Tuesday, March 05, 2019

The Photographer at Sixteen

The Photographer at Sixteen
George Szirtes
Quercus Publishing
London, 2019
ISBN: 9780857058539

Back in February 2008, George Szirtes wrote something on his blog about poetry that was so intriguing that I copied and kept it.
There is, most crucially, the ghost in language, the feeling that life haunts language in a ghostlike fashion, glimpsed now here, now there, offering a shudder here, a shudder there, but that when you put out your hand through the words to grasp it, it escapes you. Your hand passes straight through it.
When I read his poetry, I always thought that I could sense the ghost. It was the spectre of history, of the lingering smell of totalitarianism. I can now see that my understanding was inadequate. Ghosts are people after all. And in this wonderful book, George invites the reader in to meet the most personal ghost of all, his mother - more than three decades after her death. 'Come and get to know her,' he seems to be saying. 'Let me tell you as much as I can about her life. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin at the end.'

And so he does, winding us back through time, unravelling some of the mystery and enigma of a victim who refused to be one, of a survivor who would not be defined by her survival.

He tells her story with respect, tenderness, and honesty. It isn't a sentimental book. It's intelligent and affectionate, capturing the spirit of a forceful personality. Inevitably, her life was haunted by the great crimes of the twentieth century, but the book has more to say. I smiled recalling the shared familiarities of a 1950s Home Counties upbringing. I understood the pressures of intense maternal love while growing up in the shadow of a generation that had seen too much. That was personal to me, but a reader will find many other things to identify with and think about. George starts from his own memories, then steps outside himself and ransacks the recollections of others so he can fill in the story of her life before he was born. Those are the events that shaped her, and were what he needed to know. But they're also part of a collective experience that should never be forgotten.

His mother, Magda, was a photographer. And George's narrative is structured around those everyday ghosts that hang on our walls, sit in frames on our sideboards, or are tucked away in albums, waiting to be retrieved. They catch a moment in time, often ambiguous, demanding interrogation, and are a source of reflection. His intimate thoughts are bound up in those photos. He searches for meaning in each and every one of them – as, I suppose, we all do when one catches our eye and interrupts the progress of our lives with memory.

It's fitting that the penultimate chapter meditates on five photographs, the only reminders of life before tragedy. A fragmentary record of an unrecorded time. And when the ghosts have been properly scrutinised and laid to rest, what is left is language. Language is the vehicle for the imagination, to recreate the senses and emotions of past times, and to cautiously invent what is missing. And as George says, "The trick is to invent the truth."

The Photographer at Sixteen is an original and compelling book. It does tell truth. Truth that we need to hear. And when you reach through the words, the ghost of a life still slips away. You can't touch, but you have felt a presence, one that stays with you.

Friday, March 01, 2019

Breaking up the party

What's going happen now? I've not got a clue. Both main parties have seen defections to a new Parliamentary grouping. They both responded by going on manoeuvres, with nobody too sure about the sincerity of their new poses. Neither appear to be functioning and both are seething with discontent. Prediction is impossible and speculation is tedious. It's more interesting to think about how we got here, and there is something useful to be said on that.

Let's talk about the generic causes of splits in parties.

We should abolish the words 'centrists' and 'moderates.' They are meaningless. Both draw their language from the idea of a political spectrum – a supposed sliding scale of positions from far left to far right. I've always thought that's rubbish. What we have are clusters of ideas as part of more or less coherent world views. Those clusters overlap in certain key areas. Those areas are the basis of a coalition. Because of the way our electoral system works we have intra, rather than inter, party coalitions. Party loyalty and unity holds those coalitions together around the core shared beliefs. The non-consensual ideas exist outside the mainstream and compete, sometimes winning influence, sometimes losing. This is the 'broad church.' It is the core that holds the party together though.

But parties are also systems of power and problems emerge when one group is tempted away from small victories on the margins by the prospect of total victory, power to the exclusion of others. That pushes the consensual, unifying beliefs to the margins. Party unity ceases to be a compromise, it becomes a rhetorical demand for obedience and submission to a new ideological ascendency. The sentimental attachment to the myth of the party holds it together for a while, but it can't last. Dissidents will rebel or defect. And that's not all. Ideological purity is never enough. Deviation becomes betrayal. A new purity is found, and obedience sought. Purists fight purists for the only true purity. Ironically, compromise is the way to prevent schism and thus keeps an ideology functional, instead of splintering it into warring factions. Both parties have fallen prey to this temptation of purity, and it's the source of their troubles.

Secondly, we need to look at the specific, proximate causes. Today's splits are around Brexit for both of them and anti-Semitism for the Labour Party. These are both animating beliefs and symbols of allegiance. You can tell a person's politics by how they define themselves against either one of them. Brexiters and anti-Zionists are rebels against the mainstream.

Take Brexit to start with. Britain's EU membership was an answer to a real question; how we should deal with Britain's post-war relative decline. As the EEC economies grew rapidly, we were being left behind and were seen as "the sick man of Europe". The debate as to what to do polarised around two positions, nationalism and Europeanism. Right wing nationalists still had imperialist pretensions and called for an ethnically homogeneous nation state, aligned with America. The left were not bothered about ethnicity, but wanted an autonomous and sovereign socialist nation state. Pro-Europeans fretted about British vulnerability if we were to remain isolated in a world increasingly divided into power blocks. Their answer was to join the then EEC and become part of a growing economic alliance and political union.

The advocates of Europe won, and, with the progress of globalisation, it proved to be a wise choice – probably the only viable option. Today, a multi-polar, interdependent world is emerging through powerful regional organisations, the most effective of which is the EU. Britain's future had been successfully resolved.

From 1992 the single market accelerated and deepened the process of economic integration. The Social Chapter established social democratic rights. The result was a model of industrial production and trade in both goods and services that made leaving the Union phenomenally difficult without doing immense damage.

