Monday, December 17, 2018

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Christmas music

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

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



UDATE

They're from Hull.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Heroic Failure

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 19, 2018

Left out to dry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Better off out?

Gosh! Look at what we would save.


Why on earth are we doing something so suicidally stupid?

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Myth and reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Respect

We must respect the referendum result. It's a mantra you hear from all sides. I agree. We must. It's just that I don't think that what they call respecting the result is respect at all.

Very roughly, 17 million voted to leave, 16 million voted to remain, 12 million didn't vote (and several million more people who are directly affected were disenfranchised for a variety of reasons). To leavers and remainers alike, respecting the result apparently means accepting the absolute authority of the 17 million, whilst totally disregarding the other 28 million. As a democrat, this troubles me.

What we should respect is the referendum vote as a whole and that showed a dissensus. It wasn't a mandate to remain, but it also wasn't a mandate to leave regardless of the consequences. It signalled an unexpected problem, one that had to be dealt with.

There was an additional difficulty in that there were plenty of divisions in both camps. This wasn't a problem for Remain, as all they were saying was that their political differences would be fought out under the unchanged existing arrangements. Leave proposed change and so were obliged to explain what that change would be. Yet they couldn't agree amongst themselves. Leaving the EU, yes, but how? What would be Britain's new place in the world? All they offered were quarrels, slogans and appeals for faith, not practical plans. This is not what anyone needed.

The referendum did not give us a decision, merely a direction. A democratic response would have been to involve all parties in investigation and deliberation. Perhaps it could have been managed through a Parliamentary inquiry. Ideally, additional participatory elements could have been introduced - such as citizens' juries. Then it would have been possible to present clear, detailed findings on the future options and their consequences so that we could reach a final authoritative decision - whether by Parliament or by another popular vote - before approaching the EU with our decision. That would have respected the result.

I don't need to tell you that this isn't what happened. The reason why is that we tried to deal with a novel situation using old, ill-suited structures. The British electoral and Parliamentary systems are based on winner-takes-all. After the referendum no thought was given as to who should deliver the result or what the result really meant. The Conservative government alone had to interpret and implement the referendum, which they considered binding. The result was hardly democratic, especially as May's misconceived election lost the Tories their majority. Parliamentary arithmetic delivered a wrecking power to a small minority faction - the Brexit ultras. Not only that, but agreement with the sectarian DUP handed them a veto over constitutional arrangements, not only in Northern Ireland, where they were the only party to oppose the Good Friday Agreement and where they supported Brexit despite Northern Ireland's strong vote to remain, but in the country as a whole.

The result is predictable confusion. Policy is being driven by the extremes, a fraction of the leave vote. The EU made the different options available for a future arrangement absolutely clear. The government is yet to choose, pushing for some impossible compromise. Article 50 was sent without any agreed position. Remarkably, with the two year negotiating timetable drawing to a close, there is still no agreement within the government on their starting position. The public are little clearer either as battle rages over propaganda and sound bites, rather than authoritative information. Meanwhile, remain voters, locked out of the whole process, are mounting a vociferous public campaign for a second referendum. It's a mess.

There was hardly any questioning as to whether Brexit should be handled by the Conservatives alone. It was automatically assumed that they would, despite the complexity of the issue and the ambiguities of the result. This is mainly because we have an unreflective self-confidence in our democracy. We don't acknowledge constitutional flaws. We talk of it rhetorically, but rarely critically. Brexiters assert that leaving is an assertion of democracy, though their understanding of it appears to be the imposition of their will on those who vehemently reject it (and who may now constitute a majority of the electorate).

It's the old parable of motes and beams. Brexiters like to rant about the EU's democratic deficit, but perhaps we need to look at ourselves. As we fail to respect and consider the whole of the referendum vote, I can't help thinking that the democratic deficit is really on our side.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Tragicomedy

It's political party conference season; a time for dysfunctional obsessives to meet in a posh hall somewhere and squabble.

