Wednesday, November 15, 2017

1997 and all that

For people interested in recent British political history, Andrew Adonis' talk on Tony Blair was revealing in ways that perhaps he didn't intend. Adonis was a New Labour insider, but was rarely one that I sympathised with. In this talk he looks at the mistakes that Blair made that could have led, indirectly, to Brexit.

He has three main points:

1. Referendums.

The Blair government established the customary use of referendums in British politics. Adonis thinks that was a mistake, and I agree. Referendums are instruments that bypass, rather than enhance, functioning democracies. However, the main sin to my mind was not just their use but the lack of thought that went into their design and their constitutional role. This article on the extensive use of referendums in Switzerland shows just why it is important. Successful referendums ask highly specific questions and, on the one occasion when the question was too broad, Parliament reserved the right to reject an unworkable result, even though the referendum was binding. In the same way, the referendums held in New Zealand on electoral reform asked about preferred systems as well as the initial question on whether to change from first-past-the-post or not.

Now, let's look at the Euro referendum. There were, and are, four options facing Britain: remain, join EFTA, become a third country with a free trade agreement, become a third country under WTO rules. The consequences of each, and the processes required, are radically different. Yet we were only offered remain or leave. Remain was straightforward, leave consisted of one of three options. The choice between those options is still unknown. What was remarkable is that this mistake has been compounded by Parliament voting for article 50, without any idea of what the government's intention was. This week, to their horror, MPs have discovered that by doing so they have locked themselves into a legal process where they have thrown away any power they may have had. We still haven't got a clue what we want and the EU look at us in bewilderment at our indecision.

Before we leave the topic of referendums, let's just throw in the one that was promised but never happened. The 1997 manifesto pledged Labour to hold a referendum on electoral reform. They didn't. Fat chance of that happening. Labour had won a historic landslide with 42.3% of the vote. Just to put that into perspective, Theresa May is being hammered for the disaster of losing her majority in 2017 when the Conservatives won 42.4% of the vote. I will let that sink in. May did better than Blair in 1997. This is one reason why we shouldn't make assumptions about next election. The distribution of seats depends on the strength of the other parties, rather than the popularity of the winning one. In 1997 Labour won enough seats to virtually guarantee victory in the next two general elections. This had another consequence. It masked the dramatic loss of Labour votes in the elections of 2001 and 2005. New Labour's electoral triumphs were nothing like as clear-cut as latter-day Blairites claim.

2. European social democracy.

This jumped out at me, though Adonis really only mentions it as an aside to illustrate a general point. He mainly focused on Iraq as being the moment when Blair favoured Atlanticism over the EU, but then threw in something else that was revealing.
Tony never developed a successful political project with fellow European social democrats. I say “fellow European social democrats,” but privately Tony didn’t think he had much in common with most of them, particularly Jospin and Schroeder who happened to be the two most significant of the decade. The “third way” was a political project mounted with Bill Clinton, not with the Europe’s left. It didn’t help that the European left insisted on calling itself “socialist.” Tony didn’t think they ‘got it’ on the need to move beyond old style welfare socialism towards the “third way” of triangulating with the Right and modernising public services ... 
He is disarmingly frank about this in his memoirs: “The truth is—and I fear this was becoming increasingly the case in my relations with the European centre right—we had more in common with [Merkel] than with the German SDP… Their view of the European social model was very traditional. Angela would see the need for change. I liked her as a person also." 
Unfortunately, a significant number of voters thought that they had voted for a social democratic party, while most members thought they had joined a European social democratic party. If jibes about 'Tory Blair' were over the top, 'Christian Democrat Blair' would have been spot on. The doors were opened to the disillusioned piling in behind Corbyn.

What this points to was that the split between Brown and Blair actually had more substance than personal rivalry and neuroses. If Brown and his supporters wanted Labour to be a modernised European social democratic party, the differences were real. This was certainly true of Adonis' next point.

3. The Euro

Adonis makes it clear. Blair wanted to join the Euro, but Brown didn't and was prepared to stop it happening. Adonis sees this as something to regret. If we had been part of the Eurozone, leaving the EU would have been even more difficult. True, but he's missed something out - the Euro crisis. What if Brown was right? A currency union imposed on a sub-optimal currency area was always going to run into trouble without a mechanism for fiscal transfers between deficit and surplus countries. It did. How would that have played with Eurosceptics?

***

Historians like to study long-term and proximate causes. Though Blair may have contributed to the long-term reasons for Brexit, his government was only of tangental significance. This national disaster was made on the right. Frank Field and Denis Skinner may be in a peculiar alliance as Labour leavers, but they weren't significant. Brexit has only happened for two reasons.

The first is decades of deranged, ideological agitation by a group of unrepresentative and argumentative right-wingers in the Conservative Party. Their trouble-making meant that Cameron made the terrible mistake of calling a poorly constructed referendum, narrowly lost it, and ducked out of dealing with the consequences.

Secondly, George Osborne's economic policies made most people worse off. Demagogues on the right found their scapegoat to harness discontent to their cause. Rather than finger the government and policies they supported, they blamed the one institution that was trying to mitigate the damage. And if that wasn't enough, there was always the race card. They played it. It worked.

Adonis' speech left me with one overriding impression. Blair was broad-brush in his policies and opinions. He wasn't into detail. Whether it was the structure and constitutional significance of referendums, the design of the Euro, post-war planning in Iraq, etc., the complexities were missing from sight. I get the same impression about Cameron. Brexiters are also in complete denial about the difficulties and consequences of exit, which is why they respond to problems with wishful thinking, rhetoric, and abuse. Making policy that actually works is only possible if the details are understood, faced honestly, and dealt with. We need experts and expertise. Dismiss them with a sneer and a disdainful shrug, and failure beckons. This applies especially to those who think that they are un-ideological pragmatists, because they deceive themselves most. They are as dreamily impractical as any utopian.

Monday, November 13, 2017

"Unfit for office"

A definition:
Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a personality disorder in which there is a long-term pattern of abnormal behaviour characterized by exaggerated feelings of self-importance, an excessive need for admiration, and a lack of understanding of others' feelings. People affected by it often spend a lot of time thinking about achieving power or success, or about their appearance. They often take advantage of the people around them. The behaviour typically begins by early adulthood, and occurs across a variety of situations.
Boris Johnson seems to fit the bill nicely. It's all documented. A career launched by inventing lies about the European Union for the Daily Telegraph, regular dismissals for dissembling, a carefully cultivated persona, combined with ruthless ambition.

But his latest escapade suggests something more sinister. His comments about the imprisonment in Iran of the British citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe certainly shocked me. He gave wrong information that has endangered her. It should be a resigning matter. One of the main duties of a Foreign Secretary is to protect British citizens abroad. He failed utterly. So far, so dreadful. But what is really troubling is the response.

He issued a semi apology, claiming his remarks were taken out of context (they weren't, they were clear and unambiguous). Then a phalanx of supporters was mobilised. They mounted three arguments:

1. The diversionary tactic. By concentrating on Johnson's remarks people are deflecting attention from the real culprits, the Iranian regime. This is nonsense. The criticisms of Johnson are about what he said and the possible consequences of his remarks, with their potential to make a dreadful situation worse. The nature of the regime makes his failure even more serious.

2. The charge of hypocrisy. After Corbyn called for Johnson's resignation, Johnson's pals chimed in by pointing out that Corbyn is a defender of the Iranian regime, speaks at Khomenist meetings, and has taken money from Press TV. All true, and one of the big reasons I dislike his leadership. But in this case, it's utterly irrelevant. Appeals to hypocrisy are a feeble argument. However wrong he has been on Iran in the past, he is right on this issue. And his past sympathy towards the regime gives his stance even more credibility.

3. Reversing the charge. This is where defending Johnson slides into attacking the victim. His allies, like Gove, don't say so directly, but by their equivocations they hint and suggested that maybe Johnson was right and the family of the woman are not telling the whole truth about her being on holiday.

It's this third one that bothers me most. It raises a question; when does narcissism cross the line into sociopathy? Where is their conscience? Where is their empathy for the victim of grotesque injustice? No, if it is a choice between their careers and the life of a young mother, then she is disposable. These politicians are disgusting human beings.

