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.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

There must be a reason


This uses the government's own figures. Billions poorer. Massive job losses. Then there are the three million EU citizens in the UK, together with their families, many of whom are British, whose status is unsure. There are a million or so UK citizens in the EU worried about losing their residence rights. Millions more, like myself, live part of the time in the EU with rights secured by the citizenship which is about to be stripped from us. Small businesses are closing as they can't cope with the increased costs of the additional bureaucracy and the delays that leaving the single market entails. There is more.

The people are being asked to make huge sacrifices. Millions of lives are being changed for the worse, irrevocably. Being one of the most influential and powerful members of the European Union must have turned Britain into a dystopia of oppression and suffering for us to want to endure such pain so that we can leave. The past forty years of bent bananas must have been hell on earth. It's funny that I never noticed. Did you?

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Labouring the point

There is some debate amongst the politically minded as to whether Labour would have a strong lead in the polls if they backed remaining in the EU. There is counter evidence to suggest that it wouldn't make much difference. Personally, I don't give a toss. Brexit is now an issue of principle. Leaving the EU threatens the standing of the nation and the livelihoods of millions of the people that Labour was founded to protect. This is a great existential test. If Labour, a pro-European party with an overwhelmingly pro-European membership, and a voter base that voted by more than 60% to remain, cannot speak firmly and unequivocally in favour of our place in Europe who will?

At the moment no objection is coming from the Party's leadership about Brexit itself, they merely attack the way it is being done. They have plenty to go on, especially this morning when the government has legislated against itself. But their vague promises of a better "jobs first Brexit" are meaningless and impossible. It is time to start telling the electorate the truth. Brexit is a fantasy. It is unachievable and undesirable. Britain faced reality in the 1970s. It explicitly and openly recognised that its economic and international decline was linked to its loss of a world role and its inability to be an independent superpower. It chose a European future. This was both a pragmatic decision, recognising that it was in Britain's interest to be a member, and an idealistic one, committing Britain to the idea of developing European integration and cooperation. Britain chose wisely. It is still the right choice.

There were always opponents, political obsessives on the right and left, who were perfect illustrations of what William Davies calls "radical incompetence," the triumph of sentiment over the actual practicalities of governing. Brexit is a slogan without a strategy. Over time it became the hobby of people mainly on the right of politics. Its advocates were wealthy individuals insulated from the consequences of their actions, whose indignations were bolstered by fictions, and who were comforted by  the certainty that they would never succeed and have to face the reality of what leaving the EU actually meant. However, they were joined by others who did know what they were doing, the proto-fascists of the alt-right. They understood that their political goals, and those of their overseas allies, could only be achieved through disruption and the dismantling of the post-war order. They are ruthless. And it is this alliance that has led to the official leave campaign, the one containing cabinet ministers, to be referred to the police.

The government is on a unique path. As Fintan O'Toole noted, Britain has "gone into international treaty negotiations hoping to emerge with a status greatly inferior to the one it already enjoys." As the government blunders, the risks of no deal are rising - read this to understand the consequences. It's late, but surely now a party of the democratic left must stand up for its foundational principles. It's time for it to vehemently oppose the charlatans and fantasists of the right of the Conservative party. It has to call out the sinister far-right anti-democrats. It has to stand for internationalism. It has to protect the living standards, jobs, and rights of the ordinary people of this country. And with the latest opinion polls showing 80% of those under 24 favouring Remain, it should speak to the future, a European future.

The quality of the political class is risible. It isn't just their lack of competence, nobody could implement Brexit without making a huge mess, it's more to do with their cowardice and mental dishonesty. Faced with facts, they bluster. When business and trade unions alike tell them what the difficulties are they are ignored or insulted. Objectors are told to "believe in Britain," as if reality can be overcome by faith. The history of this disastrous episode will be written one day. I hope that I will be around to read it. Future historians will not be kind. If Labour stands on principle and fights Brexit, it may shed some support, it may even lose, but at least historians will not include the Labour Party and its leadership amongst their list of "Guilty Men." And if the record shows that Labour stood and fought on the right side of history, British democratic socialism will have a future. I fear for it otherwise.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Golden rules

I have three rules of politics that I have yet to see refuted.

