Monday, August 08, 2016

Movements

There are three very common political delusions that I see all the time.

1. Because I believe something, the majority of people believe the same.

2. Those that don't believe what I believe must be wrong (or evil).

3. What I believe is new, exciting and original. Those who don't think the same way are from a past that will disappear.

I ran into all three on social media the other day, when I was told that I was part of the problem that would be swept away by a new era. This wasn't comforting for a man in his sixties confronting mortality, but it did make me laugh.

The debate I was having was about reconstructing the Labour Party into a new social movement that would sweep it to power - eventually - after everyone else had cottoned on to the wonderful empowerment promised by a bunch of middle-class enthusiasts who like going to meetings.

Paul Mason is one of the prominent enthusiasts arguing for this. Disillusioned by Syriza and disappointed by Podemos, he has now turned to the Labour Party hoping for another Occupy moment. You see, this is the new politics that started around twenty years ago. OK, newish.
Labour could become — for the first time in its history — a mass, democratic and participatory opposition to the rule of the 1% that would be a major thing in the politics of the Western hemisphere: a social democratic husk transformed into a living, breathing counter-power...
Labour’s membership could create a new kind of politics: a more networked, more activist, and much more radical form of social democracy than has existed within Labour since the 1930s. A form of leftism rooted in the very communities where Labour is battling right wing populism, through community activism and grass roots engagement.
Except that I can't see much evidence of it. There are plenty of active social movements out there and they are creating new realities, but they aren't party political. They are setting up credit unions and LETS schemes. They are organising everything from tenants' associations, mother and toddler groups, adult education, environmental projects and the like. The growing Labour Party membership doesn't seem to be doing much of this. Nor do I see a flood of new ideas and policy initiatives coming from them. They don't even seem to do much of the hard graft of leafleting and getting out the vote. Instead they turn up to rallies and spend many hours in front of computers obsessively praising their leader and abusing his enemies. They are a noisy minority in the country, but strong in the Labour Party.

When I see what is happening now, I look back to the 1960s. There were fashionably optimistic theories knocking about then about how a one party state could be democratic if there was vigorous intra-party democracy. But most of all, I think of Richard Crossman's perceptive introduction to Bagehot's The English Constitution.
...since it could not afford ... to maintain a large army of paid party workers, the Labour Party required militants - politically conscious socialists to do the work of organising their constituencies. But since these militants tended to be 'extremists', a constitution was needed which maintained their enthusiasm by apparently creating a full party democracy while excluding them from effective power.
I am afraid nothing has changed. Sorry Momentum supporters, you are not a vehicle for a new participatory politics. Nobody is going hand power to you. You are being mobilised to maintain the power of a faction within the party, not to exercise it yourself. You are in thrall to old delusions, ones that will persist in future generations long after you have faded from the scene to pursue your own, comfortable lives.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Four Posts on Brexit; 4. Lost and found

So what have we gained from Brexit and what have we lost? We can't be sure, because we don't know what the alternative to EU membership will be. There were no plans, no thinking about the future, nothing. Incredibly, the majority voted for a void. They voted for a negative - non-membership. Sure there were suggestions about what may happen, but nothing concrete. Promises were rapidly withdrawn once the campaign was over. But then what do you expect? A binary referendum like this was an invitation to dishonesty. So what follows is only guesswork.

Losses

Citizenship

We have voluntarily given away the one thing millions of people all over the world crave, something people risk their lives for, a European Union passport. We will cease to be citizens of the EU. My citizenship has been forcibly taken from me. And if you want to see what it is like not to have an EU passport, read this.

Respect

See Nina Avramovic Trninic's conclusion from the piece I linked to above:
I cannot feel for the UK in general, given that thousands of Europeans, Asians, and Africans have lived this life for years and decades, and were happy to have the opportunity to live under normal circumstances.
The UK brought itself into this “lose-lose” situation.
And it has two options:
• The UK can proceed with the Brexit and experience the “luxurious” life of the non-EU citizen.
• Or the British can bite their tongues, say we are sorry and not proceed with leaving the EU. They turn from a spoiled, favorite child into a grown-up, responsible country and face the reality.
The reality is, you UK citizens have great lives. Your children are not drowning, fighting for their lives as they try to reach Europe. You are not bombed every day. You have good jobs that make it possible to pay the taxes and your expenses. You are the financial center of the world/Europe.
So stop whining about how hard everything is and deal with it!
Greek friends have said, 'why don't they like us? We like them.' Most think we must be mad.

Power

The three nations central to determining the policy of the EU were Germany, France and us. Yes, we were one of the big players. Now we are not. Yet, whatever the relationship we have with the EU in the future, we will not make the policy.

Being part of EU wide schemes

Driving licences - pet passports? What becomes of them? Do we have to scrap them? Will we have to bring back quarantine?  And this is only what I can think of off the top of my head.

EU Funding

There are so many schemes that underpin much of what we do and build.
European Social Fund
European Regional Development Fund
European Agriculture Fund for Rural Development
(Cornwall must be delighted at voting out – they were due to get €600 million of funding from these)
Agricultural subsidies through the Common Agricultural Policy
Education funding through ERASMUS
Research funding, especially in science through Horizon 2020
Environmental protection projects. I could go on and on. If you want to know more look them up for yourself.
Are we really going to see these replaced by savings from our payment to the EU, savings that we may not even get if we still get access to the single market?

Investment

We are seeing some high profile noises about businesses continuing to invest or thinking of divesting from Britain after Brexit. Those who favour exit bang on about the former, those who want to remain talk about the latter. What will matter is less visible. It will be the non-decisions; automatically ruling out Britain because we will not be members of the EU.

Democracy

This is an odd one. Brexiteers see leaving the EU as enhancing democracy. They point to two things. The first is that they insist that the EU is undemocratic and that we have somehow put ourselves under the rule of unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. The second is that the vote to leave the EU is an expression of the 'will of the people' that must be obeyed. I would argue that both are fictions.

The EU is about shared sovereignty, not its abnegation. It has limited areas of competence and its major policy decisions are made by the member governments and scrutinised by its directly elected parliament. It was set up explicitly to protect and secure democracy in Europe. It's obviously true that the sharing of sovereignty does limit it. You only elect your own government not the government of the other twenty-seven member states who have a say in your future. But this is the nature of all partnerships. Any married person will know that they don't always get their own way. The idea of a wholly independent and autonomous nation state is a chimera. Every state is limited in its actions by treaties, agreements, memberships of transnational organisations, common interests, and, inescapably, reality. The EU is simply one restraint of many.

As for the 'will of the people'; since when has 'the people' consisted of a bare majority of those that voted and less than 40% of those eligible to vote? This is just rhetoric. There is no broad consensus. There are huge generational and regional divisions. The idea that 'the people' can have an incontestable 'will' is an abstraction. The idea that it can be measured with a snapshot of opinion on one day is inconceivable. We need to think a bit more about what democracy is.

