Sunday, August 02, 2020

A silent crime

Outside the specialist education press, nothing is reported. I know from experience how hard it is to get a hearing. Yet, it's life saving and life changing. Adult education in all its alternative guises - continuing education, community education, lifelong learning, etc - matters. It matters very much indeed. Millions and millions of our fellow citizens have used and benefitted from it at all levels. But it's on few people's political radar and its loss is only lamented by those who used it. It's a national scandal that has been quietly accepted.

This might look like a local issue, but it is illustrative of the damage done by narrow, utilitarian and philistine government funding policies that have seen more than 4 million adult learners lost since 2003, with cuts accelerating through these past 10 years. Adult education centres, committed to literacy, numeracy, learning for active citizenship, social solidarity and a second chance at education for people failed by the system have a vital place in securing a post-Covid society. 

But they are not alone in experiencing the consequences of blinkered policy. In 2006, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, NIACE, published an independent inquiry on lifelong learning in colleges. Its title, Eight in Ten reflected the proportion of FE college students who were adults. Today, only a fraction as many remain. University extra-mural departments for adult learners now are all but a thing of the past. Libraries close. Museums have shorter opening hours. Public spaces for communities to meet together, for people from different backgrounds to meet and share enthusiasms, to make art and music, to understand and help shape the future fabric of our society diminish.
Step by step we lose the places for us to create a world worth living in.

I started working in adult education in 1982. I retired early over thirty years later. In that time, I set up dozens of programmes and initiatives for hundreds of students, in both urban and rural areas, and in community, further, and higher education institutions. There is not a single one left. I repeat, there is not one left. Everything that I built has been closed. Those thirty years were spent in an increasingly desperate battle against cuts. In the end, they won.

It would be easy to sit back and demonise the Tories, but, after a burst of initial encouragement, the New Labour years were as bad, and hard-left Labour authorities were horrendous. My experience has coloured my politics. The needs and dreams of so many people, the elderly as well as the young, were unseen and unvalued. It worries me about what people can tolerate and assimilate in relatively comfortable societies. It isn't just that "we don't know what we've lost till its gone," it's that we forget that we ever had it. And that's a lesson for today alright.

Saturday, August 01, 2020


I find it hard to contain my disgust at this Johnson government. Brexit, COVID, blatant cronyism, ignoring constitutional constraints, and the lying, the endless lying smothered in faux bonhomie. The list goes on. But this 'honours' list is something to be ashamed of. It's bad enough that it rewards Vote Leave activists, however rancid their politics - an insult to the majority of the electorate who voted for pro second referendum parties at the last election and the more than 50% that polls suggest wished to remain. Then there is the blatant nepotism of giving a peerage to his brother, though at least he is a Remainer and not a fan of Johnson's populist turn. And, of course, he raises two fingers to the Russia Report with a peerage for Evgeny Lebedev. Friends, family, and sympathisers rewarded. It stinks of both personal indulgence and the repaying of debts, together with a lack of respect for the office he holds. 

But there is one name that stands out; Claire Fox. Not just because she was a Brexit Party MEP, nor because of her part in Frank Furedi's absurd contrarian cult that he resurrected from the ashes of the Revolutionary Communist Party, and not because she is one of a number of grifters fawned on by the media when they should be beyond the pale. It's because of one event: Warrington. In March 1993 the IRA planted two bombs in cast-iron litter bins in the main shopping street on a busy Saturday. They killed two children, Tim Parry and Johnathan Ball, and injured more than fifty others. Fox defended the bombings at the time. She has equivocated and not disavowed her support since. 

The peace foundation set up to honour the victims' memory tweeted a couple of replies in response:

This should have disbarred her from honours, while the non-response of Number 10 to the foundation is a cause for shame. 

I am still furious at the failure of the opposition to remove Johnson when they had the opportunity. Corbyn bears a huge responsibility and an even greater one for giving Johnson the general election that the opposition could have prevented. It was criminal stupidity. But let's not forget that the real source of this malignancy is Johnson himself and his talentless administration. He's Britain's Trump. He has one success to his name. Brexit. He has succeeded in ensuring that Britain has made its most catastrophic mistake since Munich in 1938. That's his legacy. The honours list is evidence of hubris waiting for its nemesis. How long will we have to endure this nonsense until then?

Monday, July 20, 2020


I made it back. Direct flights have resumed, but I travelled before then via Frankfurt, masked the whole time in strangely empty airports. It was all well organised. I filled in a PRF online, was sent my code, and was selected for testing at Athens airport. Negative. That's a relief. And, feeling a little uneasy, after the isolation of lockdown and aware of the poor reputation of the UK, I got back home. I needn't have worried. The garden had been strimmed and trees pruned by a tame Dutch hippy. The locals greeted me warmly. I had elbow bumps from Kostas and a pot of glyko from Seri. And, of course there are the cats. They were delighted to reclaim their favourite seats in the house and demand food regularly. I'm hugely grateful to the neighbours who kept them fed during the enforced absence. They seem to have been joined by a hedgehog as well, who pushes them out of the way and steals their food.

It's warm, the cicadas are kicking up a racket, everything is green, there are walnuts and quince ripening on the trees, with grapes hanging from the vine, which has benefitted from Manolis' expert attention. It's idyllic.

There are few clouds in the sky, but there is a metaphorical one on the horizon. Brexit. Bloody Brexit. And, thanks to the extraordinarily irresponsible decision by the government not to extend transition, despite the UK being nowhere near ready for exit, it is a cloud that is looming fast. December 31st. Then we become a third country, and second class citizens in the EU. Seeing our terrible government proudly boast of ending our freedom of movement was horrible. Strange times when we are supposed to celebrate being stripped of our rights.

So, it's decision time.

I have three options:

1. If I become resident in one EU country (Greece, obviously) before December the 31st, I can keep some of my rights for that country alone. I will still lose them for all other EU and EEA countries. After December 31st, that option is gone forever.

2. I can remain resident in the UK and accept that I am only allowed to be in my house for 90 days in any 180 day period and will be barred from returning for another 90 days. (The 90 day period includes visits to all Schengen countries, so any time spent in the rest of Europe is deducted from the time I am allowed to spend here.)

3. Wait, and if I decide I want to live here in the future, apply for a renewable two-year visa for third country nationals under more stringent conditions. Although, Greece is trying to encourage UK pensioners to live here.

Option 1 gives me a more limited version of the rights that are being taken from me, but preserves my life in Greece. The Greek government is making things easier by choosing declaratory rather than constitutive registration. This is unlike the UK government who is requiring a greater burden of proof from EU 27 citizens resident in the UK. There is some flexibility too. Part of the dilemma is that I'm fond of both worlds - Greek and British; urban and rural. Residence only requires being in the country for six months of the year for the first five years. It's attractive, I qualify easily, but there are complications around health, tax, and many other essentials. Some are yet to be agreed.

