Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Anxiety in paradise

I love it here. This is one of the most beautiful corners of the world. I have some good friends. I will never get tired of the sunsets ...

 ... and I will always be made tired trying to keep control of  my large garden and deal with all its produce.

We bought it nearly seventeen years ago. We couldn't afford it, but knew if we left it until later, we never would be able to buy. It was in a bad condition and most of my earnings have been ploughed into improving it, as have most of my hopes. It was a retirement dream to be able to live as much of my life here as possible.

However much I loved the place, I would never, ever have bought a house if Greece hadn't been in the European Union. My rights as an EU citizen gave me the security to be able to buy and to know that I would always be entitled to live here - either full or part-time. For a while I was anxious about the effect of the Greek financial crisis, but nobody could have thought that the UK would do something as stupid as leave. After all, Brexit was just an obsession of a few ideologues that led the Conservative Party to commit electoral suicide for thirteen years.*

The decline in the value of sterling has cost me a lot of money, but that is only one effect. A soft Brexit, where we retain our membership of the single market and keep freedom of movement, would cause the fewest problems. There would be some headaches, but they could be surmounted. A hard Brexit, leaving the single market and thereby ending freedom of movement, would effectively destroy my plans for my final years. I would be able to visit, but my time here would be legally limited and there would be many other complications and expenses. Who knows what a no-deal Brexit would do? My guess is that it would ruin my life.

Now the rhetoric is becoming alarming. It may be a bluff, but sometimes they can go awfully wrong. Chris Grey puts it succinctly:
No bogus statistic, half-truth, misunderstanding, naivety or downright lie is left unuttered. The world looks on, bemused and amused, at the spectacle of a once-respected country now simultaneously belligerent and absurd, daily trashing its global reputation even as it proclaims and romantically remembers itself as a global power.

Old nonsenses, such as the pivotal role the German car industry will play in securing a great deal, are dusted down and joined by new ones, such as Dominic Raab’s assertion that only by not having a deal will getting that great deal be assured. Every report of the resulting damage is dismissed as not being caused by Brexit, or discounted as being worth it because of Brexit.

The signs of that damage are all around us, from the latest collapse of the pound in anticipation of no-deal Brexit, to the latest news of the collapse of investment in the car industry, the latest desperate plea and warning from that industry, and the latest warning from the Bank of England. But no evidence or rational argument is allowed to intrude on the cult, putting civil servants, in particular, in an impossible position. True belief is all.
All the lessons learnt in three years of negotiations and internal wrangling have been cast aside in favour of long disproved bollocks and aggressive posturing. We're back to 2016 as if nothing has happened in between. It's not doing the cumulative consequences of my three years of stress, anxiety, and constant anger any good.

OK, I'm just a highly privileged former academic with a reasonable pension and a second home having a moan. But I am never going to be the worst affected. Let's think about what this will mean to the employment and life chances of so many people, especially the young and the poor. There is no credible study that says that Brexit can be anything other than economically damaging. The only debate is over the extent of the immediate impact, whether it will start a long slow decline or whether it will produce a severe shock. Millions of people will be hurt, many lives ruined, thousands of small businesses will close, big industries will leave or scale down. We will all be poorer than we would have been if we had remained.

Amidst this mess, there's a question that haunts and is seldom asked. Just what was so intolerable about the previous forty-six years? How much did people suffer from EU membership to make them want to inflict this on so many people? What hurt made it so imperative to tear up the basis of our economy and international relations? Why did it seem such a good idea to take this formidable risk with the future of our nation? And on a personal level, I can't understand why spoiling the last years of my life is so important. But then, this is what always happens when ideology detaches itself from material reality and politics becomes about chasing a delusion

* There is an irony here as well. A short drive up the coast the Johnson family have a holiday home. Our new Prime Minister is a frequent visitor - almost a part-time neighbour. I have never met him, but I know people who do know the family and have plenty of stories to tell, as do local small traders who have dealt with him. Few of them are complimentary.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Historical fiction and political fact

From Hilary Mantel's final Reith lecture, Adaptation, last broadcast on July 15th 2017.
I have written a novel called The Giant O’Brien, loosely based on the true story of a real-life giant who came to London in the 1780s, to exhibit himself for money. In my version, the giant is more than a freakishly tall man: he is the embodiment and carrier of myth, and he has a fund of stories about love and war and talking animals and saints. His followers join in, shouting up with jokes and plot twists of their own. He tries to incorporate them and keep everybody happy. 

So his stories are interactive, democratic and popular –the only trouble is, they are corrupt. They get further and further from the story as he knows it to be. In the end, he realizes the folly of telling people what they want to hear. He says, ‘Stories cannot save us...Unless we plead on our knees with history we are done for, we are lost.’
This is Johnson's candidature for leader of the Conservative Party - precisely. And amidst the interminable journalistic noise, amongst the panic, hyperbole, speculation, and dark fantasies, something more banal looms. It's inescapable. It cannot be avoided. Reality. And as Mantel said earlier in her lecture:
Reality has a coercive force.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Sacred facts

I have just read the late Hans Rosling's final book, Factfulness. It's one of those wonderful books that make me wish that I was still teaching, because I would be incorporating it into everything. It's about data, statistics and their misuse, cognitive biases, and the most important thing of all - the fact that we are wrong most of the time about global development. And that is everybody. For instance, he gives one example of a group of Nobel laureates who performed far worse than random when they took his test of their knowledge.* Hence his play on the word 'mindfulness' in his title.

All the way through I was thinking about how these insights relate to the EU referendum. They are very relevant.

1. One of his main points is about big numbers. When they are presented on their own without anything to compare them with, they can seem much bigger than they really are. The real sin of the £350 million per week on the side of the bus was not that the amount was wrong, which is what all the arguments have been about, but that it was presented without anything to give people a way of judging its relative size. It sounds huge. In the context of government spending, it's small. If they had written, 'just under 1% of government spending goes to the EU,' then people would have understood the cost much better. But that was the point. They weren't supposed to.

It's the same with the tedious mantra, '17.4 million people voted to leave.' This is also misleading because it has no context. It's used in this way to make it sound bigger than it is. If they say 52% voted to leave, then they are showing that it was a small majority. My favourite rejoinder is to point out that 29 million people didn't vote to leave, and that fabled 17.4 million is, in fact, a minority.

The full figures were 17,410,742 voted leave, 16,141,242 voted to remain, and 12,949,258 didn't vote. That's a lot of non-voters. Nearly 28% of the total and more than ten times the size of the leave majority. Taken in context, the numbers show a very fragile majority on the day, an overall minority, and no national consensus behind leaving at all.

Now, if we take the British Social Attitudes Survey, though it records a growth in scepticism about the EU, it has never shown a majority for leaving it. The highest recorded opinion in favour of exit was 41% (see page 5, table 1) in the year of the referendum, and it has been dropping since. So how did we end up with a majority to leave in the referendum? It was a quirk of turnout. Nothing else. Those non-voters decided it. That doesn't give a strong mandate. Opinion surveys have been showing a remain majority of 8-10% for more than a year. Yet we are pursuing Brexit purely on the basis that a majority want it. As well as the obvious point that if a majority support a bad idea it is still a bad idea, it's clear that they don't, and never have.

We don't think of abstainers very often. We should do more. Are they disengaged, disaffected, idle, uninformed, baffled, feel unwilling to judge or unable to take sides, or are they simply ill or away on the day? It's difficult to know why people don't participate and we put little effort into researching non-voting. That's a mistake. For instance, the slump in turnout and the drop in Labour's vote in 2001 should have set alarm bells ringing in New Labour instead of them reassuring themselves with the complacency engendered by their large majority of seats.

2. Another of Rosling's points is that we love binary explanations. The human brain is very comfortable with the simplicity of either/or. We tend to fall for it the whole time - the many and the few, people from somewhere and people from anywhere, with us or against us, the metropolitan elite or real people, etc. The list goes on and on. It is almost always wrong as most people cluster around a whole range of median positions rather than the poles.

Look at those abstentions again. Then add in the evidence that many of the people who did vote were unsure and undecided until the last minute. Suddenly, the picture that we are constantly being given of a violently polarised society, even one on the brink of civil war, looks crazy. However, the idea has taken such a hold that even some Labour MPs are saying they will support no-deal so fearful are they of the anger of leavers. They also feel a duty towards the left behind, working class voters who are supposed to want to leave, even though the data shows that not to be true.

We do have strongly committed organisations backing both leave and remain. The larger ones, judging by membership and the size of demonstrations and rallies, are for remain. They are against change. They tend to be on the liberal/left because they want to defend the internationalist, social democratic, post-war settlement. The smaller groups are mainly on the right, with a few left hangers-on, and they want to smash the settlement, regardless of the consequences. They want a nationalist revolution, strangely being fomented in the Conservative Party. But the mass of people are not involved. Some identify with the two polarities to various degrees, though they are often semi-detached. But many others are bored, confused, uninterested, and bewildered. They just want it to stop. Britain has not changed that much. Politicians and journalists need to remember that Twitter is not the real world.

