Tom Arms’ World Review

UK

The appearance of ex-British Prime Minister Boris Johnson before the House of Commons Privileges Committee has echoes of the fate of Charles the First and James the Second.

Each of the above cases helped to establish the supremacy of parliament over the monarchy, or the executive.

The modern-day British Prime Minister straddles both institutions. They must be a member of parliament and command the support of a majority of the House of Commons. But at the same time they are officially appointed by the monarch to represent them in parliament. They are accountable to both institutions, but as the 1689 Bill of Rights makes clear, more accountable to parliament which is “supreme.”

But if parliament is expected to do its job properly, it must be able to rely on the information that is provided by the executive branch (i.e. government ministers, including the prime minister). For that reason it is vital that ministers – especially the prime minister – do not intentionally or recklessly mislead or lie to the House of Commons or House of Lords.

To do so, completely undermines the principle of the supremacy of parliament and rocks the foundations of the British constitution. That is why Boris Johnson is in deep political hot water. It is not that he broke Covid rules. It is that he appears to have lied to parliament about it.

Charles I lost his head for challenging the supremacy of parliament and James II was forced to abdicate and fled to France. Boris Johnson is unlikely to suffer either fate. The worst that could happen to him is be suspended from parliament which is the 21st century equivalent of decapitation.

Such a move could easily split the Conservative Party. Boris has a strong personal following and Conservatives and despite the current ascendancy of the extreme right, they are divided between anti-European libertarian ideologues and one-nation tax-cutting businessmen.

France

State visits are a big deal. They require months, sometimes years, of careful protocol-driven planning. That is why the last minute cancellation of a state visit is an even bigger deal.

Next week King Charles III was scheduled to make his first ever state visit. It was to be to France to restore the Entente Cordiale to its pre-Brexit cordiality. On Friday it was announced that the visit had been postponed

For a change, the dramatic shift in protocol had nothing to do with Britain’s post-Brexit positions on Northern Ireland, fishing, immigration, Australian submarines or a thousand other potential Anglo-French flashpoints. It had everything to do with violent demonstrations sweeping across France in the wake of President Emmanuel Macron’s decreed legislation to increase the French retirement age from 62 to 64.

The result of the presidential decree has been a wave of violence and strikes across France. Rubbish is piling up in the streets of Paris. The entrance to Bordeaux Town Hall was set alight. 903 fires were started in the capital on Thursday, 400 people were arrested and police used tear gas against the demonstrators.

To push through his legislation, President Macron used clause 49:3 of the constitution which allows the president to enact legislation but suffer a vote of no confidence in his government. The government survived the vote by just 11 votes.

Macron says he is prepared to be unpopularity in the cause of doing what he believes is right for the long-term economic interest of France. Unpopular describes him to a tee at the moment. He is also the catalyst which has united French far-right and far-left and provided fuel to keep the political fires burning.

For his part, King Charles was expected to travel by royal train from Paris to Berlin for the second state visit of his reign. It now looks as the German capital will be the destination for his first state visit.

Russia and China

Russia is now the clear junior partner in the Sino-Russian relationship. However, at a personal level, it may well be that Xi Jinping needs Vladimir Putin more than the other way around, or at the very least, the two leaders need each other.

The communique that followed Xi’s visit to Moscow included some interesting points. For a start, there was no reference to the much touted Sino-Russian “limitless partnership” that was announced three weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This was clearly a blow for Putin.

Neither was there any mention of Chinese weapons. Another blow, but not an unexpected one.

The communique did, however, have a lot of positive things to say about China’s proposed peace deal for Ukraine. Special emphasis was placed on recognition of “national sovereignty,” which is distinctly different from “territorial integrity” and is designed to satisfy Chinese designs on Taiwan as well as Russian plans for Ukraine.

Both Xi and Putin are dictators. For that reason the personal relationship is more important than it would be between the leaders of democratic countries. In the case of XI, he is relying on Putin to maintain the Beijing-Moscow axis. The problem is that the longer the Ukraine war drags on, the less secure Putin’s position within the Kremlin.

There is no clear successor to the current Russian leader, but all the likely candidates appear to be more steeped in history and ultra-nationalist then Putin. They remember the two centuries when Russia was under the Asian yoke and the recent Sino-Soviet split. For these reasons many are just as wary of China as they are of America. The Beijing-Moscow axis is no more a certainty then the Berlin-Moscow alliance of World War Two.

