The Undiscovered Country appeal: Dublin reflections

Dublin Castle

Across the rooftops to Dublin Castle

This week I’m in Dublin, where, during Easter Week 1916 the Irish War of Independence began. Historians still argue over how necessary or justifiable that war was to achieve Irish independence. But whatever the rights and wrongs of it in the grand, historical scheme of things, at the most basic level it followed a bloody path of ordinary people doing brutal things to each other. As Eamon says in The Undiscovered Country, “even just wars are evil things.”

I learned the evil of war early. One of my earliest memories is seeing a neighbour getting shot. Another is of narrowly avoiding a culvert bomb set by the IRA to attack the British Army. The brother of a classmate at primary school was murdered by the SAS. Ten years ago I discovered that a group of Loyalist paramilitaries had planned, in reprisal for an IRA atrocity, to attack the primary school that I attended to kill all the children and teachers. The plan was eventually vetoed: some things were just too much of a war crime for the war criminals of the North of Ireland.

Some of the the themes of The Undiscovered Country are, unfortunately, as timeless as war itself. Others are, equally unfortunately, very timely. I wrote much of the book as a hard won peace, brought into being at another past Easter with the Good Friday Agreement, came under threat from a neo-imperialist faction of the British Establishment blundering towards a scorched-earth Brexit with utter unconcern for the damage they will cause to erstwhile friends and neighbours. It’s in this context that Eamon and Mick ruminate over chess and pints on the realities of colonialism and some of the absurdities of historical memory.

Thanks to the extraordinary generosity and support of over 150 friends I have now reached 62% funding for The Undiscovered Country. So, with another 40 or so pre-sales, the next big milestone of 70% funding beckons, and with that a step closer to the chance to share with the wider world all this, and more en route to solving a knotty mystery, including the cultural threats posed by mainland Europe’s resealable beer bottles, an assessment of Hamlet as a revolutionary, and the etiquette of buying pints in an Irish pub.

So, if you can see your way to adding your support to this endeavour by following this link

https://unbound.com/books/the-undiscovered-country/

and pledging what you would like, I would send you a hundred thousand and mark your name with gratitude in the book itself.

Very best

Aidan

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Rule of law, Brexit, and the World Turned Upside Up

The idea of rule of law is not a new one. It is frequently dated as far back as Aristotle, who said “It is better for the law to rule than one of the citizens.”  But the idea is at least a hundred years older. Sophocles dramatized it in Oedipus Rex, in which, as a result of his own investigation, the King finds himself responsible for the plague on Thebes and realises that he must be held accountable, just as anyone else would be, to his prior judgement.

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The Daily Mail reminds readers of its long-standing association with fascism

Rule of law then is the idea that it is the law, independently administered, that governs a people not the whims of any monarch or minister or mob, and that no one is above the law. So, when the mob gathers with flaming torches and pitchforks outside the “witch’s” hovel, or the minister wants rid of his mistress’ husband, the law should protect the basic human rights of the wise-woman and the cuckold, and restrain human excesses, or punish them when they transgress the law.

It is this concept, one that in British law can be traced back as far as Magna Carta, that is most fundamentally under attack with Brexit. It began with press and political denunciations of the independence of the judiciary. It has continued with British government proposals to use the excuse of Brexit and the “will of the people” to grant sweeping Henry VIII powers to ministers. If these powers are granted they will permit ministers to make law without reference to parliament.

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Tom Bingham, Baron Bingham of Cornhill, who served as Master of the Rolls, Lord Chief Justice, and Senior Law Lord

In his magisterial book on the subject, Tom Bingham sets out the fundamental principles of rule of law, noting that these include a requirement for compliance of the state with its obligations in international as well as national law. Bingham quotes Professor William Bishop as describing the international rule of law as including, “the realization that law can and should be used as an instrumentality for the cooperative international furtherance of social aims in such a fashion as to preserve and promote the values of freedom and dignity for individuals.”

But this ideal has long been anathema to powerful sections of the Conservative party. In 2015 David Cameron removed from the ministerial code the requirement for ministers to adhere to international law. Theresa May has never been shy about her wish to remove the UK from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights, an entity separate to the EU.