First, it was the Liberal Democrats. I think. I can't really remember.

Next up, Labour revived some old traditions, like poisonous infighting over procedural and organisational changes designed to strengthen the position of one faction over another. The rest of the time it produced some welcome, if unexciting, mildly social democratic policies, a determination to avoid taking a remotely coherent position on Brexit (why should it? It's only the most important and pressing question of the last fifty years), and presided over a festival of jew hatred while denying its existence.

But nothing, absolutely nothing, could prepare me for the Conservative Party in full derangement. Where to begin? How about Theresa May fighting for her Chequers plan for Brexit (rejected as unacceptable and unworkable by the EU) while simultaneously attacking the Northern Ireland backstop (agreed with the EU and part of an agreement she signed last December)? Yep, that was an interesting one. As was her triumphant announcement that she was stripping British citizens of the right to live and work in the rest of the EU so that we could have a shortage of health care workers, teachers, and agricultural labourers. Then there was Hunt gratuitously insulting the EU, on whose goodwill we depend, and the next day denying he had said any such thing, claiming he had been misquoted despite the fact that he hadn't been and that anybody could watch the videos of his speech on YouTube. You could add in Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg without needing any further comment. The ignorant xenophobic nationalism of many the old guard reactionaries, allied with alt-right recruits and UKIP returnees, was even more unpleasant than usual.

But then came the moment of real horror; the denouement of the whole grisly masquerade. At a time of national and political crisis, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland took to the conference platform to deliver the most important set-piece speech of her career. She entered, gyrating like an arthritic bendy toy, to Abba's "Dancing Queen."

This dear reader is British Politics.


Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Back to basics

Democracy is such a nice word, and that's the problem. When I started teaching politics in evening classes around thirty-five years ago, this was my first warning to 'A' and 'O' level students. Beware nice words that are not clearly defined. I used to use an example of a speech where a leading politician used four different, and contradictory, definitions of the word 'democracy' in only three sentences. This is very, very basic political theory. Yet it seems to evade the minds of politicians, journalists, commentators, and partisans, all of whom tend to define democracy as the system that enables them to win. How else can you explain Brexiters' argument that the 2016 referendum was an exercise in democracy and that another referendum in 2019 would be a betrayal of democracy? It's ludicrous.

In fact, referendums are only democratic in the crudest of senses. They make decisions on a predetermined issue, solely on the basis of a majority of votes, without any regard to the interests or opinions of the minority, however large, or of those who are directly affected but not enfranchised.

Here's another concept for beginners from those early classes. The British constitution is usually described as unwritten, but is better defined as uncodified. This makes it flexible, to the point of being haphazard. Referendums are not formally part of our constitution for the simple reason that they undermine the processes of representative democracy. Yet they have crept in as a practice for political convenience. But because the principle and purposes of referendums haven't been defined, we have no rules about the issues on which they can be called, their construction and timing, the extent of the mandate they confer, the principles of the franchise on which they are held, or the majorities required for an authoritative decision. The result is that we have had a number of referendums all fought on different ad hoc rules.

We are now facing a revolutionary constitutional and economic change - and yes this is a revolution - brought about by a flimsy majority of votes from a minority of the electorate in one of the worst constructed and managed referendums imaginable. There was even no clarity as to whether the referendum result was binding or not! And that is before we get into the issue of the criminal abuse of funding and the possibly corrupt misuse of data.

There were other constitutional anomalies as well that the referendum neither recognised nor had any mechanism for dealing with. Britain is made up of constituent nations, each with devolved governments and different political traditions. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted decisively to remain in the EU. Where do they stand now? In addition, Northern Ireland's constitution had been redefined by the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the Belfast Agreement that ended a thirty-year civil war and had given another EU state, the Republic of Ireland, a constitutional role in its governance. The referendum allowed Scottish and Northern Irish opinion to be overruled by English votes. There was no safeguard for Gibraltar either, which voted 96% in favour of remain.