The first has been reinforced recently with the superb dramatisation of the Thorpe affair, A Very British Scandal, and the ongoing research into the murky depths of the alt-right and the vote to leave the EU. This rule is that if a conspiracy is real, it is soon revealed through hard evidence and, particularly, by some of the participants becoming whistle-blowers. Where the base of a theory is only inference and misinterpretation, then no conspiracy is likely to exist. Obsessive conspiracy mongers, from the Kennedy assassination to 9/11 'truthers,' all fail to produce any hard evidence. Instead we have a steady stream of easily debunked supposition, while absolutely nobody from the ranks of the thousands of participants who would be necessary to plot something so insidious has ever broken ranks to reveal all. Conspiracy theorists take this to be evidence of a successful cover up. This is circular thinking. Instead it is evidence that the whole idea is bollocks.

The second rule is associated to this. In any conflict between fantasy and reality, reality always wins. The only question is when. For example, Brexit is fantasy politics and, as we reach a denouement, reality is biting back. Optimistic waffle, and dreams of doing impossible deals have to give way to the reality of what Brexit entails. And, as Chris Grey notes in this superb summary;
At the moment, all outcomes seem about as likely as each other, and none of them are good, they just come in varying shades of bad.
The final rule is related to the way that Brexit has been justified as being "the will of the people." I have always argued that the idea of a unified popular will is a fiction. However, people do have opinions, just as they also have interests. My third rule is that opinion and interest do not necessarily coincide.

This isn't to fall back on notions like false consciousness. People are very aware of where their interests lie. It is to recognise that sometimes people do not make connections between a policy and its potential outcomes. There are any number of reasons why. The most frequent is that we all make mistakes about the benefits. We think that something that sounds wonderful will actually be wonderful. I have wasted loads of money buying useless junk or something that I will never need because I liked the idea of it, only for it to sit gathering dust in the back of a cupboard somewhere. It's the same with opinions that are untested by reality. In the 1930s the desire to avoid war meant that appeasement was popular, but when it failed to deliver and was shown to be a dreadful mistake there was unity behind the war. Few then laid claim to appeasement's merits.

In most cases, interests are sectional and in conflict with each other, but there are times when we can have something that unites. The Second World War is an obvious example, but I think that we also face a united national interest in stopping Brexit, even if opinion is divided.

The various claims for Brexit won the support of the ideologically uncommitted for a number of reasons. Some were based on sovereignty, some on cultural and ethnic issues, but the most convincing was the idea that we would be materially better off if we left. The EU was portrayed as a cost rather than a benefit. It is already clear that this is not the case. Every possible scenario leaves us worse off. On top of which, Britain has lost influence, prestige, power, and become an international laughing stock as people look at this act of self-harm with incredulity. But let's be absolutely clear. The biggest losers will be the working class.

That makes the Labour leadership's position even more curious. They are lining up in support of the Tory right. They vary only by saying that the deal they get will be better. They are like Kerensky arguing that the Russian Revolution occurred because people wanted the war to be fought more effectively, rather than being ended. Labour's policies are also fantasies: a customs union where you can do your own trade deals (that isn't a customs union then), a better deal than the EEA (simply unavailable). They are positioning themselves in direct opposition to more than 80% of the party membership. In the referendum 70% of Labour voters supported remain. Labour is an overwhelmingly pro-EU party, and, as the reality of Brexit bites, is becoming more so. What is more, the evidence is overwhelming that working class interests in terms of prosperity, employment, and social protection are tied up with continuing membership of the EU. If Labour continues to facilitate Brexit, then it is making an historic error.