Brexit furthers this ambition to remove the constraints of international law from the UK government. As part of the Brexit process, the Government intends to remove the UK from the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union. This, if it happens, will further remove constraints on ministerial power. A side effect of this will be to put in jeopardy the UK’s continued law enforcement and intelligence cooperation in Europe. But while this would undoubtedly increase the risks of terrorism for ordinary UK citizens, there is little that the pathetic foot soldiers of Islamic State can do that will pose an existential threat to the nation. However, the cynical might comment that, as in the past, an upsurge of terrorist attacks on the civilian population would provide a convenient excuse for a further concentration of power in the hands of ministers and further erosion of the civil rights of the British people.

Since the Brexit vote in 2016, the British Government have sought to find common ground with some of the most unsavoury governments and anti-democratic leaders on the planet. As well as Theresa May’s supplication to Donald Trump and the leaders of the bloodthirsty Saudi Arabian government, she has also proven herself a ready apologist for the governments of Poland and Hungary as they also strike at the foundations of human rights and rule of law in their own countries. Disgraced former Defence Secretary Liam Fox, gave more away than he intended with his declaration of “shared values” with Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines leader whose repudiation of rule of law is so absolute that he promotes indiscriminate murder as a central tenet of his so-called “war on drugs”.

But all this should not be surprising. Because, for the empire-dreaming elite whose money and lies obtained the soiled “mandate” for Brexit, the diminution of rule of law is their central purpose. It will facilitate an environment in which ecological and safety standards, workers’ and consumers’ rights are negated. Capital will once more be given pre-eminence over labour, as newly empowered ministers ensure that the wealthiest are permanently put above the law, at least as far as their tax affairs are concerned. No matter what fantasies are spun by the leadership of the British Labour party about the possibilities of a “People’s Brexit”, they will not alter, one iota, the vital essence of this project, irrespective of who is in government.

So, the prospects of Brexit for the UK are not simply of economic decline, international isolation and irrelevance. British democratic standards and human rights, a tradition that can be traced back to Runnymede, are themselves under threat as the UK continues to seek its future alliances with new dictatorships and old autocracies.

As Shakespeare’s Falstaff reflects while Prince Hal prepares to repudiate their friendship and put him back into his lowly place, these are the “chimes at midnight”. They ring again today for any British subject not wealthy enough to indulge in tax avoidance. The lower orders have had their day. Now they must know their place.

On the value of conspiracy theories: the Kennedy assassinations and “official versions”

For many Gerald Posner’s book, Case Closed, is the definitive word on Jack Kennedy’s assassination. Posner concludes that Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone shot Kennedy on 22 Nov 1963 in Dallas Texas. It is a widely shared conclusion. Vincent Bugliosi, a distinguished prosecutor who put Charles Manson in jail, concluded the same in his own consideration of the case. And this is of course the official verdict of the Warren Commission established by Lyndon Johnson to investigate the assassination.

And yet as the US gets ready to publish another trove of documents relating to the Kennedy assassination, a clear majority of Americans – in 2013 the Economist reported 61% – still believe that Jack Kennedy was killed in a multi-person ambush organised by high officials in the US government.

David Talbot’s 2007 book Brothers, goes some way to explaining why so many still think this way. Talbot recounts how two of Kennedy’s closest advisers, Dave Power and Kenny O’Donnell, both veterans of World War 2, both travelling in the same car behind Kennedy when they saw him killed, were both under the clear impression that their convoy was under fire from multiple directions, including the infamous Grassy Knoll ahead of them, as well as the Book Depository behind them where Oswald was located.

Furthermore the subsequent killing on live television of Oswald by Jack Ruby, a mob-connected Dallas night-club owner, reeks of cover-up: Ruby’s story, that he wanted to protect Jackie Kennedy from the trauma of a protracted trial, is as fantastical as any Brexit bus slogan.

Talbot alleges that a pivotal figure behind the assassination of Jack Kennedy was Howard Hunt, someone who became infamous in the Seventies for his part in the break-in to the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate Building in Washington and the subsequent Nixon administration cover-up.