Doctors

The Western world is facing an acute medical emergency. No, not another pandemic, although there is no room for complacency on that score.

The latest emergency is a shortage of medical staff from Peoria to Uppsala. In America there are said to be 139,000 unfilled doctors’ jobs. In France nearly 7 million people are currently without GPs. Britain needs another 50,000 doctors and 110,000 nurses. In Germany there is a shortage of 11,000 doctors. Portugal and Finland have been closing maternity wards because of shortages and Greece needs more paramedics. Europe as a whole needs roughly two million more doctors according to the World Health Organisation.

There are a variety of reasons for the medical deficits. Some of them are common in all countries and some are country specific.

A major across-the-board factor is demographics. The baby-boomer doctors are retiring and there are simply not enough candidates coming through the ranks to take their place at a time when the ageing population desperately needs medical attention.

Another factor is cost. In Britain, America and most of Europe, the average cost of obtaining a medical degree is $250,000. In most European countries part of the wannabe’s doctor’s tab is picked up by the state. But in America doctors are left with a staggering student loan debt. Set against that are the higher salaries of American doctors but then they have to pay exorbitant insurance premiums to protect themselves against malpractice suits.

Doctors, like most people, want to earn the most money they can. The result is that in France most of the doctors have migrated to the lucrative city practices, leaving many rural communities without medical staff. The same is true in the American south and west.

In Britain, the problem has been exacerbated by Brexit. Pre-2016, the NHS could rely on EU doctors and nurses intent on improving their English to make up a big chunk of the professional shortfall. That has largely disappeared as Britain has taken back control of its borders.

Then finally, there is burn-out. The pandemic has left medical personnel across the continents asking whether the long-hours, heavy stress, insufficient pay and the risk to one’s physical and mental health are worth it.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopaedia of the Cold War” and “America Made in Britain". To subscribe to his email alerts on world affairs click here.

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15 Comments

  • Tom, I love reading your pieces. Perhaps you would be so kind as to explain to me – why was Charles Windsor intending to visit France? Or maybe more to the point, why was Macron interested in meeting with Charles Windsor? Charles has no executive power whatsoever and has no authority to discuss anything of any moment with any Head of State from another country. So what was the point? There must be plenty of other projects more deserving of Macron’s time?

  • Steve Trevethan 26th Mar '23 - 5:12pm

    Re “Medical Deficits”.

    Might our party start to depart from Neoliberal economics, which got us into the mess we are in, by emphasising “Resource Based Economics/RBE” rather than “Money Based Economics/MBE”?

    “The Deficit Myth” by Stephanie Kelton would be a good start.

  • @John Leach– symbolism. As I try to explain to my scouts, the monarch is the physical repository of British laws, government, culture, history, traditions…. When they visit another country it us Britain, not the government, but the country, that is honouring the country that they are visiting. As for why France at this time, the answer is simple: In the wake of Brexit and the Johnson government, Britain needs to repair relations with its closest neighbour. It also needs to repair relations with Europe which is why Charles Windsor is also off to Germany. You may not be a monarchist, that is immaterial, constitutionally, King Charles III represents Britain and every country in the world accepts that to be the case. End of story.

  • Tom Arms. How could the UK take back control of its borders when it never lost it? The only difference between pre brexit and post brexit is free movement and that worked both ways, even though the Brexiteers refused to admit it.

  • @Tom Arms – Because the monarch has no democratic credentials, Britain has a neutered Head of State. Because the House of Lords has no democratic credentials, Britain has a neutered Upper House. That leaves Britain with a House of Commons that governs alone, and with FPTP that leads to an Executive that has unfettered power to govern having won a plurality but not a majority of the votes cast. Unstable and divisive government, and a hypocritical culture of democratic exceptionalism (“The Mother of All Parliaments”, etc.), both rooted in the cancer at the core of our constitution. Yes, Charles Windsor represents Britain. He represents a very wrong Britain.