There is another consequence of this false polarisation. The referendum was presented as a binary choice when the options were non-binary. There are several ways to leave the EU, each with different consequences. This produced a Condorcet Paradox. Remain, a single option, is more popular than each of the individual leave options, even if the combined leave vote was higher. Leaving cannot be done other than by going against popular opinion.

3. There are other things to take from the book. Three stand out. Urgency produces panic and bad decision making. This is why Tusk was right and Macron wrong about the length of the extension to Article 50. We needed more time to take stock and resolve our own constitutional crisis. Macron has put us under the sort of destructive pressure we imposed on ourselves by invoking Article 50 without a clue about what we wanted to get from it.

Secondly, the whole theme of the book about our wholesale ignorance of basic facts could not have been better illustrated by the bizarre sight of our prospective Prime Minister waving a kipper around, decrying EU smoked fish packaging regulations that were not EU regulations, but UK ones. All the while the audience cheered on the increased risk of getting listeria. Neither remainers nor leavers had much idea about the workings of the EU. Gathering by the abysmal quality of the debate and the coverage in the national media, they still don't. The few who do know - the experts in trade and international law for example - are holding their heads in their hands.

Finally, Rosling makes the point that we should resist blaming individuals and look at the system. Given the cast of Brexit this is hard, so hard, but he has a point. If there is one thing that this mess shows us, it is that the use of referendums on their own as a way of deciding complex issues is ridiculous. 'Respect the result of the referendum,' may trip smoothly off the tongue, but it raises four questions. Is respecting the same as implementing? Should we treat a tiny majority as an overwhelmingly decisive one? Should we deliver the result regardless of the consequences? And, why should we respect a process as manifestly unfit for purpose as this one was?

*You can take the test and find out more on Rosling's Gapminder foundation's website. And you really should read the book.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

No deal please, we're British

No deal doesn't exist. It's a fantasy politics in which we sail off into the blue having cut all ties with the EU. Even if we flounce off, the crisis will be so bad we will be back asking for a deal within months. The terms will be tougher and we will be weaker than we already are. It will be the start of decades of negotiation with the EU and others, with our reputation shredded, all trust destroyed, and our economy and currency severely damaged. Other nations will not be queueing up to offer us lucrative trade deals, but to pick the carcass. International trade is hard-nosed and we will be desperate.

Why this stupidity then? Why even consider it? Panic is one reason. There is nothing like it for clouding judgement. But the main two reasons seem to be a) to win the Tory leadership contest where the minuscule electorate is similarly deranged, and b) as a negotiating strategy for a negotiation that is over.

As for the strategy, let's call it the Varoufakis strategy. Because it's his. He is an expert on game theory after all. This is where the weakest party to a negotiation spends a few months insulting its partners, then, bolstered by a referendum on whether to accept the terms of a deal that has expired and no longer exists, calls the bluff of people who aren't bluffing by threatening them with an act of self-harm. It didn't work. Are you surprised?

Now read this excellent piece by Viktoria Dendrinou and Eleni Varvitsioti. It's about the end game of the 2015 negotiations.
...“If Greece left the euro zone, clearly the first thing that would happen would be that the new currency would have no credibility,” an official involved in the discussions says. “No one would want to hold that currency, so you would soon enter into a spiral of devaluation.” This meant the currency would keep losing its value against the euro, a fall that would feed inflation and in turn further currency weakness, making imports more expensive. This would have major implications for Greek debt, as it still would be denominated in euros. A likely immediate depreciation of 50% against the euro would instantly boost the debt-to-GDP ratio, which in June 2015 stood at 180%. The ratio would immediately double to 360% and very soon to 500%, given the impact on the economy. This meant a “very significant debt restructuring would be necessary,” the plan said.

The paradox was that the only sure thing about a Grexit would be that the country would immediately need another bailout. It felt almost absurd, going through all this trouble to avoid a bailout, only to enter a situation where another one would be needed.
Given this situation, Tsipras had little option other than negotiate a new bailout. This describes no-deal Brexit precisely. We would need a deal to counter the consequences of not having a deal. The conditions of getting a deal would be the conditions that we walked away from a deal to avoid.

There is a big difference between us and Greece in 2015. We are the masters of our own destiny. We don't have to do this. We are in an insane trap. At one end is danger, at the other a safe exit. We can revoke, remain, and start to repair the damage we have already done. We continue to walk towards danger and a potential disaster. Why?

Monday, July 08, 2019

Labouring the point

Here's an organisation that will sound familiar to many. The management have survived an overwhelming vote of no confidence from key workers. They have given themselves large pay rises while staff are threatening to go on strike over both pay and management style. The management is so upper class it has been profiled in The Tatler. Recruitment is nepotistic, with sons, daughters and friends of senior managers taking up important and lucrative posts. The management has been accused of covering up sexual harassment by one of its number. Now it is employing one of the most expensive firm of lawyers to send threatening letters to whistle-blowing staff who have signed non-disclosure agreements as part of their severance. Yep, it's the Labour Party.

Labour are polling at historic low levels. This is in the face of an appalling government hell-bent on delivering a national catastrophe. Canvassers report that Corbyn is toxic on the doorstep and his approval ratings are derisory. At a time of national crisis, all that is visible are the scandals. Now we know that Labour will always face a hostile press, but managing that is part of the job that Labour has to do. Its handling of press relations have been awful. The leader is nowhere to be seen. Their spokespeople talk in meaningless, pre-rehearsed clichés and platitudes. On-line forums in social media are cesspits. There is no 'straight talking' or 'honest politics.'

My original objections to Corbyn's leadership were three fold.

1. I didn't think that he or the group around him had the ability to lead. There was a fundamental issue of competence.

2. Even taking them on their own terms, I didn't think that Corbyn and the group round him were left wing in any meaningful sense of the word. They could mouth the slogans, but they had no coherent philosophy or programme. They were not like Militant. They were not Marxists. They were not anything, other than being keen on re-fighting some of the old battles of the 80s. Corbyn became a cypher on to which hopeful radicals could project their desires. Brexit is killing those illusions as we are seeing his leadership sink into a vague mix of incompetent Stalinist-lite nationalism.

3. Finally, he was part of a pseudo-left circle that had long been a target. I remember how the old DSTPFW blog, which I contributed to, used to slaughter them - "Mad Dog Milne" et al. And it is this 'anti-imperialist' alliance with its crass foreign policy and obsessive hatred of Israel that has brought anti-Semitism from the fringes to the centre.

This needs a bit more explanation - and some history. In my book on 19th century anarchist ideas, I wrote about anti-Semitism and conspiracy thinking rife in the period:
[These] are not merely quaint nineteenth-century beliefs; they are persistent flaws. For example, in the twenty-first century conspiracy theories abound. Climate change denial is a near-universal belief amongst right libertarians, the 9/11 ‘Truth’ Movement has attracted even mainstream figures to its fringes, whilst much contemporary, obsessive anti-Zionism bears the distinctive stamp of older anti-Semitic discourses. These ideas may not be central, but they are a distasteful and dangerous intellectual baggage that needs jettisoning. Open discussion and historical exploration is a necessity if ever we are to banish this poisonous legacy from radical thought.
If I was writing the book today, I would be far stronger. Many of the ideas have become central. Conspiracy thinking and related populist ideas have taken the place of proper theoretical analysis. It is a dangerous failure.

Now, if I could write this about 19th century anarchism, you can see that modern left anti-Semitism has deep roots. This is why Corbyn had problems with Hobson's Imperialism (I have taught about it without mentioning Hobson's anti-Semitism as well, so I am not innocent either). Read this fine piece from History Workshop for some perspective and the argument. It makes it clear that both Corbyn and I were wrong not to mention it, and that the defensive reaction from Corbynistas shows a lack of understanding of the historic role of anti-Semitism in the left. And it's still there. It's there in the union movement. It's there in its classic conspiratorial form. But, most of all, it finds its expression in a form of anti-Zionism that is now an orthodoxy throughout the left.

Anti-Semitism is the shape-shifting hatred, which adapts to each new generation. So it is perfectly possible for anyone to condemn older forms, while not recognising, and even adopting, new forms. This results in all efforts being poured into a defence against accusations, rather than facing the reality. For example, Jewish Voice for Labour was established a couple of years ago to confront the long-established Jewish Labour Movement, who were raising the alarm of Jewish people at the growth of anti-Semitism, and to deny the existence of the problem in the Labour Party. At least Jon Lansman, founder of Momentum, has seen through it.