Talbot notes that in a memoir, American Spy, that Hunt wrote shortly before his death in 2007, Hunt included a “speculative” section on how the CIA would have gone about the killing IF it had been involved. In connection with the publication of that book Rolling Stone interviewed Hunt’s son who claims that, when he thought he was dying, Hunt described to him in some explicit detail the architecture of the conspiracy, which allegedly involved both Lyndon Johnson and senior CIA officials.

Talbot also claims that in spite of public statements that he believed Oswald was the lone assassin, Bobby Kennedy had been privately investigating Jack’s killing for years. Indeed, Talbot believes that, with the help of an FBI investigator, Bobby Kennedy had actually cracked the case, and it was his intention to have it officially reopened if elected president. That dream, of course, came to a bloody end in the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, California in June 1968 when Bobby was himself assassinated.

Robert Vaughn, the scholar and actor, was with Bobby that night, and Vaughn has noted that there were more bullets fired than Sirhan Sirhan, the convicted killer, had in his gun. So, he concludes, there must also have been a conspiracy to kill Bobby. Perhaps this was a further measure to ensure that the truth of Jack’s death never emerged?

Perhaps it is far-fetched to believe in a conspiracy behind the killings of Jack and Bobby Kennedy. And it is improbable that whatever the contents of the papers to be released this week that they will shed much new or definitive light on those awful days. But at a moment in history when it increasingly appears that the occupant of the White House is there as a consequence of a Russian backed coup, and when a cynical campaign of lies has been used to strike at the foundations of a strong and united Europe, then perhaps the Kennedy assassinations still have important lessons for us. Not least they show that, whatever the official versions of events, that power and the powerful must be constantly questioned by the citizenry because it is only upon a foundation of doubt and skepticism that democracy, human rights and the rule of law can safely rest.

Another fine mess: politics since the Brexit vote

Also published in Left Foot Forward 

When I worked in Angola in the late 1990s, towards the end of the Civil War, I discovered an important truth: just when you think things can’t get any worse, they can. So has it proven with British politics since the 23 June 2016 when the UK narrowly voted to leave the European Union.

Before the 2017 UK General Election I had thought that a hung parliament was probably the best possible outcome, to force some sanity and compromise into the UK’s intent to exit the European Union. Instead, Theresa May has sought a de-facto coalition with the Irish Democratic Unionist Party, a group so extreme that for them the witch burning scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail is not so much comedy, but a utopian ideal.

For many observers the UK’s attitude to the EU in general and to its putative departure from the Union seems profoundly irrational. The government’s stated intention to leave both the Single Market and the Customs Union, ignores the vast economic cost of such moves. Instead Brexiteers fall back on the slogan “take back control”, dreams of a British Empire 2.0, and cooked-up alternative numbers that have little basis in reality. This is a position that has gone broadly unchallenged by the opposition Labour Party who promise the fairytale of a “People’s Brexit” if the electorate were only to entrust them with the levers of government.

To “take back control” of what the government has never really been clear. Certainly immigration, in spite of the UK’s need for immigrants, in order to satisfy the xenophobic amongst the government and its voters.

The government is also intent to “take back control” from the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union, in spite of the threat that this poses to security and justice cooperation in Europe at a time of rising tensions and increasing violence across the continent. This perhaps gets to the nub of the matter. Because it suggests that rather than the government’s approach to Brexit being only economically incompetent and politically delusional it rather suggests that the government’s intent is profoundly ideological.

Taken alongside the antipathy of Theresa May to the European Court of Human Rights, and the former Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to remove from the Ministerial Code an obligation for ministers to comply with international law, the UK’s intent to quit the European Union indicates an enduring colonialist instinct in the government that still bristles at the idea of international rule of law. They seem to regard it as an affront to the primacy of the UK parliament, which some seem to believe still should rule the waves.

But, of course, the supremacy of the UK parliament has already taken a kicking in the Brexit process as dozens of MPs, contrary to their judgment as to what is best for their country, voted to uphold the notional “will of the people” as expressed through a blood-stained and, it now increasingly appears, a corrupted referendum.