Democracy is a principle, but like all political principles it is implemented through systems designed to emphasise some democratic elements over others. Britain is a Parliamentary democracy. The main principles are indirect representation rather than delegation, the protection of minorities from the tyranny of the majority, and Parliamentary sovereignty. All these have been bulldozed by the referendum and its result. The mainstream economist Kenneth Rogoff, is very eloquent about this democratic failure.

Economic Growth

There is a broad consensus amongst the vast majority of economists on this. At least in the short term, Britain will take an economic hit. Tim Harford sees low growth as our main problem in a typically oblique analysis that will irritate many.

Truth

The referendum was poorly thought out and the campaign was short and haphazard. It wasn't a deliberative process, it was a festival of lying. I was appalled.

The UK

Scotland and Northern Ireland?

Gains

Talking

Ten years (at least) of complex negotiations to ensure that we get only a slightly worse deal than the one we already have. Read this and weep.

New friends

Though I have to say they look a bit dodgy to me.

Control of borders

If we can afford it. Have they thought how much it will cost to police EU immigration? Anyway, this article is good.
This popular vision of migration control is a fantasy, based on decades of false promises by politicians who know they cannot deliver. In democracies, states cannot determine who lives where and what they do: they are constrained by practicalities and other interests. States can obstruct movement of foreigners through visas, permits, border refusals and deportation. But attempts to enforce restrictive rules that ignore realities impose enormous cost to the state – financially, economically and socially. They generate expectations that they then fail to meet.
But we might reduce immigration by other means.
Brexit is likely to trigger a significant decrease in immigration, but it will be due to a severe decline in the UK's economic performance rather than government policy.
Prejudice

A spike in racist incidents and gruesome condescension from middle class remain voters about the working class people who voted to leave.

Wishful thinking

It will be wonderful v it won't be that bad v we're doomed. Tim Harford again.

Ambiguity

Some things, like the falling value of sterling can be both bad and good. It's good for exporters, but crap for me with a house in Greece. Guess which one I care about.

Independence

Now I am trying to be fair here. It will not have escaped you that I am not wholly unbiased in my selection. So here is the thing Brexiteers care most about. We will be free from the EU. OK we had opt outs for the Euro and Schengen so we won't see that much of a difference, but we will be wholly independent - sort of.

There are three visions of an independent Britain put forward by the various bits of the leave campaign.

1. We can become a free trade paradise. Low taxes, low regulation, and open borders.
2. We can restore our nation to its former self. A strong welfare state, conservative social values, and restricted immigration.
3. We can become an independent democratic socialist nation state freed from continental neoliberalism (dream on).

Sort that lot out if you can. All three are completely contradictory.

That's it. I have had enough now. The Tory hegemony is here unless events rescue us. Theresa May has rebuilt her cabinet, given the worst jobs to Brexiteers, and sent Boris Johnson on a world tour of ritual humiliation. And as for Labour ... no, let's not go there. Fans of dialectical thinking would notice that there appear to be more than a few contradictions knocking around. What possible synthesis can emerge? I honestly haven't a clue.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Four posts on Brexit; 3. Thinking small

Much of the commentary I have read is about the big things, sovereignty, the single market and the like, but what do they mean to real lives? Sometimes we need to step away from the macro and look at the micro. Let's look at a two examples: economics, and identity.

Economics.

All the talk has been about trade deals, international agreements, share values, financial services, the value of the pound, and of the big employers and investors, of Nissan in Sunderland and financial services in London. The discussion is about whether these big employers would be better off inside or outside the EU and of the strength and relative independence of the national economy. But if you look small you will see something else. There is a genuine European economy emerging amongst small firms and micro businesses. I will illustrate this with a story.

I wanted to buy Greek olive oil in this country and spotted a small advert for someone who imports it and sells it at farmers' markets. I went and bought some and got chatting to the importer. He runs the import and sales side on his own with a bit of help from his family. He was on holiday, got chatting to the locals and ended up doing a deal with some olive farmers to sell some of their oil in the UK. He goes over to Greece and helps with the olive harvest and, once the oil is pressed, packages it and ships it back to the UK. It's a second income, a very marginal business, but he is doing what he wants and enjoys. It certainly makes a difference for the olive farmers. I know plenty of other people in Greece running tiny firms, often with only two people, sometimes of different European nationalities. There are obvious examples, such as guest houses, sailing and hotels. Then there are others such as pet transport and small scale removals. I know of slightly larger firms that have built networks of European links with partners, creating a pan-European division of labour.

The EU has been criticised as a bureaucratic monster, but for these micro businesses it has removed bureaucracy. It has made a framework of law in which they can operate, opened up an unrestricted market, and, above all, allowed people to live and work where they want. There are plenty of bureaucratic obstacles, but these are mainly the product of national governments, not the EU. We don't know what the terms of Brexit will be, but at worst it could mean that these businesses will have to face the hurdles of visas, residency, tariffs, and the like. Most will muddle through, but the increased costs and administrative work could make some unviable. Businesses could close, people could lose their livelihoods, and, more importantly, their dreams. In terms of national GDP figures, the losses would be invisible, but in terms of some people's lives they may be devastating. And there is a link between this micro network and identity.

Identity.

The big mistake that Cameron and the remain campaign made was to concentrate on the economy. Some evidence tends to suggest that attitudes and identity underpinned the way people voted and that the economy was irrelevant. There was a clear divide between the socially liberal and the socially conservative. Nothing illustrated that more than the immigration debate.

There is an economic determinist argument that opposition to immigration was down to the way competition for jobs and resources were depressing wages and putting pressure on services. Studies tend to show that at the macro level immigration does not lower wages, but again at the micro level people do report that they are losing out. This may or may not be true, but it is certainly believed. The trouble is, anti-immigration sentiment is widespread in areas where there are no immigrants, and amongst affluent people who are more likely to employ migrants than compete with them.

Then again, I was talking to a Polish friend who has just got a new job. I asked him what he was doing and he said, 'the same as always, anything the English won't do.' And that is true too. People are not queuing up to clean offices at five in the morning, pick crops, or change sheets in hotels. The people who do that are on the margins as well; they are also exploited. What's more, Brexit threatens them. It is aimed at them. It could expel them and take away their income. It may not yet, but that is what it implies and what a few people hope for. And so we have another division between migrant and non-migrant labour. That division is only possible if we abandon class as a form of collective identity in favour of nation or community.

This isn't necessarily racist, though it can be, and racism has been given a new legitimacy to speak its poison. I do know people who are determinedly anti-racist and still worried about immigration. Nor is it really about hating individuals. I have spoken to people who don't like foreigners or complain about there being too many immigrants and they will always excuse the ones they know; 'they're all right, it's the others, there's just too many of them.' At the individual level, human sympathy persists. It's still a nice country in many ways.

So the picture is complex. There isn't a single explanation we can fall back on. But taken together there is a sense of unease that social change is taking something away from people. Immigrants and the EU became the indicators of the sense of loss I talked about in my previous post. Trevor Blackwell and Jeremy Seabrook spotted this back in 1993. In their prescient short book, The Revolt Against Change. Towards a Conserving Radicalism, they worked up from a micro level to get a sense of how people felt about the world and this was the result:
We began to wonder if the reason why parties advocating radical change were so unsuccessful was because they were striking against the resistance of people who had changed, who had been compelled to change, too much. … In this context the desire to conserve, to protect, to safeguard, to rescue, to resist becomes the heart of a radical project.
It was an impulse disregarded by modernisers and prevalent amongst older people. Simultaneously, something else was happening. The change that threatened one generation was welcomed by another.