Denial uses two main arguments:

1.  Bad faith. The issue is only raised by Corbyn's opponents to 'smear' him. It's a lousy argument. It ignores the actual issue and focuses on the supposed motivation of the accuser. It's a standard logical fallacy and leads to depressing ad hominems instead of reasoned debate.

2. It's only a criticism of the Israeli government. Of course, the main tropes long pre-date the existence of Israel or even of Zionism itself, they are merely being used in the context of the modern conflict. There are some pretty ancient ones in there, such as the blood libel. But most of the modern labels thrown on Israel - colonial settler state, racism, etc - come from Stalinism. They were promulgated in the anti-Semitic purges that Stalin ordered throughout the Eastern Bloc in the late 40s. Zionism became an excuse for the persecution of the Jews. They have been lifted wholesale into the far left and elaborated on beyond that.

There is a real conflict of course. I have been there and seen the impact of the occupation. It's just that much of the anti-Zionist rhetoric is based on fiction rather than reality. They have recast a complex conflict as a Manichean struggle between good and an ultimate evil. That evil is, of course, Jewish. The struggle, rather than being seen as a protracted regional conflict, is portrayed as central to the fight for a righteous world - as has always been the case with opposition to Judaism in which ever guise it manifested itself (David Nirenberg's magnificent intellectual history, Anti-Judaism, is essential reading on this). The real conflict is intrinsically linked to Jewish history, including the European genocide, but also that of the indigenous Jewish communities of the Middle East, which pre-date Arab colonisation in the seventh century and whose descendants form the majority of the modern Israeli population. The modern conflict is also part of the nationalist response to the break up of the Ottoman Empire and the nature of the Middle East as a diverse patchwork of ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities. Some of the stuff I see bears as much relation to reality as Widdicombe's ravings about membership of the EU being a form of slavery. It does the Palestinians no favours either, often romanticising their oppressors.

Once this conflict, real or fictitious, is described through anti-Semitic tropes and using anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, then it crosses the boundary into anti-Semitism. It doesn't matter whether the rhetorical target is Israel or Zionism if the means are anti-Jewish. What's more, if those attitudes become embedded in an organisation, they become invisible and unconscious, falling under the Macpherson definition of institutional racism.

This isn't just a problem for Labour. This is a Europe-wide crisis. There will be a TV programme on it this week, and already people who haven't seen it are piling on with their rebuttals. Let's take it seriously instead. Let's admit the reality. Let's analyse it. There are good tools for doing so.

How I would love to see the Labour Party respond openly and effectively. I would love it to adress its multiple failings of leadership. I can't remember a time in my life when an effective Labour Party was more essential. I can't remember a time when it was so weak. Recovery means mental honesty and grappling with reality, rather than abusive factionalism. This isn't a game. Real people's lives are at stake.

Sunday, June 23, 2019


Back in the bad old days of the 1980s, when incidents like the one involving Johnson were dismissed as 'domestics,' two female friends of mine were murdered by their partners. If you hear something frightening coming from a neighbouring flat or house, call the police. Please call the police. It could save lives or stop violent behaviour.

But the response of the Mail, the Sun, the Telegraph, and the rest of the right wing press is to respond to Johnson's neighbours actions by destroying their lives. In doing so, they have entered the sewer.

It's an old trick to deflect attention from wrong doing by defaming and discrediting the people who have drawn attention to the offence. Everyone then ends up either defending or denigrating them, rather than talking about the original action. However, in this case there is more. Because Johnson is poised to become Prime Minister as the candidate of the right, the press are not just protecting their man, they are sending out a warning. Attack him and we will wreck your lives.

This is the contempt that the powerful have for ordinary people. Their lives are disposable. These are the depths that the press will sink to. It stinks. They disgust me.


Listen to this clip. A more temperate and expert response.


Simon Wren-Lewis agrees, pointing out something that should surprise nobody:
Mr. Penn and his partner have left their flat after receiving a large number of death threats as a result of this newspaper coverage.
Ah yes, "power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages." (Stanley Baldwin quoting Rudyard Kipling)

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

La-la land

What can you say about British politics? It's completely dominated by Brexit of course. At least there's some data for us to look at. The local and Euro elections, together with the Peterborough by-election, all fell in line with the trend in national opinion polling. They show that there is around a ten-point lead for remain over leave. The core leave vote is no more than 35%. There is no demand for an ill-defined new centrist party, especially one called something as vacuous as change without specifying the change they advocate. Labour's vote is far more vulnerable to the loss of remain voters than it is to leave voters. And surveys keep coming in to show that the dominant narrative of leave as a predominantly northern working-class phenomena is either overstated or downright false and persists mainly as justificatory cover for a pre-determined ideological preference. See here, here, and here.

The trouble is that British politics has abandoned reality for the land of make-believe.

How else can you explain the Tory Party leadership contest? If Cameron's political and constitutional abomination of a referendum was an epoch defining error, the determination of his terrible successor to make it worse was ineptitude of the highest order.

Never ones to shirk a challenge, the candidates to replace her as Prime Minister are displaying levels of mendacity and mediocrity that should exclude them from being anywhere near power. Could they be any worse than May? Yes, without doubt.

This video has gone viral, understandably so. Behr nails it.

But there is something else. Why are politicians failing to face reality and rehashing the 2016 arguments all over again? The answer lies with the mental dishonesty of Brexit. Although it's being done in the name of democracy, nobody wants it. They don't want real Brexit anyway. Some still want the one that they were sold. It's true that there were warnings about the consequences, but they were dismissed as "project fear." It is perfectly possible to leave the European Union. But, once you get into the practical details, the process would be lengthy, costly, and of little benefit. The democratic mandate was flimsy enough, but the vote to leave was sold on a fictitious view of the European Union, a fictitious account of what leaving entails, and a fictitious vision of the consequences. The trouble is, they sold it rather too well, especially in the Conservative Party. It is now impossible to win the leadership without pandering to a fantasy.

It had been a long time coming as Andy Beckett described in his long read about conservative thought.
Yet during the 90s, instead of pondering Thatcherism’s unintended consequences, many British conservatives, like their American counterparts, had switched their attention to a scapegoat. The European Union, like Clinton, was pro-business, hardly a fundamental threat to free-market conservatism, and the European single market had been partly Thatcher’s creation. But like the Clinton presidency, the EU was a rival power centre, and also provocative to conservatives in other ways: it saw politics as about compromise rather than conviction, and was relatively liberal in its social and cultural values. As a new enemy for conservatives, it proved irresistible.

Euroscepticism gave British conservatism a dark new energy. There was a malicious glee in the distorted accounts of EU activities produced by the Telegraph’s early-90s Brussels correspondent, Boris Johnson. But there was also a cost.

With some justification, conservatives had long prided themselves on their attention to facts, to how people actually lived, or wanted to live – rather than trying to build utopias, as they accused the left of doing. Even the most dogmatic Thatcherites had been keenly aware of social trends such as the rise of individualism, and how they might be politically exploited. But, starting in the 90s, on both sides of the Atlantic, much of the movement “ceased to be empirical”, Gray says. And without an interest in facts, it is hard to govern well for long.
The problem with facts is that they are facts. They don't change. The new Prime Minister will have promised the utterly impossible to win the leadership, and will have to confront their guaranteed failure instantly. The future of the nation depends on how they respond – yes, the response of one of this dismal crowd of inept nonentities. Yikes.

In the meantime, the sole justification for carrying on has disappeared. The fictitious "will of the people" is not even the preference of a slim majority any more. And those who still want it, don't want the reality, they want the Brexit they were sold. But it doesn't exist, never has and never will. Their cognitive dissonance makes them perfect recipients for the myth of betrayal. Brexit has returned to being a minority obsession that the right want to impose on the rest of us.

Brexit is dead, even if a zombie Brexit may happen. It will fail. It will ruin peoples' lives. But who will get the blame? And even if sanity prevails and it is laid to rest through the revocation of Article 50, despite the stake through its heart, its ghost will haunt us for some time yet.

Friday, May 31, 2019


This Guardian piece is headlined "Corbyn backs a soft Brexit." He is quoted as saying,
I would go back to the EU, explain that we had fought an election campaign in order to make sure there was a good relationship with Europe in the future, that we weren’t afraid of public opinion on this, and ask them to seriously consider what we are suggesting, which is a customs union with a British say and trade relationship with Europe, and a dynamic relationship on rights would not be undermining Europe on workers rights, on consumer rights, on environmental protections.
Obviously, this ignores that the EU considers negotiations closed, that there cannot be a customs union with a say (whatever that is), and that a vague trade relationship with Europe is inadequate to resolve the issue of the Irish border. So far, so unrealistic - to the point of wishful thinking or fantasy politics. But this isn't my real point.

This is not a 'soft Brexit.' This is a hard Brexit. This is a harder Brexit than the one put forward by most of the Leave campaign during the referendum. It means leaving the single market with all that implies. It prioritises restricting immigration from the EU. It takes away our rights to free movement and says nothing about the existing rights of those who have exercised it. It would be economically destructive.

