Friday, June 24, 2016

Another fine mess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Come back representation, all is forgiven

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 11, 2016


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 23, 2016

"This mentality is unstoppable"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Love stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 12, 2016

A tale of two mayors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 02, 2016

Lamentable history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Crime and passion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 19, 2016


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

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

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

Sunday, April 10, 2016


Football fan message boards aren't usually inspiring. But this thread was:
What made me most proud about yesterday ......was that a man wearing make-up and heels could do a lap of honour and get a standing ovation at a football ground in 21st century Britain.
One reason why we live in a better world than the one I grew up in.

Eddie Izzard. Marathon man.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Against morality

My recent contact with the National Health Service made me return to this article. The author is a Finnish American citizen, Anu Partanen, who gets constantly questioned about the strong welfare state in Finland. People keep telling her that it all sounds nice, but the social solidarity of Nordic countries, which is the bedrock of welfare states, doesn't exist in the USA and so the level of taxation to support comprehensive welfare systems wouldn't be possible. Her answer is simple:
But this vision of homogenous, altruistic Nordic lands is mostly a fantasy. The choices Nordic countries have made have little to do with altruism or kinship. Rather, Nordic people have made their decisions out of self-interest. Nordic nations offer their citizens—all of their citizens, but especially the middle class—high-quality services that save people a lot of money, time, and trouble. This is what Americans fail to understand: My taxes in Finland were used to pay for top-notch services for me. 
Yes, the real argument for welfare states is self-interest. They are a good idea. For you. You benefit directly and indirectly. If not in the present, in the future. It's obvious.

Why is the NHS politically untouchable (though infinitely reorganisable)? The answer is easy. We all use it. Birth, death, childhood, and old age are universal. And we all get ill. Sometimes those illnesses are life threatening and because of the NHS you don't die or become bankrupt. The point is that we think about us, our families and friends. We don't get carried away by a warm fuzzy feeling as we watch belligerent drunks at bus stops or neo-Nazi thugs parading in the streets thinking, "Isn't it wonderful that they are protected by the NHS." No, we think isn't it a bloody good idea that if one of these bastards takes a swing at us we can get patched up at the local hospital. The ultimate, total justification for all welfare provision is self-interest.

So why then do we insist on framing the debate in moral terms? Because that is what we do on both the left and right.

The left version is that a civilised society should care for the weakest and most vulnerable of our society. It's a charitable impulse that is sometimes described as social justice. It's also a moral belief that I share. The trouble is that it invites the response, 'why should I pay for someone else?' The left replies by calling the objectors greedy or selfish, a moral condemnation. This may be true, but calling someone greedy doesn't stop them being greedy, so the argument becomes pointless.

Right wing moral arguments are all about who deserves support and who deserves 'encouragement.' They divide the world into the deserving and undeserving poor or 'strivers and shirkers.' The result is a two track welfare policy. There is charity for the deserving, but sanctions for the undeserving. Those sanctions are dressed up in moral language as a way of encouraging people to get into work and save themselves from sin. Things like the 'bedroom tax' encourage people to give up living in larger homes and move into smaller, and mainly non-existent, accommodation. It's critics all focus on the moral arguments about spare rooms being used for disabled equipment and other such scandals, rarely on the policy itself.

This might appease the greedy, but it creates problems and undermines the case for welfare states. And, of course, the boundaries are never clear cut. The Tories have got into huge trouble by attacking Tax Credits, which go to low paid people in work, and benefits for the disabled. Both groups are seen as 'deserving' and rebellions in their own party has forced them to backtrack. We have even seen tentative attempts to introduce morality into the NHS with suggestions to exclude the obese or smokers from treatment unless they change their wicked ways. The anomalies and inconsistencies are so great that these seem to have faded away.

I have another suggestion. Let's bin all the moral arguments. And although I do think that there are strong collective and economic arguments for welfare provision, let's not bother with those either. Instead we should make the case for the individual benefit of good public services and comprehensive social insurance to everybody. Though collective means are the instrument to ensure security, the result is enhanced individual liberty. In that way, we are drawn towards universalism instead of judgemental conditionality, and to schemes like universal citizens' incomes, which have been advocated on both the left and right.