I have read some pieces talking about the EU as a failure because it never created a European identity. Instead of saluting the EU flag, describing ourselves as European, and standing for the EU anthem, we cling to our national and local identities. This is a really superficial analysis. There is no reason why we should not have more than one identity. We can be primarily British, but still think of ourselves as European. Again, look below the national level and at the behaviour and attitudes of individuals and you will see a European identity emerging.

If people are granted freedom, they will take it. The great gift of the EU to individuals is the right to live, work and study anywhere in the Union. It began slowly at first, but in the 43 years we have been in the EU, it has grown and each generation takes it further. Around two million Brits live and work abroad full-time, many more are like me, keeping a foot in both camps. I have a home here and in Greece. Everybody who takes the opportunity makes friends, they fall in love, they have children, and in doing so they make a different Europe and become European. Those that don't, still think they might one day and with each successive generation familiarity grows. Everybody knows they have the choice. Some stay away, some return. Everyone who comes back brings a piece of Europe with them. I was amused to be told about the Greek shopkeeper in Volos who has pictures of Hull as his computer screensaver to remind him of the happy times he spent living there. The more this happens, the more we feel European and we like that feeling. It isn't an identity that will have us saluting flags; it's actually more personal and deeper than crude nationalism. It's why the young voted overwhelmingly for remain. It's a liberty that they have grown up with and taken for granted. They want freedom to change, not freedom from it. And now it is being taken away by the votes of an older generation, and even then only narrowly. It is being forced on them against their will.

OK, the people who benefit most in this country are the middle classes, but there's nothing unusual in that. The middle classes do better out of state education and the health service as well, but that isn't an argument for their abolition. It's a reason for creating greater social equality throughout all our institutions. The same goes for the freedom to live where we want and where we can. If it doesn't exist it can't be used, and if it is enjoyed then its use will spread.

This clash is as irreconcilable as it is inter-generational. The timing of the referendum caught a perfect storm, given different timing the result may well have been reversed, albeit just as narrowly. But if we look at small scale enterprise and individuals, we can see how enmeshed Europe is in our lives, just as we can see that the opposition to it is complex. The critical point for me is that at the individual level the EU is not some centralising monstrosity, but the guarantor of crucial liberties. We have just voted to curtail them in the name of national sovereignty, or 'taking back control'. The freedom of the state is not the freedom of the individual, look small and you will see just how much control we really have and how much we are losing.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Four posts on Brexit; 2. Restoration

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those? 
 
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
 
(A E Houseman)
We don't share the same political heritage as the European far right. They may be rubbing their hands with glee at the referendum result, but even though xenophobia played a part, it was a very British version, not the rancid race hatred of the neo fascists. Even so, I still do not like the face it is showing now it is triumphant.

So where did the vote come from? It came from a sense of impotence and loss, a very British melancholy. This post is a perceptive survey of the Brexit coalition of voters. It makes a point that the left have won the culture war, but that the right have won the economic war and there is a group of voters that wish it had been the other way round.
But, in the Labour Party, it was the socially liberal left that triumphed and the socialist left that lost. Just as Ed West remarked that the Tories were right-wing about the wrong things, many Labour voters felt their party was left-wing about the wrong things. Working class voters are too often demonised as bigots but it is not homophobic or sexist to wonder why your party is campaigning for gay marriage and more women on boards while your home town is going down the pan. Labour’s Equality Act said very little about economic equality at all. As Peter Mandelson might have said, the Labour government didn’t mind people getting filthy rich provided they had the right equality and diversity policies in place. 
The sentiment isn't radical; rather it is conservative, with a very small c. It wants to preserve what it had. It wants a restoration of the old order. It wants secure jobs, pensions, decent housing, a full pub, and a life of respect. It's not much. It's not a revolution. But the desire is strong and the sense of injustice and betrayal is profound. This is small town Britain, the cities mainly voted remain.

I thought at the time that the attitude of New Labour in 1997 was too hubristic. Carried away by their own rhetoric they assumed that their huge majority was a mandate for modernisation, whereas much of it was for restoration, or at the very least, consolidation. And in power, they lost those who got trapped in declining industries or decrepit towns and estates. Complacently, they assumed that they would continue to vote Labour because they had nowhere else to go. But they had. At first they went home. On June 23rd they turned up again and voted us out of the EU.

This is ironic. The EU had little to do with their plight. Instead it directed regional funds for reconstruction their way as a partial mitigation. No, the reason for the decline of strong communities into the twilight world of the payday loan and food bank is the actions of successive UK governments, the ones they have voted to empower further. The economic shock of Brexit may well hit them harder still. There is another disillusion waiting for them.

We all look back, especially when we reach my age. The past always seems to be a golden age simply because it was when we were young. But we can't ever have it. It's gone. And here is the generation divide again. We cannot restore the past, but we can offer a future, except we are not doing that for working class communities either. As the old look back, their kids look forward and see the same bleak landscape. Their parents despair about them. Elsewhere, the young see opportunity, but not here. It's a vicious circle. This is the challenge for the left, to direct nostalgia away from nihilism, to offer a future, and to be able to deliver it. Political economy is the key, as it always has been. And rather than the faux control the Brexiteers promised, the left has to offer something real. But at the moment trust has been lost, and UKIP hovers. I am not optimistic.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Four posts on Brexit; 1. Defeat

Make no mistake. The referendum was a huge victory for the political right.

There are left nationalist supporters of exit who are concerned about national sovereignty and who hope for their version of democratic socialism in one country, but the bulk of the vote came from the traditional English Tory right. They are affluent, older, spread throughout the suburbs and the countryside, and have been animated for years by a broadly fictitious picture of the EU as a foreign occupier and the conspiracy theory about a European super-state trampling over our liberties, compounded by deliberate lying.

They are not a majority though. But then the often youthful, urban Euro enthusiasts aren't either. The decisive factor was, as is so often the case in Conservative victories, the support of around thirty per cent of working class voters. They had to be won and the strategy to win them was based on the twin slogans of taking back control and anti-immigration. The two combined to unite those who had lost most, and swung the referendum. Labour did nothing like enough to hold on to them, and may have lost their loyalty for years to come.

Calling the referendum so casually was a crass mistake by a complacent political class. It was possible because of the unconstrained power the political system gives to the winner of an election in a system that does not allocate seats in the same proportion of votes cast. This is our 'democratic deficit.' There were no checks and no warnings, just a quick political fix planned at the risk of the entire future of the country. The same nonchalance was given to other issues, such as the construction of the referendum itself, its failure to protect minorities, its status as advisory even though its advice would be hard to ignore, the role of Parliament, and the adoption of a simple majority of votes cast for determining the result, with no other criteria or qualifications. Under the 2016 trade union legislation, if the same result came from a ballot for industrial action, the ballot would be lost as it failed to gain the support of 40% of the eligible voters. Yet it apparently isn't a problem to enforce the most radical change in British political history since the war.