What's more, after Thatcher's disastrous monetarist experiment in the early 80s and the consequent rapid de-industrialisation of the country, Britain found a partial remedy through the encouragement of inward investment. Large industrial concerns, such as Japanese companies, were invited to base their operations in the country. The main attraction was Britain's EU membership, especially membership of the single market. Now they are leaving. They won't be coming back.

There was also a more difficult debate about the extent of the political integration of the EU. Should it be a loose federation of nation states with limited areas of competence, or a federal union – a United States of Europe? This debate was clouded with linguistic confusion. In European discourse, 'federalism' is understood to mean decentralisation, in Britain it became associated with greater centralisation of power – the fabled "European super-state." The issue was resolved by the 2007 Lisbon Treaty. The final form of the treaty was a victory for the decentralists. It defined and limited the spheres of competence for the EU both inside and outside the Eurozone. It emphasised the practice of subsidiarity, that wherever possible decision making should be devolved to the national level. Most importantly, it made it impossible for additional functions to be given to EU bodies without a treaty change, which meant that every member state and their legislatures had a veto on any proposal to extend the sphere of competence of EU institutions.

At last, Britain's position was resolved and secure. Except the nationalists hadn't gone away. They lurked on the crank fringes of left and right, but it was their ability to be destructive in the Conservative Party that won them a referendum. Yet the issues they banged on about were over. The EU was not about to become a super-state. Britain not only had a leading decision-making role, but also had a veto over the extension of future power and EU expansion. These were old debates, long settled (which, perhaps, partially explains the generational divide in the vote, the issues only resonated with those who had longer memories.) The result was that the Leave campaign had to invent a fictitious EU to rail at, while fighting a more general culture war to avoid dealing with specifics.

Then they won. That meant dealing with reality. And they hadn't a clue. So, they ploughed on with fictions and fantasies, tales of conspiracy and betrayal, all the hallmarks of the purist and the fanatic. All of them ways of avoiding the truth. In the meantime, companies are leaving, investment is drying up, and the costs are phenomenal. The only certainty is that if we do leave, we will be poorer than otherwise. Trust and respect for the country have been shredded. All Brexiters have succeeded in doing is to return the old question about Britain's role to the agenda. Only this time the answer will be more difficult in a substantially transformed world where we will be more isolated, having voluntarily abandoned the only viable solution at a huge cost to ourselves.

Whereas Brexit has enpowered the fringe group on the Tory right, who John Major famously referred to as "bastards," the Labour anti-Semitism crisis is the product of the new Labour leadership coming in from the margins.

This needs greater explanation. There has always been anti-Semitism in the left - always. However, the form it takes and the vehicle for its expression changes. The current version is intrinsically tied to anti-Zionism and is articulated through a virulent hatred of the state of Israel, a reversal of Labour's traditionally pro-Zionist stance.

There are two main factors underlying that shift. Firstly, there was a change in left thinking in the second half of the 20th century. Class analysis was eclipsed by 'anti-imperialism.' Instead of class conflict, this new left emphasised the struggle against Western capitalist imperialism. As a result, nationalism, where it opposed the West, was seen as a progressive rather than a divisive force. It was to be supported in whatever form it took and however reactionary its politics. This took hold in the far left and they took up the Palestinian cause.

This brings in the second factor, anti-Judaism. The term comes from David Nirenberg's book, a remarkable intellectual history. It traces the way Judaism has always been a cypher for one side of a Manichean struggle, the nature of which changed with the times. Whether it related to the reading of the scriptures, opposition to the Enlightenment, or finance capitalism, Judaism was seen as both the enemy of civilisation and the cause of its potential downfall. Apply this way of thought to 'anti-imperialism' and it isn't surprising that it's the Jewish state that's seen as the embodiment of modern evils – racism, colonialism, and empire. Thus, the enemy becomes the United States and Israel. Slowly, and inexorably, the insidious conspiracy theory that is anti-Semitism makes Israel the instigator, the hidden force, the sinister manipulator, through its all-pervasive 'lobby.'

And so, a fictitious Israel emerges from the left imagination. The language that describes it comes from two alliances that they made; Stalinist anti-Semitism, together with both Arab and Islamist nationalisms seeking to impose their hegemony over the multi-ethnic and multi-religious Middle East. Arab nationalism carried with it the contempt of the coloniser for the colonised and ended in the 'ethnic cleansing' of the ancient Jewish communities from the Arab world (they now form the majority population in Israel). Islamism introduced the worst of exterminatory European anti-Semitism into its discourse. Colonial settler state; Zionist Entity; Zionism is racism; Apartheid; the same as the Nazis; these are familiar terms in the milieu and often blend with older, more sinister tropes – child killing, organ harvesting, blood lust, and the ubiquitous use of money to corrupt and destroy. They see the Israel/Palestine conflict as the source and origin of all conflict in the Middle East. Without Israel there would be peace.

None of this is true. The conflict is real enough. The existential threat to Israel is ever-present. The ethnic nationalism of the Israeli far right is vile. The Palestinian condition is wretched. But the portrayal of this conflict within the anti-Zionist movement is false – historically and morally. But it has to be thought of as the truth to fit into the anti-imperialist world view and to justify hating Israel.

This is the milieu that shaped Corbyn's world view. His alliances were indiscriminate. His anti-Zionism an article of faith. He is extremely uncomfortable when challenged and incapable of seeing this as anti-Semitism in any way. He sees himself solely as a defender of the Palestinian people. This too is a problem. It feeds a form of denial. Whether that is the harassing of the Jewish Labour Movement by the newly formed fringe group Jewish Voice for Labour, or the accusation that this is an imaginary 'Blairite' plot dreamed up to attack Corbyn (sometimes with the suggestion that they have been paid to do it by Israel!), it indicates the existence of institutional racism under the McPherson definition"
The collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.
When Jews said that they experienced this as anti-Semitism, they were disbelieved, something that would be inconceivable if the same was said by another minority. And there was worse. This is where social media can be poisonous. Log on to Labour supporting forums and twitter accounts and it won't take long for you to come across vicious and unambiguous Jew hatred. Social media also allows that to be sent directly to its targets. Harassment and abuse are widespread. It needs stopping, instead it's spreading into the mainstream.