This neglect of constitutional and democratic basics struck me when I read a Rafael Behr article from last month. He made three very good points.

First,
Most British citizens went about their lives unbothered by the European Union. Brussels was an object of compulsive loathing for only a tiny number. Their good fortune was to find in David Cameron a malleable prime minister who could be pressed into calling a referendum on a question few voters had ever thought to ask themselves. The cranks got their hobby horse into the political Grand National – and, credit where it’s due, they won.
Withdrawal from the EU was only the concern of a small minority, predominantly on the fringes of the right with a few nationalist leftists in tow. They only managed to get their referendum by being such a bloody nuisance in the Conservative Party that Cameron decided that the best way to shut them up was to give them their heart's desire. Taking the path of least resistance is one of the most frequently made political mistakes - that and fatalism.

If you want to see where the referendum came from, look back to 1997 and the short-lived Referendum Party of James Goldsmith. It was a single issue party campaigning for a referendum on EU membership. It won 2.6% of the votes in the general election of that year. The reason why it focused on calling for a referendum was because the constitutional processes of representative democracy would never have produced a decision to leave the EU. It could only be done if they found a way to by-pass formal democratic politics. In this sense, the referendum was anti-democratic.

Secondly, Behr mentioned some focus group research:
Many recall the 2016 campaign as a time of anxiety, even trauma. They resented being forced to choose between options they felt ill-equipped to evaluate, and are in no hurry to relive the experience. 
Just as there was little demand for a referendum, so there was not much conviction about the vote. Though people are always reluctant to admit error, the fear of widespread disorder if Brexit doesn't happen is based on the assumptions of a committed minority that their obsessions are widely shared (this is a common cognitive bias - the false consensus effect). Outside that minority, the referendum itself was the only thing that made people think that it might be a good idea to leave. Why call one at all otherwise? After all, the leave campaign kept saying that there was no trade offs, no downsides, that we would be better off, and that it would be a cost-free choice.

Even so, the reality is that the referendum showed no consensus at all. The vote was close to being 50/50. As well as the divisions between the UK's nations, it's the generational one that is startling - and potentially highly significant. Young people are overwhelmingly pro-EU and around 70% voted to remain. Brexit was the choice of the old. The evidence is that this demographic divide is growing wider. The ethnic division was pretty stark too. The attempt, particularly by the left, to portray Brexit as a working class vote is only partially sustainable if you redefine the working class as solely white. Even then the generational differences are striking. Geography and demography divide us. The purpose of democracy is to recognise, represent, and manage these divisions, not to deny them by burying them under a crude concept of majority rule.

Finally, Behr reckons that while people like me obsess, the electorate aren't listening.
It is possible that all of the ideological and technical squabbling, the factional bickering that has consumed politics since the referendum, will turn out to have been only the preamble. And what it will all come down to in the end is a contest between two gut propositions that have very little to do with the EU. For leave: just get on with it. For remain: please just make it stop.
And I have bad news for both remainers and leavers. It isn't going to stop. If we leave, we face either the catastrophe of no deal, or difficult decades of arguments and adjustments to whichever new status as a third country our government chooses for us as we sort out our future as a poorer, more isolated nation. If we manage to avert disaster and remain, then we will have a decade to undo the damage that has already happened; to recover from the disinvestment - most notably in pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, and financial services, the collapse in investment since the referendum, the lower growth, and the wrecking of our international reputation and prestige as other nations shake their heads at our collective nervous breakdown, while wondering about the UK as a secure place to do business.

Given the pusillanimity of the current crop of politicians - the ideologically blinded leading the  unprincipled cowards - I see little way out other than a second referendum. It is just as an obnoxious option as the first, with an equally uncertain result. Of course, if we do leave, the campaign to rejoin will begin. Necessity will probably bring an end to this wasteful and destructive episode as we try and get back. It may also be a chance to think about those basic principles of democratic governance that we carelessly disregarded and make sure that we are never hijacked by political adventurers and charlatans in the future.