We are now plunged into a major constitutional crisis. There are no rules, huge threats, and plenty of unintended consequences. The UK may break up, Brexit may never happen, who knows now? The one thing I am sure about is that the Conservatives will shape the settlement that emerges. The electoral coalition that won the referendum will endure, and even if there is a snap election and Labour manages to pull together under competent leadership, I am certain it will lose. Nothing in the electoral mathematics looks good.

The right have won. There is a long struggle ahead.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Another fine mess

It started hopefully with Farage conceding defeat, then the results began to come in and everything changed. I stayed awake most of the night, unbelieving. In the early hours I realised that, sitting in my Greek home, I was about to have my right to live here stripped away from me and that somehow this was to be described as 'taking Britain back'. I didn't see it as a liberation.

It's early days. We will have to wait and see what transpires. The pound is falling, markets are adjusting, but the economy may stabilise depending on the settlement. The constitutional crisis we are living through has only just begun. I think there are two things that we need get to grips with.

The first is that the result was close. 48.1% of the votes were for remain, far more than have been cast for any single winning party in most general elections since the 1950s. And if we look at the votes we can see a country sharply divided three ways.

The most obvious is by region. Northern Ireland and Scotland voted remain, England and Wales voted leave. This calls into question the integrity of the United Kingdom, with the impact on the questions of Scottish independence and the border between the north and south of Ireland. But there is another dimension, between large, diverse conurbations voting remain and smaller towns and cities voting leave. London is the big example.

The second is by class. 'Traditional' working class areas voted to leave, especially in the north. The question is looming as to whether Labour has lost the north in the same way as it has lost Scotland. This is being portrayed in the media as being about immigration. Certainly, this plays a part, but it isn't the whole story. These are people at the wrong end of a low paid, insecure, casualised model of capitalism, with all the resentments and food banks that brings. Labour began losing large numbers of votes amongst them shortly after 1997. They ignored it. This is the consequence.

Third is by age. This is the most egregious aspect of all. I am nearly 64. I remember joining the then EEC and voted in the first referendum in 1975. For young people this is prehistory. They have lived with the EU all their lives and don't see it as anything oppressive. They don't fret about 'rule by Brussels'. Instead they see the EU as opening up freedom and opportunity. They can live, study and work in 27 countries without any impediment. Or they could. Their world has been closed down, and not by their choosing. The figures doing the rounds at the moment are that 75% of the under 25s voted for remain as did 56% of the under 50s. Only the majority of people over 50 and over 64 voted leave. We will have to see how accurate they prove to be, but this is a curse visited on the young by the old. Don't ask young people about enhanced democracy.

But again, let's not fall into easy stereotypes. The big losers from economic change are older people. They have lost their secure skilled jobs, they don't have adequate pensions, they are working on checkouts and in menial jobs because they have to. When they look back and see a golden age they aren't being nostalgic. They do see one, because it was. They are significantly poorer and more discontented than before.

The result does not reflect any consensus, but the divisions of a society fractured by age, regionalism and class. Which brings me to the second feature of the result, political realignment.

A friend has been banging on about this for twenty years or so. At first I listened with scepticism, but now I think that he is broadly right. He feels that there is a polarisation between a new populism and a liberal pluralism.

Liberal pluralism is metropolitan, socially and economically liberal, and mainly youthful. In contrast, the new populism is socially conservative, nationalist, but more likely to favour state intervention. Both cross political divides and squeeze out a more liberal left.

There are people in the Labour leave campaign who see a potential triumph for the left in this result. They are left nationalists who fetishise the nation state as a bastion of unconstrained democracy and social justice. I don't see it that way. With a personal investment in life in the EU I wouldn't. I don't want to be stuck with British weather. The 2015 general election marked a turning point. Most elections since the war had produced a centre/left majority of the vote. It was only the electoral system that passed power to a single party, most usually the Conservative Party. In 2015, the majority voted for the right. The combined UKIP and Conservative vote was in the majority. I cannot see this referendum as anything but a narrow victory for the right.

This new populism shares all the common features of a populist movement. Firstly, it is nationalist. Secondly, it presents itself as the champion of the people against an unaccountable and remote elite. The fact that such a movement can be headed by the seriously moneyed doesn't seem to bother many people. Finally, it offers simple solutions to complex problems; restrict immigration, take our country back, etc. It's socially conservative, has a very clear concept of social justice that welfare has to be deserved, a restrictive view of citizenship, yet it also harbours some left assumptions about public ownership, services and the like. The leave movement was alway going on about funnelling more money to the NHS, a pledge that came undone on the first morning.

The Labour Party is torn. It has become a metropolitan liberal pluralist party when its natural supporters have embraced nationalism or populism. It has deep structural problems with its social base. It ran an inept campaign, with Corbyn displaying all his limitations, but its problems lie somewhere else.

I am not a nationalist. The history of political nationalism in Europe is a dangerous one. And it is on the rise again. The referendum result has been celebrated by Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders. These are not comfortable bedfellows. But every defeat offers opportunity. For some it will be building a strong independent nation state, but not for me. We are too constrained by globalisation and our own economic weaknesses. Instead, this may give a chance to shock the EU to address its own failings, particularly in political economy. And if it does, there is always that younger generation waiting to step in. Hurry up please.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Come back representation, all is forgiven

This referendum has been utterly misconceived. Some arguments have been passionate, and at times interesting, but that's been rare. Overall, they've been dismal and dispiriting. Amidst the welter of lies, abuse, hatred, atavistic stupidity, death threats, and a real, horrifying murder of one of the best, something else has emerged. A defence of representative democracy against plebiscitary populism is being heard.

The classic statement on representation is from Edmund Burke in his his Speech to the Electors of Bristol in November 1774.
Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.
A referendum does the opposite. It sacrifices informed judgement to the opinions of a majority who participate, regardless of how large the minority is or the numbers of non-voters. In a mass society, it surrenders Burke's idea of parliament as a "deliberative assembly" to dishonest demagoguery and a competition between snake oil salesmen.

There have been some good pieces written. The comedian David Mitchell wrote one back in May:
Calling this referendum is the worst thing Cameron has done to Britain. It’s such a hugely selfish and irresponsible act ... 
Cameron’s policy-avoidance policy was deftly done, mind you. It plays well, rhetorically – telling people they’ll get to decide, flattering the public’s estimation of its collective wisdom...
They won’t step up and lead. They won’t say they know. Expertise is dismissed as elitist. It’s worse to be “out of touch” with the price of milk than to misunderstand the consequences of Britain suddenly severing all its trade deals. They’re happy for that decision to be made by random vote after a frenzied few months of both sides trying to make the other seem the more apocalyptic or Hitlerian, everyone suddenly so certain in their hyperbole.
David Allen Green on his own blog and in a piece worked up from it for the Financial Times is scathing about the need for the referendum.
The referendum on Britain’s EU membership is unnecessary. There is no objective reason for it to take place: no new treaty or proposed treaty amendment. It is merely a vote on whether the U.K. continues to be part of an international organisation of which it has been a member for over forty years. There is no more reason to have a referendum on this issue in June 2016 than in June 2015 or June 2017.
The referendum is also not binding as a matter of law...
So what we have is an unnecessary referendum without any binding effect. In other words, it is an exercise in pointlessness. Nothing objective happened to cause the need for the referendum, and nothing objective has to happen because of it.
It happened, as we all know, because of a need for a party political fix. An easy triumph was supposed to marginalise the eurosceptic right of the Tory Party. It has failed, they are emboldened and the result is in the balance. The risks are enormous and the consequences, whatever the result, are unknowable. The pawns in this game are the lives and livelihoods that will be affected.