Whatever, it will mean extra cost and more bureaucracy. But then, if you put up barriers and borders where previously there were none, that's inevitable. Many more people and businesses will find this out when transition ends and reality hits. It will be a shock. I'm lucky. I'm retired. Those who are still employed, or have families and businesses in more than one country are far worse off. As are future generations, who will lose their rights entirely. Millions of people are affected.

Brexit has mucked everything up. I think that it's a catastrophe for the country, but this is personal. What was easy is now complicated. Now the government is effectively saying that if anyone wants to retain a fraction of their rights, they have to emigrate by the end of this year. This is a curious policy for any government to follow.

Of course, the Leave campaign denied that any of this would happen during the referendum. It was supposed to be easy and cost free. Those of us who pointed out the difficulties that Brexit entailed were accused of being 'Project Fear.' Of course, we were only telling the truth. Leave were the ones lying.

It's been horrible and stressful. In many ways, the worst is yet to come. I have no doubt that Brexit is a colossal mistake. And for my part, I'm left with three questions floating round my head:

1. I know that many people in the UK did not identify as European and had no wish to use their freedom of movement. However, they were never obliged to. At what stage does it become legitimate for them to remove these rights from those of us who do want them?

2. Just what was so intolerable about the previous 47 years that justified doing this to us?

3. Has anyone got an Irish grandparent I can borrow?

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Changing times

It's nearly a year since Johnson became Prime Minister. Amidst all the bluster, lies, scandals, and evasions, he has one solid achievement. Britain is no longer a member of the European Union. We are now a third country, even if the full consequences are yet to be felt. Remain is over. We can begin the long application process to rejoin, but we cannot remain. Johnson took us out.

The final terms are unknown and the haste with which Johnson wants us to leave the transition period is baffling. Even so, we know that the shape of Brexit will bear no relationship to the one that we were promised in the referendum campaign.

Johnson's achievement was facilitated by others, of course. Cameron's decision to hold an unnecessary referendum at the tail end of the Euro crisis, expecting remain to win handsomely, was a master class in bad timing. Corbyn's decision (with a bit of help from Swinson) to vote for an early election, again thinking he would win, was criminal stupidity. Johnson's landslide with 43% of the vote was a consequence of the perpetual failings of our electoral system. His gamble in purging the Conservative Party of real conservatives paid off.

This was the culmination of an era of political instability in the aftermath of the financial crisis and the desperately misjudged response of the coalition government, with its austerity and resultant grinding poverty. Even so, everything was politically normal until 2015. Cameron's majority, as a result of the collapse of the Liberal Democrats, Miliband's weak leadership of Labour, and the bloody electoral system again, changed everything. Cameron initiated the chaos by holding the EU referendum, which smashed everything to pieces. Labour's folly was the collective act of suicide in choosing Corbyn as leader.

2015. Five short years ago. It seems a lifetime.

During that time we saw radicalisation accompanied by the processes of accommodation and excuse making that Anne Applebaum wrote about and that I referred to in my earlier post. First, Theresa May redefined the referendum result as mandating a hard Brexit, leaving the single market and customs union, in line with the demands of the right-wing ultras in her party. Then we saw her hard Brexit described as soft, as the Brexiters radicalised after the referendum. Hard Brexit became orthodox belief, even for people who campaigned for Remain. While Lexiters abandoned the language of social democracy in favour of vituperative hatred for the EU and all its works.

We saw the same accomodation on the left. People who had been critics of the politics that Corbyn had espoused, rallied round and found reasons to support someone who was clearly inadequate and personally unpopular. As Labour sank into a morass of antisemitism, they dug themselves in deeper. The left winning mattered more to them than the nature of the left that did win.

It's been changing for a while. Possibly, it's been accelerated by the government's inept handling of the pandemic, but it would have happened anyway due to the inherent contradictions of the politics of the era. Now, it's over. This week saw two things that clarified what's going on.

Rebecca Long-Bailey, the left's defeated candidate for Labour leader, tweeted her support for an interview with an actor. The interview contained an antisemitic conspiracy theory (as well as other criticisms of the party). I don't expect political acumen from a celebrity, but from a member of the shadow cabinet? It was not an act of intelligence. She was sacked. Rapidly, rightly, and decisively sacked. It marks the start of a serious change of political direction. The Corbynista left has become irrelevant.

As Labour detoxes, the Tories are finding that their one triumph is turning septic. The  European Social Survey was published this week, confirming previous trends and showing that support for the EU is growing across Europe. This report deals with its consequences for Brexit.
The survey, completed in 2019 and released this week, found that 57% of Brits would vote to be inside the EU, compared to 50% who said the same in the previous survey released in 2018.
By contrast, just 35% said they would vote to be outside the EU, compared with the 52% of people who voted to leave in 2016. Eight percent of Brits said they would not vote in such a referendum.
35%, that's all. Demographics and everyday experience will probably shrink that number further. The referendum took place at the only time Leave could win. Brexit has happened when the majority oppose it, in a form no one campaigned for. The form is one that few anticipated, and even fewer voted for.  It has happened solely because it was defined as 'the will of the people,' rather than a quirk of timing. It's shape is the result of treating the views of half the population as irrelevant. The insecurities of the Brexiters, with their accusations of betrayal, shows Brexit's fragile foundations.

Brexit is Johnson's nemesis. His only success is turning into a curse that will haunt him. His personal inadequacies are manifest. But worst of all, his legacy will be defined by a policy that will be despised. He has wrecked his party and his country with his one moment of triumph.  His premiership will be seen as a curse.

There is only one certainty about the next political era. It will be dominated by our relationship with Europe. Europe is, as it has been for centuries, vital to our security, economy, and, given our near fifty years of integration, our personal lives. The coming years will be spent dealing with the consequences of our folly. I'm sure that we will look back on our years of membership as "the land of lost content" as we begin to deal with the accursed legacy of Cameron, May, and Johnson.  

Chris Grey is right about the immediate tasks, and he views the prospect of rejoining as remote. I'm not so sure. Back in 2015, nobody could have foreseen where we are today. I suppose, much depends on the extent of the change that is coming. Reality points in one direction, as it has throughout. It's just that right-wing utopians chose to disregard it. 

The years 2015-2020  have been momentous. Though, how much better off we all would be if they had never happened.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

The sun has set

Even by the standards of this dismal government, this week has been puzzling. The jingoistic 'Global Britain' flag has been waving without much sense of what 'Global Britain' actually means, other than an expensive makeover for a plane. All the while, the threat of a destructive no-deal exit from transition remains.

Then there was the embarrassing launch of negotiations for a trade deal with Australia and New Zealand, glossing over the fact that talks between the Australasian countries and the EU for a free trade agreement are advanced and that we would benefit from one far quicker if we were members of the EU. Australia has made it clear that we are not a priority and the deal with the EU takes precedence. Otto English is scathing. This mirrors the heralding of the opening of trade talks with Japan, without mentioning that this is to replace the trade deal we already have with them through the EU - a deal that we are abandoning by leaving the single market and customs union.

