years of peace at risk

In 2017, Theresa May made a controversial pact with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to make sure she could form the minority government – despite losing seats and losing her majority. This pact now seems to be making the Brexit discussions a nightmare for the decision surrounding Northern Ireland.

The UK and EU are both agreed that a return to a physical border, along with border posts and checks, would be a bad idea. Both the EU and Irish government are pointing

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Neale Richmond, Irish Senator

the finger at the UK government to come up with concrete alternatives. So far, the Tories seem to have been suggesting installing new IT systems to make the border easier, but they haven’t exactly described how this would work or given any specific details. In fact, Irish senator Neale Richmond has said that the UK has provided “zero detail” on proposed alternatives.

Earlier this week, the EU released a draft treaty. This included the option of a “common regulatory area” on the island of Ireland, which would keep Northern Ireland in a customs union. In effect, this would create a border down the Irish sea and, as Theresa May has said, would “threaten the constitutional integrity of he UK”.

Sinn Féin has endorsed the plan that was laid out in the draft treaty. They’ve even described the pact between the Tories and the DUP as having a “wrecking agenda”. Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald TD, Member of the Irish Parliament, spoke during

MaryLouMcdonald
Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Féin President

the Leaders’ Questions on Wednesday 28th February, saying that the UK government has ““No concern for our economy. No concern for the rights of our people. No concern for the peace process. Now they want to conclude their debate and make their exit by putting the Good Friday Agreement through the shredder.”

We’ve also had two former Prime Ministers speak against how the Brexit negotiations are putting the Good Friday Agreement at risk: Sir John Major, and Tony Blair.

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Sir John Major, former Conservative prime minister

John Major, former Conservative Prime Minister, said during his speech on Wednesday 28th February, that he feared a “frictionless” border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will not happen “unless we stay in ‘a’ or ‘the’ Customs Union”. He went on to say that “those of us who warned of the risks of Brexit would bring to the still fragile Peace Process… understood it better than our critics. We need a policy to protect the Good Friday agreement – and we need one urgently”.

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Tony Blair, former Labour prime minister

Tony Blair, former Labour Prime Minister, during an interview on Thursday 1st March, said that it was “frankly sickening” that the Good Friday Agreement was being put at risk because of Brexit negotiations. He accused the Tory negotiators as being “prepared to sacrifice” peace on the “altar of Brexit”

MichelBarnier
Michel Barnier, EU chief negotiator

The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has said that the “sensitive” issue of Northern Ireland, and the problems being caused, was entirely down to the UK’s position on the single market and customs union. Donald Tusk has said that he was “absolutely sure that all the essential elements of the draft” would be accepted by the twenty-seven remaining members of the European Union and that the Prime Minister’s decision of ruling out the single market and customs union had been acknowledged “without enthusiasm and without satisfaction”.

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Theresa May (prime minister) and Donald Tusk (European Council President)

It seems that the Prime Minister is insistent on a trade deal that will be “as frictionless as possible”. But what she doesn’t seem to understand – or what she refuses to hear – is that this isn’t possible at all. Donald Tusk has even said: “There can be no frictionless trade outside of the customs union and the single market. Friction is an inevitable side-effect of Brexit by nature”. That isn’t a “maybe” or a “might”, it is a certainty that there will be no way for May and her Tory negotiators to get what they want. It just isn’t possible.

Everyone – from former Prime Ministers, to Members of the Irish Parliament, to the European Council President and the European Union’s chief negotiator – seems to be pointing the finger of blame one way: at Theresa May and her government. They are handling Brexit without strong and stable authority. They are weak and ineffectual. They are failing the people of this country. Not only are they failing the people who voted to leave the European Union, but they are also failing the people who voted to remain. Nobody is having a happy ending, because this country is in crisis and the negotiations are going nowhere. And now, they are putting twenty years of peace, in Northern Ireland, at risk.

It seems that everyone, except the Tories, are aware of the absolute concrete position of the European Union. If the UK remains resolute in the ridiculous stubborn position during negotiations, one nation against twenty-seven nations, then there will be no deal. It will lead to friction between the UK and the EU. Trade deals will be difficult to obtain without the UK ending up giving up a lot. The Tories, on the other hand, seem too concerned with their precious deal that is keeping them in power, rather than negotiating for a deal that will be of a benefit to the entire population of the United Kingdom.