But this is as nothing to the intent of the Great Repeal Bill, to invest ministers with Henry VIII powers that will enable them to make vast swathes of law for years to come without reference to parliament. In other words the intent of the Great Repeal Bill appear less to do with withdrawal from the EU and more to do with a significant repeal of democracy itself.

The UK may appear to be blundering towards the exit of the EU like a drunk staggering towards the door of a bar. But all citizens must beware that the pantomime shenanigans of Davis, Johnson and Fox, the three Brexit Stooges, mask a much more sinister domestic agenda. And Labour needs to stop being the government’s poodle on Brexit.

 

 

Jefferson, Hamilton and moral courage in the struggle against slavery.

Excerpt from a lecture to Gresham College, London, 23 Feb 2017

To this day political figures across the globe covet the title “the new Wilberforce”, in recognition of the towering role that he played in efforts to bring the trans-Atlantic slave trade to an end. This, perhaps, shouldn’t be too surprising. In any given age there are no shortage of people who feel that slavery is wrong.

But, as Batman teaches us, it is not what we feel, but what we do, that defines us. So, anyone who dips their toe into the slavery debate today with dreams of future glory should be aware, that if they lack the necessary moral and political courage, they may become merely “a new Jefferson” rather than a “new Wilberforce”.

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Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson was one of the great geniuses of his age and a declared opponent of slavery. Some of his writings on the subject were described by contemporaries such as John Adams, the United States’ second president, as being more valuable than diamonds in the anti-slavery cause. And yet the vision of the American Republic that he offered was impossible without slavery, and as President he did nothing to end slavery save for a mealy mouthed assertion that it was a task for later generations.

That argument may have comforted him as he sat in his study on his Monticello plantation in Virginia overseeing his own enslaved children. But it was not an argument which impressed Jefferson’s contemporary Alexander Hamilton, who sought, as the United States’ first treasury secretary, to put his anti-slavery convictions into practice by establishing an economic system that would reward free labour over slavery in the hope that that would erode the slave economy and hence end the brutal system.

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Alexander Hamilton

While that did not directly bring an end to slavery in the United States the economic system Hamilton put in place did ultimately provide the North, under Lincoln, with the economic capacity to crush the South and obtain the legal abolition of slavery half a century after Hamilton’s own death: So if Lincoln is the Father of Emancipation in the United States, I would argue that Hamilton is its Grandfather.

And in spite of his incredible gifts Jefferson did not confront the fundamental systems and institutions of slavery when he had the most power to do so. And across the world we see that still.

It will perhaps be a matter for comment by some future historians that at this shameful period of European history some of the most vocal European leaders on the issue of slavery have been noticeably negative with regard to the formulation of an effective pan-European response to the refugee crisis.  It is the absence of this, more than anything else, which has contributed so much to increasing the risks of human trafficking to Europe from the wars of the Middle East. Furthermore the xenophobia and prejudice that have been allowed to poison the political environment against migrants have further betrayed the struggle against slavery by increasing the opportunities for violence and exploitation.

It is a hard lesson of history, that when the moral courage of political leaders fails in the face of prejudice and vested interests, it is almost always the vulnerable who are the ones to pay in the bloody routine of violence that ensues. And, as was true in the days of Jefferson, it is not rhetoric but moral courage that defines leadership and shapes the history of the times.

Ourselves Alone: How the Leave Campaigns repudiated rule of international law

Also published in Left Foot Forward http://leftfootforward.org/2016/07/ourselves-alone-how-brexiters-shrugged-off-international-law/

The late Tom Bingham, perhaps the most distinguished English jurist of his generation, noted that legal scholars trace the concept of rule of law back to Aristotle. However the concept is apparent, at least in nascent form, in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King written a century earlier. In this the king realises as his own investigation finds himself responsible for the plague on Thebes that he must be subject to his own earlier ruling on how the culprit should be held accountable.

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Tom Bingham

Bingham built on prior formulations of rule of law to argue that the idea had eight principles that were fundamental to it. These included that the law must afford adequate protection of fundamental human rights, and that the state must comply with its obligations in international law as in national law.