Brexit is a victory for the right, but it is coming apart at the seams. Reality means that even its most ardent advocates haven't got a clue how to implement it. Instead of dealing with this reality they offer us hopeful fictions. The latest is the idea of spending a Brexit dividend on the NHS, a claim repeated by the Labour leadership. This is, of course, a lie. There is no Brexit dividend. Multiple studies, including those of the government itself, show that Brexit will cost money, not save it. It is an expensive, damaging folly. The nationalist right is prepared to sacrifice working class prosperity and security in pursuit of their spurious dreams of sovereignty. Thatcherite ultras look at Brexit as a way of ending all social protection and dismantling public provision. All this is ideologically coherent, but what about Labour? What on earth is the leadership playing at? It is shaping to deliver the greatest betrayal of working class interests since Ramsay MacDonald. They could change, but time is running out. Once again, history will not view this debacle kindly.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Populism against democracy

Like many political terms, the word 'populism' is used loosely. You are most likely to see it in the press as describing something that I would call 'soft populism,' a pandering to supposedly popular opinion or sentiment. This often divorces ends from means and so is contradictory. For example, more money to the NHS is popular; raising the necessary taxes to pay for it is less so. People may be opposed to immigration; deporting their immigrant friends and neighbours makes them shudder with horror. Lower taxes sound good; cuts to local services bring protests. Soft populism is basically incoherent vote chasing. It's very common but doesn't help explain the populist movements of our times.

What we are witnessing today is 'hard populism,' a coherent ideological position. You can see it in power in Hungary, Poland, and Turkey. Trump is explicitly hard populist. Though it is predominantly nationalist, there is a loose international hard populist alliance, drawing the alt-right together. It's focus and main sponsor is Putin's kleptocracy. Parts of the Brexit campaign were hard populist and all borrow from its arguments to justify Britain leaving the EU. There is a growing body of analysis that is firming up the definition and I particularly recommend Jan-Werner Muller's short book, What is Populism. 

Hard populist ideology has a number of related elements:

1. It asserts that societies are divided into two coherent and antagonistic groups, the elite and the people.

2. There is a legitimate will of the people and anyone opposing it is on the side of the elite.

3. The will of the people can be revealed in different ways, but its essence is expressed by the populist leaders/parties that interpret and embody the people’s will. Those leaders are still 'the people' even when they form the governing elite.

4. Populism may encourage voting, but it’s a form of electoral totalitarianism. The populist leadership's interpretation of the will of the people may be confirmed through electoral and plebiscitary endorsement, though that can be abandoned or manipulated if necessary. An electoral defeat can only be considered an elite victory against the people. The definition of the legitimacy or otherwise of an election is the result, not the process.

5. A single vote is the only permitted form of democracy; anything else is elite sabotage.

6. Rather than seeing opposition as an integral and legitimate feature of democracy, it delegitimises it as being for the elite and against the people. Opposition is treason, not reason.

7. The divide between the elite and the people is Manichaean. It is the divide between good and evil.

8. Populism denies the existence of pluralism. There is only the people and the elite.

8. Wisdom lies with the people's will, with their impulses and their prejudices. Hence, where evidence clashes with the people's will, populism rejects it and is anti-intellectual, anti-expertise, and anti-scientific.

9. The definition of the elite is not based on wealth, but on opinion and culture. Hence hard populism is anti-socialist, often led by the super-rich, and is a vehicle for the venality and corruption of the leadership. There are three common terms that populists use to describe the elite, which they sometimes refer to as the establishment: a) "liberal" - belief in equal rights etc. is 'political correctness gone mad,' opposed to the wisdom of popular prejudice; b) "metropolitan" - large cities are inauthentic, hedonistic, decadent, filled with effete latte sipping hipsters, and, in an ever-present implied subtext, not wholly white; c) "cosmopolitan" - ah, those rootless cosmopolitans again, you can never escape the anti-Semitic impulse.