It needn't be like this. To be pro-Palestinian doesn't mean denying the right of Israel to exist. Parts of the revolutionary left have the intelligence to reject this crap. For instance, take your time to read this open letter to Corbyn by the Trotskyist Sean Matgamna of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty.

Both Brexit and anti-Semitism share common features. They are both the symbol of political change within their respective parties, and both mark the entry of conspiracy thinking into the mainstream. They tell us that their targets are conspiring to undermine us all. The EU is trying to subjugate Britain, reducing it to a "vassal state." Zionists are using their wealth and power to secretly rule the world. These are articles of faith that bind their adherents together. Neither are true, and both run aground on the rocks of reality. But they don't have to be real for people to act on them, and the actions themselves are only too real and can hurt real people.

A stench of unreason is seeping through from fringe movements, and with them comes the threat of violence borne on the sanctity of their belief. If parties split, it's of little importance compared to the urgent need to end our complacency over the risks we face.

There's a lot of talk about how we are reliving the 1980s. I don't buy it. Things are very different from then, even if some politicians are consciously trying to re-fight the old struggles that they lost previously. However, I don't find history comforting. It shows a habit of confidently embracing folly and fervently believing bollocks. The consequences are rarely benign.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Representation

Another day, another farce. That's the narrative. Parliament voting in wildly contradictory ways, making it clear that there is no agreement on any way of managing Brexit, is a sign of dysfunctional politics. The real irony is that the current impasse could result in the thing that the fewest people want - no deal. I shall stick my neck out and suggest that this shambles indicates something else.

There is no consensus in Parliament because there is no consensus in the country. The baleful effect of the referendum has been to take an issue of marginal interest and polarise the nation around it. It's been a disaster, an utterly unnecessary disaster. In that sense, Parliament is representative of the nation as a whole. It is a representative picture of a broad dissensus.

Let's first think about how radical - revolutionary even - Brexit is. It means ripping up and replacing the entire economic infrastructure of our trade in goods and services. It requires a complete reinvention of our foreign policy and our place in the world. It needs a re-writing of much of our constitutional law. It also strips every British citizen of their rights, protections, and legal redress given by their EU citizenship. This isn't a minor change. It is huge.

Managing a change on this scale requires careful planning (ha!), but, above all, there needs to be a national and informed consensus that this is what we want to do. There hasn't ever been one. Expert opinion and the most directly effected parties have been adamantly opposed. Public opinion has been split. The best that can be offered as assent to the change is a narrow majority of votes cast on one day in June 2016 without any attempt to gain losers' consent. That isn't the consensus needed to implement something like this. Without it, all you can ever expect is a destructive mess. Brexit has been handled with incredible incompetence, but it was never going to be anything other than a contentious disaster. It was an impossible task.

As a result, Parliament is representative of the nation. However, it is supposed to be the nation's representative rather than its mirror image. It has to act in the national interest, rather than in accordance with the wishes of the electorate. This morning commentators were saying that May's deal is dead and the choice is now between the customs union compromise and no deal. This isn't true. The EEA/EFTA option is still there, but we are also in the land of the Condorcet Paradox. Even if there is a majority for leave, remaining is more popular than any of the individual options for leaving. Deciding to remain is in our power. We can unilaterally revoke Article 50 at any time. If Parliament is to act in the national interest, it should vote to do so and then begin the immense task of dealing with the damage that has already been done. If it doesn't and the government proceeds with Brexit, then it will have done so by deliberate choice.

None of this is necessary. There is nothing that says we have to do this to ourselves and our allies. There is no consensus behind it. Politicians who argue that it would be too dangerous not to go ahead should remember the old adage about airline safety: "If you think safety is expensive, try an accident."

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Conventional wisdom

I am not a statistician and so I am posting this with a caution about my ability to read the data properly. This is speculative and an over-generalisation. However, it chimes with experience.

I have always worried about the "left behind" narrative about the leave vote, which says that people voted for Brexit as an act of despair about damage they had sustained through austerity. There has always been a paradox lurking in there. Some of the most deprived areas voted Remain. When I saw this comment thread on Twitter it seemed to make sense. Marios Richards points out that the commonplace narrative depends on how you slice the data. The reality, he says, is that the poorest, the ones who are the most vulnerable, tended to vote Remain. Their preference was masked by being bundled in with a larger and comparatively wealthier lower middle class. It was they who voted Leave. The difference was that they were more likely to have been bypassed by the worst effects of the financial crisis and austerity, sheltered by things like home ownership and pensions, unlike the poorest who were reliant on income alone and thus highly vulnerable to change. These Leavers were not rebelling against austerity, but were mainly untouched by it. The class profile of the vote then looks more like a sandwich. Remain is the bread - poorer and wealthier people tended to favour Remain, with a solid lower middle class Leaver filling. The filling is a mainly Conservative cohort, the one captured by the Tories in their successful election years

This is an oversimplification, all psephology is. Age, region, education, identity, social values, xenophobia, even internal migration, etc., all played their part, sometimes eclipsing class. But it is one way of pointing out that the narrow vote to leave was complex and cannot be pinned down to a single factor, let alone simplistic cod-sociological theories - people from somewhere v people from everywhere, the revolt of the left behind,* imperial nostalgia, political realignment, or Fintan O'Toole's eccentric insistence of the importance of the legacy of punk rock. There are many more, none of which provide a complete answer, because there isn't one. The one thing they have in common, and I think this is true, is that they had little to do with the reality of EU membership. The EU only mattered to the committed few. I have my suspicions that this is still the case despite the endless queue of commentators lining up to tell us that they know precisely what people were voting for. The vote was shallow and the commitment weak. It wasn't really about Europe, something that few understood well. If we abandoned Brexit, I doubt whether it would continue to be a factor in British politics in a few years time. It would be an episode that we would look back on in embarrassment.