All this comes after Johnson's previous nod away from globalisation towards nationalist autarky and import substitution, together with the abolition of the Department for International Development. It convinces me that Chris Grey is right. There is no plan.
The Brexiters have no more idea in private than they do in public about what they are doing. Predictions based upon their concealed intent project on to them a competence they simply don’t possess.
Brexit as an ideology, as opposed to the type of reformist Euroscepticism that didn't question our membership, was only ever a vehicle for a vague, self-indulgent sense of grievance projected onto a fictitious, scapegoat EU. It never proposed a coherent model of political economy or of international relations. It had nothing to offer other than bluster. I'm not sure that its adherents either expected or wanted the opportunity to put their fantasy into practice. Perpetual complaint without responsibility is much easier

Those of us with long political memories, like mine stretching back to our entry into the EEC in 1973, will know that we are simply replicating the debates of the 60s and 70s. The options are the same as then. That's because the question is the same. Where does the future of a post-imperial Britain lie?

There is a lot of talk of the EU as a peace project, but there is less about its other role as a solution to the questions raised by decolonisation and the end of the European empires. Even though the long and bloody retreat was not complete, it was obvious that individual European nation states could not play a global role on their own. A regional collective of independent states had the economic power to enable them to be significant international actors and thereby enhance their own sovereignty. Isolated individual states would be ineffective by comparison.

The choice Britain faced was between European engagement - either through EFTA, which we helped found in 1960, or full membership of the EEC - or a global role - through the Commonwealth or, more improbably, a relationship with the USA. Guess what we are debating today?

The decision was obvious even then. Distance and history drew us to Europe. The other options were not viable and, on its own, Britain would have drifted into continuing decline and irrelevance. We left EFTA to join the EEC because of its limitations. Now we won't even try and rejoin EFTA and be part of the EEA.

After 47 years, Britain abandoned the solution only to rediscover the problem. Except that the alternative remedies are even more unpalatable today. The EU has enlarged, is an economic superpower, our economy is deeply integrated with the internal market, and we are not just close, but joined by a tunnel. We have given up a powerful position without any replacement.

All the other choices, barring the utopian fantasy of a world of unconstrained independent nation states, leave the UK as a weak supplicant in a world dominated by regional networks. We have lost sovereignty by trying to enhance it. Pretending that we can be part of a Pacific bloc is mad. The solution to our predicament is obvious and we have just rejected it.

And so we are stuck, pursuing a disastrous policy at ruinous cost. As for the government that has to handle this, Chris Grey gets it right again:
We’re not in sway to some set of manipulative geniuses pursuing a well-thought out, if malign, agenda, but the captives of a coterie of utterly deluded simpletons who have stumbled into power by a series of accidents. The plane hasn’t been hijacked by steely-eyed terrorists so much as it has fallen into the inadvertent hands of a group of smirking school bullies and debating society geeks, led by a priapic layabout and advised by those for whom the term Incel inadequates is not so much an insult as an unattainable aspiration. Thus as Rafael Behr writes, convincingly, “incompetence is a built-in feature, not a bug of Boris Johnson’s government”.
And that's where we are today. An awful government, pursuing a destructive policy, without a clue about what to do other than to posture and indulge in rhetorical hostility towards our closest allies on whom we depend. Their only tactic appears to be reckless brinkmanship at the behest of a deranged sect on the right of the Tory Party. And all for nothing. There is no good reason to continue with a policy that never made sense and is only the result of a political miscalculation. But instead, we have left the EU without no idea about what to do instead. I despair for our country.

Thursday, June 04, 2020

The lie of the land

This is a fine, long essay from Anne Applebaum. Its theme is the Republican Party's loyalty to Trump, even as he trashes their former beliefs. It explores the phenomenon of collaboration and resistance, drawing on Czesław Miłosz's classic book, The Captive Mind. But there is much more of general relevance in there.

It illuminated several of my pet obsessions. I may come back to some of those topics in a later post. This time, I want to use just one of its themes to show why the row over Dominic Cummings and his breach of lockdown is not trivial, as some try and make out. 

Cummings is a courtier. He's unelected. He has no power base other than patronage. He can be removed at a whim, but he wasn't. He was protected. Cummings was elevated to celebrity status by the scandal and allowed to give an unprecedented press conference in the Number Ten Rose Garden. His statement contained a claim so outrageous that it launched hundreds of mocking memes and a sell-out brand of craft beer. Dishonesty filled the air as he gave an account that was completely different to the one his wife had published only a few weeks before. He confirmed that he and his family had gone on a trip to Barnard Castle in breach of the lockdown, something that had been vehemently denied previously. Then came the big one, the utterly absurd reason he gave for his visit. He drove the sixty-mile round trip to test whether his eyesight was impaired. And as he left the garden after he made his statement, he smirked. He knew that he wouldn't be sacked. Any lie would make no difference. And Anne Appelbaum tells us why:
Sometimes the point isn’t to make people believe a lie—it’s to make people fear the liar.
Cummings is powerful and protected. His excuse showed just how powerful he is. It said to his enemies, 'I am dangerous.' He can say anything with impunity. He can be ridiculed, but that only increases his power. People, however much they loathe him, know that if he can get away with something so absurd, he can't be touched.

It's all part of a style. Never apologise, never resign, never bother about the truth. In a constitution based on convention rather than law, ignore restraints. If you get caught out, shrug your shoulders and carry on. Illegally proroguing Parliament was a resignation matter. Nobody resigned.

Cummings is not a pluralist, I doubt if he is even a democrat. He is an authoritarian devoted to the centralisation of power. His thinking is banal. He is no evil genius, just amoral. This is where the appeal lies. Appelbaum again:
This, of course, was the insight of the “alt-right,” which understood the dark allure of amorality, open racism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny long before many others in the Republican Party. Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian philosopher and literary critic, recognized the lure of the forbidden a century ago, writing about the deep appeal of the carnival, a space where everything banned is suddenly allowed, where eccentricity is permitted, where profanity defeats piety. The Trump administration is like that: Nothing means anything, rules don’t matter, and the president is the carnival king.
For Trump read Johnson. His whole career is based on 'telling it as it is,' a euphemism for transgressive deceit. He built his career on writing outrageous distortions about the European Union. He introduced racist and derogatory tropes into his journalism. All were delivered in the style of his unthreatening, comic, upper-class, faux persona. He was offensive with a smile. And that, for some people, is liberating. After all,
If there is no such thing as moral and immoral, then everyone is implicitly released from the need to obey any rules.
Johnson is not a serious politician. He is a bundle of needy entitlement combined with ambition without ability. Cummings is serious, with roots in the sewer of the alt-right. Mix the frivolity of transgression with the absence of any compulsion to tell the truth, and you end up with our own version of the Trump presidency. Smaller, more modest, not as overtly unpleasant, but, in its own way, just as indecent. This is where we are now. It disturbs me.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Poles together

One of the more interesting bits of the Liberal Democrat's election review, was this observation:
... on Brexit; the electorate was divided into three groups: 20-25% passionate Remainers, 20-25% passionate leavers, and 50-60% who weren’t really that passionate either way. 
Yet, much media coverage described the nation as bitterly divided 50/50 and some even predicted violence. Commentators only saw the passionate minorities. They were more visible, and that led to the kind of sampling error that Chris Dillow discusses here. The nation was not as polarised by the referendum as is commonly depicted. The two poles grew and were animated by the referendum, but the majority weren't particularly interested, nor were they well-informed. Much of the referendum vote, on both sides, was hesitant and semi-detached.

