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.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Simples

This week I have seen or been sent stuff that takes the obvious and turns it into something incredibly complicated to try and make it mean something different. The Syrian civil war was caused by US intervention - ignoring the fact that US policy has been based on non-intervention and denying the agency of Syrians in their own revolution. The Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare - despite dying before a dozen of the plays were written. Robert Fisk was right about there being no chemical attack on Douma - regardless of, well, Robert Fisk. As Channel 4 fact check pointed out:
But to deny that a chemical weapons attack occurred at all, we would need to believe that scores of people have been involved in a vast and elaborate hoax, executed without any flaws. They would have needed to coordinate without any problems through a war-torn area, to ensure civilians, doctors, aircraft-spotters, and people on social media all came out with the right story at the right time. Plus, they needed to plant a gas canister at the right spot, and produce fake videos to such a high quality they not only fool millions across the world, but also medical experts assessing the symptoms. 
The truth is plain. These theories are mad - or malicious.

But we shouldn't deny complexity either. To say that complex things are simple is as much a distortion. Brexit is complicated and virtually impossible without doing great harm. Yet it was sold on the basis of being easy and that it would make us all better off. When the complexities are raised, Brexiters constantly repeat simplistic fantasies rather than deal with detail.

Reality changes everything. Take this excellent post from Simon Wren-Lewis. He uses the Global Future opinion survey on the details of the four main Brexit options - joining the EEA, operating under a free trade agreement with the EU, a hard Brexit under World Trade Organisation rules, and May's impossible fantasy bespoke deal. When presented with the details, leave voters, yes leave voters, overwhelmingly rejected every one of them. The majorities against ranged from 72%-83%. It becomes clear that very few people voted for the reality of Brexit, they voted for a version that didn't exist. They were sold simplicity and benefit, when the reality was complexity and cost.

Chris Grey points out that:
This is the inevitable consequence of taking a set of simplistic political assertions and trying to translate them into complex policy realities. It is no good dismissing this as elitism. In any part of our daily lives, we can’t buck the realities of complexity — say, when buying a house or fixing a car — by just trusting our instincts that such things can be achieved without regard for those realities, be they legal or mechanical. Which is why it is absurd for Brexiters to complain that all would be well if only everyone ‘got behind’ Brexit. If their simplicities were right, it would need no such enthusiasm for them to be proved so. 
 And as he concludes,
We can’t will the world to be different to how it is, even if we wrap it in a sacred flag and call it the ‘will of the people’. Responsible and competent political leadership consists not of concealing complex realities but of explaining them. That isn’t elitism. Elitism is pretending to the public that the simplicities are true whilst, behind the scenes, knowing and acting differently.
And the same applies to people who take something obvious and wrap it in complexities to deny truth, absolve the guilty, and mislead those who are drawn to be daringly against 'the mainstream narrative.' Often the mainstream is mainstream precisely because it's true. We all like to deny inconvenient truths, but there is a special place in hell for those who deliberately and knowingly conceal truth with lies, complex or simple, for their own purposes. The problem is not falling for them.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Four speeches

From the back benches. Parliamentary representation as it should be:

David Lammy on the Windrush scandal



And three on anti-Semitism:

Luciana Berger


Ruth Smeeth

 

John Mann

 

All of these ask a question. What have we become? The temptation to appeal to racism is always there. The populist impulse insists that there are votes in both the silent dog whistle and the clarion call. Convenient allies whisper sophistries. There is only one truth, however. Racism is racism, whoever it is aimed at and by whomever it is expressed. It is indivisible and destructive. To try and appease it or co-opt it only encourages racists to greater extremes. It allows the more insidious version ('there are just too many,' 'straining local services,' 'lowering wages,' etc) with its faux reasonableness to slip through into mainstream debate, while the extremes become more explicit in their hatred and conspiracy theories. It's brought us Brexit; it's brought death to the streets of Paris. And it has made Britain an uglier place.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Commemoration

The BBC has decided to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Enoch Powell's Rivers of Blood Speech with a dramatised reading. It's a curious decision. The speech's main claim to significance is that it initiated a political discourse that conflated immigration with racism, though that probably wasn't Powell's aim. The speech ended his hopes of office. What is more, it was wrong. Not just morally, but in its predictive powers. It is an historical curiosity, a testament of failure.