Does this matter? Yes, it does for two reasons. First, it affects reportage. I would happily abolish the vox pop. Sticking a microphone under the noses of unsuspecting and unrepresentative passers-by and expecting to learn something is silly. But the selection of where to go and who to speak to is conditioned by assumptions about who we are looking for and where. Even the better social reportage follows a pattern of class prejudice. Reporters seek out areas that voted leave (preferably in the north). They aren't interested in Remain areas. They talk to as many working class people that they can find until they finally hit pay dirt, the person they can build their feature around. Yes, they find the nutter they can present as representative - you know the type, a balding man with union jack dentures who declares that even if we have to kill and eat our children to survive, it will have been worth it to escape the clutches of BRUSSELS! It's a freak show mentality posing as anthropology, and it's posh Remainer porn - look at the lower orders, aren't they ghastly. It's why there is so little reportage of working class Remainers. Nobody is looking for them. Nobody is going to Remain areas and speaking to them. They are neglected, left out of the narrative, invisible.

Secondly, these perceptions shape policy. That the Labour leadership is pro-Brexit (though anti-no deal) is not in doubt. That Labour members and voters are overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU is also certain. Where does that leave Labour MPs, the people who could make or break Brexit? If they think that their working class voters are pro-Brexit and anti-immigration (and misunderstand the role of a representative), then they are caught and will sway towards making Brexit happen. They do not want to alienate Labour Leavers. But what if the poorest are pro-remain? And what if, as polling suggests, they are not as bothered about freedom of movement as they are about economic prospects? Where then would MPs stand? But how could they possibly know if the mainstream narrative excludes this possibility? Middle class prejudice is hiding working class Remainers. They don't fit the stereotype. In their determination to reflect the views of their working class supporters, Labour MPs may have chosen to genuflect to Tories. They may be about to facilitate a mistake based on a misapprehension.

Instead of the left behind, maybe we should be talking about the left out - the working class Remain vote that nobody seems to want to hear about in case it disturbs their world view.


* I still can't type that with a straight face thanks to jazzlover's comment on this post.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Through the looking glass


Curiouser and curiouser. As we reach another round of Parliamentary votes on Brexit, the detachment of the debate from reality is getting ever more bewildering. Much of it is a mirror image of reality.

For leavers on the right, the EU is an invading, colonising power to be resisted - The Soviet Union, Hitler, and Napoleon rolled into one. It is an oppressive, hostile monster that we joined voluntarily and held a commanding position in. We can leave if we want to, but we also want all the benefits of membership (and there are plenty of those), none of the costs, and all because of who we are - we are great, they owe us, Dunkirk (oh, perhaps not), D-Day (yes, that's better) and all that. But they won't let us have everything unconditionally, the bastards. Who won the war anyway? We want to be out and in at the same time. Schroedinger's Cheshire Cat.

For the far smaller number of leavers on the left, the EU is a monstrous vehicle imposing a vicious neoliberal ideology on plucky socialist Britain. We need to escape to free ourselves from this hostile, and suspiciously foreign, economic horror. We must reject their Thatcherism! Thatcherism? Er ... where did they get it from? Oh. Margaret Thatcher. She was British, wasn't she? And Conservatives bitterly resented the old-fashioned, social democratic EU's determination to resist and protect the workforce, even if they did come to share what had become a broad international consensus. Never mind, now they are the ideological aggressor. We must free ourself by facilitating an extreme neoliberal project to leave the EU and turn Britain into Singapore.

Then there is the withdrawal agreement. The critical word is "agreement." That implies that two or more parties agree. As we did with the EU over the Northern Ireland backstop - in December - December 2017. It looks as if the government might try to defeat itself again so that it can go back to the EU to unagree what has been agreed so we can have an agreement that they have said they will not agree to.

Next up, democracy. Yes, a nice word. A very nice word. However, it does have a few different meanings. We are a representative democracy, not a plebiscitary democracy. Except that we held a non-binding referendum that is, apparently, binding, allowing some MPs to openly say that they think Brexit will damage the country, make people poorer, that they oppose it, that they want to remain, but they will support leaving because democracy and that sort of thing. A sovereign Parliament bound by a non-binding referendum. How novel.

Then there are the voters. They might turn nasty if we don't leave. They will be so angry. Beware of unrest. We must do as they say. No, not those voters. Not the ones that voted remain. They don't matter. Angry? Well they might be a bit pissed off, but who cares? They are only about half the electorate anyway, or if the tracker polls are right a majority these days. But they don't count. They may be the majority of the people, but they aren't the will of the people.

Have we gone mad? Have the German leaders who wrote to The Times urging us to stay not understood that our "legendary British black humour" is not humour at all but our principles of government? The answer is no, we're not crazy, not really. Accident has trapped us into attempting to implement an impossible policy and we are thrashing around trying to do it. Even those who advocated it didn't know how to leave without doing major damage, which was why they never offered a plan. The minimalist approach, sometimes referred to as the Norway option, was to rejoin EFTA and become members of the EEA. That meant giving back control, but remaining within a beneficial set of economic arrangements. That was the only well thought out proposal. Everything else meant stripping out the nation's economic infrastructure, an economic revolution with uncertain, but deeply damaging results.

Of course, we got here by a mad route - a mistake that ended with an unintended result. Otto English put it beautifully:
The uncomfortable truth is that whether you voted Remain or Leave in June 2016 you probably voted emotionally. Very few people understood it. Inviting a largely uninformed public to make a judgement on something as unfathomably complex as our membership of the EU was akin to asking a six-year-old to perform delicate brain surgery – with a crayon.

And it's not just Brexit. Most people simply do not fathom politics. Most have no understanding of concepts like pooled sovereignty, or how net migration works, or what first past the post is, or how our unwritten constitution functions. Many, frankly, don’t even care. Why should they?

In a parliamentary democracy we elect politicians to make important decisions on our behalf. That’s how the system has functioned for decades and also why the British have traditionally astutely avoided referendums – which reduce perplexingly multifaceted matters to a binary choice. 
The problem though is that this ignorance was shared by our representatives. Worse still, they have misunderstood their role in a Parliamentary democracy.