It isn't just sampling bias that makes us see polarisation. It's something that Hans Rosling called "the gap instinct." We are naturally drawn to explanations that split the world into two easily observable categories. We like to think in terms of either/or rather than complexity.
Dividing the world into two distinct sides is simple and intuitive, and also dramatic because it implies conflict, and we do it without thinking, all the time.

... The gap instinct makes us imagine division where there is just a smooth range, difference where there is convergence, and conflict where there is agreement.

... Much more often, gap stories are a misleading overdramatization. In most cases there is no clear separation of two groups,
It happens continuously. Journalists and analysts alike love it. For instance, it's common to talk about the division between metropolitan liberals and small town social conservatives. Then there's David Goodhart's facile split between people from somewhere and people from anywhere. And talk of the culture war is everywhere. However, if polarisation exists only at the edges, if there is a gradation of views, if opinions are not fixed, and if identities are multi-faceted and evolving, then policy makers have far more scope for action than they think.

Our politics is ill-suited to this reality. The two party system and first-past-the-post encourage polarisation. Normally, the conventional wisdom is that elections are won from the centre but this wasn't true in 2019. The Tory strategy was clear. They had to hold on to the votes of the 20% of diehard Brexiters. If that section of their vote was lost, they were in trouble. The result was that that 20% drove their electoral strategy and is now determining their actions in government. They could ignore the rest because of the Corbyn factor. His unprecedented unpopularity would keep the weakly committed voters with them.

Labour's stupidity, in both agreeing to an unnecessary election at the time chosen by the Tories and going into it with an unelectable leader, meant they could never win. But to maintain their vote, they could not afford to lose the 20% of passionate Remainers. This is why Starmer was pushing for a clear commitment to Remain and a confirmatory referendum. Instead, Labour's equivocation meant that they lost more votes to Remain parties than Leave ones. The result was that we had a Tory landslide on a similar share of the vote as the one they had when they lost their majority. They gamed the electoral system better.

Two things are clear. First, our electoral system is dysfunctional as it can't represent a complex electorate. Our situation could not have happened under any type of proportional representation. Secondly, because of both it and the special conditions of this election, the position necessary to win the election is a terrible base for governing the country afterwards, as we are starting to find out.

2019 was not the Brexit election, it was the Corbyn election, an historic failure not an historic victory.

Of course, the system had been disrupted by the referendum. Not only was it an affront to representative democracy, it was ridiculous to use a binary referendum to decide a non-binary question. The electorate was not binary either. The final result, 17 million leave, 16 million remain, and 12 million abstentions, was utterly indecisive. Neither remain nor leave could win the support of 40% of the electorate, yet it has been treated as more than decisive, as almost sacred; the 'people's will' rather than a distortion of democracy.

Whatever the result, it would have left 20% of voters thoroughly brassed off. But Brexit will not have wider salience until it directly affects the majority. That hasn't happened yet and will not do so until we exit transition. Then a lot will depend on the deal. It isn't going away.

In politics there is always the unexpected. Along came the pandemic and with it a political furore over the actions of Dominic Cummings. This has hit a nerve. There are several reasons:

First, the Cummings affair creates disquiet about the way we are governed and the power of, ironically, an unelected bureaucrat. Secondly, it asks questions about the moral qualities of our government, particularly in regard to truthfulness. Third, it raises the issue of competence. But the single most important issue is that it cuts to the heart of the relationship between the rulers and the ruled. It has pointed to a structural problem.

The main concern is about equality before the law. The reason why there is so much anger about the affair is that the lockdown has hit everyone. Not just the committed 20%s, but the uncommitted majority. We have all made sacrifices, often at great personal cost. Cummings didn't do what anyone would do, he did what everybody did not do. His disingenuous and unapologetic justifications have not helped. Though we may be tolerant of inequality, we do not like the excessive and contemptuous exercise of privilege.

There is something else hanging over this too. The outrage is an expression of collectivism. Public health is a collective issue. It's not a matter of individual choice, or of 'British common sense,' it's reliant on collective collaboration; obeying by the rules - rules set for our mutual benefit and protection. Collectivism is not just clapping the NHS, it's about a sense of social solidarity and mutual obligation. The pandemic has brought it to the fore as we face a common threat.

The scandal feels like it might be a Black Wednesday moment, the time in 1992 when a policy failure removed all trust from the government. Who knows if Johnson will recover? However, what we have seen is not polarisation or a culture war, but an expression of an underlying collectivist consensus.

This is a long term problem for the Conservative Party as it shackles itself to the uncomfortable coalition of populist right-wing English nationalism with elitist individualism. After the hubris of Brexit, I can smell nemesis in the air. That's comforting, though the real problem is the damage that they can do before they are removed when we have a system with weak constitutional restraints on a governing party with a secure majority, however that majority was won.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

How wars end

There's a curmudgeonly strand of the left that sneers at celebrations and patriotic sentimentalism. It mocks the street parties and denies the validity of popular pleasure. This joyless, censorious, and snobbish miserablism is a self-hating and self-righteous product of the 'anti-imperialist' left. However much I loathe it, I still felt uneasy about last weekend's brand new VE Day bank holiday.

It's new because the Conservative right have long hated the May Day holiday, which they associated with the European left. They've wanted an alternative for ages. The 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe was the perfect opportunity for them to ditch it. May Day was cancelled to be replaced by VE Day. The quiet dignity of Remembrance Sunday, commemorating the end of World War I, was to be eschewed in favour of public parties and singalongs. Officially sanctioned fun is not my thing and I was astonished that the call for celebrations was not cancelled because of the pandemic. But that wasn't the reason why I was uncertain.

I had a number of minor concerns, but they weren't the most important. It's imperative to commemorate the defeat of fascism in Europe, though I would have favoured solemnity over kitsch. This touching essay by Otto English about his father echoes with some of the stories I grew up hearing from my family. But then my response is personal and I wouldn't condemn anyone who enjoyed a knees-up celebrating the defeat of the Nazis.

Then there is our unhealthy relationship with the Second World War. It's divorced from the reality of experience and expressed in nationalist myths, such as us the one about us 'standing alone.' This was never true, even in 1940. Instead, we were part of an immense international collaborative effort. David Edgerton demolishes this particular one here.

These always bother me, but there was something that mattered more this time. It's about what shapes our attitude towards wars more generally. The way we remember is often decided by how wars end - not just victory or defeat, but the way they finished and by their consequences. 