Let's hear now from a latter day Burke, Noel Gallagher (trigger warning - he supports Manchester City):
Do I think [Britain should leave the EU]? I don’t think we should be given a vote.
I see politicians on TV every night telling us that this is a fucking momentous decision that could fucking change Britain forever and blah, blah, blah. It’s like, OK, why don’t you fucking do what we pay you to do which is run the fucking country and make your fucking mind up. What are you asking the people for? 99 percent of the people are thick as pig shit.
I don't like his last sentence. People aren't thick, but they also aren't interested. They know little or nothing about it and it's something they haven't bothered to think about before. They have their own lives to lead. This is to their credit. Drinking with a European Union obsessive is not a pleasant experience. Yet he's right in one sense. This question will be decided by the inexpert.

This doesn't mean that representative democracy cannot be enhanced or that more participatory elements could be included, but, after this experience, no more referendums please. Or at least no more unless as David Allen Green says:
 (a) it is a fundamental constitutional issue and (b) there is an actual proposal for fundamental change for people to consider and to vote on.
This one has been an unpleasant mess.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Grentrance

I shall be going to Greece in a few days, for a shorter stay than normal in the summer. Obviously, with a house in Greece, I have a vested interest in remaining in the EU. The collision of Brexit with Greek bureaucracy is a car crash I want no part of. My postal vote has been delivered. I have voted Remain. My motives are thoroughly privileged and middle class in origin.

But for those without my motives what a dismal campaign this has been; littered with half-truths, exaggerations and downright lies. A reckless referendum on a vital issue is not the best way of resolving a dispute within the Conservative Party. Actually, a referendum is a pretty crap way of resolving anything, as opposing bands of obsessive enthusiasts try and sell their line by any means possible. A referendum is usually the result of some burning point of principle or a moment of crisis. This one is odd though. There was no crisis in relations with the EU, nobody was particularly excited about it, and there was little demand for change. We are being dragged through this because of internal Tory party disputes, the same ones that wrecked the Major government.

That doesn't mean that there are no discontents, however. There is plenty of pain for people on the margins outside the pampered middle class - just read about the employment conditions at Sports Direct for example. There is alienation, insecurity, resentment and utter disillusion with politics. And this is the problem, certainly with this referendum, a vote to leave is a vote against the establishment. It is an expression of a multitude of discontents, none of which could be resolved solely by leaving the EU. Throw in the dismal Remain campaign, the lacklustre performance of the Labour Party, and the brazen populism of Leave and it isn't surprising to see the polls moving in favour of exit. Leave could well win. If they do, it will be because of the successive failures of British politics, not the European Union.

The decision will be taken when I am in Greece, a country in economic turmoil, in real conflict with the EU, and locked in the financial straitjacket of the Euro. The resulting austerity policies make ours look munificent. Yet the outcome is determination by the overwhelming majority of Greeks to stay both in Europe and European monetary union at all costs. They think we must be mad.

The debate has depressed me. There is little in the way of discussion of principles, little that is positive and no historical perspective. It is a contest based on competing fears. It's been horrible and done nothing for my referendum scepticism. So, let me wax all academic and point to some historical origins.

The idea of European Union is not new. There was even an attempt to promote one in 1930 with the Briand Plan. However, the principles on which the idea is based are much older. I would pick out four.

1. The idea of federation was a central part of a number of plans for a peaceful world order developed from the 17th and 18th centuries onwards. Immanuel Kant's essay, Perpetual Peace, is the best known. It was a central principle of Kant's design that the federation had to be between nation states that were "republics." That would translate in today's language as democratic. The EU is such a federation and for the wave of states emerging from dictatorships in the 1970s, and the post-Communist countries after 1989, the EU is seen as a guarantor of their new democracies.

2. A second mainstay of the 19th century peace movement was free trade. Trade was seen as a collaborative activity that bound peoples together in mutual self-interest. Above all, it was an activity that took place outside the state. It was the state that embodied militarism and war, and so it was the state whose powers had to be limited. Free trade was more than an economic concept, even though all we seem to debate today is the economic benefits or otherwise of the single market.

3. Moving from idealism into the world of realpolitik, the third principle is the balance of powers. Preventing the domination of Europe by a single power, and deterring the search for such dominance, was central to the construction of a peaceful continent. That balance was disturbed first by the French in the Napoleonic Wars and then by the consequences of the unification of Germany in 1871. Two world wars later, a union that would bind France and Germany together and restrain equally the power of each was seen to be the way to end the possibility of a European war for good.

3. Finally, we have to talk about the rise of technocracy. In Britain, "national efficiency" was part of the modernisation advocated by New Liberalism. The rational management of collective resources underpinned Fabian socialism. That specialisation and expertise is fundamental to running a modern state and economy is axiomatic, but there is a flaw in that it can lead to elite remoteness and overconfidence, a doctrine of managerialism leading to the centralising of power in a bureaucracy, and what is often called the "democratic deficit" of the EU. I see that as failure of responsibility, rather than of representation, but it is the source of the resentment of unelected officials in Brussels (even though our own civil service is not elected).

It is also a mistake to see technocracy as ideologically neutral. Of course it isn't. It governs by the precepts of the dominant ideology of its day. Today, it is 'neoliberalism' (a term that is rapidly losing its precise meaning to become a term of abuse) or economic orthodoxy. This ideology is shared by the British government too. Brexit would mean the same policies administered by different people, not a change in the underlying principles of political economy.

Two things emerge from these concepts. The first is that the EU is necessarily a device to constrain the freedom of action of a member state. This is because unrestrained states are capable of immense crimes against their own peoples as well as against other nations. Bound into a federal union, engaging in free trade within an agreed, common legal framework, with an international administration, and defined, legally enforced citizens' rights, states trade absolute sovereignty for democracy, security, and peace. The assumption is that this can only be secured permanently by limiting state power.

The second is that the assumptions underlying European Union are liberal. They are not socialist and they are anti-nationalist. This is why opposition to the EU is being led by nationalists and supported by some leftists as minor players.

Despite the rhetoric, Brexit is not a process of democratisation. It takes British democracy for granted and doesn't seek to broaden it. Nor does it offer a different political economy, something urgently needed and the main source of unease. Brexit is a nationalist project. But it's one that has the ability to gather in a whole range of legitimate discontents and offer leaving the EU as a simple solution. It isn't. At least it isn't as far as we know. Because the details of where we would be heading outside the EU are unknown and the options scarcely considered.