To conclude, listen to Zaghari-Ratcliffe's MP, Tulip Siddiq here. She's right.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Wonderland

Rachel Sylvester in the Times reports (£):
"We are trapped in a box,” admits one minister. “Parliament feels frozen by the referendum but people voted for a fantasy we can’t deliver. They can only have Brexit if they’re prepared to suffer the pain."
Let's get this straight. This is a minister speaking. This is a minister from a government that keeps going on in public about how wonderful everything will be, how they are making progress, that no deal is better than a bad deal, and every other platitude you can imagine. In private they call Brexit "a fantasy we can’t deliver."

In the meantime, the opposition repeat an even more meaningless slogan. What in hell is a "jobs first Brexit?" A Eurosceptic leadership scrambles around doing anything it can to avoid a commitment as it triangulates between the overwhelmingly anti-Brexit membership, the majority of their voters who are in favour of remaining, and a strategically placed minority of Labour voters who wanted to leave the EU.

So what to do? How about telling the truth. Maybe it's an idea not to pretend. After all, Churchill offered "blood, toil, tears and sweat" rather than "it will be all over by Christmas." Let them stop lying. Whether you support remaining or leaving, the facts are the same. It will be difficult. It will be expensive. It will cost money rather than save it. If there are any benefits, they will be a long way in the future. The risks are huge. The country is likely to be poorer, certainly initially. Most predict the best outcome to be a slow and continuous relative decline.

And if people are faced with that choice, a real choice, would they object if their representatives did their job and decided not pander to the ideological fanaticism of the lunatic right and destroy the country on the basis of a tiny, fragile majority in a one-off and ill-informed poll?

Telling the truth might be a bit much to ask for, but how about looking to their self-interest as this study of pro-remain tactical voting would suggest.
The Conservatives gambled by backing the leave voters exclusively and still came up short. They were punished by remain voters and stand to be punished further if they back an uncompromising Brexit. The Conservatives cannot win on a leave only platform.
Remain voters are the key to election victory. Both main parties are too terrified to speak for them. Until one of them does, we will continue to watch the consequences of the worst mistake in British post-war history take its toll on our national standing and the welfare of our people.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Playing with fire



This is a trailer for a book that is worth your time and money. Much of the discussion of Brexit is about economics, but a large section of the vote to leave was about immigration. What some people were voting for was the forcible expulsion of foreigners. They didn't phrase it that way. They used euphemisms like 'ending freedom of movement,' but they meant something a little more savage. The referendum has led to increased incidents of hate crimes, as this chilling Panorama programme shows. This and the book tell us about the human cost of playing politics with people, people who didn't even have the right to vote on their fate.

Racism was harnessed by the leave campaign to win it. This is not to say all leave voters are racist, far from it, but enough were to swing the result. Nor did Brexit create xenophobia. However, this accursed referendum has acted as a legitimating tool and has ended inhibitions against the expression of hate. Something good about the country has died.

Nationalism and racism are potent forces for mobilising the worst in society. They are a curse that has killed millions through war and genocide. The EU was a response, and a clever one. It didn't try and create the European super state of myth. It didn't try and abolish the nation state. Instead of utopianism, it gradually softened borders. It did that through integrating trade in a single market and through ensuring that every EU citizen became, in effect, a dual national. We are citizens of both our own country and the EU. It was practical too. Driving licences, pet passports, mobile phones, reciprocal health care, and others became Europe-wide, making life easier. Freedom of movement is part of that softening. It is a heavily circumscribed right. Any stay over three months is subject to stringent conditions (not that the UK enforced them). But it opened up opportunities to live and work in different EU states, without onerous bureaucratic restrictions.

Nationalists, and that means most Eurosceptic politicians in the UK, resented this and wanted to firm up borders again. They used the worst of populist rhetoric, spread lies, and dropped dark hints. It was playing with fire, but they preferred winning their game to the risk of being burnt. They thought they were safe anyway, the flames would only consume others. Their behaviour was contemptible. They encouraged dark forces to emerge from the corners to where they had been confined. They wanted their right-wing fantasy at all costs, costs that were born by the people in this book and documentary. I look at Brexit and sometimes wonder, what have we become?

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

An elegy

This is a gorgeous elegy for England, written in despair about Brexit, inspired by the death of Prince, all the while referring to the death of another prince, Hamlet. Not bad for a pop song. There's a personal element to this. One of the band members was a student in an 'A' level Politics evening class I taught back in the mid 80s. He was a guitarist changing himself into an academic. Now he's turning himself back again. I can't stop listening to it and I love the evocative video too.


Friday, October 06, 2017

Murder most foul


A few days ago the Daily Telegraph led its front page with the speech of that egregious liar, our Foreign Secretary, under the by-line: "The Roaring Lion." This is quite mad. So is the speech by this arch reactionary in fancy dress who talks of Brexit in terms of Agincourt. Theresa May's speech, dogged by a virus, a prankster, and collapsing scenery worthy of the worst 1960s soap opera, was a disaster. But it was one of cringe making pathos, as the inadequate attempted the impossible. It wasn't the worst speech of the conference. She was inept; Johnson and Rees-Mogg were worse, they were sinister.

Whenever I hear the nationalist right expressing their deep love of our country and the glories that will come to us when we shake off the tyrannical yoke of our biggest trading partners and closet allies, I don't think of their disregard of simple things like facts, evidence, or truth. Instead I think of Oscar Wilde:

And all men kill the thing they love, 
By all let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look, 
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

Nationalism kills patriotism; and it kills the country it professes to love.

It's one reason why nationalists like referendums. They are faux-democracy; they flaunt democratic values, even as they undermine them. Democracy is a network of interlocking institutions, checks and balances, underpinned by elected representatives. Referendums by-pass all these safeguards and offer a one-off marketing exercise. Sell your fad or obsession to enough people just once and the entire structure of democracy is undermined. Referendums kill democracy.

All British national and regional institutions were opposed to Brexit. All parliaments, councils, and assemblies were opposed. Business and trade unions were opposed. Academics and the medical profession were opposed. Scientists and all our trading partners and allies were opposed. It could never happen. There was one shot. A referendum, where a bare majority of the honest but inexpert could overrule the lot. This wasn't the triumph of democracy, so much as its betrayal.

Nationalist crimes agains democracy are being committed in Hungary and Poland. While the polarisation in Britain is now being experienced by Spain. I don't know enough about Catalonia to have an informed opinion, other than a revulsion at the brutality of the Spanish Police, but the Catalan left are making it clear that they do not support the nationalists.
The appalling scenes of police violence that took place on 1 October in Catalonia along with the most baffling disrespect for democratic procedures and democratic substance that preceded them a month ago in the Catalan Parliament urges us to raise a collective voice.
This voice belongs to the democratic, non-aligned left, a left whose expression we have been longing for. While this voice unequivocally and strongly condemns the authoritarian violence endorsed by the central government, it sternly and democratically resists nationalistic discourse. We refuse to accept this binary as the choice we must face.
And in the same way we should cancel Brexit, assert our democratic values, heal our divisions, and end the xenophobic hostility that the referendum raised. In that way we can save the country we love, rather than let it be transformed into the plaything of a deranged and obsessive right.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

A hard choice

I can't make up my mind.



For those not in the know, this was in the League Cup. Palace's league record this season is played 7, lost 7, goals for 0, goals against 17. Well you have to laugh - I suppose.

Health and the nation

During the past few months, indirectly, I have had need to be extremely grateful to the NHS. In fact, over the last couple of years friends and family have made me too familiar with hospital wards and waiting rooms. I looked and saw the technology, the profound expertise and the sheer hard work all around me. I saw skilled people dedicated to saving the lives of my friends, solely because they, like me, are citizens of a civilised country. I know that anyone, whoever they are, can get the best help possible. This is what the Americans denigrate as "socialised medicine." And, my, are we lucky to have it.