Let's get this clear. The vague modifier about workers' rights aside, this is a policy of the hard right. This is a Tory Brexit. Corbyn, along with his posh Stalinist apparatchiks, is opposing the bulk of Labour's MPs, Labour members, and the overwhelming majority of Labour's voters, in order to impose a Conservative Party fantasy on the party.

The vast majority of Labour members and voters want to remain in the EU. Poll after poll shows that to be the case. Nationally, there has not been a single poll for over a year without a strong Remain lead. And in case you think opinion polls are unreliable, look at a real election. Look at the elections to the European Parliament. Fourteen percent. Fourteen bloody percent. More than forty percent of members voting for another party. This is what it comes to, a betrayal of the opinions and interests of those the party is supposed to represent.

This is a left-wing leadership? Are you sure? Well whatever it is, it is a dismal failure.

Sunday, May 26, 2019


Yesterday was good. It started with the news that a Polish friend had been given her British citizenship. She is incredibly proud to be British as well as Polish. And I was proud for her too. She came over with little English, worked hard, learnt the language, took courses, and ended up doing a degree in her second language. She got a first and now works in animal care.

My day was routine. I'm in Greece. I spent the morning digging up the bamboo that invades from the plot next to the garden. Then I treated myself to fresh fish for lunch with a tsipouro, overlooking a beautiful calm sea. After I fed the cats, I settled down to watch the Rugby League Magic Weekend, which I can here because of new EU regulations.

Two instances of simple happiness. Both the product of our right, as European citizens, of freedom of movement.

Yet people are now insisting that they will take that right away from us. Without it, my Polish friend would not have become a proud British citizen. She wouldn't have been able to follow her dreams. And for me, I have two citizenships too. I am British and a citizen of the European Union. I value my European citizenship. Three years ago, people voted to strip me of it against my will. I am upset about that, but nothing like as distressed as I am about the possible loss of my freedom of movement. It will stop me coming and going to Greece as I please, and I will lose the automatic right to live here. I will have legal limits on the time I can spend in my own house. I will face many extra costs, bureaucratic obstacles and restrictions. Also, depending on agreements, it may even be illegal for me to bring back my homemade marmalade. And for what? There are no benefits for anybody. If Brexit happens, I will be distraught.

In the great sum of things, these are small issues, just a couple of individuals, pretty lucky ones at that. And I know that when people voted leave, they didn't think that they were voting against brilliant people becoming new British citizens or to spoil the last years of my life, but that's what they were doing. It's part of the problem with the debate. We heard the word 'immigration' in the abstract, not the phrase, 'people we know.'

The really big confusion between abstraction and reality comes from the rhetorical use of the term 'sovereignty.' That the UK is a sovereign nation state is a simple fact. It is beyond debate. What Brexiters are doing is conflating sovereignty with power. We are sovereign but our power is necessarily constrained. It is limited by our voluntary decisions taken as a sovereign state to enter into agreements, treaties, and international organisations. It is restricted by the power of others to enforce their interests. Power is always constrained. Sovereignty gives us the ability to choose how. We have chosen to limit our power in some areas by becoming members of the EU. We did it because it was in our interest to join. One of the reasons that we haven't left, despite moving Article 50, is because we can't handle the consequences of doing so. That is why Leavers insist that there are none, when there are plenty, and they are profoundly damaging.

Now let's look at realities. Do you really want the British state to have unconstrained power? Do you want it to 'take back control' without restriction? The people who don't want their power to be restricted are dictators, imperialists, fascists, and the like. Human progress has been based on restraining the powerful. The EU was conceived as an institutional framework for constraining German power, democracy puts a check on the power of ruling groups, and rights protect individuals and minority groups from oppression. Brexiters have sold the idea that taking rights away from us, thereby increasing the power of our rulers, is to our benefit. This is a bizarre confidence trick that any snake oil salesman would be proud of.

The other paradox is that if we leave the EU, the only power that would increase is the power of the government over the people. The government's external power will diminish as much of it – both strategically and economically – is dependent on the greater strength EU membership brings. We will be weaker as well as poorer.

I have another suggestion, self-serving though it is. How about not doing it? Maybe we should keep our rights, rights that make people happy, rights that I rely on. Because once we start giving rights away, it turns the clock of progress backwards. Let's stay in the EU. Revoke Article 50. Let's choose to be happy.

Monday, May 13, 2019

A fable

‘He who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount’

The Brexit tiger has a broad back. Let's look at some of those who have decided to hitch a ride. The first passengers are those ambitious opportunists who think that it will lead to their heart's desire. Travelling with them are libertarian ideologues who mistake the beast as a harbinger of pure economic freedom. 'Disaster capitalists' have jumped on too, hoping to profit from the disruption Brexit will bring. Then there are the unhinged nationalists, English exceptionalists, and enthusiastic believers whose ideological preferences trump evidence. They are joined by cowards who think that as long as the tiger is given some of what it wants it will leave them alone. Sitting astride the haunches are those leftists who think that their chance will come once the tiger is exhausted after satiating itself, forgetting that they are the beast's favourite appetiser. Given the strength and the cunning of the tiger, the riders are completely out of their depth. They are Brexit's 'useful idiots' and are trapped.

The tiger is a dangerous beast. It's cunning and has no wish to give up its prey. Brexit is not a happenstance, but a purposeful policy. The people driving it are sinister. The tiger is not just Brexit, it's more than that. The tiger is fascism. I'm using the term loosely, in a way that makes me uncomfortable. I am not talking of the precise definition coined in the mid twentieth century – dressed in uniforms, complete with militarism and totalitarian dreams – but a more recent version for our era. Twentieth century fascism was only one form of a persistent authoritarian polity that morphs to suit its times. Today we have a squalid, authoritarian, nationalist populism that loathes democracy even as it steals its language. It's aim is an intolerant state devoted to enriching a kleptocratic elite while preaching anti-elitism. Its language is hatred of the other, contempt for the dissident, deep, deep misogyny, and racism. Its logic is conspiracy theory.

Sometimes the fascist tiger appears as the deceptively friendly face in the pub talking 'common sense' and dishing out simplistic solutions to non-existent problems. But lately it has let us glimpse its claws and teeth. A UKIP candidate talks sneeringly about whether he would rape a Labour MP. The Brexit party fields a candidate who supported the IRA bombing of a shopping street in Warrington that murdered two children – standing in a constituency that includes Warrington. Then, listen closely and some familiar names emerge – Rothschild, Soros – and you realise that this tiger carries one of the oldest and most infectious diseases of all.

Brexit is a tasty morsel for the tiger. Its origins lie in the weird ideological fantasies of a group of plutocrats. But once the dream had been sold, the tiger licked its lips. Brexit obviously meant leaving the EU, but how or why was undefined or clouded in untruths. So, it became whatever the Brexiteers wanted it to be at any moment in time. And, of course, what they wanted it to be was always impossible. That meant that their Brexit, whatever it is, cannot be delivered – by anyone. And this is where a trick comes into play, it is not the tiger who has to make it happen. That's the job of the riders. They will fail, obviously, and so the tiger can roar 'you have been betrayed' at all who will listen.

How do you dismount the tiger? The riders convince themselves that they don't want to. This isn't surprising. The tiger is fierce and immortal. Its back feels safe, though it is exceedingly dangerous. It can never be killed or tamed. Getting off can only be done by wounding the tiger, giving time for escape. Abandoning Brexit would make it step back and lick its wounds. The riders could descend, run, and breathe a sigh of relief.

Yet that is only temporary. The tiger has to be caged and starved. We once had a magnificent cage with formidable bars – representative democracy, the European Union, human rights, social democracy, secularism, and the welfare state. It's a little rusty now. Bits have worn away, some parts have been neglected, and others have been vandalised. The tiger has pushed at the weakest points. It needs repairs, and some sections need replacing with something better.

The cage isn't a place of confinement. It isn't a zoo where we go to look at the tiger. It's a method of building a better world that pushes the tiger away so that we forget that it exists. Its importance isn't what it protects us from, it's what it gives to us. It's the cage that sets us free. It's built from democracy, internationalism, equality, liberty, and security. All can be improved, some can be bettered, negligence and vandalism can be put right. But we need to celebrate it, campaign for it, and speak out against the miserable resentment that the tiger's friends want us to embrace.