It is claimed by some that the speech was not racist. I find that unconvincing. It used the tropes and language that we would easily identify today as central to much racist ideology. But was that Powell's intention? That is a different question. Powell was not expressing a philosophy of racial superiority, instead he was coming from his theory of the state. If there is one consistent strand in his thought, it is the sense that Britain should be a unitary sovereign state under the Crown. He took this further to see it as essentially an ethnically homogenous nation - white and Protestant. He found his final political home as an Ulster Unionist.

Powell argued that if the state embodied the nation, immigration undermined its essence. Powell was first and foremost a nationalist, with an idealist concept of the state that is perilously close to that of Giovanni Gentile, though he rejected corporatism in favour of the free market. And so he vigorously opposed any constraint on state sovereignty, especially through membership of the European Union. In that sense, he should be remembered as one of the fathers of Brexit, more than as the legitimiser of racism.

Powell always opposed entry into what was then the EEC. When the referendum of 1975 confirmed Britain's membership with a two thirds majority, he refused to accept the legitimacy of the result and immediately began to campaign for the UK's exit. He was joined in an unlikely alliance by the Bennite left, who were then taking the lead in the Eurosceptic movement and who held similar views on sovereignty (though for different purposes). After mouthing a few pieties towards the 'people having spoken,' they started to agitate for withdrawal and finally got it adopted as Labour Party policy in the 1983 election manifesto. (I find it hugely ironic that today's leavers insist that everyone should 'respect the referendum result' regardless.)

After Labour's defeat in 1983, the marginalisation of the Eurosceptics in the party was completed by the EU's adoption of social democratic rights in the Social Chapter of the Maastrict Treaty. With Labour firmly pro-European, anti-EU agitation was led by the right of the Conservative Party. Though Powell was now outside the Party, it was Powellism that informed the campaign that undermined successive leaderships and that Cameron thought he could silence with a referendum. It was a disastrous mistake. The focus on sovereignty and immigration was critical to the narrow victory by Leave.

I find nothing attractive, or even anything much interesting, in Powell's ideology. He was a formidable classical scholar, but a failed politician. If you must honour him, it shouldn't be for the "Rivers of Blood" speech, but for the disaster of Brexit. It would also be appropriate to use Latin.  

Si monumentum requiris, circumspice. It's Christopher Wren's epitaph in St Paul's Cathedral. If you seek a monument, look around you. Look around at today's shambles and you will see the product of the life of an erudite classicist and political mediocrity.

Stoppers

Idrees Ahmad posted this on Facebook two days ago. I have nothing to add.
A note to otherwise well-meaning people:

If you participate in any 'Stop the War' event on Syria, you are an enemy of the Syrian people.

Before I explain, see the two images below, which are from today's protest in London. This is supposedly an event to 'stop war'. Yet, the protestors are carrying the Russian flag and the flag of Syria's fascist regime. Between them, the regime and Russia are responsible for nearly 94% of all civilian deaths in Syria.

So this isn't an 'antiwar' march. It is a pro-war rally that wants Assad and Putin to continue their rampage with impunity.

But there are also other factors. In Syrian the regime and Russia have deliberately targeted civilian neighbourhoods, refugee camps, schools, hospitals and bomb shelters. The regime has shot, gassed, tortured, incarcerated and disappeared civilians. The regime has forced over half the country's population from its homes.

Yet 'Stop the War' protested none of that. Indeed, in 2013 when Assad gassed over a thousand civilians, Stop the War didn't condemn Assad, it held rallies to protect Assad from western retaliation. After Obama stood down, it organised a victory rally and invited a regime representative as its keynote speaker.

Since then, 'Stop the War' has banned Syrians from its platforms. Meanwhile, it has hosted people who have openly advocated for the regime. It's co-chair actually called on the British government to support Assad militarily.

Last week Assad launched his latest chemical attack in Syria. But there were no protests against that. It is clear that for 'Stop the War', Syrian life has no value. But there is one Syrian life for which it is deeply concerned: Bashar al Assad's. Because as soon there was some rumbling in the west and some vague threats, 'Stop the War' immediately sprung into action.