That's the problem with referendums. They give a binary choice, leave no scope for nuance, and are polarising. But at the very least, at a time of growing far-right populism and authoritarianism, we should consider the virtues of the restraint of the nation state rather than insist on 'running things ourselves,' without answering the questions who do you mean by 'ourselves' and in whose interest are things to be run?

Monday, May 23, 2016

"This mentality is unstoppable"


Unfortunately, it isn't. There was no cup to bring home. But there is no doubt who won the battle of the fans. It was incredible.

I don't share most other fans' antipathy for Manchester United. I have had a long connection with them, even though I always had a nagging sense of infidelity when I watched them, knowing my heart lay elsewhere. What I don't like is what they have become. The ownership issue is horrible and it stopped me going to matches there, but it isn't just that. It's the condescending sense of entitlement of a large number of their fans. Some of the most loyal and passionate, including people I know, have given up. They were alienated by the club's determination to be a 'brand', to brook no dissent after the green and gold protests, and to turn their fans into cash-generating 'customers' to feed the leveraged debt of a Cayman Islands registered company. It used to be a football club. On Saturday, their fans were mainly apathetic and quiet until they booed their manager as he went up to be presented with the cup. Afterwards, he was sacked for finishing fifth and winning at Wembley. Either would be a dream for Palace.

At the other end was something else. A gloriously unpretentious South London club showed how to support your side and cheer them on to glorious defeat. What would it have been like if we had won?

This is a wonderful shot of Jason Puncheon's mother in amongst the fans. He's local, grew up within sight of the ground, and his family are all Palace fans. He plays wearing the squad number 42 and scored our goal.


It was the display designed and choreographed by the Holmesdale Fanatics that caught the press' eye. Everyone bought into it. It was stunning.

I was in one of the seats in the top tier and all around me flags waved amongst a sea of red and blue balloons. The noise was deafening. After the Palace goal, the stand was physically shaking. It felt like an earth tremor.


My memories are not just of a great game and heart-breaking defeat, but the camaraderie between friends and thousands of other fans who were coming to party and give their team everything that they had to offer.



I drove part of the way, catching a train to Wembley Stadium from Banbury. As I drove back, I stopped off in a motorway service area. It was full of United fans who gave my Palace shirt a glance and said nothing. They looked as if they weren't bothered. There was no air of celebration. I was numb with disappointment, but overwhelmed by the emotion of a wonderful day that I wouldn't have missed for anything. If, in the unlikely event of Palace kicking on and becoming a top club, I hope we never lose that exuberance and lack of pretension that makes our support something special.

We'll be back. And please, before I die, let's win the bloody thing.

UPDATE

Of the fan videos being posted on line, this really shows the contrast between the fans in the build up to the teams coming out.


Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Love stories

Most football fans inherit their team from family or from the place they grew up. There are some though who aren't locals. This isn't uncommon but most choose a glamorous, successful club. It's easy to do that. Then there are others whose choice seems inexplicable. Their path is stony and is not strewn with the rose petals of success. Something else sparked their imagination and loyalty.

I started watching football in the 1960s by taking the short bus ride to Selhurst Park to see Crystal Palace. When I moved to Manchester, distance strained but didn't eradicate the relationship. Discovering the wonders of Rugby League and following Swinton, a team that could disappoint even more than Palace, did replace watching football for a while. Over the last few years, though, Palace and I have become reunited and my vows have been renewed. The power of first love has prevailed. Then a miracle happened. Palace were promoted to the Premiership and actually stayed up. And that was not all.

This Saturday there will be a glorious consummation of the affair. Palace are in the FA Cup Final for only the second time in their history. I have a ticket. And they play, inevitably, Manchester United, who were their opponents in their first final in 1990. United are the nearest club to me now, and I have watched them often. They have won everything, multiple times. If Palace win, this will be the first major trophy in their history. It will be a special day.

I see more away games than home ones, and as you talk to other fans you hear their tales about how and why they began to support Palace. I love these stories. Each supporter has something unique to say about what brought them to their passion. It isn't always what you would expect. Here are four different ones.

Drawing up in the away fans car park for a cup tie at Wigan, our car had a Swinton Rugby League sticker in the back and we parked right next to one with a Warrington Wolves Rugby League badge in its window. We chatted to the car owners in the ground. They were a large family, but weren't from London. A friend of theirs went to work there, caught the bug, and started sending them press cuttings and souvenirs. Palace became their club too. The red and blue stripes of a Palace shirt showed underneath their Warrington sweatshirts as the whole family cheered us on - to defeat.

There must be something about Warrington and Rugby League. I was in the away end at Manchester City and a man with a broad Northern accent was explaining how he came to support Palace. He was an avid Rugby League fan - a Warrington supporter. In 1970/71 season, Warrington switched to playing on Sunday. To fill in his blank Saturdays he thought he would start watching football. But who was he to support? He had no footballing heritage, so he decided that he would watch BBC's Match of the Day one particular Saturday night, and he would support the first team they showed. It was Crystal Palace. He became a Palace fan. We lost 4-0.

Manchester United gets more than its share of overseas fans, but I was surprised when the man next to me in the Palace section spoke to me in an American accent. He had been a student in London and had done a year's work placement in the club offices at Selhurst Park. He was hooked. He returned to the States and now lives in California. He had flown over to go to the game at United and the FA Cup semi final at Wembley the following Sunday. We lost 2-0, but won the semi to reach this year's final.

I was on the train down to London for that semi final and there was another Manchester based Palace fan on it. He had moved north to go to University and had stayed. His support was unexceptional, but he was going to meet his son who lives in the north-east, and it's the son's story that got to me. He was born and bred in Manchester and his father tried hard not to influence him. For a couple of years from five or six onwards, he wore a United shirt. Then he had a City shirt. Finally, his dad took him to Selhurst Park to see Palace. The match was a tedious 0-0 draw with Rotherham. And that was it. He became a Palace fan. For life. He made a free choice on the basis of something dreadful that charmed him.

Football support is a combination of the magical with the ridiculous. All over the country Palace fans will be making agonising choices about which shirt to wear, what train to catch and which pub to drink in. All of us will be trying to decide which one will be the lucky one. We will descend on Wembley, from all corners of the world, each hoping that we have chosen right, and that our replica shirt is the one that will see us raising the cup at the end of a match that will only bring tension and pain, whether we win or lose. I can't wait. I haven't been as excited since I was a kid.

So to play us on to Wembley here's some music.

The rapper, Doc Brown, has recorded a Cup Final rap - Glad All Over Again



It's good, but I prefer this, recorded by a bunch of builders from Bromley. It has that unique Palace touch of imperfection. Some photos in the video were put in back to front. But it's a real sing-along. Here's Young Stanley with The Holmesdale.


Thursday, May 12, 2016

A tale of two mayors

'Compare and contrast' is a stock examination question. Let's play that game with two Labour London mayors, one past and one present. Ken Livingstone and Sadiq Khan.