Rebuild and the riders can dismount and join the rest of us who are no longer wary about our status as vulnerable prey. And, out of the corner of one eye, we might catch a glimpse of the emaciated tiger, slinking back into the shadows, hoping in vain for escape.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019


This is a fine piece by Lyra McKee from 2016. It is a reminder of the importance of the voice we have lost. She wrote about suicides amongst …
… the generation nicknamed the Ceasefire Babies—those of us too young to remember the worst of the terror. We were the Good Friday Agreement generation, spared from the horrors of war. But still, the after effects of those horrors seemed to follow us.
It’s a theme picked up by Sinéad O’Shea in her tribute to McKee and in writing on her own film about dissident paramilitaries.
A post-conflict society is messy. There are no winners. Everyone has lost. It’s nuanced and precarious and doesn’t work well for news headlines or political soundbites. However, this is exactly where Northern Ireland has found itself in recent times, in a row between politicians, the stumbling block to Theresa May’s Brexit deal, and the UK’s departure from the EU. As local councillor and another of the film’s participants, Darren O’Reilly, told me: “Nobody is paying attention until it suits them.”

It seems also as if the increased scrutiny over the backstop has energised the dissident Republican community and served as a recruitment tool. Since the start of February, dissident Republicans have shot four men “by appointment”. They claimed responsibility last month for three “suspicious” devices sent to UK addresses. Now the tragedy of McKee’s killing.
Wars don’t just end. There are long and lingering effects. The utter complacency of Brexiters on the few occasions that they thought about Northern Ireland was based on an assumption that peace was a permanent fixed state, brought about by the Belfast Agreement, not that it was a fragile settlement, the beginning of a long process of de-escalation and reconciliation.


It was my generation that voted for Brexit. And Leave voters keep harping on about the Second World War. They are mocked. They never knew war, so they must have got their information from the movies. This is unfair and untrue. The effects of war were all around us when we grew up. We were surrounded by those who had fought, who had lost people they loved, who had seen things that people shouldn’t have done. The war was there in the stories and the silences. It was in the bravado, the hatreds, and the memories. It was there in the moments of distress, when something triggered a loss of control. And we, the post-war baby boomers, saw it all.

It was worse still for Germans, who had to come to terms with the Nazi past of their country. Their revulsion turned a small section of West Germans to terrorism, their own generation’s attempt to resist Nazism in the way their parents hadn’t. But then, their violence was based on as an absurd misreading of their own society as the Brexiters’ misunderstanding of the European Union.

Think too of the countries emerging from the collapse of Communism. Our war ended in 1945, their nightmare only ended in 1989. We shouldn’t be surprised by the revival of authoritarianism in the East. Thirty years is no time at all for a society to recover.


I’m in Greece now. On the bus from Thessaloniki airport through the city centre, I sat and listened to an excited young Greek woman speaking in English to her Spanish boyfriend, pointing out all the landmarks of her home city. A young Dutch family got on, and then as we passed the University, students of many different nationalities piled on. This is Europe. Europe as it should be. Diverse and shared.

Yet Greeks too have only recently emerged from their own national catastrophe – Nazi occupation, a bloody fratricidal civil war, and a military dictatorship that only ended in 1974. It still echoes through Greek society and politics, especially in the wake of the Euro crisis. Still, this is a pro-European country. Most think that we are mad to leave.


It takes time. I am one of those of my generation who responded by becoming ardently pro-European and never ever questioned our place in the European Union. Others did not. Nationalism and isolationism offered an escape from the recent past into a fantasy world of nostalgic heroism. After all, it was the world that surrounded us when we were children.

Young people don’t think like this. They are two generations removed from the war. They are overwhelmingly in favour of keeping our EU membership – some 70-80% wanting to remain if the polls are right. They are comfortable travelling on a multi-national bus. Europe is their natural environment, their hope, their birthright, and their future. They feel that my generation has stolen it from them. They hate us for it.

It’s the young who give me hope. They are the ones who will lead us back into the EU if we make the mistake of leaving. And they are the ones on the frontline against the new European authoritarianism.


It isn’t all about time and generational change. Peace is not therapy. Instead, we cannot recover unless we build institutions that allow that recovery to take place. This is the underlying importance of the European Union. It established a democratic framework for post-war renewal and development. It is the settlement that allows nations emerging from their Stalinist or fascist pasts to establish their democracies. It is what was built to overcome the trauma of Europe’s terrible twentieth century. It matters and it has worked.

Brexit is a terrible mistake. Revoke article fifty and remain. Do it now.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Project reality

The Irish Taoiseach warned about this before the referendum, only to be routinely dismissed as another exponent of "project fear" - a supposedly hysterical over-reaction to scare the voters. Well this is how it ends, with a young, talented woman shot dead.

The threat to the peace process in Northern Ireland has been scoffed at by Brexiters, called 'artificially manufactured,' while they have suggested a range of fictitious 'solutions' to the border question, using technology that hasn't been invented yet or throwing responsibility back on to the Irish government or the EU. 'Nothing to do with us - if you don't want a border don't have one.' The idiocy of it is beyond belief. Only it isn't.

Farage, Johnson, Galloway, Rees-Mogg, and all the rest of the wankers, are either ignorant of Irish history or treat Ireland with imperial disdain. They wish away all and any realities that have the temerity to get in the way of their stupid obsessions. The single market made leaving the EU economically damaging if not impossible. The Good Friday agreement made it politically imposible. This was ignored, despite the voices shouting as loud as they could.

The peace process was in difficulties anyway, with Stormont deadlocked, but throwing in the decision to allow English voters to pull Northern Ireland out of the EU, despite it voting by a large majority to remain, was hardly going to help. To then turn to the only Northern Irish political party to oppose the Good Friday Agreement to prop up a minority government implementing Brexit was utterly crass.

All the talk has been about a frictionless border, but this is not the only issue. The genius of the EU as a peace project is that it has blurred nationalism. It left national identity untouched, but added a secondary one - EU citizenship - to unite people as European. Brexit will strip that citizenship away and the two countries will revert to separate identities, once again polarising communal divisions.

And now people are dying. I just hope and pray that this isn't the start of another outbreak of a long, cruel civil war. Fuck Brexit and its reckless cheerleaders, fuck the charlatans and liars who have brought us to this, fuck the vandals and vultures waiting to pick the profits from the carcass of our lives. Stop it. Revoke article fifty. End this idiocy. Let's take our place in the European Union in peace and solidarity with the people of Ireland, both North and South, and share the larger European peace that populist nationalists are doing their best to destroy.

Tuesday, April 09, 2019


Whatever occurs this week, Brexit has failed. It might still happen, but it will be an exercise in failure. It has failed because it is completely unable to deliver what its supporters claimed it would. Sovereignty will be diminished as we will be weakened and subject to the demands of the three economic superpowers, the most important being the one that we have left. Our global influence will be reduced as most of it sprang from our membership of the EU. Our economy will decline, there is no model of Brexit which will not hurt. And even the fantasy of the disintegration of the EU is shown to be just that as the EU unites to defend one of its smaller members, Ireland, against the threat that Brexit poses to it. The EU has shown itself to be coherent and far more powerful than the UK in protecting the core interests of all its members. The damage that has already been done is considerable.

The worst consequence has been the emergence of an English nationalist movement on the left and right. Lexiters should remember that the attempt to combine nationalism and socialism does not have a happy history. Bob from Brockley gives them a splendid put-down here. The right combine delusional thinking with atavistic hatred and have licensed people to express the sort of views that had been buried for a decade or more.

There are two possible Brexiter responses to this tragedy. They can double down on the fantasies, cry 'democracy' (while seeing it as a single event, never to be repeated), accuse others of treason for disagreeing with them, or develop ever more arcane theories as to why everything will be fine, all the while indulging in their fantasies about the imperial or neo-liberal oppression those pesky Europeans are subjecting us to. The second is to face reality. This is far rarer. One example is the dismal Peter Oborne accepting that one strand of his thirty years of bollocks (including vile and conspiracist Assad apologias) is in fact bollocks. Or like this Twitter lament supporting an EFTA Brexit and denouncing the hard-liners. While from the government, Geoffrey Cox realised something that was obvious from the beginning, but was dismissed as "project fear" whenever it was raised.
I just feel we have under-estimated its complexity. We are unpicking 45 years of in-depth integration. This needed to be done with very great care, in a phased and graduated way. It needs a hard-headed understanding of realities.
A brief glimpse of sanity amongst an ocean of deranged, hyperbolic failure.

Most reports see May's obsession with immigration at the heart of her continual denial of reality. Yet Labour shares it. They have repeated their commitment to ending freedom of movement. This is sold as an anti-immigration stance. It's completely misleading. There are two implications to it. The first is that this means leaving the single market and all its benefits, despite the weasel words about full access. A customs union is inadequate. It does not secure frictionless trade. It does not solve the Irish border issue. And it ignores services, some 80% of our trade. At the time of the referendum, leaving the single market was described as a 'hard Brexit.' I think that's a fair description. Labour is now advocating a hard Brexit while pretending that it's soft.