Then what would matter is that political debate on public service will not be about morality, but quality. This was something that New Labour understood, but then they blew it by thinking that good quality could be delivered through the imposition of centralised managerial control and grotesque bureaucracy.

The key to building the sort of social democratic consensus on wider welfare that has sustained the NHS is to see it as a system that benefits us as individuals, rather something that is done to others on the basis of disputable moral grounds. 

All's well that ends well

For all the talk of heath crises I think that we should remember one thing. In the developed world we live longer, healthier lives than ever before in human history. Dangerous conditions can be remedied and lives saved. This isn't down to fad diets, health cranks, latter day versions of snake oil, or the like. It is down to scientific research, 'big pharma,' and modern medicine. In short - it's progress. Here's to it and may it be widely shared.

Looking forward to my pal coming home tomorrow.

Thursday, March 31, 2016


When someone who is close to you is seriously ill and has undergone major surgery, hospital visits take precedence over blogging. But never, ever doubt the value of the NHS. Maybe that, tangentially, will be the subject of the next post when I resume.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Language games

I have known for a long time that some feminists have wanted to call history 'herstory' instead. I always found it silly. Now this report points out that students are writing it as 'hxstory' to make it a gender neutral term. I despair.

Let's get this right, if history meant 'his story' it would be spelt 'hisstory.' It isn't. It's spelt 'hi story,' which makes it the beginning of an over-familiar email to the past. But this isn't the real lunacy. Rather than being PC, these zealots are being culturally biased and, in particular, linguistically anglocentric. The word history derives from the Greek, ιστοριά (istoria). Greek nouns, as in most languages are gendered. Ιστοριά is feminine! It is η ιστοριά. So because of English transliteration they have assumed that a feminine noun is masculine, merely because it contains the letters 'his.'

Just because one word contains the letters that make up another, it doesn't mean that this defines the origin and meaning of the original word. Let's take the Lincolnshire town of Scunthorpe as an example. The four letter word it famously contains is not a description of the town's inhabitants - perhaps.

Friday, March 04, 2016


After continual urging by a friend I went to see the film Trumbo, a biopic of the experiences of the Hollywood screen writer, Dalton Trumbo, under McCarthyism. It's a fine film. It does what others rarely do and portrays writing as hard, solitary and neurotic work. Superbly written, it has humour without comedy, tragedy without pathos, and sentiment without schmaltz. It's a very intelligent film.

Trumbo had been a member of the Communist Party and was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee, imprisoned for contempt of Congress and subsequently blacklisted. He and his colleagues continued writing under assumed names. Trumbo even won two Oscars that way.

There are two historical points that the film highlighted for me. The first is that though the American Communist Party was a thoroughly grisly Stalinist party, the people who joined were mainly decent in intention. They were egalitarian and humanitarian. Some were doctrinaire, though many others were anything but. The ones who weren't ideologues were instinctive socialists, not intellectually convinced Stalinists. That said, I have much stronger sympathies with the anti-Stalinist left than I do with people who became fellow travellers. Emma Goldman, George Orwell, Max Shachtman, Dwight MacDonald and others should have done enough to enlighten anyone harbouring illusions, as should the fate of the great, great Russian writers who disappeared into the Gulag. But even so, it was naivety and the human capacity for self-delusion that brought them into a movement that promised nirvana even as it delivered terror.

However, the main point is that Stalinism and the onset of the Cold War posed a challenge to American liberalism. Faced with a choice between liberalism and authoritarian nationalism, they chose the latter. McCarthyism was utterly illiberal, even borrowing it's own version of the show trial. It was ugly, paranoid and sinister. Lives were wrecked and people died - not in the way that they did under Stalin, but it was miserable enough and a stain on American history. Faced with a test, liberalism failed.

And so it fell to these Communists and socialists, whose own efforts would have landed them in the gulags in the Soviet Union, to defend the right to free speech and the First Amendment. They became the liberals and the symbol of American democratic values.

The Hollywood of Trumbo's era produced the great liberal film, like, for example, the exploration of small-town racism in Bad Day at Black Rock. This one is an admirable addition to the genre about one of its finest exponents.