Now read this article from Jonathan Lis. It's a brief summary of the risks posed to the NHS by Brexit. It's not that it could be suddenly dismantled, but it's more the worry of a long, slow erosion of the service as the result of pressures on resources, staffing, and funding. Lis picks up on some of the consequences of leaving the EU that are not as frequently mentioned too.
While remain campaigners stressed the risks to the NHS of reduced immigration and a diminished economy, few mentioned the €3.5bn supplied by the European Investment Bank to the NHS since 2001, or publicised the dangers to cancer patients of leaving the European Atomic Energy Community or the European Medicines Agency. The government, for its part, is so consumed with fire-fighting that it is neglecting to recognise the NHS for what it is: one of Brexit’s key issues, and potentially its most high-profile piece of collateral damage.
This is something that everyone, leaver or remainer, will experience at some point in their life; a service made worse for no good reason. Once again, I can only hope that someone stops this madness now.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

In praise of pragmatism

I have just passed my 65th birthday. I'm officially an old age pensioner. This isn't a bad time to reflect on the most important division in modern British politics. Sure we are split by class, region, and by big geographical differences. But there is one thing that cuts through it all, something that is consistent within all classes, groups, and areas - it's age. Unlike people of my generation, the majority of young people are overwhelmingly in favour of being a member of the European Union and much more likely to vote Labour.

That would be cause for optimism from my point of view if it weren't for the fact that we have a Conservative government hell bent on leaving the EU. They have their dream too. It's of an independent, ethnically homogenous Britain, one in true Trumpian rhetoric that has been restored to greatness. The young look at this and don't see utopia; they see a prison. Nostalgic Britain is somewhere to escape from. Europe offers liberation. Unconcerned by immigration, freedom of movement promises them a continent of opportunity that Brexit removes.

The irony is that 2016 is probably one of the last years where it would be possible for leave to win a referendum, and then only narrowly. The demographics are overwhelmingly against the possibility of Brexit in the future. Yet the future is to be bound in perpetuity by the present.

Both generations are dreamers. But the blissful vision of one generation is the nightmare of the other.

Dream is the right term too. I saw recently one of those little articles that provide a condensed version of an idea for easy digestion. This one contrasted the difference between opinion and evidence. You could just as easily substitute the terms the ideal and the material, fiction and reality, belief and truth, abstract and concrete. The problem is that opinion can be held contrary to evidence and be bloody difficult to shift. Brexit is an example.

Brexit is a fantasy divorced from reality. Eurosceptics spent forty odd years arguing that we should leave the European Union. They never bothered to ask the question about how it could be done, or research the real consequences. No details, just wishful thinking and empty rhetoric, bolstered by a few comforting myths. The result is that they haven't a clue. In deciding to interpret a narrow majority as the "will of the people," and, by implication, to see the other half of the population as "enemies of the people," they now have to manage reality. And they can't. It's too difficult.

Now turn to the Labour Party. I should be feeling optimistic. But though the future looks assured, there is another problem. Youthful enthusiasm is directed towards another dream. They are lionising a rather mangy old lion. They are wrapped up in adoration of an elderly backbencher of minimal achievement and limited ability. He is adored as a symbol, not as reality. Like Brexit, Corbyn has become whatever his adherents wants him to be. This is also divorced from reality.

The biggest contradiction for the enthusiastic pro-EU Corbynista is that he is an old Bennite Euroscpetic. He has always been opposed to membership of the EU. And despite a carefully calculated ambiguity, the leadership is adamant that Britain is going to leave the European Union. What's more, he keeps repeating things about the single market that are simply untrue. Yet Labour hoovered up the votes of remainers. Image and reality are completely at odds with each other.

Let's get material. It's time to drag out that old, semi-forgotten word, pragmatism. It's been discarded because it became a euphemism for acceptance or inaction. In my book it means dealing with reality. And radical pragmatism was defined beautifully by Patrick Geddes: "the realizable best that can be made of the here and now, if we invoke and use all the resources available, physical, mental and moral."

A radically pragmatic approach to Brexit would be to abandon it. There are no material benefits. It would make us poorer and diminish our role in the world. Membership of the EU on the really advantageous terms we already have is the best option available. The political consequences of remaining and the loss of face it would entail are as nothing to the damage of leaving.

And beyond that, the realities that are eroding the Tory party and animating the young are the problems that face people in their everyday lives – housing, poverty (both in and out of work), low pay, rotten employment, insecurity, debt, and many others. How are we to deal with them? Not by creating some imaginary future, how are we to do it now, as quickly as possible, for everyone today? That's what would drive a radical pragmatic politics.

Because I am old, I remember earlier times. In 1978 the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm published an essay, The Forward March of Labour Halted? It was reissued in extended book form in 1981 after Margaret Thatcher's election victory. It has dated, but its significance was that it argued that British society had changed, the working class had fragmented, and Labour needed to respond to a different world. Its conclusion was that Labour needed to "formulate not only what we would want to do, but what can be done." Indeed. It's time to wake from the reverie and deal with complex reality, to value the contribution of experts, and to elevate practical knowledge over vague illusions. It won't be easy. It never is.

Silence

Sometimes golden, but sometimes due to difficult times.


Friday, July 28, 2017

Wholesale prejudice

I have been saying all along that Brexit is a victory for the right. It was the obsession of parts of the Conservative Party who saw leaving the EU as the true path to paradise – either a libertarian one with a free market and a minimal state, or a nationalist heaven of restored Victorian values and imperial preference. We are in this mess purely because of their persistence and their ability to wreck the Tory party if they didn't get their way. Yet they have had fellow travellers from the other side, a dogged band of leftists from a variety of persuasions. Whether they are after creating socialism in one country or some form of nationalist socialism, the historical precedents are not pretty. Simon Wren-Lewis has superbly eviscerated the economic case they put forward here. I thoroughly agree.

"Lexit" raised its head again last Sunday as Corbyn, to the horror of trade union leaders, committed Labour to a hard Brexit, only mitigated by meaningless platitudes and erroneous suggestions about the single market, jobs, and "tariff-free" trade.

Despite having said precisely the same previously, John McDonnell rowed back once it became clear that this was kicking up a row, suggesting that Britain could stay in the single market if public opinion changed. Whether this was tactical or genuine is open to question, though it's clear Labour is as split as the Tories.

What incensed me is that Corbyn also put himself firmly in the anti-immigration camp. He blamed "wholesale" Eastern European immigration for worsening working conditions and reducing wages, particularly in the building trade. As a result, he insisted, free movement of people had to end. It was an evidence-free assertion and an ancient trope. Research points to immigration as being a net benefit, though some anecdotal accounts suggest that there may be problems at the margins (never nice if you are one of the people in that margin of course). Regardless, there are three big difficulties with his argument.

The first is that any problems are not ones of immigration, but of exploitation. To say that exploitation will cease if we stop foreigners coming into the country is risible. It blames the victims.

The second is that it's the sort of red meat that some on the middle-class left think that you have to throw at working-class people to make them like you and abandon UKIP. It's facile and condescending, but, most importantly from a left perspective, it addresses what are often described as the 'white working class' in terms of their whiteness and not of their class. It's the kind of divisive narrative socialists used to despise.

Finally, this marginal problem is not solved by dealing with the issue itself, but by removing a universal reciprocal right. His solution to exploitation in the building trade is to stop British pensioners retiring to Spain.

These are not left-wing views.

I would like him to answer this question from an Anglo-Belgian family:
"Do these Brexiters ever consider how many ordinary people’s lives they have harmed?”
Does he? Do they? Johnson, Gove, Farage, and now, openly, Corbyn?

This whole farrago is the consequence of the obsessions of nonentities producing a situation that is being managed by mediocrities. As the incredible difficulty of extracting anything reasonable from increasingly difficult negotiations become ever more apparent, opinions are starting to change.

The details of the negotiations are nightmarish. The government is unprepared, divided, and has no vision of what it wants. The debate that is going on is one that should have been held before the referendum, not after invoking Article 50. There is only one reasonable option open to us – don't do it.

In the meantime, those tempted by anti-immigration rhetoric should remember that, however long ago, we are all the products of migration. It is one of the most ubiquitous experiences of humanity. We are all in its debt. George Szirtes put it magnificently.
As for refugees they are, as we were, like leaves blown off a tree, drifting where the wind or sea takes them. But not just leaves. Leaves wither and die and return to earth. Refugees, migrants of all sorts, are also seeds of new growth and always have been. Few of us present here now live in the places where we were born. We too drift and seed. On good soil with a little tending we become part of the landscape. That is our history, our present and, with luck, our future.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Look on my works ... and despair

I haven't been blogging much lately, there have been a lot of other things going on in my life, but that isn't the main reason. I have more or less run out of things to say about the political class. It's awful. And it's tasked with managing the most complex, pointless, and utterly self-destructive policy imaginable. When you are holding a gun to your own head, the sanest thing to do is to not pull the trigger. Instead, in the words of Martin Wolf in the Financial Times,
Remember what has happened. In an unnecessary referendum, a small majority chose an option they could not understand, because it had not been worked out. Thereupon, a new prime minister, with no knowledge of the complexities, adopted the hardest possible interpretation of the outcome. She triggered the exit process in March 2017, before shaping a detailed negotiating position. Some 70 days later, in an unnecessary election, she lost both her majority and her authority.
The result is a dismal failure to even begin to negotiate the best EU deal we can hope for, which would be something merely significantly worse, rather than catastrophically worse, than what we  already have.