Vocal backbencher, Jacob Rees-Mogg, has warned that the EU seem to be trying to cause a constitutional crisis in the UK with the draft treaty because of the partnership between the Conservative Party and the DUP. The DUP, of course, do not want there to be a split between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK – which the suggestion of Northern Ireland remaining in the customs union and single market would, in effect, be causing – and they, along with everyone else, do not want a hard border. The warnings of a “constitutional crisis” continued with Sir Bill Cash, who has said that the EU is trying to “create a constitutional crisis in the UK”. However, when faced with the statement from his interviewer of trying to show him the facts of the matter as being, “your situation is now, that you’ve either got a customs union or a hard border”, Sir Cash started waffling about different things before arguing that the Tories had put forward the argument of “technical ways” of managing the Irish border.

The Prime Minister, in her speech today, has said: “I want the broadest and deepest possible agreement, covering more sectors and co-operating more fully than any free trade agreement anywhere in the world today. I believe that is achievable because it is in the EU’s interests as well as ours and because of our unique starting point, where on day one we both have the same laws and rules”. Which just goes to show that the Tories are still not seeing the cold, hard facts. The UK either remain as part of the customs union and single market, or there will be a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland – which nobody wants.

It is my belief that the Prime Minister, the Cabinet, and the government of the United Kingdom has failed in its duty. Britain’s exit from the European Union was supposed to be the largest task for the government to undertake to make sure that this country can survive and thrive. Instead, the government is failing because of their stubbornness over the customs union and the single market. The Tories have their own interests at heart above the interests of the people of this country. This seems to be the sticking point, and this seems to be the point that is putting everything – including peace – at risk. The Conservative Party has failed.

Cruel and cowardly cuts for children

As part of the coalition deal between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, from September 2014, every five-to-seven year old pupils in state schools in England received free school meals. In addition to that, all children aged above seven, from families receiving Universal Credit, have been eligible for free school meals. If this policy was to continue, then every child in poverty would receive a healthy hot meal at least once a day. However, this isn’t to be.

The Conservatives have been free of the restraints of the Liberal Democrats since 2015, and they haven’t stopped unleashing their nasty side since then. Recent announcements has shown that the Conservatives are now introducing a cruel new earnings limit from 1st April 2018. Instead of every child living in poverty receiving a hot meal, there will now be one million children in poverty who will now starve and not have a healthy hot meal each day.

How can parents be encouraged to take on additional hours or a pay rise? If their child risks losing their free school meal, and if the parent will not be able to afford to cover this lost school meal, why would any responsible parent take on additional hours or a pay rise? They wouldn’t. This policy dissuades people in trying to better themselves.

In addition to the free school meals cuts, we have also learned recently that more than 500 children’s centres have been forced to close due to cash-strapped councils. These councils are under pressure from central government and they are being forced to make cuts that are damaging to those who are most vulnerable.

The closure of children’s centres was criticised by Labour’s shadow early years minister, Tracy Brabin, as “impacting the most disadvantaged”. Children’s centres are provisions for young families and these cuts see this provision being slashed by austerity measures. Brabin continued to say, “Children’s centres are supporting parents who are in difficulty, but also parents who struggle with their parenting skills”. This is sickening.

What’s even more sickening is to learn that funding for children’s centres in England has halved since 2010. Funding for children’s centres was at £1.2 billion in 2010, but is now down to £0.6 billion, according to research published by Barnardo’s in December.

These cuts show abject failure of the terrible Tories and their cruel care of the citizens they are responsible for. The Conservatives keep on cutting vital services for those who are struggling to survive and they keep on giving benefits to those who don’t need them. The Conservative government is destroying this country. We are continuing to face crises in every area of this country and the government seem to blindly continue to destroy the services that most severely affect our vulnerable people.

Destruction of a well-informed electorate through strategic cuts

Thomas Jefferson once wrote that “a well-informed electorate is a prerequisite to democracy”. How can anyone in society make an informed decision on the information they are given by the government when they are restricted on gaining information and education on how to analyse effectively? The simple answer is that they cannot. Perhaps this is why the Tories keep on making so many cuts that councils are forced to close libraries.