And if we do apply to rejoin and are accepted back, please let's not hold a referendum.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Going to the dogs - a rant

Trigger warning: This post contains the intemperate views of a pissed off Plump.

Doggate is over and forgotten. It shouldn't be. After Chuka Umunna used the common idiom "call off the dogs," the Shadow Chancellor tweeted:
Chuka Umunna can disagree with Labour’s direction if he wants. But party members are not dogs. The constant dehumanising narrative used against hundreds of thousands of decent Labour members - who just want a better world - as a thuggish rabble has to stop.
Then people played follow my leader. Billy Bragg dutifully repeated the absurdity:
Chuka’s plea for Corbyn to ‘call off the dogs’ is not only an insult to Labour members but also perpetuates the slur that we are a ‘cult’, rather than engaged citizens who believe in accountability and party democracy.
Hundreds of memes flooded the internet and all their supporters simultaneously agreed that this was an egregious slur rather than simple everyday English. It didn't take long for others to point out that McDonnell had used exactly the same phrase in the past against Gordon Brown. This idiotic row then slipped back into the undergrowth. But the substance of Umunna's views was also forgotten. The tactic worked. We all got angry about a metaphor rather than something that matters.

This is how debased the language of politics has become. This is why we shouldn't forget this crap.

What is happening here is the mass evasion of discussing substance. Everywhere, by everyone.

Raise any issue and the responses are the same. 'Hypocrisy! What about ...' 'Who are you to talk, when you have ...' 'You are only saying that because you ...' 'This is all a plot got up by ...' Anyone want to talk about the substance? Anybody at all? No, I thought not.

Bring up serious questions of principle about the role of referendums in representative democracy, or a more specific critique of the construction of the EU referendum, or the legitimacy of basing a massive constitutional revolution on a piddling (and possibly declining) 4% majority and you are greeted with, 'You lost, get over it ...' 'Will of the people ...' 'It's democracy ...' All of which ignores the points that you were making.

A final referendum on the terms? That would be a betrayal of democracy. Eh? What makes one vote democratic and another anti-democratic? Tell me, please.

Anti-Semitism? Support for Orban? Labour reply, 'look at the Tories.' Tories respond, 'look at Labour.' How about looking at yourselves, properly. Just why did Cameron pull the Conservative Party out of the European Parliament's grouping of mainstream conservative parties to join an assortment of kooks, fascists, and cranks? When will Labour face up to the fact that anti-Semitism has been part of the left since the 19th century, taken different guises, and is currently masquerading as anti-Zionism? It needs acknowledging and dealing with.

Then there's the spivery.

Here's politicians dressing up and playing at being loveable eccentric aristocrats, though their aristocratic role model appears to be Lord Fuckwit of Fuckwit Hall.

There are the Brexiters who when confronted with real concerns scoff at the details and issue bland reassurances that everything will be fine and a brilliant future awaits us. They are a bit like the dodgy bookie who insists that the three-legged horse with a blind jockey is a dead cert winner - 'Can't lose. Put the house on it. Tipsters, form guides, what do they know?'

Then finally, when the evidence is overwhelming - when every economist, business organisation, trade union, and all our international allies say that Brexit is a terrible mistake - when every climate scientists says that climate change is real - they dig out a tame pundit to make the contrary case and the BBC, fixated with balance, has to pit them against each other as false equivalents. It's a Blackadder moment.



This is what frustrates me. Can't we talk about reality? Can't we take it seriously? We don't have to agree, but we are better than this. We are being infantilised. Mental honesty is replaced by tricky sophistry. Political debate is patronising. Its approach to communication is no more than salesmanship. It's contemptuous and shows no respect for peoples' intelligence and their ability to grasp complex issues. And if they don't respect us, why should we respect them?