Not all elements are present in hard populist movements simultaneously, but most subscribe to one version or another of them. If you listen to speeches by populists, this is what you will hear. At his inauguration speech Trump didn't declare that he had taken power, but that the people had. After the Brexit vote, Farage talked of it being a victory for “real people.” If you are not a “real person” in that sense, you are one of the elite. The Brexit ultras all use this formulation. The echoes of 20th century totalitarianism are loud and clear.

Populism uses the language of democracy, but is anti-democratic in practice. Though populists point to elections as the basis of their legitimacy, they are using electoral politics as a way of undermining democracy. That is because elections, however central they are to democracy, are insufficient in isolation for creating democratic societies and practice.

There are four main reasons why hard populism is a counterfeit democracy.

First, the 'will of the people' is a fiction. It is a fiction that denies democratic legitimacy to dissenting opinion. Whilst there may be some areas of broad consensus, for example over the NHS, on most issues there is not a single will, but a multiplicity of wills that often conflict. Class, ethnicity, gender, region, age, and many other factors produce divergent interests and opinions that have to be managed. At best, populists can claim that they are talking about the 'will of some of the people,' though what they really mean is the 'will of the people we agree with or who we can exploit to gain power.'

When populists reject expert opinion because it contradicts their interpretation of the 'will of the people,' it compounds this fiction. They end up basing their politics on ideological fantasy rather than material reality. It's also worth mentioning that we use the term expertise far too narrowly. It's often solely associated with technocracy. Instead, expertise is gained from people's real, everyday, lived experience. Just as managers overrule the expertise of their workers, populists elevate the sentiments of people who know absolutely nothing about an issue over those who are intimately concerned with its reality.

Let's take a couple of examples. In Brexit, there is a huge amount of expertise in the technical aspects of trade and regulation that is ignored or dismissed, but I would rather look at some grass roots issues. In two regions the vote to remain was overwhelming. Catholics in Northern Ireland voted by over 80% to remain in the EU, especially in the border areas. Gibraltar voted by 96% to remain. The experience and interests of the people in both regions determined those votes. They are the experts. The question that all democrats must ask is, when is it that the wishes of 96% of citizens in Gibraltar should be overruled by larger numbers of voters in Surrey? Even more troubling, in the context of the deep communal conflicts in Northern Ireland, is the question of why the smaller Protestant vote to leave should negate the larger Catholic one to remain. Where here is the 'will of the people'?

Then there are the British citizens who have lived in the EU for more than fifteen years and EU citizens legally living in the UK, often for decades with British extended families. They can raise the same question. Their lives could be turned upside down by Brexit and they weren't even allowed to vote in the referendum on something so profoundly important to them. Are they not part of the people? Don't they have a right to shout out, "Hey, what are you doing to us? Stop it!" They also have a right to be listened to. There are times when majority opinion has to give way because of the consequences for minorities. After all, majority rule in an affluent society can discriminate against the poor, and a majority ethnicity can oppress minorities.

Of course there are times when majorities should take precedence over minorities, but democracies insist that the views and interests of those minorities should be given proper consideration and representation. Populists deny them any legitimacy at all. They have lost so should shut up and obey the majority, however small, even if it means putting their lives and livelihoods at risk. To continue to object is to be a saboteur.

Secondly, in representative systems, like the UK, sovereignty does not lie with the 'will of the people.' Instead, it rests with the judgement of the people's representatives. Representatives are accountable to the people, but not bound by their will. Populists favour referendums (whether manipulated or not) as a way of legitimising their rule because they bypass representative democracy in favour of a crude majoritarian mandate. They distort the idea of a mandate too. I get tired of reading Brexiters going on about having the biggest mandate in history because seventeen million people voted to leave. The strength of a mandate isn't based on the number of people who voted, that's just a reflection of the size of the electorate. It's based on the size of the majority, in this case around 4% - very small indeed. Anyway, as they see themselves as the embodiment of the will of the people, this is also scarcely necessary.

