“Mr Speaker, the House has spoken and the Government will listen.”
Theresa May on Tuesday 15th January, after the vote
So Theresa May has been forced to listen, but only after the largest parliamentary defeat in history. The story of the past two years has been a recurrent and personal failure to listen: in the 2017 election, in the Brexit machinations, in responding to concerns and submissions to government, and now, finally, in driving her proposed EU Withdrawal Agreement into the wall of parliamentary opposition.
I have long felt that arrogance is the Achilles heel of the politician, but I do not believe this is the case with Theresa May. I think she works very hard to achieve what she perceives to be in the best public interest but, in doing so, she is concentrating so hard that she has no capacity to listen.
So this week we look at the art of listening in the widest sense and how, for democracy to work - including in the European Union - political leaders must open their ears and not just their mouths.
Just over two weeks ago, my brother-in-law was killed in a road accident in the United States. For over 40 years he has been with the Krishna Consciousness community - during the past 15 years in Alachua, Florida. We have attended memorial services for him, both there and in the United Kingdom.
At one of these services, one of the speakers referred to my brother-in-law’s capacity to listen to others, and how important it was. He was so right.
To some people, listening comes naturally. Conversation is at the heart of human relationships and, for it to flow naturally and to be sustained productively and enjoyably, there must be give and take in the dialogue.
For others it is something which does not come naturally, particularly for those who are somewhere on the autistic spectrum. For them, not just listening but also picking up those un-said signals and body language is not instinctive, but must be positively learnt.
A good school teacher will, of course, be aware of this and, in my view, it would do no harm for subjects such as PSHE (Personal, Social & Health Education) to include the ‘Art of Making Conversation’ - with a real emphasis on listening. This may help to avoid much of the stress and loneliness that affects so many people in later life (see our commentary on 16th April 2018).
We often write about sharing, and a fulfilling conversation must be a shared conversation. But in this context the speaking part is taking: taking the time and attention of the other person. The listening part is giving: giving of your own time and attention. And we know that the magic of sharing can result in abundance for all, as told in the story of the ‘feeding of the 5,000’.
So Theresa May has been forced to listen, and is now doing so. But I suggest that it is not just the UK government which must listen - it is also the European Commission.
The EU has proved to be a formidable negotiator, uniting 27 countries on Brexit and ruthlessly using Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement to try to force a second referendum which would overturn Brexit. If it succeeds, it will be extending that well-trodden path on which it has already overturned the democratic wills of both the Irish and Danish peoples.
However it is different this time. Our referendum was not about approving the Maastricht treaty: it was about leaving the EU and, as we have said on several occasions, the Eurozone’s dysfunctionality has largely resulted from our membership, with our continued insistence on ‘No ever-closer union’. That’s why it’s in their interest for us to leave, because they must integrate politically to govern their single currency for the benefit of all.
But already the writing is on the wall for the Eurozone and, unless the European Commission listens not just to the United Kingdom but also to people on the march throughout Europe, it is heading for disaster.
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, the lead business writer for the Telegraph, has set out the risks for the European Union well, and two of his recent editorial headlines provide the detail:
- 3rd January: ‘The Euro cannot be made to work, and so it must be broken up’.
- 17th January: ‘The EU is playing with economic fire even to contemplate no deal’.
In the second article, he quotes France’s Emmanuelle Macron as saying ‘A no deal scenario is scary for everybody’, and he goes on to illustrate this for the EU by drawing attention to their £95 billion trade surplus in goods with the UK. Both articles are well worth a read.
The European Union is indeed standing on a cliff edge much more dangerous than the United Kingdom. It is failing in terms of both economics and democracy, and the immense burden of debt in countries which have lost out - that includes Italy, Greece and France - together with the retrenchment of Germany, is threatening to bring down the whole pack of cards. That’s why we proposed an EU-wide referendum – excluding the UK – in our commentary on 5th November 2018, and it’s why they need to stop putting unreasonable demands on the UK and cut the ‘NI backstop’ right out of its Withdrawal Agreement.
They may mean well - like Theresa May - but unless they also LISTEN, this bunch of unelected bureaucrats will also go down in history as bringing about a failure of record proportions, and with much worse consequences than last week’s vote.