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Blaming the victims

In Boris Pasternak's novel, Dr Zhivago, Zhivago's Jewish friend, Misha Gordon, has been thinking about anti-Semitism since he was a child. From his first appearance on a train, aged eleven, he raises the issue. It is only later in wartime after he has witnessed Zhivago stopping Cossacks harassing an elderly Jew, that he gives his considered conclusion.
Why didn't the intellectual leaders of the Jewish people ever go beyond facile Weltschmerz and ironical wisdom? Why have they not—even if at the risk of bursting like boilers with the pressure of their duty—disbanded this army which keeps on fighting and being massacred nobody knows for what? Why don't they say to them: 'Come to your senses, stop. Don't hold on to your identity. Don't stick together, disperse. Be with all the rest. You are the first and best Christians in the world. You are the very thing against which you have been turned by the worst and weakest among you. (Part 4, Chapter 12)
In this unpleasant, sneering post, Mike Sivier, blames accusations of anti-Semitism as the cause of anti-Semitism against Jewish Labour MPs. The MPs themselves "have created the fear of such attacks. Or, at least, they have made it possible ... to claim they fear such attacks." (Oh that last line. The accusation of dishonesty, of scheming ...).

They're the same thing. The victims brought it on themselves. Both examples use familiar formulations. They are persecuted because they had not recognised that the saviour was amongst them. They made themselves reviled by rejecting the true path. Embrace Christ or Corbyn and hostility will dissolve.

At least Pasternak's expression of Christian individualism has literary merit. Neither are true, however. The Nazis didn't care whether you were a convert, secular, or fully assimilated. Genealogy was enough to condemn you to an appalling death. Jew-hatred has longer, deeper roots.

Blaming victims is always a way to avoid moral responsibility. It is mental dishonesty and an excuse for inaction. The accusations of separateness and disloyalty here are common tropes that are levelled against the persecuted, especially by those doing the persecution.

This would be my three point plan to deal with Labour's anti-Semitism problem.
  1. Admit that it exists.
  2. Understand that in left circles it is expressed through an ahistorical and partisan account of the Israel/Palestine conflict.
  3. Bloody do something about it!

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Ironygate

There's enough being said on the main theme - Jeremy Corbyn's awful remarks at a fringe 'conference' of right-wing theocrats, conspiracy nutters, Jew-haters, and the like. There will be more to come, there are plenty of videos, compromising photos, and dubious statements as he has enthusiastically participated in many similar events over the decades of activism before he became Labour leader. Instead, I want to turn to his remarks on history.

When he spoke with real passion of the importance of history, of it being the one subject he would make compulsory for all children, I could cheer him on. When he sneered that certain Zionists should read it, I was less impressed. Especially as he then proceeded to absolutely butcher the history in two ways.

1. He used an inappropriate analogy. He compared the League of Nations mandates for the former Ottoman provinces to the Scramble for Africa. This is nonsense. These were Class A mandates where the mandatory power was given administrative authority over a territory for what we would now call nation building. The territories were to become independent as soon as practicable. Iraq gained independence in 1932, Lebanon in 1943, Syria and Transjordan gained full independence immediately after the Second World War. Palestine was more complicated as the mandate also supported the aims of the Balfour Declaration.

The system of mandates is certainly open to criticism, but it was not New Imperialism. To try and say it was is a device to create a convenient anti-imperialist narrative, simplifying the causes of the conflict as being down to malign British intentions.

2. He puts forward an unsupported supposition as historical fact. He asserted that Britain was trying to establish a permanent colony in Palestine and maintain it through divide and rule. The unspoken assumption being that Zionism was a tool of British imperialism. His evidence? The British constructed some nice buildings in West Jerusalem.