On the first anniversary of May becoming prime minister, the tributes have been coruscating. Two stand out. John Crace, inventor of the jibe "Maybot," is cruel, funny and accurate. His conclusion:
In just a year, the Maybot had imploded entirely. It had come to this – from being lauded as the saviour of the Conservative party to begging Labour for some policy ideas. A year in which her true mediocrity had been exposed.
Meanwhile, Ian Dunt resorted to a list. It's long and damning.
On Thursday, we reached the first anniversary of Theresa May's time in Downing Street. During this period she has pursued a hopelessly mangled Brexit strategy, rebranded the Conservative party with hard right-wing nativism, trashed Britain's global reputation and thrown away her own majority in a fit of imperial arrogance. We are unlikely to have to mark her second...

The list of her failures goes on and on. They are moral, political, economic, strategic and presentational. She is a full-spectrum political disaster.
Then there is Labour. When it came to the election, the result was a narrower defeat than expected, aided by the collapse of third party votes and the worst Tory campaign imaginable. Corbyn scrubbed up well. He is now dressed in expensive suits, carefully groomed, and when tieless looks preppy, rather than scruffy. He didn't lose his temper on TV, came over avuncular, but was confined mainly to mass meetings of the adoring. I still can't see any evidence that he he has the ability to be Prime Minister, but I suppose that what really gets to me is the bizarre cult of personality that has been generated around him. This worship is disturbing, it's uncritical, and every objection to his saintliness is met by a tirade of abuse. And the object of this fevered veneration is so vacuous. I mean, what has he actually said of interest? Most of his speeches are content-free rhetoric or vague promises of the impossible. Can anyone say what on earth a "jobs first Brexit" means? It's an endlessly repeated platitude worthy of Theresa May.

The weird thing is that when he says something, like wanting to leave the single market, his fan base don't believe him if it's not what they want. He is a vehicle for people's political fantasies, a symbol of being on the left, rather than the advocate of a coherent political programme. Eventually, this will be found out. Brexit is the most likely cause, but even on a flagship policy like abolishing university tuition fees, they have started rowing back expectations. I suppose being vague on Brexit is a necessary tactic, given that the party is split and the voter base is overwhelmingly pro-remain. But eventually people will begin to notice that on every Parliamentary vote on it, Labour has offered no official opposition to the policy of the Tory right.

I have always felt that Corbyn's past stance on foreign affairs made him unfit to lead the Labour Party. It hasn't turned out to be an obstacle for him as his supporters can't remember the IRA, and even if they don't share his virulent hatred of Israel, they have an antipathy to it. As for his disgusting "friends," they don't seem to make much difference either. The issue cropped up again last week when he shared a pizza with Marcus Papadopoulos, a pro-Assad denier of the Srebrenica massacre (a position Corbyn has flirted with in the past).

Corbyn is often described as a pacifist. He makes his association with peace politics known whenever possible. It sounds nice. But he isn't a pacifist. He isn't even a principled non-interventionist. No, he is an appeaser. It's a long political tradition. It was derided in the 19th Century by working class radicals as being "peace at any price." To avoid war by making concessions to a potential aggressor may be a political necessity at times, but it is morally ambiguous at best. The problem is that if you want to pretend that it is virtuous, then you have to move beyond Orwell's famous observation about pacifism being objectively pro-fascist, to being materially so. Pacifism may refuse to resist evil, but it doesn't pretend that it isn't evil. Appeasers argue that the evil actually have a case, that they are being reasonable, and that our goodwill in conceding their demands will win them over to virtue. It's wishful thinking, and from there it is a small step to become a fellow traveller, apologist, or even an outright supporter. And that's where Corbyn's Irish republicanism and anti-Zionism took him. But the association with the word peace has allowed him to effectively lie about his actions, to the ecstatic joy of his fan base.

So what can you say? In the middle of a deep, self-inflicted crisis, we have domestic politics that is reduced to a contest between Joseph and Neville Chamberlain. It is dominated by cowardice and confusion. It is organised failure. It has to change, but until it does, there is nothing more to do other than to look on in disbelief.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Don't mention the EU

They keep coming. Every day I get sent another adoring meme and article, often from idiotic sources like the Canary, glorifying the achievements of Jeremy Corbyn. I half expect to see one on his latest bowel movements - the holy turd of St Jezza - as an exemplar of his exceptional virtue. I grew up in a tradition that was sceptical of leaders and so I find this outpouring unintelligent, disturbing and nauseous.

However, not one person I know, not a single one, shared his Mirror article from 17 June. I am not surprised as most of my Corbynista friends are firmly pro-EU. Corbyn writes:
We would start by confirming that Britain is leaving the EU. The issue of Brexit is settled...
Leaving the EU will mean freedom of movement will end...
Leaving the European Union means Britain will have a different relationship with the single market.
But jobs and the economy will be our priority, and the final Brexit deal needs to keep the benefits of the EU single market and the customs union.
That means we will seek continued tariff-free access to the European market, with no new non-tariff burdens for British business.
This is mad. Ending freedom of movement means leaving the single market. If we leave the single market, then we cannot keep all the benefits of membership. This has been made perfectly clear from day one. Retaining our current benefits outside the EU is a fantasy. The best that can be hoped for is a deal that will be worse, but not catastrophically so. The only way to get a deal as good as we have currently is to remain members.

What this article is doing is not proposing a 'soft Brexit,' but using soft words to conceal a 'hard Brexit.' It's a commonplace way of arguing and isn't confined to any one political party. Two tricks are the most frequent. The first is over freedom of movement. Corbyn wrote about how it will be replaced:
In its place, we will back fair rules and reasonable management of migration, underpinned by tough action to end the undercutting of pay and conditions by unscrupulous employers and to stop overseas-only recruitment.
Notice anything missing? You probably haven't because it's rarely mentioned. Freedom of movement is a reciprocal right. It isn't just about immigration. If he said, 'in order to bring in new rules to manage immigration we will have to strip all British citizens of their right to live, work, run a business, or retire in any other EU country,' he would be telling the whole truth. But it doesn't sound quite as good does it? Confining the debate to immigration distorts the real meaning of freedom of movement. It only tells half the story.

The second is that people elide between membership of the single market and access to the single market. They are not the same thing. Access to the single market is universal. Anyone can trade into it. Sometimes the terms of trade can be made more favourable by a separate trade deal, but the full benefits are only available to members. Pretending otherwise is deceitful.

And so we are stuck within a pointless debate which all rests on the premise that a narrow majority in a poorly constructed referendum should overrule all other democratic decision making processes, because it represents the permanent and immutable will of the people for all time - even if they change their minds afterwards. This is mad. And as the benefits remain elusive, while the huge costs, the impact on people's lives, the scary economic damage, and the loss of liberties become more apparent, this premise looks more foolish by the minute.

We have a divided country. We have a divided governing party. We have a divided Labour Party trying to appease two divided constituencies of voters. Instead of dealing with realities, we have entered a world of wishful thinking where soft-sounding waffle can magic away reality. We have landed ourselves in an unconscionable mess, and I doubt whether we have a political class with enough courage and intelligence to get us out of it.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Hubris

After hubris comes nemesis. The schadenfreude of watching May's supreme confidence vanish in a cloud of platitudes was intense. Instead of oblivion, something I expected, Labour is now well placed. Corbyn has shown himself to be a proficient campaigner. Age has softened his image, if not the reality, but elections are all about smoke and mirrors and not details. Labour have had their Dunkirk; a triumphant defeat that is the basis for future victory. But beware of hubris on their part. I want to sound some notes of caution.

1. The obvious – Labour didn't win. They need 56 more seats to even catch up with the Conservatives. It was their third consecutive defeat. They are still a long way behind.