So, if you are participating in any 'Stop the War' event, the best thing that can be said about you is that you are naive and ignorant. But if you are participating knowingly, then you likely have fascist sympathies and you are an enemy of the Syrian people.



Image may contain: 2 people, people standing and shoesImage may contain: 2 people, people standing, sky, hat and outdoor

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Red tape

Here are two good pieces that show that Brexit will increase both bureaucracy and costs. There are many more out there. Contrary to popular belief, EU membership actually cuts bureaucracy. Leaving increases it. This article gives a clear and simple explanation of the complications involved in rules-of-origin if we leave the single market. Peter Crosskey wrote about large-scale trade in foodstuffs, however the second link is more personal.

Natalie Milton writes about her own small specialist sports equipment business, exporting in small quantities across the world, but mainly to Europe. It was built from nothing, has a modest turnover, and employs ten staff. It cannot survive any form of Brexit, including the softest:
To conclude – Brexit will finish us because we will lose our smaller value orders due to the increased customs costs: even with Norway style deal an extra £25 on £50 or £100 order is a deal breaker.
She gives all the details of the additional costs and how they will arise. There is no maybe, she knows that if Brexit happens her business will close. There are no doubts.

People who voted for Brexit didn't know any of this, but, even so, voting leave meant voting to ruin her.

These complicated details are often ignored in favour of broad brush abstractions. This is one reason why the referendum debate was so poor. It isn't all about businesses either. Last weekend was Greek Easter. At the party we attended, the British guests tried to avoid talking about Brexit at first, but it couldn't last. They had built their lives, livelihoods, and families on the seemingly unshakeable rights offered by EU citizenship that are going to be taken from them. They are now in limbo. It's the uncertainty that gets to them, but however their status will be resolved, life will be more difficult and complicated. So too will the lives of the three million or so EU citizens permanently resident in the UK - people who were denied a vote on their future, even though they can vote in the upcoming local elections. They too are uncertain, anxious and feeling betrayed.

It's the human cost that really gets to me. It is not on anything like the scale of suffering as the unspeakable tragedy of Syria, but it is real enough and utterly unnecessary. As for benefits, I can see none.

Monday, March 26, 2018

The writing on the wall

Here we go again. Another incident, this time about a mural. The Jewish Chronicle wrote about it back in November of 2015, but it's been ignored until now. I'm not surprised at all. This was always going to come back to bite Corbyn and is why I opposed his leadership from the moment his candidacy was announced. I never liked the pool he swam in. Srebenica denial, Press TV, unsavoury Islamists, and much more made him a representative of a tendency Orwell described in Notes on Nationalism:
... a minority of intellectual pacifists whose real though unadmitted motive appears to be hatred of western democracy and admiration of totalitarianism. ... All in all it is difficult not to feel that pacifism, as it appears among a section of the intelligentsia, is secretly inspired by an admiration for power and successful cruelty.
It's an old phenomenon, obviously given that Orwell was writing about it. I have also come across it in the 19th century and have touched on it in my book and subsequent published essays. It's most apparent today in an anti-Zionist movement, whose virulent hatred for Israel drove me out of pro-Palestinian activity. There was no room for anyone who argued that both national movements had equal legitimacy and that mutual recognition had to be the basis for peace. Crucially, anti-Zionism had become an excuse for the expression of older hatreds. Covert anti-Semitism was becoming more overt and violent in its language.

This too has long been part of the left. It's a permanent flaw. But it's also anti-socialist in its essence. It explains exploitation not in terms of class or an impersonal system, but as the result of the plotting of a malevolent race. It takes many forms, the bankers' conspiracy is pretty common at the moment - the Rothschild conspiracy theory is everywhere. Again, I've seen plenty of 19th century examples too. There is also a very long history of what David Nirenberg called "Anti-Judaism." This is where Judaism is seen as a cypher for something wicked. At the moment, Zionism (often used interchangeably with Judaism) is portrayed as imperialism or apartheid, echoing post-war anti-colonial struggles. It's a facile comparison and stands in the way of a clear understanding of the conflict. It's also a perfect example of what Nirenberg was writing about. And, given that it tends to express itself using classic anti-Semitic tropes, it merges with the conspiratorial world view of the committed Jew hater. Anti-Semitism is always with us, morphing into different forms, and needs confronting consistently and vigorously.