If people do not understand something that is now as ubiquitous, then they have to find a narrative that is familiar enough for them to understand. The result is the dominance of heroic fictions invested with strong emotional attachments - on both sides - rather than prosaic reality. As Jeremy Cliffe puts it, what motivates the EU is "the quest for the quiet life." It's about stability through prosperity and creating institutional arrangements to allow states to co-operate to achieve it. It's not very exciting.

Can't we go back to being a normal country? Might we not take this revolutionary leap in the dark, informed by bollocks? Can we be ordinary please? The mantra at the moment is 'respecting the result of the referendum.' But why? Why, if it is a mistaken policy produced by a necessarily ill-informed vote in a poorly constructed, flawed referendum, can't we say 'sorry, we made a mistake.' There is no shame in admitting error. Can't we judge the referendum result on the quality and consequences of the decision, rather than implement it regardless solely because of the way it was made?

The evidence is clear from all those who actually do know something about it. Business are against leaving. Trade unions are against leaving. All our allies are aghast at our leaving. Our international reputation has been trashed. Our influence and power is diminished. We were a significant world power because of our commanding role in the EU, not despite it. Now we are irrelevant. Even before we leave, there is a process of disinvestment in the UK going on today. Investment decisions are not coming our way. We face a long drawn out transition or a catastrophic rupture. Why not stay? There will be a lot of work to be done to repair the damage, but at least we will stop more taking place. It's in our power. It's our choice. We can unilaterally withdraw Article 50. There's no need for another risky referendum if Parliament accepts its duty and explains it well. We can abandon plebiscites. It might be rather a good idea.

And if we do become normal again, we can put all our energy into doing what matters - tackling inequality, ending austerity, redressing poverty, and rethinking the failures of democracy that got us into this mess. And let's pledge to not use referendums unless absolutely appropriate, especially not poorly constructed ones to try and resolve an internal party dispute by risking the future of the country.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Unreason

What troubles me the most these days is the detachment of anger from reality. Comfortable people in prosperous and peaceful societies, living longer and healthier lives than ever before in history, put on yellow jackets and riot, demand to leave the European Union, campaign against vaccinations that have eliminated some of the worst diseases that have plagued humankind, rage against medicine and bio-technology, embrace convenient fictions to explain away inconvenient facts, and think that even the most commonplace things are phoney. And when you ask them why, the answer will be at best fallacious and at worst uncritically thoughtless.

Commentators write earnest pieces about how this is the fury of the dispossessed, the downtrodden, and the forgotten. Except it never is. The poor are too busy surviving. And on the rare occasions that they do take to the streets, they are driven by hunger rather than their desire for homeopathy.

As we have seen with Brexit, demands that are not concrete can never be appeased, anger cannot be dissipated by success. Rage becomes an addiction.

The glue that holds all these together - that binds the ludicrous, the prosaic, and the sinister into one incoherent discontent - is conspiracy theory. It's the idea that everything can be explained by malevolent others plotting against you, thereby thwarting what you and your overwhelming self-esteem think you deserve, while frustrating the glorious future that awaits if only they would allow it.

There are so many cruelties and injustices in the world. They have causes and remedies, though none are quick or easy, many are complex, understanding them means insight and nuance, and conflicts may often be resolved only through imperfect trade-offs between incompatible demands. Conspiracy theory denies this. It says everything is simple. There is one cause - them. Eliminate them and all will be well.

Today of all days, a day of remembrance, we mustn't forget that the ultimate and foundational conspiracy theory is anti-Semitism. If you scratch the surface of any of these movements, you will soon see Jew-hatred festering away. It's rarely as crude as in the 1930s. It is expressed though symbols - George Soros, the Rothschilds, Zionism, all woven into a subterranean racism. It's growing. It's suppurating in the left and right. It's evil.

Piously repeating mantras, like "never again," is not enough to defeat it. Instead, we need to rediscover reason - using analysis, self-awareness, and a sense of humility in the face of our own ignorance and prejudices - which we can never escape, but may come to know. In the meantime, we should remember where this leads.



(Thanks to Allan for the music)

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Fail

If Brexit goes ahead, in any form, it will enact a profound misreading of the nature of the contemporary political and economic world and represent an unprecedented failure of British statecraft.
This is from Chris Grey's latest assessment of British policy from his blog. It is a fine summary of the bizarre way Britain is abandoning all it's strategic and economic interests in favour of the unknown. Calculation has been replaced by wishful thinking.

This is the clearest brief description of the economics of Brexit that I have read:
It is not necessary to make or accept economic forecasts, only to understand basic institutional realities, to see that detaching a country from its regional bloc and then seeking to re-attach it on unknown, but by definition worse, terms to that same bloc, in an unknown time frame, is going to have adverse consequences for businesses and trade, and hence for employment and tax revenues. 
This is something no sane government would suggest, let alone attempt, especially one under no compulsion to do so. This is entirely voluntary and completely unnecessary. There are no benefits. The best that can be hoped for is damage limitation from the ruinous expense of leaving. This thread has gathered together more than one hundred and forty verified examples of disinvestment, costs to businesses, job losses, and extra government spending all because of Brexit. These are not predictions, they have happened. Billions have been spent - not on the health service or to fix the housing crisis, but on preparations for a no deal that may (I hope) be a bluff - such as ferry services without ferries, running from ports that can't handle them (on both sides of the Channel), with fake traffic jams as an added extra. This will continue. Unless and until Brexit is resolved everything stands in abeyance. It is no use wittering on about how we should be talking about bread-and-butter issues, because the remedies for our many complaints are wholly dependent on Brexit and the damage it will do.

It is indeed an "unprecedented failure." And it is an institutional failure on many levels.

First, it's a failure of representative democracy.

Rather than being 'the biggest democratic exercise ever,' the referendum was the biggest betrayal of representative democracy ever, and one carried out by its elected representatives.