The Livingstone row is rumbling on as he keeps wittering on about Hitler. He was never one for backing down, but was always a ruthless political operator. Now, it seems he has lost his place at the centre of Labour Politics. He hasn't gone quietly, giving an interview containing another mangling of history, where he claimed that "The creation of the state of Israel was fundamentally wrong."

Now look at the newly elected Khan, another shrewd operator. London now has a Muslim mayor. So what did he do? He was sworn in at Southwark Cathedral, his first official act was to attend the Holocaust Remembrance Memorial at Barnet, and he pledged to visit Tel Aviv as head of a trade mission, using some telling words about the need for investment rather than divestment. It couldn't have been more different, or more deliberate.

In the middle of an anti-Semitism row, Khan calmed it, whereas Livingstone stoked it.

That's not all. Khan's electoral strategy dispensed with Miliband's failed focus on the core vote and totally rejected Corbyn's wishful thinking that electoral victory could be based on mobilising previous abstainers and the alienated working class. Instead, he campaigned on a narrow platform of issues that matter to all Londoners, such as housing, wages and transport, and put as much effort into winning support in the Tory suburbs as he did in Labour areas. On top of which, he has spotted Corbyn as a loser, distanced himself from him personally, and approached the media as allies to be wooed, not enemies to be confronted. It was a professional, intelligent campaign, but it was also run as a rebuke to the Labour leadership. He won by a landslide.

When it comes to Islamist extremism Khan's hands are not completely clean, as Maajid Nawaz points out here. Although he was never a supporter, he was not scrupulous about who he would work with to build his majority in his Tooting constituency. His first days in office now stand as a refutation of Islamist ideology as well as an antidote to anti-Muslim hysteria. He's starting from a good place.

It's easier for Khan to do this because he actually is a Muslim. Livingstone is not, so his commendable anti-racism led him to exoticise far-right Islamist groups as being 'authentic' and to take their claims of being representative of the whole community at face value. In doing so, his anti-racist impulses led him to his hatred of Israel and to ally with these profoundly anti-Semitic groups. Ironically, it was his anti-racism that led him to make comments that can easily be regarded as anti-Semitic. His road to hell was paved with good intentions, but he ended in hell nonetheless.

The development of anti-Semitism and of its attraction to the left is perfectly described by Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman in this superb article, I urge people to read it in full. If you do, the contrast between Khan, Livingstone and Corbyn becomes even clearer. Khan's shallow opportunism has turned out to be more moral than their deep commitment. When Corbyn became leader he was tainted by his association with some deeply unpleasant organisations. If a Tory Prime Minister can call the Labour leadership "terrorist sympathisers" and have reason to do so, you have a problem. So what did Corbyn do? He got irritable whenever he was asked any questions about the organisations he supported and invented obviously dishonest sophistries to try and explain it all away. Khan dismissed any doubts with instant symbolic actions and words.

It's obvious that Khan is a far more adept politician than the current Labour Leadership. However, I think that there is more to it than that. As I watched his victory a thought occurred to me. We are witnessing a generational change. It pains me to write this because the current leadership are my generation, with attitudes and concerns forged in the 70s and 80s. Young worshippers may be the enthusiastic red guards of this particular cultural revolution, but it is led by a gerontocracy. They won't last long. A new, hungry and ambitious generation is on the rise. Whoever emerges as a leadership candidate will not be ignoring the lessons of Khan's London.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Lamentable history

There isn't much more to say about Ken Livingstone's crass attempts at guilt by association through linking Zionism with Hitler. Roger Moorhouse's judgement that Livingstone was being "historically illiterate" will suffice. The implicit anti-Semitic import of his comments should be clear to anyone other than his squirming apologists.

All the focus has been on what Livingstone said about Hitler, yet he also added an equally revealing, and historically dodgy, comment towards the end of his interview that hasn't been talked about. I have taken the transcript from here.
Let’s look at someone who’s Jewish who actually said something very similar to what Naz has just said. Albert Einstein, when the first leader of Likud, the governing party now in Israel, came to America, he warned American politicians: don’t talk to this man because he’s too similar to the fascists we fought in the Second World War. Now, if Naz or myself said that today we would be denounced as antisemitic, but that was Albert Einstein.
It's all here; the guilt by association, the dragging in of a token Jew as an alibi, and the self-pity. Dismal stuff. And it's another distortion.

It refers to a letter to the New York times signed by a number of prominent intellectuals, including Einstein, Hannah Arendt, and Sidney Hook. It warns about a visit by Menachim Begin to promote his new party, the Freedom Party, more commonly known as Herut. The full text is here. The letter says that Herut was a
... political party closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties.
And that
The public avowals of Begin's party are no guide whatever to its actual character. Today they speak of freedom, democracy and anti-imperialism, whereas until recently they openly preached the doctrine of the Fascist state. It is in its actions that the terrorist party betrays its real character; from its past actions we can judge what it may be expected to do in the future.
The letter is representative of the political divide between the mainstream left and the revisionist right in Israel and is based on the authors' disgust over the massacre at Deir Yassin. They were Labour supporting Zionists anxious about the future of Israel, which they ardently supported. Einstein was even offered the opportunity to be Israel's president in 1952, an offer he regretfully declined.

So what did Livingstone get wrong? Well, Begin was indeed the first leader of Likud, but it was founded in 1973, twenty-five years after the letter was written and eighteen years after Einstein's death. It's not the same party today as the one Begin started sixty-eight years ago, and might have moved on a bit since then. The tricky wording is to co-opt Einstein as an ally against current day Israel. And there is no similarity between what Naz Shah posted and the letter - at all! The letter is highly specific in its time and subject, but Livingstone treats it as general, using it as a justification for associating Zionism with Nazism at all times and in whichever TV studio he is appearing in.

It's a remarkable statement that can turn Hitler into a Zionist and Einstein into an anti-Zionist in a few sentences. Of course, both assertions are fabrications based on misrepresented evidence, circulated amongst an unquestioning band of supporters. The whole farrago is the very opposite of the historical facts that Livingstone keeps going on about. In fact, both represent classic failures of historical methods that would shame an undergraduate. He made two basic errors.

The first is to rely on a single, and bloody awful, secondary source. It seems that Livingstone is going to defend the truth of his assertions by reference to a book by Lenni Brenner, Zionism in the Age of the Dictators. I read one of Brenner's books once. It was bollocks. The most horrifying bit was that I bought the bloody thing. Anyway, don't take my word for it. From this report:
Thomas Weber, a professor of history and international affairs and an expert on the Hitler era, Jewish relations and German history, said he was not immediately familiar with Brenner’s book.
However, he added: “Brenner’s book lies well outside academic mainstream. It is mostly celebrated either by the extreme left and by the neo-Nazi right.”
Almost the first thing you would teach a history student is to use multiple, credible sources and cross reference between them. You do not use internet memes and dubious texts pulled from an echo chamber.

The second mistake is to cherry-pick a single source and then strip it from its context. Once you remove something from it's specific meaning, you can twist it to fit a predetermined narrative. This is really bad history.