What could possibly contradict such an overwhelming case? Perhaps the mountains of documentary evidence would do. Maybe the White Papers and the commissions of inquiry would be a pointer. All show the British looking to find a way out of an intractable problem, while they also display the policy conflict between a firmly Arabist Foreign Office, determined to secure British influence in the Middle East, with politicians trying to balance security concerns with a commitment to Jewish settlement. The pragmatists were pro-Arab. The politicians were seeking a compromise. The evidence for a conspiratorial plot is non-existent.

It's odd, I've seen this argument before. It's in Menachem Begin's memoir of the Irgun's struggle against the British, "The Revolt." He claimed in the book that the British wanted to turn Palestine into a permanent colony and to do so they stirred up the enmity of the Arabs against the Jews. This would ensure that Britain had to remain to police a conflict they were causing. Divide and rule, it's the same argument. It seems that however long you live in Islington you can't quite get historical irony.

There are a couple of interesting observations that come from this. The first is that Begin's Revisionist Zionism and Corbyn's anti-Zionism share a similar conspiratorial mindset. They both wish to shift the blame for the conflict onto a manipulative outside power. It's a way of avoiding responsibility. This isn't healthy scepticism, nor is it good history.

The second is more important. History is a poor servant of a cause. Those devoted to one don't need history, they need a justificatory narrative. History will not do that. It may condemn errors and stand witness against evil. But it also searches for an objective truth, even if it proves elusive. It raises complexities and contradictions. It is uncomfortable with simplification. This is why historians should never go to the cinema.

What Corbyn, Ken Livingstone and the like are doing is using pseudo-history to support a pre-determined conclusion. I can often see the same on the other side of the conflict too. But this isn't to say that history has no role to play. We don't need to forget the past; we need to try and understand it. In this case, history can tell us about the experiences and perceptions of both parties to the conflict. It legitimates both sides, even if it condemns many of their actions. A solution - peace - comes from that mutual affirmation, rather than the negation that Corbyn seems so keen on.

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Where we are and who we were



We cannot escape our history or our geography. We can forget it though. The Mail is studiously practised in amnesia. I want to remember instead, to remember where we were when Britain joined what was to become the European Union.

Britain had lost it's empire. It was still a power, but not one of the major ones. Any illusion of independence had disappeared after Suez. It was a bi-polar world, divided between two military superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. Britain had been instrumental in committing America to the defence of Europe with the post-war Labour government's construction of NATO. Economically, Britain was in relative decline with deep structural weaknesses. It faced an economic and strategic dilemma. Europe or America? This was a choice to be made. There was no independence option. The Commonwealth wasn't a new empire that could keep the imperial show going. The choice was obvious. Geography and history determined it.

Britain's foremost strategic interest lay in Europe, as it still does. It had fought two world wars in Europe in the twentieth century, and many others in previous centuries to prevent the continent being dominated by a single hostile power. The European Union began as a peace project as much as an economic one. This is why Churchill was an enthusiast for the creation of a united states of Europe. The Franco German alliance was the centrepiece, as it was the conflict between these two powers that lay at the heart of the European catastrophe. By taking their place in this new community, West Germany gratefully accepted the restraints on its power as a way of atoning for its history. The EU remains a voluntary brake on German power, not a vehicle for its exercise. And as the European economy began expanding and outstripping Britain, our inclusion became imperative. Britain's integration into the European economic framework laid the basis for the reversal of our relative decline.

So where are we today? There is only one military superpower now, the USA. But the world is more or less tri-polar, split between three economic superpowers - America, China, and the European Union. Britain has played a critical role in creating the EU's status, driving through the single market and supporting expansion. And there Britain stood, one of the 'big three' (with France and Germany), the group of the most powerful nations determining the future of the Union. Now it has decided to abdicate its pre-eminent position in favour of ... what? Who knows? It is an act of historic folly.