Corbyn swallowed much of this throughout his political career. His apologetics for anti-Western oppressive regimes and movements displayed a lack of judgement that should have disqualified him from the leadership. (Little did I know how significant his Euroscepticism would be as well). But what about the response to the latest row?

The true believers are doubling down and digging deeper. Sycophants have produced a range of excuses that are simply creepy. Some of the people who were aware of his failings but were tempted by the prospect of the left in power are recovering their principles. But the overwhelming response is a sense of bewilderment. How is this anti-Semitic? I'm not sure that Corbyn understands it either. There are many who say that they have never seen or heard any anti-Semitism in the party over decades. I actually believe them. It's not because it didn't' exist, its because it's unrecognised. The new anti-Semitism has changed its clothes.

Anti-Semitism has been treated as a heritage issue by some of the left. The warmest glow of self-satisfaction comes from sanctifying the memory of Cable Street, the greatest condemnation is of the Holocaust, and the favourite slogan is "never again." Anti-Semitism wears a Nazi uniform. The trouble is, it doesn't any more. It parades in different colours and it's easy to miss it, especially when blinded by partisanship. If you want an analogy, look back to the 1960s and 70s. Think of the misogyny and racial stereotyping on TV, remember (unfortunately I can) how you laughed at cringe making jokes. Now think of why they are no longer acceptable. It isn't because of "political correctness gone mad," it's because of hard work to raise consciousness and counter discrimination. We were taught what prejudice meant by the best teachers possible, its victims.

We didn't think as much about anti-Semitism, after all the Nazis had gone and we had defeated them. But it was still there. It lurked around in the extremes. It was there on the right, and as this superb essay by Eric K. Ward makes clear, is the genocidal belief that animates white supremacism. On the left it masqueraded as anti-Zionism. And it is encroaching from the wings to centre stage. The task today is the same one faced decades ago by feminists, anti-racists, gay rights activists and the like. People need to be taught how to see it. They need to be able to disentangle it from legitimate political campaigns. It will be hard work. It's now deep-rooted. The only way is to listen to the Jewish voices who are telling us, enough is enough.

Corbyn is a genuine opponent of heritage anti-Semitism, but he has failed to recognise its latest manifestation. He's tolerated and shared platforms with anti-Semites, while his initial response to the latest affair was indignant and unconvincing. However, this maybe a moment of hope. It could be the crisis point from which people can learn and push prejudice back into the margins. Maybe it's a moment of realisation and education. Perhaps in the future we will be able to look back in shame and astonishment at sentiments we once shared. If not, if the party makes token statements and hopes it goes away, the soul of the left may be lost, but please remember it's Jews who will pay the highest price.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Sacking Smith

Owen Smith was right to speak out. He was shadow Northern Ireland Secretary. It was his responsibility to be a voice for the people of Northern Ireland and for the preservation of the Good Friday Agreement. Much of the substance of what he said was true.

Corbyn was well within his rights to sack him. Smith would have known that a breach of collective shadow cabinet responsibility would make his position vulnerable. He took that risk and probably assumed that it would happen.

My question is something different. When did official Labour Party policy change to being that of the hard right of the Tories? When did it become something overwhelmingly opposed by the Labour Party's members and voters? Who changed it, how was it done, and why?

And a supplementary: What is the point of an opposition that does not oppose on the most important issue since the war, an opposition that does not speak to the interests of those it represents, one that proposes little in the way of alternatives to protect people's rights and prosperity?

People cannot live on slogans.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Playing the game

One of my favourite Twitter feeds has been the daily Brexit roundup from Alexander (@37payday). He mixed exasperated humour and sarcasm with comprehensive knowledge of the contradictions and idiocies of our times. They were an absolute delight. But then they stopped appearing a couple of weeks ago. Yesterday I saw what had happened when he posted this thread. It begins:
1/ Brexit has finally broken my mum
Read all twenty-eight tweets, it will only take a few minutes. It's about how his mother, an EU national who has lived in this country since the late sixties, no longer feels welcome. Irrational? Maybe. But she doesn't feel secure in a country unwilling to guarantee her right to live near her children and grandchildren in the place she used to call home. She's leaving. It's a small story. But it's real and being replicated all over the country.