Thirdly, democracies are pluralist. They allow voices outside the formal system of government to have influence. There are all sorts of roles played by voluntary associations, including political parties and independent trade unions, by NGOs, by pressure and lobby groups, by an independent media, by universities, and by community action groups. I could go on, and it is this proliferation of politically active groups that is necessary for a democratic society. They are centres of autonomous, collective decision making. It is one of the reasons why the first action of authoritarian governments is to eliminate any independent centres of influence.

Of course there are many compelling critiques of the way that power, wealth, sectional interests, and inequitable ownership can distort the representative nature of powerful lobbies (see Paul Evans' stimulating tract for some examples). But this is a reason for reform, not abolition. Hard populists try and eliminate outside voices, and thereby end effective opposition.

Finally, democracies make it possible to rectify mistakes. Often this is through electoral politics where a defeat, or the fear of one, forces a change of policy. But it is also possible for the electorate to make a mistake. Democracies may see the people as the ultimate source of sovereignty, but they can never be the ultimate source of wisdom. That means that democratic systems always contain correctives, such as courts, tribunals for citizens' redress, international bodies to uphold human rights, devolved assemblies, local government, and institutions that hold government accountable. Where such institutions are absent or subservient, then no number of elections can make a polity democratic. Let's look at one uncontentious example.

In the two elections of 1932 in Germany, the electorate voted to make the Nazis the largest single party in the Reichstag. This is a classic example of the voters getting it spectacularly wrong. However, there was no reason why this should have brought Hitler to power. Throughout 1932 the other parties refused to deal with Hitler and include him in a coalition. The President refused to appoint him Chancellor. Institutions were defending democracy against an election result. If they had held out, Hitler would have been a footnote in an academic text. Instead, the ambition and misjudgement of one man, Franz von Papen, undermined the resistance and showed the fragility of democracy when its institutions are not robust enough to hold off a challenge. Around fifty million people died as a result. Institutions matter. Populists undermine them and make them subservient.

In Britain today there are no hard populist parties outside the fringe. UKIP came nearest to being one, but has collapsed. There are some wealthy and decidedly creepy individuals hanging round the Brexiters, and there is a Putin fan club on both the right and the left. This isn't a significant threat to democracy – yet. However, hard populist language is being used everywhere. The populist style is in vogue. The simplification of democracy as the outcome of a single referendum vote is hard for people to resist. But this is not democracy; it is its undoing. Democracy is complex and pluralist. It is inclusive, no one is excluded from being 'the people.' It can correct errors, even those carrying the democratic seal of the majority of votes. It protects minorities. It allows dissent and permits independent organisation. It doesn't use language like "enemies of the people," or "crush the saboteurs." And it matters. It needs defending as much as it needs reforming. Democracy is a human right. Hard populism is its nemesis.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Standing up for standing

A great day out at Stoke, standing in the raucous away end.


Of course the stadium is all seated, as is required by law in the top two divisions, but, as is now tradition, all away fans stand throughout the match, as they do in sections of the home areas. Standing is banned in all seater stadiums. It is unenforceable. Standing makes for a great atmosphere, but those who want to sit, or who have to for health reasons, can't, despite buying a seat. And when you are standing in seating areas, there is nothing to lean on or to prevent spectators stumbling, you only have the hard plastic back of the seat in front, painfully placed at shin height. Useless.

The solution to this is simple. Have properly designed safe standing areas for those who want to stand and seating areas for those that want to sit. Yet still the government persists in turning down requests to build safe standing areas, despite the fans' campaign. The Sports Minister, Tracey Crouch, said that there was no demand for safe standing from clubs and from only a vocal minority of fans. She has been widely ridiculed.

Safe standing is nothing like the old terraces. Every spectator has a numbered allocated space behind a crush barrier, for support and protection. The Football Safety Officers’ Association says that it is far safer than the current customary practice. In the name of safety the government is digging in its heels to make grounds less safe. This is madness. Let's give the last word to Palace fans at Selhurst.