What on earth were MPs doing when they voted for a referendum on a complex, specialist issue that was so manifestly unsuitable for decision by referendum? What were they thinking when they elevated the obsession of a small minority of fringe politicians and wealthy ideologues into a major existential question? How could hobbyists, who revelled in their intense anger over things that were not a problem and about which few others cared, be allowed to wreck the country? I suppose MPs justified themselves by legislating for it to be an advisory referendum only, but then they treated it as binding.

If that madness wasn't enough, MPs voted (on three-line-whips from both opposition and government) to give the absolute right to the government to submit article 50 notification to leave with no safeguards and without even a hint of a plan as to what we would want as a post-EU settlement. And guess what, there is still no agreement.

MPs have abandoned their responsibility and are only now, at the very last minute, wondering whether they should take some back to rescue the nation from this unholy mess.

(This is on top of the Party leadership questions showing us the folly of allowing policy to be controlled by self-selected and unaccountable party members, rather than those who have been elected by the voters at large.)

Second, it shows the failure of our attempts at the devolution of power to constituent nations in a centralised polity. What was the point of Scotland and Northern Ireland voting decisively to remain if they could be overruled by English votes and be removed from the EU regardless? And that's without mentioning Gibraltar. Brexit shows just how centralised our political system is, and how devolution has not remedied it. The devolved administrations are powerless to shape the most significant policy since the War.

Third, it was a failure of electoral systems and electoral law. The franchise was denied to some of the most deeply affected people and the law was broken with impunity, possibly with decisive effect, and with no redress for the laughable reason that the referendum was constitutionally advisory. To authorise this fundamental constitutional change on a majority of 50%+1 of the vote, regardless of turnout, was another piece of astonishing negligence.

Finally, it was a colossal failure of political communication. It didn't help that most of the electorate and many politicians, including the senior cabinet ministers, had little or no understanding of what the EU is, what it does, and how integrated we are within the single market. The result has been a debate dominated by fictions, fantasies, wishful thinking, and delusional generalities. People who actually knew something about the complications, costs, and problems were countered with fairy stories from the ideologically committed. The press had long prepared the ground with blatantly dishonest reporting. Social media became a cesspit of misinformation targeted at people through dubiously acquired data. Political parties have been more concerned with electoral strategy (Labour has also been disingenuous and delusional in offering its alternatives) rather than principle.

It's a mess. Though there is one way out.

Edwin Hayward added this tweet to his comprehensive list that I linked to earlier:


A functioning democracy would do just that. It would explain precisely why it is necessary. It wouldn't privilege the decision making method over the quality of that decision. Having done that, MPs and their parties would be answerable to the electorate at the ballot box. That is why we elect representatives. At last there are signs of life. The success of Yvette Cooper's amendment designed to obstruct a no-deal exit shows that MPs are beginning to realise what their job is.

I would love to be wrong, but I still don't think it will happen the way Hayward suggests. At best we could be plunged into another referendum. But, when this whole episode is over, it will be time to brush off our self-congratulatory complacency about our democracy, address the failings, and actually decide what sort of democracy we want to be. God forbid that we turn to plebiscitary populism, instead I hope that we reaffirm our nation as a representative democracy, preferably one augmented through enhanced participation and a commitment to local and national devolution of power.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

A new year

I don't make New Year resolutions. I never keep them and these days I would probably forget about them. Instead, in the spirit of such failure, I want to make some wishes for what I would like to see in 2019, none of which will come true.

1. An end to the delusion of British greatness.

Both Remainers and Brexiters cling to this. Brexiters think that we can be a global power once again, Remainers that we should "remain and reform" - take the leading role in changing the EU from within. Well, if this was a job interview for the post of EU Lead Reformer, then the way Brexit has been handled would mean we wouldn't make the short list. Remain and reform ourselves after this shambles would make much more sense. As for the global power nonsense, I though we got over that one after Suez in 1957. Brexiters forget that before we entered the EU, we were known as "the sick man of Europe." If we leave, we will become like a broken down drunk sitting in the corner of a seedy pub telling all the people trying to avoid him that he used to be an empire.

How about a bit of humility and realism. Being a partner in a successful international enterprise is not vassalage, it is not oppression, it's what a successful and prosperous modern nation looks like.

2. The abandonment of the word 'weaponise."

This is a Corbynista favourite. Anti-Semitism is being weaponised to get at Corbyn. The latest version is that the campaign for a "People's Vote" on the Brexit deal is another weapon invented to attack their hero. It's an old ploy, an accusation of bad faith. It's also a classic logical fallacy and a diversionary tactic. Actually, people attack anti-Semitism because it's poisonous and growing. They support a second referendum because they oppose Brexit. It has bugger all to do with Corbyn. But when his supporters suggest that it is being weaponised, they are saying that it can be, and that therefore there must be some truth in the accusation that he is an anti-Semitic Brexiter. I don't think that they have spotted that bit.

Can we just recognise and deal with the real issues please?

3. People stopping rabbiting on about the "will of the people" and misusing the term "democracy."

So many examples, but here's one drawn from my own prejudices. It's the tiresome Brexiter line about how 17.4 million people voted for Brexit as if the 29.1 million who didn't don't count (16,141,242 voted Remain and 12,949,258 didn't vote as opposed to the 17,410,742 who voted Leave) let alone the 4-5 million people who were most affected by the decision but were not allowed to vote (UK citizens overseas and non-UK EU citizens legally resident in the country). On top of that there is the tiresome insistence that opposing Brexit and trying to stop it is failing to respect democracy. I'm sorry, but democracy gives you the right to oppose policies, campaign against them, and overturn them. Opponents of leaving the EU are not betraying democracy, but practising it.