2. To make matters worse, Labour finished third in Scotland, overtaken by the Scottish Conservative Party who had been an irrelevance for decades. Even though there was a recovery for Labour, this points to fragility in its support.

3. Look at the data. This was the best share of the vote the Conservatives have had for thirty years. Yes, this Tory crisis really has been brought about by their best result since 1987. How so? Once again it's down to the arbitrariness of the electoral system. This election saw a return to predominantly two-party voting, particularly in England. The shrinking of support for minority parties has meant that the result in 2017 is more proportional to vote share than previously. If there had been any form of proportional representation in 2015, then the Tories wouldn't have had a majority to lose. The momentum may be with Labour, but the Tory base is also stronger.

4. The Labour vote, as in every election, was not homogenous. It was a coalition of different social and demographic groups, and of differing political outlooks. Though Corbyn's electoral strength was underestimated, the increased Labour vote share also includes those who voted Labour despite it being led by Corbyn.

5. The Conservatives are in control. The DUP despise Corbyn because of his republican sympathies and will always block him. Labour need the Tories to muck it up, which they are more than capable of doing of course, but they may also be shrewd at exploiting openings.

What all this points to is the need for consolidation not triumphalism. I suppose you can excuse celebrations and outbursts of idiocy, but in the end Labour have to be seen as a government in waiting.

The one great issue that a government needs to face is Brexit. It was ignored in the election, despite it being the single most significant event in the last fifty years. It's a bit like cleaning the oven, one of those jobs you keep putting off because it's too unpleasant. Parties are hiding behind the mantra that they will 'deliver the result of the referendum.' No one dares to question whether that decision was actually wise or not (or even deliverable!). Nor do they consider the dissensus rather than consensus that it produced. But what is unforgiveable is that they are completely unprepared for the complexity of the task and reluctant to acknowledge the damage it may cause. May's decision to invoke article 50 and then call an election is a monumental error. It should have been the other way round. The clock is counting down and there isn't a government to head negotiations. If we were serious about leaving, then article 50 should have been invoked only after all the preparatory work had been done.

Labour's position should be clear. Wait and seize the opportunities when they arise. Instead, the leadership went ahead and adopted the position of UKIP. Mirroring Corbyn's utterly stupid call for invoking article 50 immediately after the referendum, they have made it clear that their priority is ending free movement and thus exiting the single market. They have boxed themselves in.

Whether there is a political cost to be paid, who knows? A more sensible stance may appear. I'm not predicting anything. But it smacks of overconfidence and an underestimation of the consequences of the realities of Brexit, while failing to look over their shoulder at the uneasy coalition of voters that have raised their hopes, despite yet another defeat. 

Friday, June 09, 2017

Wrong again

Yes, I got it wrong. Pretty comprehensively wrong. It's a talent I have.

At this point everybody who did get it wrong about the election starts writing pieces about how, although they got it wrong, the fact that they were wrong proves that they were right all along. I can't disappoint the tiny number of readers of this blog.

Over the years I have been banging on about two things. The first is the need for a new and credible left political economy to challenge orthodoxy. The time for it is now. There is an electoral coalition for the reinvention of a neo-Keynesian social democratic settlement.

More recently, I have been saying that the significant demographic divide in politics is generational. The young voted. This is a great moment of hope, because the previous assumption that there was a realignment where a left political economy was tied to social conservatism is wrong. The new generation of voters is socially liberal, pro Europe, and relaxed about immigration.

Now, some caveats.

First, I haven't changed my views of Corbyn, and especially his foreign policy and support for awful movements and regimes. They have been formed over thirty years. There is still a fight to be had over where Labour stands.

Second, this wasn't a victory for Corbyn alone. In fact it wasn't even a victory, he lost. Both the Conservative and Labour votes increased. But it is one of those moments when political change became a real possibility. And the "progressive majority" has returned. Though the country is polarised, a majority didn't vote for the right. This was a success for the Labour Party as a whole. It was a campaign fought locally as well as centrally. Right, left, and centre candidates worked hard and did well. And Labour didn't win, they came close, and they recovered amazingly from a terrible position. Think back to how bad the local election results were just a month ago! Retreating into sectarianism would throw this opportunity away.

Third, I am old. This is a bit of a bugger, but true. And like a lot of older people, I can lapse into pessimism. I don't feel like that today though. I feel that there is an opportunity now, but probably for people younger than me. But if I am old, I am younger than the leadership. This is still an interregnum. What comes next is what matters.

Finally, and this is the most important, there is Brexit. It was the reason for the election and never mentioned. This is an extraordinary constitutional and economic revolution to be undertaken with a flimsy mandate that has just been made flimsier. This is the defining issue. It has the potential to create huge damage. Where is our strategy for that? Ian Dunt put it well before the election:
It is not an elephant in the room. It is a stampede approaching at speed, to which we have stared, shrugged and continued with our little tea party. If historians do bother to assess what happened in this election they will be left aghast at our complacency.
Brexit could wreck everything.

Let's leave the Daily Mash to inject a sense of proportion:
LABOUR leader Jeremy Corbyn has congratulated himself after being beaten by a political idiot.
True, but I'm still smiling. Hope springs eternal in the human breast.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Half full glasses

The bad managers that I have worked under have generally fallen into two broad types. The first surprised you by their rise until you saw them in interview, where they were smooth, warm, and pleasant. Doubts first arose when you probed beneath the surface and found the deceits, illusions and ignorance. Then they tried to do something and everything fell apart round them, leaving a trail of exasperated staff.

The second rose effortlessly, often by default. They were suggested for posts. People thought them safe choices, solid performers; they seemed to embody stability. They had carefully hidden their lack of capacity behind all the right language and tended to be control freaks, claiming the credit for the work of others and letting little or no light fall on what they really did. They too were destructive.

Both types tend to be disloyal to their colleagues, are ambitious narcissists, and completely lack a sense of humour.

This might sound familiar. Corbyn v May. The election from hell.

Corbyn has shown his impressive qualities as a campaigner. Though he is still only really comfortable in front of large, adoring crowds, he has taken to appearing as a kindly, righteous man in front of the TV cameras. People have warmed to him. He has controlled himself when challenged; his tendency to lose his temper has been curtailed. But then interviewers rarely ask the really difficult questions. He got away with defending his dodgy past alliances with lines about being prepared to deal with people or read articles that he 'profoundly disagreed with.' Nobody followed up by asking precisely who or what he disagreed with. Imprecision permits elision.

(His real ability as a campaigner raises huge questions as to why he was so inept during the EU referendum, making me think that Alan Johnson's charge of sabotage has a great deal of merit.)

As for May, can anyone remember a worse Conservative campaign? The ruthless party of power is doing everything it can to show that it has completely lost the plot. The manifesto offered nothing. May ran on leadership and presented none. The party tried to build a cult of personality around someone bland and inarticulate who offered no human warmth. I used to think that she spoke in platitudes only because she had been trained to. Now I tend to believe that it's all she's able to do. Her stilted delivery shows her to be incapable of spontaneity.

The Conservatives will win of course. They were always going to, despite how hard they have tried to lose it. The polls are contradictory because we are seeing a huge experiment in methodology, mainly over turnout of young voters, giving disparate results. One group of polls shows a narrow Tory lead, and projections that suggest the possibility of a hung parliament. The other group shows a comfortable Conservative lead and a large majority of seats. Not one has shown a Labour lead. Every one has shown a stable Tory vote around the mid 40s, the same share of the vote that gave Thatcher and Blair landslides because of the distorting effect of the electoral system. And even if there is an unprecedentedly high turnout amongst young voters, there aren't enough of them and they are in the wrong place. The highest concentration of young voters is in constituencies that Labour already holds.

Especially early in the campaign, there were comparisons with the election of 1983, but they are false. The differences are profound. The calibre of the two leaders is a given. Foot was a man of considerably more intellectual and political accomplishments than Corbyn, while the comparison between May and Thatcher is risible. Corbyn was the wrong leader with the worst ratings, so May had a head start before she proceeded to show her own failings. But these are superficial disparities. There are three main structural differences. First, Scotland has been lost to Labour. Secondly, the third party vote has collapsed. In 1983 Labour had a three-way fight with the SDP/Liberal Alliance. Finally, it was the split in Labour that gave Thatcher the landslide. 54% of the vote went to the two centre-left parties in 1983. In 2015 something different happened. For the first time in decades more than 50% voted for the right. There is no "progressive majority." I could be wrong, but all the data points to a Tory win.