For hard Right ideologues, such as Michael Gove, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, such ideals of rule of law sit at odds with their own conception of the supremacy of Parliament as a fundamental of the unwritten British Constitution.

But generations of parliamentarians have never seen any conflict between rule of law and rule of parliament. So they have, over the past 40 years, set constraints on the unfettered power of parliament, notably in the form of the Human Rights Act, which is administered by the UK’s Supreme Court with appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, and the treaties that the UK freely entered into to obtain its membership of the European Union, which are overseen by the European Court of Justice.

So, when Gove, Johnson and Farage talked about taking back control during their poisonous and bloodstained campaign to take the UK out of the EU, what they were talking about was removing the constraints that derive from the treaty obligations which have provided the manifold benefits that arise from EU membership. Doubtless they were also thinking about national law, specifically the protections from government excesses afforded to citizens by the Human Rights Act.

It is axiomatic that a partnership like the European Union, indeed any international treaty with other nations, must introduce mutual responsibilities and ideally should have some independent body to oversee that the parties to the treaty comply. Otherwise the already fragile concepts of international rule of law become meaningless.

British experience of international rule of law during its colonial period was rather different to such contemporary expectations. It had little consideration of mutual benefits but rather had an altogether more lopsided aspect, with no recourse to independent arbitration or appeals to human rights for the colonial subjects whose exploitation enriched the UK to such an extraordinary extent.

This colonial perspective contributed greatly to the ludicrous myth of Britain standing alone during the Second World War. This myth insultingly overlooks the vital contributions made by Africans, Australians, Canadians, Indians, and Kiwis to the struggles against Nazism and Japanese militarism. This myth also gravely overlooks the horrendous cost that this entailed, most infamously in the Bengal famine of 1943.

But a theme running through the depressing debates relating to the UK’s EU membership in the run up to the referendum of 23 June 2016 was that the UK can still “stand alone”. This was underpinned by that weird continuing sense of colonial entitlement: that the UK should be allowed to cherry-pick what its relationship with the EU should be without any appreciation that UK membership should bring responsibilities not just privileges.

This attitude was copper-fastened by a careful cultivation of xenophobia by the Leave campaigns, and by a startling disregard for mere facts, from the true cost of EU membership to the actual provisions of EU treaties and the rights and obligations of member states under those treaties.

This wilful ignorance and misinformation to the UK electorate continues past the result of the referendum. On the morning of 27 June Boris Johnson declared, “The only change – and it will not come in any great rush – is that the UK will extricate itself from the EU’s extraordinary and opaque system of legislation: the vast and growing corpus of law enacted by a European Court of Justice from which there can be no appeal”.

Perhaps Johnson rarely lets facts get in the way of an opportunity to stoke the prejudices of his listeners. Perhaps he is merely supremely uninterested in facts. The European Court of Justice enacts nothing. It administers the body of law agreed by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, of which, to date, the UK has been an equal party.

It is too early to see what will be all the consequences of the UK’s repudiation of the EU. Perhaps this will sate the appetite of the ideologues of the Right for unfettered power if what comes to pass is a recession-hit Little England as Scotland prepares to steer its own course as a full and independent member of the EU.

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A blind Oedipus led by his daughter Antigone

But it is unlikely. And the Human Rights Act remains for a while longer, another affront to the Tea Party-ist fantasies of a resurgent and exclusivist English nationalism. Gove or Johnson may like to eruditely comment, after Milton, that they prefer to rule in hell than serve in heaven as they seek to translate their peculiar Cromwellian version of Ourselves Alone into a new English polity.

Oedipus could not bear to look upon the devastation that he had wrought on his family and city so he tore out his own eyes. Today Gove, Farage, and Johnson look upon the wasteland that they have created of young people’s hopes for modest opportunities to study, work and fall in love amongst their fellow European neighbours, and they judge that it is good.

Barbarians at the Gate: reflections on the UK and European Union at the abyss

Many years ago I watched a documentary about the life and work of the campaigning American journalist I F Stone. Stone was for his whole life a fighter for justice and a fierce critic of the excesses of his own government, such as its encroachment on civil liberties, its systemic racism, and its illegal invasion of Vietnam.