4. Going on about how the Brexit vote was all about "the left behind."

The Brexit vote was not predominantly working class. There was an identifiable section of working class Brexit voters, mostly from smaller urban areas, however, taken on their own they could never have won the referendum. There wasn't anything like enough of them. No, dig down in the figures and you will see that the majority of Brexit voters, as well as being older and more socially conservative, were relatively affluent and typically suburban. Fed on decades of anti-EU fabrications drawn from a genre established by Boris Johnson in the Telegraph, and embedded in a saloon bar culture of moaning about how everything has gone to the dogs, the majority of leave voters were anything but "the left behind." Brexit is the triumph of the suburbanisation of politics, a phenomenon that hasn't been discussed often enough.

Of course we should deal with the problems of 'the left behind," and with poverty and inequality. But we shouldn't do it because of Brexit. We should do it because we should.

***

This post has been an exercise in futility, but wishing a happy New Year to those who pass by this place isn't. Have as good a one as possible.

Monday, December 24, 2018

The politics of fear

There is one narrative being rolled out far too often these days, and that is that cancelling Brexit will cause civil unrest or lead to the rise of the far right. Let's look at the empirical evidence.

First, it's true that the far right are organising around Brexit (something that should give Lexiters food for thought) and they have managed to stage a demonstration in London. Around 3,000 - 5,000 turned out, proving their anti-European credentials by wearing French-style yellow jackets! They were met by 15,000 counter demonstrators. Anti-Brexit campaigners managed to get 700,000 on the streets. If you want an indicator of the respective strengths of the grass roots movements, this is probably a good indicator.

OK the Brexiters were nastier people than the pro-EU crowd, none of the second referendum campaigners were carrying nooses, but there are no more of them than would turn out for an EDL march. Leaving aside the cowardly argument that we must give fascists everything they want in case they are nasty to us, the idea that there would be civil unrest is risible.

While there are far more organised Remainers, they are still a minority, though a larger one than Leavers. I can't see much evidence that the rest of the people are anything other than semi-detached, uninterested, and not that knowledgeable. Where they have taken a position, it's not strongly held and cancelling Brexit would cause little more than a wave of grumbling. The EU was a low salience issue at every election until the referendum. It was only important for a small group of obsessives. There was no big demand for leaving, or even for the referendum itself. The only way Leave could win was by disingenuously linking the EU to higher salience issues and campaigning on them instead - immigration and the NHS. (Well, let's face it, the slogan 'you might lose your job' isn't really a vote winner.)

So where does this fear of unrest come from? Partly it's another dodgy Brexiter argument, but it's also tied into a deep historical tradition - fear of the mob. Whether we are talking about collective bargaining through riot, revolutionary passions, or the jingoistic "King and Country" mob, violent unrest was widespread in the 18th and 19th century. Today, it has left a folk memory of deep prejudice about the working class. The workers are dangerous and must be repressed or appeased.

From Blue Labour to Brexiters, these fears are stoked. We must scrap the basis of all our trade, bankrupt small businesses, undermine the foundations of our foreign policy, make ourselves poorer than we would have been otherwise, strip people of their rights, damage public services, break up families, give away power to regain a nominal sovereignty that can never be used, humiliate ourselves as a nation, etc., because if we don't, there will be 'trouble at t' mill.'

I will let you into a secret. Working class people are actually people. They are all ages, come from all ethnicities and nationalities, and they have a brain. Yes, they can actually think, especially if you bother to talk with them. Believe it or not, they are not all mouth-frothing xenophobes. And here's another secret. They didn't all vote Leave. Some did, but the bulk of the vote came from prosperous elderly voters in suburbia and small market towns. The prospect of rioting pensioners in Weybridge doesn't keep me awake at night.

What this highlights is how the referendum was a failure of democracy. It was a marketing exercise amongst people -  Leavers and Remainers, middle and working class - with little real understanding of the technicalities and no great attachment to the result. The mass of people have switched off now as well. Those wanting to 'get on with it,' just want the whole thing to be over so that they can carry on with their lives. Many of those favouring no deal think that it will mean that everything stays the same. There was no deliberation, scarcely any among elected representatives, let alone the setting up of the kind of participative structures needed to produce consultation and informed consideration amongst the wider population.

Brexit is a right-wing revolution borne on a sea of indifference. Fear of the mob is one of its last lines of defence against reality.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Christmas music

It's what you have to turn to. Write about politics or Brexit? How? It's the theatre of the absurd. I'm stumped. So music it is.

This is described as an attempt to truthfully answer the old John Lennon rhetorical question ‘and so this is Christmas, and what have we done?’



UDATE

They're from Hull.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Heroic Failure

Here are two quotes from Fintan O'Toole's marvellous new book, Heroic Failure, about the cultural underpinnings of the politics of Brexit.

On the lies of Boris Johnson:
... Johnson was bound to fail. He embodied a fatal flaw in the Brexit project: the self-pitying grievances that it was designed to address could not in fact be addressed. Why? Because they did not exist. (p.136)
And on the creation of the EU as an imaginary oppressor:
The problem is that the whole gesture is based on something imaginary: an enormous overstatement the power of the EU in the governance of England. (p.192)
Trivial complaints (like bent bananas), which would have been of no significance even if true, were fabrications that allied with a picture of the EU that was false, to create a radical solution to non-existent problems that would cause very real problems that are long lasting, deeply damaging, and could not be easily remedied.

This runs through Brexit. Where there are real problems, Brexit makes them worse. Where there are imaginary or trivial problems, Brexit is the solution that creates real ones in their place.

It's mad. Utterly mad. And O'Toole captures the insanity with exquisite wit and perception, it's a book that is as funny as it is tragic. Read it.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Left out to dry

Two things caught my eye in the Brexit news and both were more thought provoking than the continuing bloodbath in the Conservative party.

The first was Corbyn's TV interview and reports of today's speech to the CBI. Once again he stated quite clearly that he favours Brexit. As he has done ever since the referendum. As did Labour's election manifesto. As he has done consistently over the past forty years. Will someone finally accept that his position is not a fudge, uncommitted, or cautious triangulation. His line is that he would renegotiate a "better Brexit." This is a fantasy. Most of what he said is nonsense.