I am, and remain, Labour of course, just as I am in favour of Britain remaining in the European Union. Obviously, I am in despair about British politics at the moment. I weep at the general lack of ability of the political class. But there are things that cheer me. First, let's all celebrate the demise of UKIP. The threat of a British version of the parties of Wilders and Le Pen was real. Now, it seems to have returned to the fringes where it belongs.

Secondly, the impending death of the Labour Party has been exaggerated. It isn't healthy obviously, but there are signs of life. It has been intellectually moribund for a long while and has polarised around two nostalgias. Both are anachronistic and fictitious views of the past. The one looks back to Attlee, the other pines for the king over the water, Blair. Neither engages critically with the real history of their heroes' conflicts and failures, as well as their concrete and impressive achievements. Both are viewed selectively. Both are the past. However, this is an interregnum. Something is stirring in the parliamentary party. It's predominantly female too. This isn't down to anything specifically about gender.  It's a feature of the decline of the Trade Unions and the rise of the voluntary sector as the source of candidates with a grip on reality, ready to challenge the teachers and lawyers that still dominate.

This is a real social movement. It's doing more than filling in gaps where the welfare state has eroded. It's providing advocacy and employment. There are credit unions fighting off the loan sharks, tenants' associations struggling for housing rights, community development groups, LETS schemes, social entrepreneurship, child care schemes, disability rights groups, women's refuges, the list goes on and on. They are small-scale, participatory, and hugely practical. And they are mainly staffed by women. The politically ambitious amongst them are moving into Labour politics. Their real, grass roots activism contrasts with those that think that being an activist means going to meetings and demonstrations. They are a voice for democratic decentralisation and for participatory democracy. They have roots in the real lives of working class people. I think that this is the basis of a left renewal.

Finally, the hope lies with the young. The generational divide in British politics has never been so stark. The young are overwhelmingly Labour. They are also overwhelmingly pro-EU. There is a contradiction in that Labour has implicitly committed itself to support a hard Brexit and ending free movement. But closing a door can mean different things to different people, it can lock out, but for those looking for something more, it can shut in. This has been an election about Brexit that has never mentioned it. But the realities have not yet hit. Reality tends to change the minds of all but the most ideologically committed. Brexit is an issue that Labour has dodged so far from cowardice. If it is to hold the young, then it must face it.

It's almost like finding optimism in my own demise, but I can see a new "progressive majority" emerging from a different generation. It won't look the same as the old one, but just as Labour faces an excruciating defeat, it promises relief from a bleak future. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Forget part two

Manchester. My adopted city, where I moved forty years ago. A city where the centre was wrecked by an IRA bomb, without casualties. Now the latest place where the most recent variant of a stupid apocalyptic cult has decided to usher in some ridiculous utopia by random killing.

This time of adolescent girls. 

Monday, May 22, 2017

Another fine mess part one

I am not sure what I make of this, but Carol Cadwalladr's investigation into barely legal use of data in the EU referendum by the alt-right (which would be better described as the authoritarian right, or even pro-Putin right) is revealing. Above all, it makes it clear that Brexit was one of their central objectives. This was not just a victory for the right, but for a particularly nasty, nationalist authoritarian version.

Her reports are important because once these tactics are revealed and understood they can be countered. Macron did precisely that in the French presidential elections by confounding the Russian hackers seeking to do for Le Pen what they did for Trump.

Brexit and Trump stand as this right's peak achievements. But I'm not pessimistic. With Trump they got lucky. Despite all that was thrown at Clinton, Trump lost. He lost the popular vote significantly. They won because of the historic anomaly of the electoral college, which gave him the presidency. Trump also illustrates another weakness. His presidency is hardly a howling success. These people may be rich and clever, but they are idiots. They are clever at doing stupid things. All they need to stop them is intellectual courage and intelligence. And so I turn to Brexit ... oh.

No, I'm not as optimistic here at all. Both main parties have now committed themselves to a hard Brexit. The moment Labour declared that it would end freedom of movement (rather than use the already existing legal restrictions), political opposition ended. The right had won.

This asks real questions about the quality of both our democracy and our representatives. Cadwalladr writes:
In his blog, Dominic Cummings writes that Brexit came down to “about 600,000 people – just over 1% of registered voters”. It’s not a stretch to believe that a member of the global 1% found a way to influence this crucial 1% of British voters. The referendum was an open goal too tempting a target for US billionaires not to take a clear shot at. Or I should say US billionaires and other interested parties, because in acknowledging the transatlantic links that bind Britain and America, Brexit and Trump, so tightly, we also must acknowledge that Russia is wrapped somewhere in this tight embrace too.
It's ironic that the nationalist right is so globalised in its outlook, but I am concerned with something else. The referendum that supposedly displayed the 'will of the people' was determined by a mere 600,000 voters. That was how close the vote was. And this vote was allowed to overrule the opinions of the government, the opposition, Parliament, business, trade unions, economists, the United States government, the British Commonwealth, and all our strategic allies and trading partners. All wanted us to remain. Those pesky experts, eh? What's worse, this small majority is supposed to be obeyed regardless of the consequences, whatever the settlement with the EU. Brexit has to happen even if it becomes manifestly clear that the results will be, at best, damaging, or, at worst, catastrophic. This is precisely what our politicians have committed themselves to do.

This is madness. Utter madness. If we can find a viable settlement, there is a case for leaving, not that I would necessarily agree. But if not, are our political leaders really going to say, 'We will now commit suicide because you told me to'? It appears so, unless someone can find the political courage to face reality. At the moment I can see none. We will have to wait to see what events bring.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Neo-con imperialist warmonger

At least that's how Peter Kropotkin would be described by sections of the left these days, even though he was a revolutionary anarcho-communist. You see, Kropotkin was one of the leading lights of the anarchist movement who supported the allies in the First World War. I have a chapter about him in this new collection. Of course it is the usual over-priced academic hardback at the moment, so nobody can afford to buy it. Though you can order it for your library.


Most of the movement was anti-war, and Kropotkin is usually condemned, but not by me. My chapter is a defence of his position. There were four main pillars to his argument.

1. France, having been invaded, had a right to self defence and should be supported. Inaction would not be neutral or promote peace, it would aid the aggressor.

2. Prussian militarism had become the organising principle of the united German state and was extremely dangerous. Kropotkin fully anticipated the war, he was expecting German aggression. He felt that if it was not destroyed completely, it would rise again in an even more virulent form.

3. The dreams of pacifists and the liberal peace movement were delusions.

4. Though he shared the socialist analysis of war in general as being the product of capitalism, he felt that, once a war had broken out, people had to make a judgement about this particular war. That meant rejecting the idea of moral equivalence, not seeking a peace that would leave the gains of the aggressor in place, and showing solidarity with the victims of aggression.

This may sound familiar. It should do, because these are precisely the arguments of the anti-totalitarian left when they grappled with the dilemmas of the wars of the early twenty-first century. Little has changed in our thinking since then.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

I meant it ...

... about cats.


And roses as a bonus


I mentioned Brexit once, but I think I got away with it.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Wasting time

Why bother?

A big, expensive legal fight was won against the government and Parliament was given a vote on moving article 50 on exiting the EU. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act was passed to stop the calling of a snap election on the basis of the government's short-term advantage. Parliament had to approve an early election by a two-thirds majority. Great, but only if the opposition doesn't decide to vote to do whatever the government wants. Parliament's power only exists if it is prepared to use it.

Now the right are consolidating their victory by holding an election to give them even greater control, presumably on the grounds that the Labour Party may not remain supine forever. 'So, Mrs May, what was it about a 21% lead in the polls that made you decide that an election was in the national interest?'

A Tory victory is a foregone conclusion. The size of the majority will depend on where the votes are cast and how effective tactical voting will be. But their lead is unassailable. The irony is that May is unimpressive at anything other than delivering platitudes. But once Miliband's ineffective leadership was replaced by Corbyn's destructive incompetence, we were doomed. It's as depressing as it was predictable (and predicted - this isn't hindsight talking).