Secondly, Labour now proudly declares that it stands for stripping a fundamental right from all UK citizens. It takes away our freedom of movement, though they only talk about doing it to others. It shrinks our life chances. And it does so while talking about 'traditional voters' and the 'white working class.' That isn't a socialist class analysis. It's identity politics, not class politics. Socialism is about the interests that unite, not the identities that divide.

Nobody is critical of the effects of migration of northerners to London, Londoners to the north, the English to Scottish universities or Scots to English jobs. Few talk about the effects of young people leaving for a better life elsewhere or of the elderly retiring to small rural communities. No, what they want to stop are foreigners. Except they won't. Instead they want to stop Europeans coming, while frantically searching for people from other countries to replace them.

Cox's "45 years of in-depth integration" is about more than economics. It's about people. People who have worked and studied abroad. People who have retired and escaped the British climate. People who have made friends and built new, multi-national families. It's about their children and their birthright. It's even a staple of British popular culture, from Auf Wiedersehen Pet to Benidorm. Labour and the Conservatives are proudly announcing that they are going to take all that away from us and expect us to be grateful. It's mean-minded stupidity.

People's lives are going to be damaged, jobs will be lost, families faced with impossible choices, and xenophobia legitimised - for what? For something that will fail. The only way a policy that flawed could be adopted is if the normal processes of scrutiny, deliberation, and representation are by-passed. That's why the Brexiters demanded a referendum. It was their only chance because, as Otto English puts it,
Requiring the British public to vote in a binary referendum on a matter as complex as EU membership, was akin to asking a three year old to perform brain surgery with a stick of novelty cheese.
Don't blame the voters. Neither remainers or leavers knew much about it. None of us were qualified or understood the functioning of EU institutions, nor did we know about the effectiveness of the single market. That meant we were open to persuasion and unable to judge lies from facts. The only ones who knew were the experts who we were told to distrust. Otto English again:
As the Brexit fuse burns to its cinder, what the UK needs more than ever, is a little more acceptance that many Britons are simply bewildered as to what the hell is going on. That doesn’t make them stupid – it makes them normal.
Like us, the political class is out of its depth in this self-inflicted crisis. There is only one thing to do - revoke, breathe a sigh of relief, and become normal again.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Another fine mess

Everyone is sharing this, so why not me as well. Since June 2016 I have been bashing out stuff on here as a catharsis. I needn't have bothered, this says it all. A cabinet minister quoted on Newsnight the night before the withdrawal agreement gets defeated for the third time, despite offering the ultimate bribe, a crack at the leadership to Boris Moses Johnson. Never can failure be more deserved.

If we do leave, I think the traditional UK motto, honi soit qui mal y pense, should be replaced on our new blue passports. After all, it is in Norman French. This Anglo-Saxon would fit nicely. Fuck knows? I'm past caring. It's like the living dead in here. The new symbol of our nation.

And in case you are in doubt about the meaning of Brexit, look at the demonstration outside the Houses of Parliament. A knot of several hundred people being addressed by Tommy Robinson. Serious Eurosceptics of left and right, together with elderly right wing nostalgics yearning for imperial measures, are propping up an explicitly fascist movement. All the while the sharks of the ERG swim around, scenting blood, waiting to dismantle the post-war welfare state. It is against everything that Labour has achieved and everything it stands for. It has to be defeated, not just in numbers, but intellectually through a progressive, democratic Europeanism. We are winning, but clinging on by our fingernails at the same time.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

An exam question

Given that:

1. The strength of a mandate is based on the size of the majority, not the number of people who voted for the winner. The number of votes cast only indicates the size of the population and the turnout. A 4% majority is a weak mandate.

2. Out of the total electorate, 17,410,742 people voted to leave. 29,090,500 didn't.

3. "The will of the people" is not a democratic concept. It takes a single fixed opinion and insists that it must be enforced regardless of opposition. It is populist authoritarianism. Consensus is a democratic concept. It is about negotiation and change, reaching agreement, listening and deliberating, with no predetermined conclusion.

4. The British Social Attitudes Survey (page 5, table 1) shows that there has never been a majority for leaving the EU. The only time that it came close (41%) was in 2016 as a result of the polarising effects of the referendum and support has been falling away ever since. According to Faisal Islam  there "hasn’t been a single poll in almost a year now with a Leave lead." Of the 70 polls since the 2017 general election only two show a small Leave lead, five were ties, and sixty-three had Remain leads. The latest poll showing a ten point lead for Remain is a sign that we are reverting slowly to the mean.

5. Every credible study of the economic impact of Brexit shows it to be damaging in most parts of the economy, and will hit the poorest people and areas worst. This reportage from SMEs is frightening.

Make a case for the EU referendum being a) democratic, and b) a good idea.

Monday, March 25, 2019

End times

Brexit died last weekend.

By that I don't mean that it won't happen. There is still a threat of political stupidity hanging over us because of the capture of a political party by loons (not an overstatement after reading Johnson channeling his inner Moses in the Telegraph). What I mean is that it has returned to the margins where it used to lurk as an eccentric irritation rather than as a horde of vandals set on sacking Brussels. The majority are still bored and baffled, but, as a few dozen devotees followed Farage, up to two million ordinary people gathered from all over the country to march in London to oppose Brexit. The visuals of the comparative strengths of the two events would not comfort Leavers. Leaving is no longer a viable political option.

The march was to demand a second referendum, but an online Parliamentary petition to cancel Brexit altogether by revoking article 50 and remaining in the EU, has gone viral. At the time of writing it has over five and a half million signatures and is still climbing. The largest demonstration ever has been joined by the largest petition ever. Material reality is on the march against religious faith. All Brexit has left is the appeal to belief.

If Brexit happens, it will do so in the teeth of widespread opposition and confront the most surprising event of modern British politics - the rise of a mass, determined, pro-European movement. Leaving will not be accepted, it will be fought through all the torturous negotiations in the years to follow, and, given the overwhelming sentiments of young people, it will be reversed. All we will be doing is damaging the country, permanently losing our many privileges within the EU, making people poorer, and diminishing our power in the illusion that we are gaining sovereignty. For what? An interregnum. Brexit is an exercise in futility.

As I have always said, leaving is a project of the right. It is the means to two ends, redoubling the Thatcherite revolution and winning permanent control of the Conservative Party. Though a small group of Lexiters have jumped on the bandwagon as well, with the opposite aim of greater economic collectivism. Both see the European Union as a constraint. But there isn't much evidence to suggest that either have come to grips with the nature of the modern economy. In this excellent article, Duncan Weldon looks at Brexit in the context of 20th century economic history and concludes that there is nothing original about it:
For all the talk of a radical change in the economic policy set‐up, it is just as likely that the end result is a very British attempt to ‘muddle through’ with a model which itself is not working and of which one of the key props (EU membership) has just been kicked away. The implication of this is that Brexit will not generate a new model for the UK, but simply an inferior version of the existing one.
It's hardly surprising that Leavers haven't got the faintest idea of what they want out of Brexit or of how to achieve it.

But it is a political revolution. It recasts Britain's place in the world as one of vulnerable isolation -sorry Global Britain. It is driven by nationalism. And that's the problem. It's attraction is emotional. Get to the details and the justification falls apart. It's a vacuous revolution, whose main aim seems to be the entrenchment of the Tory right in the leadership, regardless of electoral consequences. Indeed. consequences of any sort seem to be the least of their concerns.

In a couple of interesting posts Will Bott describes the structural causes of the increasingly radical noises coming from Leavers as they shift from Norway to nihilism. there are a number of factors, but the most appropriate here is that Leave has always had a problem of legitimacy, which is why they have never been comfortable with their victory. From the very first they have attacked Remainers, often in vicious and provocative language. They claimed the mantle of 'democracy' and used it it to fix the referendum result as the only democratic outcome for all time.

The political parties have acquiesced in this game too, bowing down before the altar of 'respect the referendum result,' regardless of how it was achieved, whether opinion has changed, or, most startlingly of all, whatever the consequences of the result actually are. Crash the economy? Respect the result. Make people poorer? Respect the result. Strip people of their rights? Respect the result. Threaten peace in Northern Ireland? Respect the result. Utter madness.

The other line is the psychic perception of 'they knew what they were voting for,' which, by coincidence, is always the favourite option of the clairvoyant. Paul Evans skewers this one here.

Saturday's march challenged the complacency. The 'will of the people' might not be as clear cut as leavers insisted it was. Their first impulse was to denigrate the demonstrators to try and strip them of their legitimacy. They were marching against democracy, rather than practising it. Then we got the sneering. For a long time we have had the strange spectacle of multi-millionaires decrying ordinary people as the elite. Now wealthy commentators declared that Remainers are middle class and so are inauthentic, which means that their opinions must be invalid. Lexiters jumped on the Tory bandwagon too. Picking up on some naff posters, middle class leftists decried middle class protestors for being middle class. The reality of a diverse demonstration, showing a depth of anger that could bring coaches to London from as far away as Orkney, should have made them question their world view.