Livingstone's defenders are now piling in in exactly the same way, endlessly circulating details of the Ha'avara Agreement, saying that it proves Livingstone right. It's as if the payment of a ransom to release a kidnapped child proved that the kidnappers and the family shared a common aim in returning the child. It's a contemptible argument.

I have no idea why Livingstone decided to completely undermine Naz Shah's statement of contrition and determination to face up to the offence she caused. She is the one coming out of this with some credit, especially if she follows up her promise to move outside her milieu and to learn more. Instead, Livingstone is firmly embedded within his unshakable world view, one shared by the current leadership. It combines an obsessive hatred of Israel with remarkable double standards. Point out the far right views of someone Livingstone has praised, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, and you will be met by accusations of Islamophobia. It's the same tactic, diverting attention away from a particular charge by moving from the specific to the general and thereby question the motives of the accuser. It isn't convincing and, let's face it, anyone who has to drag out Diane Abbott to defend you is struggling.

I would have suspended Livingstone for crimes against history, but the offence is much more important. Gaby Hinsliff explains why action had to be taken:
The ferocity of the backlash against Livingstone from left to right of the party is a measure of MPs’ deep frustration and shame that a party that prides itself on fighting discrimination should have come to this. It’s not about factional infighting any more, rightwingers finding excuses to snipe at Jeremy Corbyn and his Stop the War mates. This is about a party trying desperately to stop itself being dragged into the gutter, and to assert values it once thought people took as read.
None of this is new. Anti-Semitism, whether hiding under one of many alibis or not, has been a constant on the left. In my book, I wrote the following about anti-Semitism and conspiracy theory:
[They are] not merely quaint nineteenth century beliefs; they are persistent flaws. ... These ideas may not be central, but they are a distasteful and dangerous intellectual baggage that needs jettisoning. Open discussion and historical exploration is a necessity if ever we are to banish this poisonous legacy from radical thought.
The only possible benefit to come from this episode is that this ignorance, stupidity and prejudice is in the open and being dealt with - at last.

PLEASE NOTE:

If you want a prime example of checking your sources, this is an edited, replacement post for one I took down as I charged in and wrote about the wrong Einstein letter. A lesson in always doing your research properly!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Crime and passion

I was at the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley on Sunday. It was a great day out with friends. The rebuilt stadium is impressive. Escalators took you up to your seats high in the stands. Stewards were everywhere, every part of the design regulated the flow of people and made overcrowding impossible. Seats were comfortable and spacious. Outside, the policing was efficient and good natured. The queues for the underground were well managed, making sure that the platforms and the trains were not overcrowded. Even the train announcer cracked jokes at the fans over the tannoy.

At a semi-final twenty-seven years ago the authorities managed to kill ninety six people. At last, at long last, the killings have been declared unlawful. Prosecutions may follow. This superb report from David Conn, one of our best football writers, is damning. Read it all.

Now look at the pictures, not just the awful ones of the mayhem and the dead. Look at the ground. See the shallow steps that fans stood on, where even craning your neck you could only get an obscured glimpse of the game. And then there are those fences. Cages for fans, penned in on either side and prevented from getting to the safety of the pitch, away from the carnage. It isn't in this report, but one of the most poignant pictures shows empty spaces on the terracing adjacent to the pens where people were being crushed to death. If they had been able to move there, no one would have died. The same goes for being able to evacuate onto the pitch. The standing areas in Hillsborough were a crumbling, squalid death trap.

Manslaughter happened that day because of two things. The first was an attitude of uncomprehending hatred of football fans by those who ran the game and a political elite who had yet to find supporting a club to be a vote-winning fashion icon. The response to the real problem of the violence of the minority was punitive to everyone, the innocent majority included. Grounds were changed to be like prison camps and facilities were rarely upgraded. They were an emanation of the way ordinary fans were despised.

The second was a managerial culture that favoured mediocrity and the exercise of authority over intelligence and expertise. Being both a boot licker and a bully was the way to promotion. I have often seen this phenomenon in education, though there the cost can be measured in careers and qualifications, not in corpses.

After the deaths came another crime, a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. Like all conspiracies, it soon unravelled. But it still took twenty-seven years of struggle for the authorities to finally, and reluctantly, concede their guilt.

I have been in a bad crush once. It was outside a first division football ground in London in the early seventies. The gates had been closed with queues of people still outside. The game was not televised (no league games were then) and it wasn't all ticket. A narrow street leading to the ground was packed as people funnelled in to try and get into the ground. Once you are in a crush you are helpless, swept one way and then another. The police had lost control and a frightened police horse was trapped in the entry with us. At last I was was pushed towards wrought iron gates. At first I was grateful to be able to breathe through them, then the pressure intensified painfully until the locks gave way. They burst open and the crowd stumbled through them into the wide open forecourt and car park that we could see but couldn't reach. Nobody fell. We were safe. I was young then. I got through the turnstiles, into the ground and watched the game, but when I looked down my shirt was torn and all the buttons had been ripped off. Looking back, I know that we were all lucky.

It is so different today. There is much wrong with modern football. The economics of the game leave a nasty taste. TV matches are nearly all on pay-per-view. Fans are locked out of ownership of the clubs they love. We need safe standing, after all we have it already as people stand in nominal seating areas. There is the creeping gentrification and the ubiquitous corporate takeover. Then there is the expense. It wasn't cheap to go to Wembley. But then again, I would rather be treated as a cash cow than as cattle going to slaughter.

My only worry today is about getting a ticket for the final.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Paranoia

It's time to move into the realm of post-reality politics. I stumbled across this thanks to a former student. Anonymous, that bunch of mask wearing hackers, posted an article about the sad death of a New York Times journalist. To them, and the post that was their source, this was not tragic, but sinister.

You see the woman had, according to them, been murdered by strangulation and she had written an article exposing,
Project MKUltra, often referred to as the CIA’s mind control program, was the code name given to an illegal program of experiments on human subjects, designed and undertaken by the the CIA."
The conclusion was obvious:
Is it possible that Ms. Kershaw stumbled upon some new information that made her dangerous? Considering the speed at which the capabilities of psychotronic weapons has improved, the possibility is extremely high.
Except for a couple of things. She wasn't murdered. She wasn't even strangled. It appears from her obituary that she ended her own life due to the pain of a chronic illness. And that article? She wrote it in 2008. It is about how the proliferation of 'mind control' sites on the internet can reinforce and perpetuate delusions. It isn't about MKUltra at all. Ironically, it is about mental health. Judging by these posts, she had a point. She didn't write any more on this either; she mainly wrote about real estate.

I mention this because it is an extreme version of another tendency to move beyond evidence. It has been showing up all over the place in the wake of the Panama Papers, and especially the mention of David Cameron. Why bother with the detailed research and dissection of hard evidence when you can fall back onto generalised mistrust and make things up? But when you do, you damage your cause irreparably. Effective opposition requires forensic accuracy. On the whole, reality is prosaic. To pretend it isn't is to completely undermine your case and be accused of wild hysteria, mainly because you are being wildly hysterical. For an individual, losing touch with reality may do little harm unless it is seriously psychotic; for a political movement, it is deadly.