And yet, when asked towards the end of the film what his overall judgement of his country was, Stone said something I found striking: he said, in effect, that he regarded the American Republic as one of the great flowerings of civilisation, comparable to Athens in the Golden Age.

I F Stone

It was a carefully chosen analogy: Stone was also a classical scholar and author of The Death of Socrates. The Athens he contemplated would have been a warts-and-all one, constructed on the injustice of slavery and the subjugation of women, and party, on much too frequent occasion, to war crimes and mob-rule.

And yet in the midst of all this there were new ideas emerging in philosophy, science and the arts, and new politics, in one of the first human stirrings of democracy.

The United States’s bears similar scars to ancient Athens, it’s history marked by slavery and appalling racial prejudice, and by illegal war from Mexico and Nicaragua, to Vietnam and Iraq. But it is also the nation of Abraham Lincoln and Bobby Kennedy, of Harriet Tubman, Martin King and Dorothy Day. It was the country which in the 19th Century showed that democracy was a robust and viable system even in the face of dreadful civil war, and which has produced, like Athens, some of the greatest achievements of the age in science and art.

If it has a rival in the 21st century then I would argue it is the much younger European Union. Like the United States and Athens before it, and every human institution or undertaking before or since, Europe is a flawed, human project. In recent years we have seen one of its most abject failings in its fragmented and often craven efforts to establish a coherent and effective humanitarian policy in response to the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean.

And yet: the European Union represents as vital a political project as the United States. It too represents one of the great flowerings of human civilisation. It has brought enduring peace to a continent that has hitherto been scarred over the centuries by fratricidal war. It is an effort by democratic nations to work together on matters of common interest underpinned by the the principles of human rights, democracy and rule of law. That is a project that is rare in human history and rare in the contemporary world. It is also something that is essential to face the political, environmental, humanitarian and human rights challenges of this fragile and interconnected world. So, for all its flaws, this is a project that is worth fighting for, not running away from in search of some mythic past.

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Jo Cox

As Jo Cox noted in her maiden speech to Parliament, migration, including the free movement of EU citizens amongst our member states, has immeasurably enhanced the communities and societies that have benefited from it, through a vibrant diversity in food, music and arts as well as business and commerce.

But this cosmopolitan vision of Europe is anathema to some who instead cling to the same nasty rhetoric that was once used to justify colonialism, but which now is put in the service of a poisonous xenophobic populism. This seeks to convince the electorate that the EU and migrants are to blame for social ills that have been the result of domestic policies and failures in government, sometimes perpetrated by the very people scapegoating others

History shows us that such rhetoric can open an abyss, which the UK descended into on the streets of Birstall on 16th June 2016. The assertions which followed rapidly from those pedalling intolerance, that the brutal assassination of Jo Cox had nothing to do with them, still ring hollow.

Jo Cox understood that the European Union, with all its human flaws and imperfections as well as its enormous potential and aspiration, was worth fighting for. And in the months and years following the awful, bloody UK referendum campaign the fate of the UK and the EU itself still seems to hang in the balance as incompetents and charlatans such as Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg are treated like perspicacious philosopher-princes by the BBC and other pusillanimous media.

The decency that Jo Cox embodied has not been crushed by the narrow victory in the Brexit referendum of a coalition of racists, delusional imperial nostalgists, disaster capitalists, useful idiots of the Left, and a misled section of the populace. It continues to reassert itself, notably on the streets of London and Belfast on 20th Oct 2018.

Both the UK government, and their tame opposition under Jeremy Corbyn, seem intent on ignoring this demonstration of disgust for their policies by so many people. Instead they seem committed to their process that will eliminate the human and citizens’ rights of tens of millions of people and reek economic devastation in the name of their delusional dreams of Brexit. But they should be careful.

The people of India under Gandhi and Nehru, the African American community of the United States under Martin King, the nationalists of the North of Ireland under Hume and Mallon, showed that ultimately a determined people will, through non-violence, shape the political agenda. And when pan-European progressives achieve that in the UK, as they will, May, Corbyn, their acolytes and their clowns, will all be consigned to the dustbin of history.

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People’s Vote March, London, 20th Oct 2018