The Tory-led Northamptonshire County Council became the first local authority in nearly twenty years to impose emergency spending controls. In February 2018, they announced savings of £39.2 million. Savings sound great, right? But savings mean cuts. There will also be fewer buses running, meaning that the population of Northamptonshire will find it harder to get around. But it is the twenty-one libraries that will be closing across Northamptonshire that is the true catastrophe.

Since 2010 to the end of 2017, at least 478 libraries, and a further 140 mobile libraries, have closed across the UK. Those libraries that have survived this cull, have seen the number of books reduced by fourteen million. As for the number of librarians, these have been cut by eight thousand.

When I was a town councillor, we were faced with the option of whether we wanted to take on the local library through devolution. Cornwall Council was facing pressure from central government, and so they had find ways to make cuts. It seemed that the library service was an easy thing for the council to get rid of. However, the problem with the library for our town was that it had been ignored for so long by the county council that it was facing a gigantic bill to repair the building and ongoing costs were astronomical. We had to consider whether it was something worthwhile for the town to take on. We were arguing this matter over such a long time, that when I eventually stepped down from the council in the summer of 2017, nothing had yet been decided about the library. But there was something that I noticed, that there is a familiar argument being put across and it was a familiar argument that my former students put across on almost a daily basis.

Over a year ago, I had been the Library Manager at a secondary school in South East Cornwall. Students would continually argue that they didn’t need books, after all they have the internet. The only problem was that employers and universities keep on saying that young workers and students leave school with poor literacy and maths skills. We are seeing a rise of poor literacy in the UK, and yet we are seeing closures of hundreds of libraries. Each time that a student would argue about the internet making books null and void, I would ask them what they read on the internet. Their answers consisted, mainly, of social media and unedited ‘fan fiction’ sites. How can our young people learn language skills, and analytical skills, from reading social media posts and ‘fan fiction’, when the language isn’t moderated on any of these sites? They can’t. Literacy skills fall, analytical skills are non-existent, and we produce a citizenry who are far from being a “well-informed electorate”.

To benefit from the online world, we need to have basic digital skills. I faced many issues when working with secondary school students with their basic digital skills. They are learning complex IT skills without knowing the basics. They know how to work social media, and how to take a selfie for Instagram or Snapchat, but ask them to write an email and they are lost. Ask them to make a spreadsheet, and they don’t know how. Ask them to code, and away we go, they’re able to do that. But basic digital skills? No, they don’t have those skills.

As for adults, it is estimated there are 12.6 million adults without those basic digital skills. Where would these adults learn these basic digital skills? Usually in a library, where there is free access to computers and to support from library staff. But, with all these closures, this desperate need is being ignored.

We cannot just rely on the internet and digitalisation for everything. We need books. We basic skills. We need access to libraries with fully-trained members of staff. We need an educated and fully-informed electorate. But, the Tories don’t seem to care about this.

Of course, this isn’t the only issue with the closure of libraries. We also need to consider the social issues that library closures bring. For many people, the library services is a lifeline. Loneliness is a big killer. One older person dies every seven minutes from the cold. To combat loneliness, people visit libraries for a warm place to find comfort, or for recreation, or for learning. This is why every town in the country needs an accessible library – and why every village needs access to a mobile library service. Libraries empower people. Libraries make democracy thrive. Libraries make society survive.

Jacqueline Widdowson, a librarian, wrote for The Guardian in December 2017 that “When a library is closed, people are wounded by that loss. There is no substitute for a real library service being delivered by trained professionals with expertise in areas as diverse as child development, digital literacy, event programming and social inclusion”. I couldn’t agree more. There truly is no substitute to a working library service.

Conservatives love cuts, so lets cut them

It is my strong belief that this nation should have no confidence in the Conservative Party in continuing to lead this country. They have failed this country with every policy and with every move they have made since rising to power. If Theresa May had any sense, or any compassion for the citizens of this country that she has led into hopelessness and homelessness; or any guilt over the way she has led this nation’s greatest asset – the National Health Service – into a shadow of its former self with the most vulnerable being ignored and every aspect of the organisation being stretched so thin that it is tearing apart; or any foresight to see that her government has led the business sector of this country into ruin with a domino effect of companies collapsing; or if she just opens her eyes to see the country the rest of us have to see, then maybe she would head straight to Buckingham Palace to dissolve parliament and resign her post.

It is time to change. The Conservative minority government must go.

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