VE Day wasn't the end of the Second World War. It lasted for another three months with vast loss of life. It wasn't over until the Japanese surrender on August 15th. Why don't we have a party for VJ Day instead? Part of the reason may be that making VJ Day the most significant commemoration would be to celebrate the use of the nuclear weapons. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki made the Japanese surrender. Nuclear war feels qualitatively different to the conventional methods that, despite their horrors, defeated Germany. It would be uncomfortable to approach this anniversary with anything other than solemnity and ambiguity.  

And then there's the First World War. Our image of it isn't shaped by the allied victory, but by the war that followed twenty-one years later. Much of the trope about the war's futility springs from its failure to secure a long-lasting peace. Whether rightly or wrongly, we talk about the failure of Versailles and remember the experience of the trenches, as seen through the filter of the literature it produced. We remember "the pity of war," its tragedy rather than its triumph.

How about a much more recent example? The Iraq war is rarely mentioned without the adjective 'disastrous' being tacked on to it. Why when an aggressive and murderous fascist regime was removed remarkably swiftly and efficiently? The answer lies in the post-war chaos, which was neither expected nor planned for. If a relatively stable, democratic republic had emerged from the war, it wouldn't be controversial. 

In contrast, VE Day is easy to celebrate. Not only was an unambiguous evil defeated, but the consequences, in Western Europe anyway, were benign. This didn't happen by chance. The successful post-war settlement rested on the deliberate building of national collectivist institutions - welfare states, universal health care, liberal democracy, mixed economies - and frameworks for international collaboration - most notably the European Union that Churchill repeatedly advocated in the aftermath of the war. The victory was the basis on which peace was built. And this is the reason for my misgivings. The government that was cheerleading socially distanced congas is ideologically opposed to much of the settlement that made the war one to celebrate.

We have already, tragically, left the European Union. This was the right's key demand. They have other targets now. The BBC, whose war-time role was vital, is subject to continuous attack. But the pandemic has provided a surprise defence. The welfare state has shown its worth. Collective action to secure incomes holds back the worst of the economic crisis, while the disease has mobilised the vast public sentiment behind the NHS. The right's ideological commitment remains, but will be much more politically difficult to achieve. In the middle of the economic dislocation caused by the virus, it's hard to see much popular enthusiasm for Brexit, especially for ending the transition earlier than necessary without a deal. 

And that's why I felt ambiguous. The government that was promoting celebrations wanted to dismantle much of what was worth celebrating, all under the cover of popular patriotism. It made me sad. It made me sad about the loss of our EU membership and about the state of the public sector. It compounded my anxiety about the future. And while I could celebrate the liberation of Europe, I was also mourning the casual way with which we are treating the gains that the sacrifices of the previous generation brought us. Rather than being a celebration of the past, VE Day in 2020 was, in David Reiff's phrase, "little more than the present in drag." And it's a present that I don't like.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Method in madness

As the Labour Party sets out in a struggle to regain the closest approximation to sanity that exists in politics, the Conservative Party doesn't seem to want to join in. Partly, this is to do with the strength of an influential strand of right-wing contrarian thought that runs through it. It's easy to reel off some of the names. Toby Young, James Delingpole, Peter Hitchens, Melanie Phillips, those from Furedi's Spiked cult, all supported by a range of think tanks. The same is happening across the Atlantic with people such as Jordan Peterson and, as shown in this interview, Richard Epstein.

These people are the respectable stratum under which lies wilder depths of increasingly deranged conspiracy thought on both the right and the left. In this country, you will find it in climate change denial/minimisation, Brexit, and, in its latest manifestation, opposition to the lockdown in response to the pandemic. The Epstein interview interested me, not just because of his influence on some around our government, but because it shows graphically the way that these people operate. It's a method that works something like this.

1. False expertise.

Epstein is not an epidemiologist or a virologist, he is a lawyer. Expertise in one field does not confer expertise in others. I have no doubt that he is a very good lawyer, but then he throws in this, "I’ve worked on evolutionary theory for forty years in its relationship to law." This is supposed to turn him into an expert on the evolution of the coronavirus. Real experts react in horror.

I have no doubt that these people read and study a mountain of material, even becoming obsessive about it. The big problem is that their study is unsystematic and self-selected, so their conclusions are dodgy. I heard a classic example on Radio 4's The Moral Maze quite a few years ago. Melanie Phillips was arguing against climate science. Phillips, who had previously spread the MMR/autism manufactured panic, said, and I paraphrase, "If 97% of climate scientists agree, why does most of what I read say the opposite." She hadn't realised that she had just shown the narrowness and inadequacy of her reading, rather give a clinching argument in favour of her denialism. It goes on and on. Brexiters have a huge command of detail about the EU, most of which is verifiably wrong. Jordan Peterson based his justification of hierarchy and inequality on the biology of lobsters, which was fine until a real expert in lobsters came along with this hilarious putdown.

This type of reading and reasoning is a classic example of selecting according to a pre-existing ideological preference and then bending the evidence to support it. We can see something similar with Dominic Cummings' flaunting of his self-education in science and his deprecation of the humanities (although he actually has an history degree). Each shares their particular misinformation within their circles in a continuous cycle of reinforcement and self-verification. It's a way to claim the status of erudition without submitting to the scholarship necessary to achieve it.

The importance of systematic and programmed learning is that it gives you comparators. Making a judgement is impossible without them. This is what education is. And because of the complexity of knowledge, we only have a limited scope. We have to rely on the judgement of experts. They are easily found. They are the ones sitting in the corner with their heads in their hands.

This isn't a unique fault, we all do it to a greater or lesser extent. I'm very prone to big speeches on the basis of half knowledge. But these people do it it with such certainty, with amazing self-confidence, with vanity even. They are free of doubt. It's what makes them convincing.

2. The disparagement of experts.

The enemy of false expertise is genuine expertise. The result is that much of the energy of these contrarians is spent in disparaging people who have it. This is rarely done with evidence. After all, there usually isn't any. So they use two main techniques.

The first is contempt. Experts are the elite or the establishment. They are trying to protect themselves or further their careers. They are too scared to stand up to the powerful (unlike our courageous contrarians). They suffer from 'groupthink.' They are conventional and unimaginative. They have vested interests. Forget evidence, ad hominems are sufficient in the contrarian mind. That leaves the easy emotional appeal of a supposedly special and superior knowledge, one used by every conspiracy thinker and snake oil seller to ignore the substance of the issue that exposes them as fake.

The second is doubt. This is a well-trodden path. Rather than put forward an alternative theory, they raise doubts about the certainty of well established facts. By creating a sense of controversy or debate where there is none, they undermine a genuine scientific consensus. The tobacco companies did this with smoking and health for decades, the fossil fuel industry has used the same methods to spread doubt about climate change and, more recently, to spread opposition to renewable energy. Contrarians celebrate outliers, and promote them as if they were mainstream. They feed off a media obsession for balance where someone who knows what they are talking about has to be countered by someone who doesn't.