His Brexit includes a very welcome policy of investment, but he intends to do it while simultaneously sharply reducing the national income. He would stay in a customs union, but this alone will not prevent a hard border in Northern Ireland as he has suggested it would in the past. He intends to swap membership of the single market for access to the single market. This is changing our relationship from owner to customer, a big reduction in power. He opposed freedom of movement and wants to avoid state aid rules, but we would be tied up in the far more restrictive rules of the WTO. I could go on. The main point is that all the things he said he would like to do are not just possible from within the EU, but would be easier.

The second is the ongoing investigative reporting into the funding and transnational links of the leave campaign, recognising it as part of a far-right network. This network is funded and run by the super rich who appear to be annoyed by the the fact that they have restrictions on acquiring even more wealth and that the wealth they have hasn't given them the power they think they deserve. Forget all the talk about the 'left behind' and the 'will of the people,' they don't give a toss about them. These people are kleptocrats, not democrats. Left leavers are buying into some of this guff and helping to facilitate their pet project.

There may be some more civilised, and probably deluded, fellow-travellers in the Brexit elite, however, their main aims coincide. They want to crush the left and dismantle the welfare state. Brexit is a revolution, not yet a complete one, though it is the first step in removing a major institutional hurdle - the EU. If any leftists think they can achieve their nationalist socialism (hopefully with the suffix in place) against this mob, dream on. Your defeat is assured. They know what they are doing.

Two thirds of labour voters voted Remain in the referendum. The signs are that this figure is higher now. Around 80% of Labour members are Remainers. We know that the demographic future favours Remain, with between 70 and 80% of people under twenty-five in favour of Remain. All the polling evidence points to a Remain majority in the country. Left leavers are abandoning the majority to support a reactionary revolution. They are for the few and against the many.

Brexit will hurt the poorest. Poverty in Britain is down to the policies of British governments, not the EU (who have at least tried to mitigate it through structural funds). Making the country poorer is not the way to remedy poverty. There is only one position for a leftist to take - stop Brexit. Not improve it, not accept May's exit agreement as the least worst option, stop it completely. 

Better off out?

Gosh! Look at what we would save.


Why on earth are we doing something so suicidally stupid?

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Myth and reality

All history is selective. Good history is based on how that selection is made. It's not easy and that's why there is always debate about interpretation. History is not a catalogue of events, it's an ongoing investigation. However, there is a process of selection that is not about intellectual inquiry, but falsification. It forces history to conform to a pre-existing narrative.

One of the most prominent features of arguments for Brexit is an historical narrative that is fundamentally mistaken. I don't know whether it is the result of half knowledge or deliberate manipulation, but it is plain wrong. It has to be because it is based on two completely contradictory notions. The first is the greatness of Britain and the British Empire and the second is that Britain is the plucky underdog - a country that celebrates its defeats as much as its victories. I'm sorry, you can't be a mighty power and an underdog at the same time. This oversimplification and mythologising of history is wholly misleading rhetoric. It is part of a desire to ignore reality. Misreading history is a neat way of averting our gaze.

The most common trope dragged out is "our finest hour" when we "stood alone" against the might of Nazi Germany. The message being that we are an exceptional nation of courageous fighters who will triumph against the odds. Except we were not alone. We had the Empire, we were being supplied by the USA through lend lease and the Atlantic convoys, and Britain's determination to fight on was a holding operation until America could be brought into the war, or as Churchill put it in his fight on the beaches speech, "until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old." The speech was part defiance and part supplication. Britain could never have prevailed alone.

Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union and declaration of war on the United States gave Britain the powerful alliance it needed. But also standing with Britain were the resistance movements of occupied Europe, the Czech and Polish pilots who flew in the Battle of Britain, the Jewish brigades that fought with the British Army, and many more including all of Europe's democrats. Britain was never alone, but for a time it stood at the head of an international anti-fascist alliance. We should never submerge that fact under a nationalist mythology of British exceptionalism.

It was this alliance that was the basis of the post-war settlement. Outside the Soviet block it rested on a number of principles. Democratic governance; welfare states; American commitment to the defence of Europe; accountability for war crimes under international law; a commitment to human rights; and finally the moves towards some form of practical European unity, embodying those basic principles.

Each and every one of these placed limits on national sovereignty. They were meant to. But the reason why the settlement was so successful is because there was no attempt at some form of utopianism. Instead, it found a way of accommodating national sovereignty within a legal and economic collaborative framework based on common interests and citizens' rights. Its aim was to tame nationalism, not abolish it.

This is what Brexiters paint as a hostile imperial yoke that we must throw off, described in whatever manner suits the ideology of the speaker. Not only is this wrong, it's preposterous. It's a fabrication with no understanding of reality. What's worse, there is an unpleasant smell in the air. It's the stench of authoritarian nationalism. It's different to the 1930s. It rarely seeks to describe itself in terms of some global ideology, instead it tries to harness racism and conspiracy theories as cover for kleptocracy. That doesn't make it any the less dangerous though. And in leaving the EU we are damaging the very institutions we need to contain these new, murderous forces. Only the Putins of this world will be happy.

The only, and I mean only, benefit to Brexit is that all other nations have looked at our stupidity and decided that they aren't going there. Polling suggests that support for the EU is at one of its highest points in most member states - including Britain! It's getting clearer that if we do leave, then we will do so not only in opposition to a pro-European movement that can bring 700,000 people onto the streets, but also against the wishes of the majority of the population. But still we press on with this ludicrous act of national self-harm, making ourselves poorer, and stripping the British people of precious rights. And for what? All we will gain is mountains of extra bureaucracy.

This anti-EU narrative is a ridiculous fiction. It is deluding us into making a mistake of staggering proportions. In the days after Remembrance Sunday, we are reminded that we are voluntarily and unnecessarily giving up the gains that came from that collective sacrifice. It desecrates the memory of the courage of that generation. Britain cannot survive without allies and now it is leaving its most important alliance. It's madness. History is a great teacher, but bad history is the worst dissembler of all.