Both left and right Leavers were caught up by the myth of Brexit as a working class rebellion to be romanticised in different ways. Duncan Weldon summarised why that is not so:
It is tempting to try to describe the Brexit vote as a revolt by the losers of globalisation—communities that had experienced de‐industrialisation and stagnating wages simply voting against what the elite desired. One could argue that the Labour party and the leadership of the trade unions have been disconnected from their traditional support bases and that class politics (despite appearances) actually drove the Leave victory. Innumerable newspaper opinion columns have indeed attempted to make this case. But the evidence suggests otherwise. Despite the popular image of Brexit being something which finds its loudest proponents in a stereotypical northern working men's club, the reality is that the most hardcore Brexiteers are usually to be located in the bar of a southern golf club. 
Labour's nervousness about the possibility of losing 30% of its vote and recklessness with the risk to the other 70%, led to a curious decision. On the day of the biggest street protest in history, against a Tory government and in support of official Labour policy, the Leader of the Opposition dodged it and spent the day in Morecambe, grabbing a photo opportunity with the statue of a dead comedian.

A cynical politician would have looked at that demonstration and the distribution of signatures on the petition and seen millions of voters in strategic locations that they need to win over at the next general election. The less cynical would have realised that forty years in the EU have produced, for enough people, an affinity, identity, and attachment to the rights it offers its citizens, to make Brexit divisive and toxic. A realist would have read the hard-headed economic analyses, seen the joint alarm of the TUC and CBI, looked at the millions on the streets and thought - no, this mustn't be done. I think it might take a bit more time for our current ones to cotton on.

That's why Brexit is dead, but it still lives on. It's a bugger to kill. The temptation of a zombie Brexit remains. It would be a disaster. Now's time to hammer a stake through its heart. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2019


Many miscarriages of justice have the same feature. The accused has confessed and the confession evidence is used to convict. What is important, though, is how that confession is obtained. The use of physical duress is one way, but the other is repetitive questioning until the moment the suspect cracks and says they did it just to make it stop. They withdraw the confession the next day, but that, and the hundreds of previous denials, doesn't matter, and they are charged. The one confession is all that counts. This is how May is approaching getting her withdrawal agreement through Parliament.

Parliament and MPs have failed in the past. They should never have voted for the referendum, nor should they have voted for article 50 without a detailed and agreed plan. But the current crisis is not a Parliamentary failure. They have woken up - belatedly. The Speaker has paused the interrogation process. Parliament is holding an overbearing executive to account. The crisis is that the executive refuses to listen or even accept the fact that it has suffered an historic defeat. There is no majority in Parliament for any one form of Brexit. The same applies in the country.

However much they try and blame someone else, the failure is the government's. The failure is the Conservative Party's. The failure is the Prime Minister's.

To negotiate a way through the thicket created by a badly designed, legally non-binding, pre-legislative referendum, with no methods for leaving specified, would have taken intelligence, imagination, flexibility, good judgement, alliance building, listening, and negotiating skills. May has none of them. Instead we have a pretence of strength, that is really cowardice in the face of the bullying of the far right ERG in her own party. I fear that she is neither intellectually or psychologically suitable for the task. This Spiegel piece is damning, but seems to hit the target.

Ultimately, the blame lies with Brexit itself. It's a stupid policy with no consensus to back it. The referendum only gave a weak mandate (a narrow majority of the vote, making Leave the largest minority of the electorate on that one day). Never mind the illegalities or the lies, Leave promised what could never be delivered. A weak mandate to deliver the impossible is why we are here.

Accept that Brexit has failed. Accept that it has gone wrong. There's nothing humiliating about recognising the truth. And remember that suspect under interrogation. Even if Parliament accepts the withdrawal agreement under duress, that acceptance will be withdrawn afterwards. The result will be years and years of wrangling over our future. And as it goes on, the country will become poorer and our international reputation will collapse even more. We are already an international laughing stock, we will then be seen as untrustworthy as we are ludicrous.

I meant to write an analytical post about democracy, I meant to answer my blogger friend Harry Barne's comment a couple of posts ago. Instead, this is just a long scream into the void (or to the handful of people who read this blog). Stop it! Don't mess around with another referendum. Stop it now. Revoke article 50. It's time to begin the task of rebuilding our international relationships, to repair the economic damage, and to reform ourselves - to renew democracy, promote equality, and extend social protection. Let's reject the spivs and demagogues and deal with reality. Let's rethink our relationship with Europe in a sane, considered, and consensual manner. But will we? That's the biggest question of all.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

The Photographer at Sixteen

The Photographer at Sixteen
George Szirtes
Quercus Publishing
London, 2019
ISBN: 9780857058539

Back in February 2008, George Szirtes wrote something on his blog about poetry that was so intriguing that I copied and kept it.
There is, most crucially, the ghost in language, the feeling that life haunts language in a ghostlike fashion, glimpsed now here, now there, offering a shudder here, a shudder there, but that when you put out your hand through the words to grasp it, it escapes you. Your hand passes straight through it.
When I read his poetry, I always thought that I could sense the ghost. It was the spectre of history, of the lingering smell of totalitarianism. I can now see that my understanding was inadequate. Ghosts are people after all. And in this wonderful book, George invites the reader in to meet the most personal ghost of all, his mother - more than three decades after her death. 'Come and get to know her,' he seems to be saying. 'Let me tell you as much as I can about her life. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin at the end.'

And so he does, winding us back through time, unravelling some of the mystery and enigma of a victim who refused to be one, of a survivor who would not be defined by her survival.

He tells her story with respect, tenderness, and honesty. It isn't a sentimental book. It's intelligent and affectionate, capturing the spirit of a forceful personality. Inevitably, her life was haunted by the great crimes of the twentieth century, but the book has more to say. I smiled recalling the shared familiarities of a 1950s Home Counties upbringing. I understood the pressures of intense maternal love while growing up in the shadow of a generation that had seen too much. That was personal to me, but a reader will find many other things to identify with and think about. George starts from his own memories, then steps outside himself and ransacks the recollections of others so he can fill in the story of her life before he was born. Those are the events that shaped her, and were what he needed to know. But they're also part of a collective experience that should never be forgotten.

His mother, Magda, was a photographer. And George's narrative is structured around those everyday ghosts that hang on our walls, sit in frames on our sideboards, or are tucked away in albums, waiting to be retrieved. They catch a moment in time, often ambiguous, demanding interrogation, and are a source of reflection. His intimate thoughts are bound up in those photos. He searches for meaning in each and every one of them – as, I suppose, we all do when one catches our eye and interrupts the progress of our lives with memory.

It's fitting that the penultimate chapter meditates on five photographs, the only reminders of life before tragedy. A fragmentary record of an unrecorded time. And when the ghosts have been properly scrutinised and laid to rest, what is left is language. Language is the vehicle for the imagination, to recreate the senses and emotions of past times, and to cautiously invent what is missing. And as George says, "The trick is to invent the truth."

The Photographer at Sixteen is an original and compelling book. It does tell truth. Truth that we need to hear. And when you reach through the words, the ghost of a life still slips away. You can't touch, but you have felt a presence, one that stays with you.

Friday, March 01, 2019

Breaking up the party

What's going happen now? I've not got a clue. Both main parties have seen defections to a new Parliamentary grouping. They both responded by going on manoeuvres, with nobody too sure about the sincerity of their new poses. Neither appear to be functioning and both are seething with discontent. Prediction is impossible and speculation is tedious. It's more interesting to think about how we got here, and there is something useful to be said on that.

Let's talk about the generic causes of splits in parties.

We should abolish the words 'centrists' and 'moderates.' They are meaningless. Both draw their language from the idea of a political spectrum – a supposed sliding scale of positions from far left to far right. I've always thought that's rubbish. What we have are clusters of ideas as part of more or less coherent world views. Those clusters overlap in certain key areas. Those areas are the basis of a coalition. Because of the way our electoral system works we have intra, rather than inter, party coalitions. Party loyalty and unity holds those coalitions together around the core shared beliefs. The non-consensual ideas exist outside the mainstream and compete, sometimes winning influence, sometimes losing. This is the 'broad church.' It is the core that holds the party together though.

But parties are also systems of power and problems emerge when one group is tempted away from small victories on the margins by the prospect of total victory, power to the exclusion of others. That pushes the consensual, unifying beliefs to the margins. Party unity ceases to be a compromise, it becomes a rhetorical demand for obedience and submission to a new ideological ascendency. The sentimental attachment to the myth of the party holds it together for a while, but it can't last. Dissidents will rebel or defect. And that's not all. Ideological purity is never enough. Deviation becomes betrayal. A new purity is found, and obedience sought. Purists fight purists for the only true purity. Ironically, compromise is the way to prevent schism and thus keeps an ideology functional, instead of splintering it into warring factions. Both parties have fallen prey to this temptation of purity, and it's the source of their troubles.