3. False Martyrdom

Oh how they suffer, these contrarians. How they are persecuted. How they are denigrated for, horror of horrors, being wrong. How, despite newspaper columns, book contracts, and endless appearances on TV and radio, their right of free speech is being denied and they are being silenced. It's hardly surprising that they need to fight back and, like Toby Young, form a Free Speech Union. After all, the right to be discourteous, abusive, and to speak lies to truth has to be defended.

The problem that I have with all this is that they are not demanding free speech. They want the right to speak without opposition. Free speech is not agreement. Toleration does not mean approval, but acceptance, grudging and reluctant at times. J S Mill's seminal defence of free speech in On Liberty, sees contest and challenge as a fundamental element of it. He has a dialectical theory of truth. There isn't just a right, but a duty to contest. Liberalism does not mean sitting back and letting people spout nonsense, it means calling it out and saying that bollocks is precisely that, however uncomfortable it makes these 'free speech warriors' feel. They do not want to defend a robust principle, but to promote themselves and their ideologies, while receiving back nothing but admiration for their originality and daring.

All of this would be a nice intellectual game if it were not for one thing, the contrarians proximity to power. They have pushed a particular agenda within the governing party and its media cheerleaders. They are not seekers after truth, but seekers after influence. This is an ideological power grab. It has consequences. Action against climate change has been delayed. The damaging stupidity of Brexit has been imposed on the country. And, if the majority of virologists and epidemiologists are right, their campaign to end lockdown early could kill thousands. They are dangerous and Brexit has taken them to the heart of government, because the Conservative Party has abandoned conservatism in favour of ideological insanity.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

They never go quietly

I've often compared the Corbyn leadership with those moments in education when we had a problematic management. It felt the same. And the experience was always independent of the various political/educational views that management identified with. It strikes me that there are some generic lessons that can just as easily apply to the situation in Labour with the leaked submission to the EHRC. It's not that there aren't specific political issues, it's just that they are manifesting themselves in a far too familiar way.

1. When the management comission a report detailing how most of the staff think that the management are sodding useless and would do anything to get rid of them, this is not the masterstroke they think it is. It doesn't show that the management are good. Spying on the staff to get details about how rude they are about management in private doesn't help their case either.

2. Management accepting some failings and then saying that they only screwed up because the staff were being nasty to them, does not exonerate them.

3. If they leak a document containing actionable defamations and evidence of civil and criminal breaches of data protection legislation, naming complainants and putting staff at risk, they shouldn't think that it puts them in a good light.

4. There are always factions in any workplace (even more so in political parties). If factionalism becomes destructive, that means that it has been poorly managed. Factionalism doesn't mean that grievances against management are not real.

5. If the management says they would have had a magnificent success if it hadn't been for the disloyalty of the staff, laugh. It's always easier to plead betrayal than to be self-critical and take responsibility for your own actions.

And here are two tips:

1. When you want to bitch about management, don't do it on your work email or server. That is dumb.

2. When a new management comes in, riding on a wave of support and goodwill, they mustn't think that they can clean up the mess by being emollient with their predecessors and fudging the issues. If they don't act swiftly and decisively to resolve the conflicts and deal with the substance of the discontent, the problems will continue worse than ever and the new management will fail as badly as the old. The old regime are never the friends of the new.

I've seen lots of similar situations in my thirty years in education, including during a horrible time as union branch secretary. None of it is fun. The discontents were always real and needed dealing with. Usually, the cost was borne by the staff in the end. We should understand that the problem was not the staff. Instead the cause was inept and incapable leadership, using its power to protect itself, just as it would in any other organisation.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Goodbye to all that

The polls are closed. He's gone by Saturday. We just have to wait for Starmer's certain coronation.

So what's Corbyn's record? 

He won: 
Two leadership elections
The local government elections of 2016 and 2018

He lost: 
The local government elections of 2017 and 2019
The EU referendum
A Parliamentary Party vote of no confidence
The European elections
Two general elections.

A comprehensive failure.

There was a moment of hope. In 2017 Labour lost nothing like as badly as expected. A late surge deprived the Tories of a majority. Labour hadn't won, but the party held a potential Parliamentary veto if May's agreement with the DUP failed. When it did and when Johnson took the leadership, the Tory majority vanished. Labour could control Parliament.

2017 was Labour's great chance. It needed to build on its gains, heal the party and build a coalition. So what did it do? Continued with the factionalism, sank into a swamp of anti-semitism and drove away Jewish MPs, ran a central administration based on nepotism and bullying with key posts filled by upper-class Stalinists, covered up sexual harassment, ignored its members over Brexit, but then released fanatical and deranged loyalists to abuse its critics.

The collapse of May's government, together with Johnson's ruthlessness towards his opponents in his own party, left the Tories as a minority government. There was now a Parliamentary coalition capable of commanding a majority. It would be able to remove Johnson and call a second EU referendum. Corbyn was the obstacle to activating it. Then, in the most astonishing act of stupidity, ignoring all advice and all polling evidence, he decided to give Johnson the one thing he wanted most, an election - an election held on the terms and at the time the Tories wanted.  Corbyn chose to agree to one despite his personal approval polling standing at minus 60% - an unprecedented level of unpopularity. He took the wrong lesson from 2017 and was convinced that he would sweep to power on another late surge. An incoherent manifesto and an incompetent campaign later, we see his legacy. A Tory landslide, Labour with the fewest seats since 1935, and Britain out of the European Union. It's fair to say that without Corbyn's leadership, none of these would have happened.

Corbyn's decision to facilitate an election was not just stupid, it was criminal.

Losing was a collective failure too. Labour has never been ruthless enough to remove an unpopular leader. Corbyn could never have won, that was always certain. He had no appeal outside the party and was broadly disliked. Someone else could have given the poll a good go. And a wise leader would have waited until after Brexit had been resolved. To a disengaged public, he didn't look like a credible Prime Minister. This was obvious in 2015. His election was a bizarre choice that rested far more on the sentimentality of Labour members than on the judgement of those who had to face the electorate.

He hasn't just been a disaster for the country, but for the left as well. Leftists saw this as their chance and lined up to defend the wrong leader. It was obvious to anybody who was mentally honest that, regardless of his politics, Corbyn didn't have the ability to do the job. The issue of his competence never went away. His inevitable failure was an existential threat to the left. As were his absurd cultish followers. They came over as aggressive, abusive, and unpleasant. A populist strategy that divided the world into villains, victims, and the virtuous could never appeal to people who didn't see themselves as victims and viewed these people as anything other than virtuous.

The whole farrago reminded me of Jonathan Rose writing about why the Communist Party got so little support amongst the British working classes.
Put bluntly, the trouble with Marx was Marxists, whom British workers found to be dogmatic, selfish, and antiliterary ... British working people judged Marxism by the Marxists they knew and concluded, with good reason, that such people were not going to make a better world.
The very moment the left won within the party, they blew it. They rallied round the wrong people, purely because of their identity.