This will be portrayed as a Brexit election. It isn't. Brexit will only become an issue when the consequences begin to unfold, but by then May will have a free hand. Although in another way, this is all about Brexit. Once again, I will have to get into the habit of agreeing with Tony Blair:
Some say it is to defeat the Tory Right so that she can go for a “softer Brexit”. This is naive. The opposite is true. At present, if she wanted to face down the Tory Right she has a Parliament with a majority to do so. What she doesn’t have is a Parliament that would vote for Brexit at any cost.
For the next couple of years Parliament will be marginalised, all the resources of government will be directed towards mitigating self-harm in the hope that the eventual deal will not be much worse than one we have already. What a criminal waste. And this is a crime which will leave many victims. One day someone will have to step in and clear up the mess, but who and when?

Sod it. From now on I am going to blog about cats.


Monday, April 17, 2017

Right turn

It's a wonderful Greek spring and I am enjoying the good fortune and privilege of being in my house in Pelion. The weather is gorgeous and the trees are in blossom. Cats are lolling about on the patio, stretching and yawning in the sun, occasionally to wake up and insistently demand food.


But there is a cloud on the horizon. At the moment I can come here as often as I like, when I like and as for as long as I like. For some reason, a number of my fellow Brits have decided that my right to do so should be taken away from me. My liberty and that of many others is down to my status as a citizen of the European Union and we are in the process of leaving as a result of a political miscalculation. So please don't tell me to move on, or sneer at me as a "remoaner." Depending on the final settlement, Brexit could hit me hard. I would love to see our departure stopped. It's personal.

Though this isn't just about me. I am upset by the referendum itself for constitutional and political reasons as well. Plebiscites are crude distortions of democracy. The mandate is weak, the majority was slim, and the outcome is highly uncertain, all of which should caution against change, rather than launch us recklessly into it. But above all, as I have been going on about for ages, Brexit is unambiguously a victory for the right.

However you look at it, this is not a win for the left, despite those who are optimistic about what they call a "lexit." Leftists who want to leave tend to make two main arguments. The first is that this was a working class revolt.

Owen Jones summarises and rebuts an argument that he once made:
Since the Brexit vote, the 48% who sought to remain have been demonised as a privileged elite attempting to subvert an authentic working-class revolt. “The working class have spoke!” crowed multimillionaire American citizen John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, recently. The referendum was a clash between the angry “millions of working-class people” and “prosperous middle-class homeowners in London”, declared the Sun. “Remoaners” are a clique formed of “citizens of the world” conspiring against the patriotic British working class, or so the story goes.
The only trouble with this is that, as Jones has spotted, it isn't true.
While Fareham is cast as part of an anti-establishment vanguard, Tower Hamlets – which has prevalent child poverty and two-thirds of whose residents voted for remain – is subsumed into the caricature of a pampered liberal elite. Most working-class Britons under 35 opted for remain, while most middle-class people over 65 voted for leave. Most working-class people who are white went for leave, most working-class people from ethnic minorities went for remain. Consider that the next time the Brexit press imposes its simplistic narrative on a complicated reality. Applying their logic, black supermarket workers and young apprentices form part of the privileged remoaner elite.
Reality is much more complex.

The second argument is based on economics. Forgetting the left's earlier attraction to the idea of 'social Europe' and the European Social Chapter of the Maastrict Treaty, they contend mainly that the EU is a vehicle for the imposition of right-wing economic orthodoxy, regardless of democratic demand, throughout the continent. This isn't without reason and there is nowhere better to see it than in Greece.

The crisis here rumbles on. There are small signs of recovery, but the social costs of austerity are ever-present. Greece's scope for action is limited by membership of the Euro and the flawed construction of the single currency. However, once again, real Greece is not the country of the left's imagination. Growing Greek indebtedness over decades would have resulted in a financial crisis whatever. Endemic corruption, clientelism, and the mess that is the Greek state, with its tangled bureaucracy, are obvious to anyone with more than a passing interest in the country. Greeks despair of the system. If it was to avoid economic collapse, Greece would always have needed structural reforms together with the large additional loans, coupled with debt write offs, that it has received from the IMF and EU institutions.

The problem has always been the macro-economic conditions required by by the lenders. They have plunged the country into a deep recession, a spiral from which it struggles to emerge. Keynesians predicted as much. The institutions have been misguided. But would Greece have got a better deal from anyone else? No way. The problem is the global economic consensus. Of course the EU's economic assumptions are based on it. It's a consensus after all. This is what needs to be challenged.

So rather than disengage, wouldn't it be better to support the social democratic left's work to change the EU from within? Well, part of the "lexit" narrative is that the EU cannot, and never will, change. This is an odd contention to make about a dynamic institution that has transformed itself from a coal and steel community of six countries, to a loose union of twenty-eight democratic nations, some with a new common currency, in only sixty years. And again it isn't true. Here are a couple of examples of the type of left thinking taking place in the EU. Wolfgang Kowalsky thinks change is back on the agenda after a hiatus and that we are heading towards a more flexible approach to integration. Whilst Prime have produced a research paper with constructive proposals for a democratic economic policy. Instead of getting involved, leavers on the left have chosen disengagement, which suggests that their nationalism is stronger than their socialism.

No, the right have won. Labour is collapsing into irrelevance, twenty points behind in the polls and supporting Brexit, leaving the half of the country that wanted to remain in the EU without representation. A Conservative hegemony, deeply wedded to economic orthodoxy, stretches ahead of us. The right have succeeded in consolidating power and building their electoral strength. They have had three main successes.

First, they managed to get the referendum held despite the huge indifference of the British electorate. There was no demand for a referendum. Outside a small group of obsessives, nobody was bothered. All opinion polling had Europe as one of the lowest salience issues as this chart makes clear:


People who had never thought about the EU or took our membership as a given were forced to take a position.

Secondly, the right were successful in mobilising opinion because they linked a low salience issue with one with much higher salience, immigration. And in doing so they legitimised a popular xenophobia. Just as the left has had a tin ear for the anti-Semitism in its midst, so the left leavers are resistant to the evidence that popular racism had much to do with the win. They cannot hear what outsiders find loud and concerning. This is one reason why reading some of the polemics of the poet George Szirtes is so illuminating. As a former child refugee he has the ear of the incomer to hear the whispers of the ghosts of the past that the EU was created to lay to rest. This essay is fabulous.
I don’t think demonisation is too harsh a word, in that Leave rhetoric called forth certain demons, or rather that it quite consciously opened the trapdoors where such demons were hiding. It legitimised them. It called forth the firebombers. It called forth those who immediately set upon elderly widows of French and German birth who had lived in the country for decades and taunted them by asking when they were going home. It called forth the teenagers on the Manchester tram who demanded a black American get off it. It called forth the murderer of Jo Cox. 
As is his reflection at the end of a piece on Hungary from February:
Whatever some politicians say, we are citizens of the world whether we admit it or not. We consume and live by that which was once strange and once we close doors and windows we begin to suffocate. The terms in which the EU referendum was conducted extended far beyond normal debate about the movement of peoples, whether refugees or poor workers seeking a better life. They sought and exploited a latent hostility towards the foreign, a hostility that has increased since the decision. What this can lead to is more than a lack of air. It is a kind of aridity that becomes combustible. A few sparks can do it. The conditions for combustibility are already in place in the UK and in other parts of Europe, particularly in the region where I was born, and – especially now – in Trump’s US. Isolationism and patriotism are on the rise, partly as political acts, partly as social mood, exacerbated by whatever means, for political reasons. 
Drop enough sparks on dry ground and a fire starts. We have seen such fires before. The view beyond the cell, as Vas put it, is vital: better still to get out of the cell and out into the fertile world, and become its citizen.
I know that focus group research is plagued by the possibility of sample error, but this is alarming:
When asked what level they would expect to see for immigration after Brexit, the views of leave voters are clear: "zero"; "immigration should be stopped"; "no more East European immigrants"; "as low as it can possibly go". 
And what happens when these totally unrealistic expectations are not met? Will there be an embittered constituency waiting for something more extreme?

This brings me to my final point. Brexit was our alt-right moment. If you are in any doubts read this profile of Arron Banks.

OK, there are many sincere eurosceptic leavers on both the left and right who want nothing to do with this stuff. Also, UKIP and Leave.eu were not the official campaign, though they probably tipped the balance. But Brexit will be hugely disruptive, and disruption is what the alt-right seek to provide the opportunity to lead us into some dark places.