Though time moves on, the past lingers in the shadows. A confident younger generation embraced a European future, but the old fantasies - independence, imperial greatness, choosing America over Europe - were still there and were promoted by small groups of obsessives on the left and right. Amongst general apathy, they made such a nuisance of themselves within the Conservative Party that Cameron tried to silence them by the astonishing decision to give them their heart's desire, a referendum. He gave them a referendum that was poorly planned and structured, lacking in preparation, surrounded by constitutional ambiguity, and with a curious franchise that included neither all residents nor all citizens. With much mendacity and a fair bit of illegality, they exploited their opportunity brilliantly to win a tiny majority to leave.

I suppose the one irony of Brexit is that it has created something that has never existed before. Europe had been a topic of little salience and much indifference. But now there is a fervently pro-European movement which is capable of bringing hundreds of thousands out on the streets to protest, in contrast to the few hundred (at best) that Leavers can muster. If we do leave, then this movement will be needed. At some stage we will have to rejoin. We will be weaker, poorer, and will not get anything like as favourable terms, but we will need to. History and geography makes it inevitable.

Friday, July 27, 2018

An historian's lament

Stop mentioning the bloody War - please. Brexit is not the same thing - at all. Rhetorical analogies are not history, nor are they a guide to the present. So, what on earth is Timothy Garton-Ash going on about here?

Agreement, or even no agreement, with the EU is not "punishment," it is what is legally possible as a consequence of the British 'red lines,' our request to become a third country, and what is acceptable to the other twenty-seven national members. It is our choice, the consequences are the result of our actions.

And as for "Weimar Britain," good grief.
Am I exaggerating the danger by even hinting at a comparison with Weimar Germany? Indeed I am...
Well don't bloody do it then.
 But it’s surely better to overdramatise the risk, to get everyone to wake up to it, 
No it isn't. It's utterly misleading.
... rather than do what most of our continental partners have done for the last two years, which is consistently to underestimate the dangers for the whole of Europe that flow from Brexit – especially a mishandled Brexit.
Heaven forbid it should be mishandled after a week when, as Ian Dunt summarises perfectly,
The government had backed an amendment against its negotiating posture so that it could make its own Brexit plan illegal. It then whipped MPs to oppose an amendment supporting its white paper and had to rely on the votes of Labour MPs to defeat itself.
Then there's the Irish border, you know the one that led to the deaths of 3,500 people. The EU made preserving an open border a condition of any agreement. Britain agreed a backstop to prevent a hard border in December. Having signed up to it, May declared that no Prime Minister could possibly accept it, despite having accepted it. Then, in Parliament, supported an amendment that:
... made it unlawful to pursue a policy which would create a separate customs territory between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, even though this is precisely what the withdrawal agreement with the EU will do. Now this will presumably have to be repealed before any agreement can be signed. Rarely before have governments passed laws they intend to repeal before they have even reached the statute book. 
In the face of that, what is the EU supposed to do? Perhaps what it is doing, planning and investing in the infrastructure necessary to deal with the consequences of Brexit for them, rather than humouring us and offering to break its founding treaties to give us the impossible we demand. This is what Garton-Ash calls underestimating the dangers.

We haven't really moved on from this, have we?



Please, please don't use inappropriate historical analogies, especially about the Second World War. It doesn't help and tells us nothing about the pickle we are in. And while we are about it, don't mention the Holy Roman Empire either.
I’d also recommend a history of the Holy Roman Empire. That earlier European Union lasted so long because it proved capable of adapting to changing circumstances, living with Europe’s ineradicable diversity and complexity, while still maintaining its central purpose and mystique.
Oh lord, please make it stop.

A dilemma

An anonymous Cabinet minister last year, quoted here (£) and repeated here:
“We are stuck in a ‘damned if we do, damned if we don’t’ bind. If we try to cancel exit we destroy ourselves; if we go ahead with it we destroy the country. People voted for a fantasy.”
Destroy the party or destroy the country? One year later, it is a testament to the extraordinary political skills of the government that it appears to be doing both.