  • Here are some uninteresting replies to your interesting comments:
    Mick Taylor–The use of the phrase “take back control” was meant to be ironic.
    John Leach– I am a constitutional monarchist born and raised in a republic. You are a republican born and raised in a constitutional monarchy. Perhaps there is something to be learned from that comparison.
    Suzanne Fletcher– You are right to question the freedom of the press in the 21st century. It has become a complicated issue with the the rise of the internet, social media, populism and commercial pressures. As a journalist and former editor and publisher of a news service, I follow the issue closely and I am thinking of writing something along the lines of “The Media: Leading or Following.” The issue is not confined to the UK

  • suzanne fletcher 27th Mar '23 - 1:50pm

    @Tom arms – I will be really interested in what you have to say on Freedom of the Press. As you say it is complicated, it is a freedom hard won, but is it respected when it is easier to give a very subjective view on extracts of what was said than the facts followed if wished by opinion?

  • Peter Martin 27th Mar '23 - 2:22pm

    @ Tom Arms @ Mick Taylor

    You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say that EU citizens have totally free movement within the EU, that no country can apply tariffs to regulate its trade and at the same time say EU countries have control over their borders.

    It’s like saying Shropshire, any other English county or any individual US State has control over its borders.

  • Andrew Melmoth 27th Mar '23 - 5:28pm

    @Peter Martin
    Can Shropshire leave the UK? Can Texas leave the USA?

    EU countries have freely entered into agreements to confer reciprocal rights to their citizens to live and work across the EU. This is no different in principle to agreements and policies every country in the world makes as to who eligible to pass through their borders. If making such agreements is not compatible with ‘control over their own borders’ then no country, save perhaps North Korea, has control over its borders.

    Brexit has taken away cherished rights and freedoms, destroyed businesses and livelihoods, poisoned our politics, brought to power the most corrupt and malign gang of crooks this country has seen in living memory, and put deep stress on families like my own with members from other EU countries. I can’t conceive of the amount of spite it must take to find a group of people on the internet who feel Brexit to be a profound loss and then spend years rubbing salt in their wounds.

    But if you are going to do that shouldn’t you at least come up with some better arguments instead of trotting out the same old rubbish year after year?

  • Martin Gray 27th Mar '23 - 8:06pm

    @Andrew Melmouth…
    “brought to power the most corrupt and malign gang of crooks this country has seen in living memory”
    The public voted them in Andrew – the only party in 2019 that was commited to Brexit. We got a tanking, as did labour, on the end of a 60 seat loss ( 52 leave seats)..
    No matter how painful it was for us – facts don’t care much for feelings …It was a painful lesson, amplified through FPTP..

  • @ Peter Martin “It’s like saying Shropshire, any other English county or any individual US State has control over its borders”.

    I hope you don’t mind me saying that your comment is extremely Anglo-centric, Mr Martin. There is no way that Scotland can be described as a slightly further northern English county…… but I don’t suppose that that is much of a bother to you.

  • Andrew Melmoth 27th Mar '23 - 11:21pm

    @Martin Gray
    I’ve honestly no idea what point you are trying to make. I suspect you are assuming I hold views that I don’t.

  • Anglo-French relations are among the most important diplomatic relations we have. The early visit of King Charles to France is a key element in fostering those relations. With the UK and France being Europe’s representatives as permanent members of the UN security council, both have vital role to play in maintaining International peace and order.
    This is likely to become an increasingly heavy responsibility as Putin and his Siloviki henchmen seem intent on driving the Russian federation into a state of chaos and ultimately the break-up of the Russian Empire. As former Colonial empires, Britain and France offer recent experience of the hazards accompanying decolonisation and the “winds of change” that are coming Russia’s way.
    The war in Ukraine has seen Russia strip much of its heavy armour from the Chinese border and transfer the equipment together with men and munitions West via the Trans-Siberian railway.
    Were China to follow the same line of reasoning with respect to historical claims that Russia has espoused in Ukraine, it would seek to reclaim the territories the Russian empire annexed during China’s opium wars with Britain. The territories ceded under the 1860 Convention of Peking comprise a vast area of Manchuria including the major cities of Vladivostok (formerly Chinese “Haishenwai”) and Khabarvosk.
    The assassinated Russian politician, Boris Nemtsov, was prescient in his warning of Russia’s impending subservience to Chinese interests under Putin’s administration, before his violent death outside the Kremlin.

  • Peter Hirst 1st Apr '23 - 5:03pm

    I’m surprised you equate the monarchy and parliament, Tom. Much as I admire our monarchy to suggest it plays a significant role in our parliament is absurd. I think in fact it distracts from the direct accountability to parliament of the government of the day. For this reason it is best if there is more clarity on the role of the present monarch in our governance.

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