I don't think that they can do it on their own, as Jan-Werner Müller argues in this article right-wing populists need mainstream allies to win. This is what the official Brexit campaign provided in the referendum, but only for the limited purpose of leaving the EU. Their aim is more ambitious, to break up the EU completely. It stands in their way, and particularly in the way of the authoritarian anti-democratic movement. Wilders, Le Pen, Orban, Kaczynski all see themselves as the future and Brexit as a model to follow.

The power centre of this authoritarian and illiberal right is Putin. He has long had his band of faux-left figures, 'useful idiots' like Greenwald, Pilger, and Assange cheering him on, but could more effective alliances be forged in the mainstream? The pro-Trump sycophancy shown by Michael Gove is alarming, but I don't think it will go much further. What has happened though is that this utterly distasteful politics has shaped the agenda in ways I would not have thought possible before.

It's not a happy prospect for our country. Amongst some of the left, nationalist arguments over sovereignty and an economic critique of neoliberalism have combined with the dishonest reporting of the tabloid press to produce a fictional view of the EU as a static bureaucratic monolith, rather than an evolving supra-national organisation and alliance of democracies. We are not only leaving the EU, we are abdicating our responsibilities and abandoning our allies who are attempting to shape the Union and challenge economic orthodoxy. Instead we are retreating into a Tory hegemony, while left leavers dream of social democracy in one country. I rather think that a left turn is more likely within the EU than in Britain.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Theatre of the absurd

So it begins.

Today, we start to leave the EU by accident.

The referendum was called to disarm UKIP and the obsessive right of the Tory Party, and by doing so to secure our place in the EU for good. That went well didn't it?

It might have just about worked until the leavers played the race, sorry, immigration card.

Not that there is a consensus. The majority was small, subsequent polling all points to the country being split half and half, while up to 100,000 people marched through London to demonstrate against Brexit last weekend. Never can a change as fundamental as this have been implemented on such a weak mandate.

A Prime Minister who campaigned to remain has started the process, supported by an opposition who campaigned to remain, and with the backing of a vote in Parliament, the majority of whose members consider this to be an act of folly. The principles of representative democracy have been abandoned.

To be fair, if all goes well in negotiations, given enough expertise (which we don't have), given plenty of time (which we don't have), given adequate experienced staff (which we don't have), and given politicians who know what they are doing (which we don't have), we might just about get away with a deal that is only slightly worse than the one we already have as members. Otherwise, the risks are huge. This is a change that hasn't be thought through and for which we are entirely unprepared. There wasn't even any contingency planning.

I can't help thinking that this is a colossal, reckless error and, even worse, a betrayal of the future of the younger generation who voted overwhelmingly - in all classes and all regions - to remain. This is the generation who will have to bear the costs and lose the opportunities they had expected, which have been taken away from them against their will.

Another fine mess you got us into, Mr Cameron.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Spring

"If I ruled the world, every day would be the first day of spring," as the old song goes. Well, it's the first day of spring today. The clouds are low, a cold wind is blowing, and the rain is slashing down. The singer wants every day to be like this? Really? Of course the symbolism of the first day of spring is that it marks the end of winter and the promise of summer to come. So, the song offers us a promise never to be fulfilled. Oh joy.

Come on Ryley, it's only a song. But it got me thinking. It comes from the musical Pickwick and is a political speech, a manifesto sung by Samuel Pickwick, an ingenue mistaken for a political candidate. Perhaps it's rather an apt metaphor.

The question it raises is, 'when is it right for people to impose their will on others?' Quite clearly, I want every day to be mid summer. I don't want to be condemned to live the rest of my life in vile weather like today. There isn't a simple answer. The current fashion seems to be that the majority, however small, of voters in a referendum have the right to impose their will on everybody else.

I moan about having my EU citizenship being taken away from me against my will, Scottish independence is being raised again, but one of the worst aspects of the EU referendum is that EU citizens, legally resident in the country for many years, didn't even have a vote. They are at risk of losing everything and weren't allowed a voice. Others took away their automatic right to live here and now they can only rely on others to try and protect them. As for Gibraltar, the forgotten question, around 90% of its citizens voted to stay in the EU. This is because their entire economy is dependent on an open border with Spain, guaranteed by membership. Yet, they are to be wrenched out of the EU by the votes of people in England. I could go on and on.

This isn't just a question about Brexit, though I think it is a terrible mistake, it is about the nature of government and democracy. It is why I would always defend representative democracy against a plebiscitary alternative. I am not an individualist absolutist. There are clear cases when people's ideas and desires should be overruled for the collective good, but the mechanisms for doing so matter.

I don't have good answers for a blog post. While the case against vesting all power in a dictatorial ruler or an oligarchy is manifest, crude majority rule also has dangers and is a flawed model of democracy. In the meantime, roll on summer.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The state of the nation

"Now is not the time" for a referendum on Scottish independence. So says the queen of the platitude.

So what's this all about? After all, it's only a short time since the last referendum. Actually, it's pretty simple. I've worked it all out.

We have two politicians going head-to-head who owe their position to being on the losing side in a referendum. One supported the losing side, but when the leader of the losers resigned because he lost, she took over on the basis of implementing the winning decision despite campaigning against it. The other lost, but, because of the popularity gained through losing, trounced the winning side in the subsequent election where the losers emerged victorious over the winners.

Now, there is very little enthusiasm for another referendum, it's unwanted by most. But we have to remember that the reason for the call to hold an unwanted referendum is the unwanted result of another referendum that wasn't really wanted either.

This is all about taking back control. For the English loser who won, taking back control used to mean taking back control from the European Union. Now it also means taking back control from the Scottish institutions that were set up in order to allow Scotland to take back control from the UK. They can't have that control, because they must take back control from the EU along with the rest of the UK, even though they voted not to. So the winning Scottish loser now wants to take back control from the UK government so that she doesn't have to take back control from the EU and reckons she can do it by holding an unwanted referendum. The English winning loser thinks we are stronger together in the union of the United Kingdom, making it easier to take back control from the European Union, where we are not stronger together even though she campaigned on a slogan saying that we were. The Scottish loser who won thinks that we are stronger together in the European Union, but not in the union of the UK, because she will be forced to take back control from the EU, which she doesn't want to do.

It's clear. This is consensus politics. Both agree that they want to stay in a union, just not the same one.

It's the will of the people.

(Er ... can't we just go back to being a representative democracy instead? Please.)

Be happy, it's an order!

Playing away

Forget the cloth cap image, Rugby League has always been innovative and has led the way only for others to follow and claim credit. Its holy grail has always been expanding the game. Often this has resulted in failure, but these days the sport is focusing on more organic growth, with new teams starting in the lower leagues and progressing on merit. Geography has never been an obstacle. This year Toronto Wolfpack (yes that is the Toronto in Canada) are playing in Championship 1 alongside teams like Barrow and Hunslet, as well as other clubs trying to build the game North and South.

Last year, it was the turn of the South of France when Toulouse Olympique XIII joined and won promotion at the first attempt, joining Swinton in the Championship. They played each other at the weekend. What an opportunity. I and a couple of hundred others grasped it, struggled with an air traffic control strike and made it over to Toulouse. Having got, nothing was going to stop a memorable weekend.

The stadium is in Blagnac, a very bourgeois suburb. It's so quiet on a Saturday evening that you felt you had to whisper as you walked through streets whose life had been choked out of them by stern respectability. Then, in late afternoon on a hot spring day, Swinton fans arrived from the city centre. Few had stopped drinking from the moment they arrived in France, most had sung continuously. The barbarians had arrived. Amiable, humorous, warm spirited, and boisterous barbarians. It was brilliant.


Then on to the match where the noise was non-stop, Swinton supporters amongst the 2,300 crowd trying, and often succeeding, in making more noise than the French brass band in the stand. It was a superb game, where a fine Toulouse side were taken very close, only winning 36-28 on successful goal kicks after both sides had scored seven tries apiece.













You can watch the whole game here:



The crowd dispersed for more drinking, dining on cassoulet, and sightseeing on the following days. It was a celebration of our international Rugby League family, of the delights of Europe, and of the general friendship that sport can engender. For me, they were four unforgettable days in two beautiful cities - we took an extra day in Carcassonne. There was sumptuous cuisine, historical sites, great art, and sporting comradeship all rolled together.





And as fans bumped into each other as they wandered round the town, they all said they same thing. Will we be going to Toronto?