Secondly, we need to look at the specific, proximate causes. Today's splits are around Brexit for both of them and anti-Semitism for the Labour Party. These are both animating beliefs and symbols of allegiance. You can tell a person's politics by how they define themselves against either one of them. Brexiters and anti-Zionists are rebels against the mainstream.

Take Brexit to start with. Britain's EU membership was an answer to a real question; how we should deal with Britain's post-war relative decline. As the EEC economies grew rapidly, we were being left behind and were seen as "the sick man of Europe". The debate as to what to do polarised around two positions, nationalism and Europeanism. Right wing nationalists still had imperialist pretensions and called for an ethnically homogeneous nation state, aligned with America. The left were not bothered about ethnicity, but wanted an autonomous and sovereign socialist nation state. Pro-Europeans fretted about British vulnerability if we were to remain isolated in a world increasingly divided into power blocks. Their answer was to join the then EEC and become part of a growing economic alliance and political union.

The advocates of Europe won, and, with the progress of globalisation, it proved to be a wise choice – probably the only viable option. Today, a multi-polar, interdependent world is emerging through powerful regional organisations, the most effective of which is the EU. Britain's future had been successfully resolved.

From 1992 the single market accelerated and deepened the process of economic integration. The Social Chapter established social democratic rights. The result was a model of industrial production and trade in both goods and services that made leaving the Union phenomenally difficult without doing immense damage.

What's more, after Thatcher's disastrous monetarist experiment in the early 80s and the consequent rapid de-industrialisation of the country, Britain found a partial remedy through the encouragement of inward investment. Large industrial concerns, such as Japanese companies, were invited to base their operations in the country. The main attraction was Britain's EU membership, especially membership of the single market. Now they are leaving. They won't be coming back.

There was also a more difficult debate about the extent of the political integration of the EU. Should it be a loose federation of nation states with limited areas of competence, or a federal union – a United States of Europe? This debate was clouded with linguistic confusion. In European discourse, 'federalism' is understood to mean decentralisation, in Britain it became associated with greater centralisation of power – the fabled "European super-state." The issue was resolved by the 2007 Lisbon Treaty. The final form of the treaty was a victory for the decentralists. It defined and limited the spheres of competence for the EU both inside and outside the Eurozone. It emphasised the practice of subsidiarity, that wherever possible decision making should be devolved to the national level. Most importantly, it made it impossible for additional functions to be given to EU bodies without a treaty change, which meant that every member state and their legislatures had a veto on any proposal to extend the sphere of competence of EU institutions.

At last, Britain's position was resolved and secure. Except the nationalists hadn't gone away. They lurked on the crank fringes of left and right, but it was their ability to be destructive in the Conservative Party that won them a referendum. Yet the issues they banged on about were over. The EU was not about to become a super-state. Britain not only had a leading decision-making role, but also had a veto over the extension of future power and EU expansion. These were old debates, long settled (which, perhaps, partially explains the generational divide in the vote, the issues only resonated with those who had longer memories.) The result was that the Leave campaign had to invent a fictitious EU to rail at, while fighting a more general culture war to avoid dealing with specifics.

Then they won. That meant dealing with reality. And they hadn't a clue. So, they ploughed on with fictions and fantasies, tales of conspiracy and betrayal, all the hallmarks of the purist and the fanatic. All of them ways of avoiding the truth. In the meantime, companies are leaving, investment is drying up, and the costs are phenomenal. The only certainty is that if we do leave, we will be poorer than otherwise. Trust and respect for the country have been shredded. All Brexiters have succeeded in doing is to return the old question about Britain's role to the agenda. Only this time the answer will be more difficult in a substantially transformed world where we will be more isolated, having voluntarily abandoned the only viable solution at a huge cost to ourselves.

Whereas Brexit has enpowered the fringe group on the Tory right, who John Major famously referred to as "bastards," the Labour anti-Semitism crisis is the product of the new Labour leadership coming in from the margins.

This needs greater explanation. There has always been anti-Semitism in the left - always. However, the form it takes and the vehicle for its expression changes. The current version is intrinsically tied to anti-Zionism and is articulated through a virulent hatred of the state of Israel, a reversal of Labour's traditionally pro-Zionist stance.

There are two main factors underlying that shift. Firstly, there was a change in left thinking in the second half of the 20th century. Class analysis was eclipsed by 'anti-imperialism.' Instead of class conflict, this new left emphasised the struggle against Western capitalist imperialism. As a result, nationalism, where it opposed the West, was seen as a progressive rather than a divisive force. It was to be supported in whatever form it took and however reactionary its politics. This took hold in the far left and they took up the Palestinian cause.

This brings in the second factor, anti-Judaism. The term comes from David Nirenberg's book, a remarkable intellectual history. It traces the way Judaism has always been a cypher for one side of a Manichean struggle, the nature of which changed with the times. Whether it related to the reading of the scriptures, opposition to the Enlightenment, or finance capitalism, Judaism was seen as both the enemy of civilisation and the cause of its potential downfall. Apply this way of thought to 'anti-imperialism' and it isn't surprising that it's the Jewish state that's seen as the embodiment of modern evils – racism, colonialism, and empire. Thus, the enemy becomes the United States and Israel. Slowly, and inexorably, the insidious conspiracy theory that is anti-Semitism makes Israel the instigator, the hidden force, the sinister manipulator, through its all-pervasive 'lobby.'

And so, a fictitious Israel emerges from the left imagination. The language that describes it comes from two alliances that they made; Stalinist anti-Semitism, together with both Arab and Islamist nationalisms seeking to impose their hegemony over the multi-ethnic and multi-religious Middle East. Arab nationalism carried with it the contempt of the coloniser for the colonised and ended in the 'ethnic cleansing' of the ancient Jewish communities from the Arab world (they now form the majority population in Israel). Islamism introduced the worst of exterminatory European anti-Semitism into its discourse. Colonial settler state; Zionist Entity; Zionism is racism; Apartheid; the same as the Nazis; these are familiar terms in the milieu and often blend with older, more sinister tropes – child killing, organ harvesting, blood lust, and the ubiquitous use of money to corrupt and destroy. They see the Israel/Palestine conflict as the source and origin of all conflict in the Middle East. Without Israel there would be peace.

None of this is true. The conflict is real enough. The existential threat to Israel is ever-present. The ethnic nationalism of the Israeli far right is vile. The Palestinian condition is wretched. But the portrayal of this conflict within the anti-Zionist movement is false – historically and morally. But it has to be thought of as the truth to fit into the anti-imperialist world view and to justify hating Israel.

This is the milieu that shaped Corbyn's world view. His alliances were indiscriminate. His anti-Zionism an article of faith. He is extremely uncomfortable when challenged and incapable of seeing this as anti-Semitism in any way. He sees himself solely as a defender of the Palestinian people. This too is a problem. It feeds a form of denial. Whether that is the harassing of the Jewish Labour Movement by the newly formed fringe group Jewish Voice for Labour, or the accusation that this is an imaginary 'Blairite' plot dreamed up to attack Corbyn (sometimes with the suggestion that they have been paid to do it by Israel!), it indicates the existence of institutional racism under the McPherson definition"
The collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.
When Jews said that they experienced this as anti-Semitism, they were disbelieved, something that would be inconceivable if the same was said by another minority. And there was worse. This is where social media can be poisonous. Log on to Labour supporting forums and twitter accounts and it won't take long for you to come across vicious and unambiguous Jew hatred. Social media also allows that to be sent directly to its targets. Harassment and abuse are widespread. It needs stopping, instead it's spreading into the mainstream.

It needn't be like this. To be pro-Palestinian doesn't mean denying the right of Israel to exist. Parts of the revolutionary left have the intelligence to reject this crap. For instance, take your time to read this open letter to Corbyn by the Trotskyist Sean Matgamna of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty.

Both Brexit and anti-Semitism share common features. They are both the symbol of political change within their respective parties, and both mark the entry of conspiracy thinking into the mainstream. They tell us that their targets are conspiring to undermine us all. The EU is trying to subjugate Britain, reducing it to a "vassal state." Zionists are using their wealth and power to secretly rule the world. These are articles of faith that bind their adherents together. Neither are true, and both run aground on the rocks of reality. But they don't have to be real for people to act on them, and the actions themselves are only too real and can hurt real people.

A stench of unreason is seeping through from fringe movements, and with them comes the threat of violence borne on the sanctity of their belief. If parties split, it's of little importance compared to the urgent need to end our complacency over the risks we face.

There's a lot of talk about how we are reliving the 1980s. I don't buy it. Things are very different from then, even if some politicians are consciously trying to re-fight the old struggles that they lost previously. However, I don't find history comforting. It shows a habit of confidently embracing folly and fervently believing bollocks. The consequences are rarely benign.