But the left had other problems. It hadn't prepared. It hadn't renewed itself. There was little new thinking. The sectarian left had been comfortable as a minority opposition to the mainstream, while it persisted in its orthodoxies. Marginalisation suited it. It reassured leftists of their virtue without them having to carry the burdens of responsibility. Intellectually locked in to their defeats in the 1980s, they only saw this as an opportunity to refight them. To his credit, McDonnell did try and move economic policy towards different models of ownership, but there was no coherent narrative of the type that wins elections, not that they had the public's trust anyway.

The left needs an intellectual project. Unimaginative nostalgia and token giveaways to the middle classes would never cut it. It needs to junk the campist nonsense that saw it fawning over foreign tyrannies and the theocratic far right, while welcoming in the anti-semites. It needs a new political economy for changing times. And activists have to remember that this is not a performance for their own benefit, it is not a form of personal gratification. Self-indulgence loses elections.

Corbyn's leadership was a painful lesson in political realities. In 2015 I thought the party would be facing a big defeat this year if it hadn't ditched him by now. We should have been facing an election as the Cameron government's five-year-term came to an end this May. Instead, Cameron caused an unnecessary constitutional mess over Brexit and the crushing defeat came early.

Today, there is a national crisis. We are locked down by a pandemic. We are out of the European Union. And looming is the colossal self-imposed damage of leaving the single market and customs union. In such a crisis, Labour should speak for the nation, not lecture it for its stupidity in not voting for a leader that it did not want and was prepared to tell anyone who listened that they did not want. That's the tragedy. Defeat was utterly predictable. It was also preventable if the party had listened and taken action. Listening is something that the new leader needs to do right away. The alternative is oblivion.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Viral nonsense

I was supposed to be going to Greece in a week's time. Flights were cancelled and travel advice changed, so I am locked out of my Greek home and into my Manchester one. I had no choice, but it felt wise. Coming from this country, with its lax approach to the contagion, I would be a risk to others. But I can't help but cast a wistful glance at my Greek life and be impressed by Greece's serious and rigorous reaction to the pandemic.

Greeks are locked down and restricted, but what of Britain today. It's the country without bog roll (except in millions of domestic cupboards, safely under lock and key). It's a nation of panic buyers (try and find butter, pasta, tinned food, and other basics in big supermarkets. Try and find paracetamol anywhere). And we're a people that loves nothing more than to squeeze into confined spaces and gather in crowds when told not to. This is a nation unaware of the risks it faces. It's also a country with a hesitant government, slowly abandoning a policy, which was always an outlier, once the consequences of hundreds of thousands of additional deaths became clear. It's a country cursed by an unserious and insubstantial prime minister who won power by imposing a disaster and is now mismanaging a catastrophe.

As for the people, panic and confusion was inevitable. We have always scoffed at public information campaigns. The difference this time is that there aren't any to scoff at. It's an extraordinary failure of government. In a vacuum only partly filled with Johnsonian waffle, we have become a contradictory mess of fear, ignorance, and resentment. British stoical stiff-upper-lip resilience, as romanticised in popular history, is either fictional or a mixture of complacency and fatalism. It was invoked endlessly to assure us that the disruption of a no-deal Brexit would bet met with calm determination by a special people. Who now thinks that Britain can take it? Who now wants to follow one vast economic disruption with another in December?

Alex Andreou is stranded too. He is in a surreal Greece, quietened by a full social lockdown. It has given him time to write a splendid piece contrasting the two countries. He makes a telling observation.
... Britain finds itself under attack from two pandemics: Covid-19 and a plague of inane punditry.
He could have added the word profitable. There's a good living to be earned from dismissing reality. He attacks the right, but could have just as easily included a leftist strand too. It fits Harry G Frankfurt's definition of bullshit perfectly. 
Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.
It's not the same as lying.
The bullshitter ... does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.
It's a way of talking with authority and conviction from a position of near total ignorance, thereby hiding your inexpertness from both your audience and yourself. The bullshitter does not lack confidence. As for the recipient of it, you pick your ideology and choose your bullshit according to your preconceptions. It's comforting rather than challenging. You can believe the current pandemic is overhyped or apocalyptic, you can think it will change nothing or will change everything, you can hope for a cure and vaccine or despair that we are doomed to an eternity without football. And whatever you instinctively think, there will be a bullshitter waiting to convince you that you are right.

At a time like this, we need to hear from virologists and epidemiologists. They will not give us the simple solutions we would prefer to hear. They may not be comforting or certain. They may well insist that we do things that we really don't want to do. But they will be informed, knowledgeable, and expert. They know what they are talking about. We need experts. We really need experts.

Initially, our government did not follow the policy of other countries. It did so with a sense of superiority. It was a little unnerving, and partly convincing, until it fell apart after a critical analysis of the consequences from Imperial College, London. 250,000 dead was sobering. But why did we go down that route in the first place? It's puzzling until you realise that both our Prime Minister, together with the powerful Minister for the Cabinet Office, Michael Gove, were opinion columnists. They were professional bullshitters. They have both been advised by the unelected power behind the throne, the arch-bullshitter Dominic Cummings. The core of government is Vote Leave; a campaign which paid no attention to truth at all and has lumbered us with a mad act of self-harm driven by dubious ideology. Bullshit is the essence of our government. Now it is payback time. Reality is knocking.

Reality has a habit of doing this. For anti-vaccination loons, this is what a world without vaccines looks like; for Corbynistas, yes that was a catastrophic election defeat; for eugenicists casually disregarding deaths, here are a quarter of a million of them for you to handle the consequences. We will move back into line with others with far more stringent measures because we have to. The bullshitters will continue to claim that it was the plan all along. They won't be lying, because truth has never bothered them. I doubt that it ever will. But the consequences of their illusions certainly will.

Monday, March 09, 2020

Government by delusion

This is good from Tom McTague in the Atlantic. He shows that the confrontation between the government and the civil service is structural and ideological.
The row also reveals the deeper philosophy of Brexit, which drives this Johnson administration and has yet to be fully grasped by those who routinely show exasperation at its apparent refusal to listen to expert advice. Johnson, they say, is pursuing a future that makes no sense, one in which sovereignty is prioritized over economic alignment with the EU, meaning that Britain will be poorer than it needs to be. 
But this misunderstands the core of the Johnson-Cummings project. It is not that they disagree with experts’ forecasts, or that they are attempting to be populist. They actively reject this model of government, believing it to be systemically and empirically flawed. They argue that Britain needs to free itself from centralized bureaucratic control, rather than rely on it, to be able to react both to domestic crises and the ever-changing international environment. This is a project to remake Britain into a country agile enough to adapt quickly to the dramatic change that is inevitable and unpredictable, not to perfect an existing system that avoids unwanted shocks.
This is the central assumption. Whereas the government is about delivering "the kind of change voters want," bureaucracy is about frustrating it to protect the status quo. The trouble is, it's bollocks. But it's seductive enough bollocks to base a long-running comedy series on it. This is not about what voters want, it's about what rulers want. They are projecting their ideology on to voters in order to justify it. At best, the statement should read 'what many voters want, but many others oppose.' That's why the Cummings theory of government is anti-democratic. Democracy accepts dissent as legitimate, feels it should be listened to and accommodated. Sometimes the protection of minorities should overrule the will of majorities. Democracy is slow, can be cautious, but democracies can also act decisively in response to a crisis and, because of their very nature, can effectively mobilise consent for emergency actions. 