Why are we doing this?

Perhaps the Cambridge Analytica scandal gives us a clue. There is an ideological angle to the scandal in that they were working solely for the right, but what troubles me is the utter cynicism. What you do is win. If to win means lying, you lie. What is the result of of the victory? Who cares? We won. That is all that matters.

We all know the Brexit lies - and they were lies - Brexiters consciously knew they were untrue even as they repeated them. The extra money for the NHS, taking back control, immigration. The truth was always that Brexit will be hugely expensive and make us poorer simultaneously, that Britain was abdicating its power as one of the three most powerful nations deciding EU policy (something that will continue to affect us), and that immigration will not diminish. And then there was the scare story of Turkey being about to join the EU, when it wasn't and has now withdrawn its application. We had a veto on their entry anyway, something else a minister lied about on television. All this mendacity worked and helped to swing a narrow win.

It's extraordinary, Brexit is based on lies. The foundations were laid by Boris Johnson's spell as a Brussels correspondent feeding colourful fabrications about the EU into a press that found they brought in readers. And that's weird too. It's worth going back to earlier sources from the time of our accession. The Daily Mail was celebrating our entry as the culmination of their ten-year campaign to get Britain into Europe. Read, or even watch on YouTube, Ted Heath's idealistic speeches about how this was much more than being about economics and was the start of a growing political union (skewering another Brexit lie). Fake stories changed that agenda.

I find this shocking. Dishonesty, with so much at stake. A frivolous disregard for truth, out of all proportion to the profound importance of the decision, deciding a matter of the utmost seriousness.

And there's something else as well. Many of our leading Brexiters have been campaigning for nearly forty years to leave the European Union. Yet when they won and the decision had to be implemented they hadn't got a clue what to do. There were no plans. No strategy. No vision. Nothing. Even more frightening was their ignorance of the difficulty and complexity of the task. Try and talk about the minutiae of trade and they were stumbling, getting basic facts wrong. They still are. It seems that all that mattered was that they won. It was a game. A rich man's game. All they wanted was victory for an obsessive belief, rather than implementing a carefully thought out policy.

I have looked for material motives, as have others. They exist. Obviously some people will do well out of this. Putin is looking on with glee, as are the very wealthy at a time when the EU was getting serious about tax havens. It's about power too, removing the restraints of membership on the freedom of action of those with serious money. But this isn't enough. I can't escape the feeling that it was the game that mattered and that Brexit is not a policy, but a symbol. It reminds me of a football team lifting the trophy at a cup final, won against the odds. They do their lap of honour. Half the fans in the stadium are celebrating, the other half are crushingly disappointed and sullenly going home. Then, the day after, the club realises that it has overspent. This momentary triumph cannot last. Someone else will hold the cup next year. Their best players will leave, administration and relegation beckons. When the whistle blew ushering in that ecstatic moment, nobody thought about what comes next.

The nationalist right have won. They have their left-wing camp followers, but make no mistake, this is a victory for the right. And if we leave, change will be slow. There will be a relative decline, but we will still be OK. There will be more bureaucracy and a few things will become more awkward. Those who mis-sold us the dream will be insulated by their wealth and will keep their enviable life styles untouched, playing the game of being posh. London will remain a cosmopolitan city and the playground of the international super rich funded by the proceeds of corruption. Immigrants will continue to come, to dispatch our Amazon orders, harvest our food, clean our offices, work in hotels, and all the other myriad of tasks that we need. This time though they will have fewer rights and be easier to exploit. You see, it's the smaller people who will lose. People like the teachers and nurses, struggling with overwork and underfunding. The carers for your elderly relatives, the local authorities who can no longer keep your streets clean, the shabby parks and the closed libraries, they will all be losers. A younger generation will see their future more constricted than it would have been otherwise, and they will grow up in a meaner, less tolerant world. And, of course, there's Alexander's mum and the millions like her.

If we do leave, the cry of the next generation will not be 'remain,' but become 'rejoin.' And if they in turn win, at least they will know what to do.