The Cummings approach to government is ludicrous. Reality conflicts with it daily. Look at the tardy response to recent shock events - flooding and the coronavirus pandemic. This is a political failure, not an administrative one. An inadequate political class is throwing blame around to avoid responsibility for its own failings.

The likes of Cummings are in thrall to any fashionable nonsense that panders to their narcissism and inflated egos. Only 'weirdos,' 'blue sky thinkers,' 'people who work outside the box,' and the like, have any value. Those who are still in touch with reality are the enemies of these visionaries. And so, they must be sidelined and disposed of to promote the "agility" of this new elite. Of course, the biggest enemies of all are the institutions of representative democracy. There's nothing new about this. It's the currency of authoritarianism throughout history.

What we are seeing is a crisis of the Conservative party. It has abandoned conservatism. It has embraced the cranks and loons, a disparate collection of right-wingers who had been hanging about on the fringes for years. Brexit has been their vehicle for power. Sceptics, the real conservatives, have been expelled or consigned to the margins. The ascendent faction is a destructive force, not just wrecking our place in Europe, but dismantling liberal democratic institutions. It claims the old mantle of the 'man of action,' sees bullying as a virtue, opposition as a sign of the unworthiness of opponents, and is convinced of its own doubt-free rectitude. Nothing must constrain its freedom of action.

All the institutions of the post-war settlement are under attack. All are seen as opponents of this right-wing ascendancy, the ones who would restrict its power to do something stupid. They must go - the judiciary, the civil service, the BBC, Parliament, and, of course, the European Union. This rightist ideology would dismantle all the collectivist institutions that have underpinned an enduring consensus, including the NHS. These bodies might be stuffy and unglamorous, but they can save us from the serial stupidities of ideologues who think they know best. They need to be defended from the attack by these rebels against reality.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

What a state to be in

Anarchism is an odd academic specialism to have. I often get thought of as an anarchist, whereas I am really an interested bystander. I always think that anarchism provides insights, rather than specific programmes, and those insights are valuable to anyone who is interested in politics. One thing it does lead to is a scepticism of the nation state. The anarchist rejection of government never meant that there would not be any political and economic social units, just that they were not to be conventional states. Anarchists proposed multiple forms; producer co-operatives, mutualist associations, labour syndicates, autonomous cities, extensive property rights, communal self-regulation, bio-regions, and etc. Whatever their chosen unit, anarchists often placed them within larger collaborative structures, such as Proudhon's Federalism. As per the slogan coined by the ecological anarchist, Patrick Geddes, they 'think global, act local.' The sense of global interconnectedness runs through anarchist thought.

I thought of this as I read a curious libertarian Brexiter article in the Telegraph by Allister Heath (£). It helps explain why Brexiters continue to be angry and rant about the EU even though we have left. They want to destroy the EU permanently - for everyone. Their argument is that a world of independent nation states alone, without any supra-national organisation, is the best form of political and economic organisation. The result of this thinking is that the destruction of the EU will liberate everyone.

It's a curious argument. Its universalism about the benign nature of the nation state is ahistorical. Its utopianism is unrelated to historical experience. Given that Brexit has made other Europeans shudder and has increased the EU's legitimacy amongst member states, as well as its attractiveness to those outside, it looks like a piece of wishful thinking. A controversial, non-consensual win in the UK does not make it a global model to be followed by everyone. Elsewhere, the Eurosceptic movement is minuscule and the EU has never been more popular.

The article shows that right-wing libertarians have made their peace with nationalism. It's curious, because nationalism is a collectivist doctrine. Heath's argument, like much of Euroscepticism, rests on a category error. There are two classic ideas in liberal thought describing the origins and nature of a social contract underlying the modern state. That of Hobbes is based on the willingness of people to place themselves under the power of an absolute ruler to enforce peace, while the version derived from Locke sees the social contract as a voluntary association constructed out of the rule of law and democratic governance. Brexiters see the EU as the former, its supporters as the latter.

Heath's celebration of the nation state as the only form of sustainable political organisation leads Brexiters into contradictions. The EU is at once a Hobbesian leviathan, a centralised authoritarian beast, but also weak, unstable and on the point of collapse. Both versions can sometimes appear in the same sentence. This is why they portray Brexit as liberation. The problem is that it's a mirror image of reality. The EU is a federal organisation of democratic states that is not independent of its members wishes. It has a limited area of legal competence, defined by treaty, and a functioning elected parliament. Membership of the EU means shared sovereignty and collective decision making in defined areas, but not unconditional submission to authority. However, it is powerful in protecting and advancing its members' interests through collective organisation and in accordance with the mandate given by its member states. This power is something the UK is about to experience in negotiations. Unsurprisingly, a comparatively small single nation is guaranteed to be the weaker party. The EU's federalism may not be the same as Proudhon's, but it is nothing like the Eurosceptic fiction.

Heath and others have resurrected the old 19th century liberal panacea of the self-determination of nations. And in doing so, they haven't addressed the mixed history of nationalism and national liberation. It is true that national statehood has been a way of rescuing the persecuted and freeing peoples from tyranny (Heath supports Kurdish independence, alongside the very different cases of Catalonia and Scotland), but there is no guarantee that the result will be democratic and liberal. Post-colonial states have relapsed into bloody tyrannies. National territories are not ethnically homogenous and minorities have been persecuted, expelled, and killed. With each nation comes the concept of treason, and with it the identification of groups of people as existential enemies (see this fine piece on Hindu nationalism for example). Then there is Rummel's concept of Democide, based on the statistics that show that far more people have been killed by their own state in the 20th century than have died in international wars. National self-determination has a very mixed record, hence the perceived need for supra-national organisations to mediate and protect citizens.

The EU was created as a response to the two world wars. Both were the result of catastrophic failures of nationalism. But let's not forget that they were also due to failures of other attempts at international collaboration. The balance of powers failed. Deterrence failed. Appeasement failed. Collective security through the League of Nations failed. The EU was a conscious attempt to avoid those failures by building a regional alliance based on economic self-interest and administered by an agreed legal framework overseen by national governments and a democratic parliament. So far, it's been a success. And it is this incremental, voluntary, and limited federation that Heath wants to overthrow in favour of something that has a history of collapsing into local and global bloody conflict.

It might sound odd, but anarchists had a far more realistic appreciation of the nature of nation states and the need for international cooperation than Daily Telegraph columnists. But then Brexit wants to replace a fictitious European Union with an even more fictitious nationalist utopia. And in an increasingly interdependent world, we are the ones paying the price.