Tuesday, October 05, 2021

Boris the baddie

It’s easy to comfort yourself that your opponents are bad people. But I don’t think Boris Johnson is a bad man. I think he is a trivial man

What a masterly put down from Keir Starmer's conference speech. Nothing could be more wounding to a narcissist than being called trivial. It's dismissive and contemptuous. Starmer was also nodding towards Angela Rayner – 'that's how to do it.' The only problem is that it's wrong. Johnson is a bad man. He's bad enough to be dangerous.

We've lived through an era of triviality in serious times. Populism has saturated politics after the financial crisis. When we needed complex interventions, we were offered simple solutions. No serious politician would have even risked leaving the EU. The costs and consequences were clear to anyone who was not blinded by ideology. With a disruptive and organised minority of extremists pushing for idiocy, any capable party leader would have crushed them. They should have been marginalised not indulged. Cameron's stupidity has now meant that the extremists have taken over the party. Conservatism has been replaced by nationalism. 

Even allowing for the referendum result, nobody with any sense would have delivered Brexit, certainly not in this way. It wouldn't have been unprecedented to dodge a bullet in the national interest. After the bizarre 2011 referendum in Greece, Tsipras looked at the consequences of expulsion from the Euro, forgot the result, and did a deal on worse terms than the ones that had been rejected. Varoufakis was ditched to spend more time making a lot of money out of the credulous. Instead of choosing sanity, Britain ploughed ahead with self-harm. But then we were in the land of the inadequate, with Etonian overconfidence facing post-Leninist self-righteousness. While May, more serious but not more capable, allowed her obsession with immigration to trump the national interest.

Johnson appears to be the most trivial of all. But Max Hastings got him right early. 

Most politicians are ambitious and ruthless, but Boris is a gold medal egomaniac. I would not trust him with my wife nor – from painful experience – my wallet. It is unnecessary to take any moral view about his almost crazed infidelities, but it is hard to believe that any man so conspicuously incapable of controlling his own libido is fit to be trusted with controlling the country.

His chaotic public persona is not an act – he is, indeed, manically disorganised about everything except his own image management. He is also a far more ruthless, and frankly nastier, figure than the public appreciates.

And here, after his ascent to power was guaranteed:

… he cares for no interest save his own fame and gratification.

Sonia Purnell said the same in her devastating biography of Johnson. And even in our small corner of Greece, where the Johnson family have a holiday home, he is disliked by people who have had dealings with him. As Hastings puts it, "Almost the only people who think Johnson a nice guy are those who do not know him."

Johnson tells lies with easy confidence. About everything. If stuck for a reply, he makes it up. But something more important is going on. Pressure on the courts, threatening the BBC, voter suppression through photo ID, restricting the independence of the Electoral Commission, etc. etc. These steps are all drawn from the alt-right playbook. While being excused over Covid for his libertarian instincts, his authoritarian actions are there to see and point to a different person.

Journalists are fond of naive pieces saying that Johnson is to be ousted, that he will step down, that his time is up. Forget it. This is the one thing he cares about, and all his ruthlessness and cunning will be used to keep him in power. He doesn't want to use it for any serious purpose, he wants it for himself. 

There was one chance to get rid of him early after his prorogation of Parliament was found to be unlawful. There was a majority of MPs who would have voted for a motion of no confidence and installed a temporary government. Corbyn's ego prevented that as he insisted that he had to lead it, rather than a senior figure with no personal ambitions who was acceptable to all. However, Johnson was still stuck until the opposition parties astonishingly gave him the early general election he craved. Bad people have to be lucky in their enemies if they are to persist. And the opposition will miss opportunities if they don't take their opponent seriously and forget that the chances won't come round again for a long time. No, Johnson is not trivial, and though it's a beautifully cruel jibe, thinking he is will lead to a fatal underestimation of such a flawed, and destructive man.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Freedom free movement

Labour shadow cabinet ministers have been talking to the media, all pushing the same message that Labour in power will never reintroduce freedom of movement - in the middle of a crisis partially caused by the ending of freedom of movement - when polling shows popular support for freedom of movement running at over 60% - when immigration has never been a less salient issue - and without mentioning that it's a reciprocal right that benefits us as much as others. It's gesture politics, another version of Ed Miliband's anti-immigration mug. That was a huge success, wasn't it? My tip is that if Labour wants to be populist, it should choose something popular, not something that will dismay most of its voters to appease a fictional notion of an atavistic working class.

In doing so, it has solemnly pledged:

1. That Labour will never again be a member of the single market, let alone join EFTA or rejoin the EU, whatever the economic advantages in doing so.

2. That Labour will maintain barriers to trade and hard borders with our largest and nearest trading partner and supplier of food, regardless of any damage to the country.

3. It will ensure that any closer relationship with the EU will be limited and that we will negotiate with them from a weak position. It rules out a future relationship like Switzerland's.

4. It promises not to restore the rights that British citizens had removed from them by Brexit.

As a result, Labour stands with the old against the young, and for nostalgic nationalism against progressive internationalism. To do that, it will sacrifice future prosperity. It is standing for hard Brexit. This is a curious position for a party with an overwhelmingly pro-European membership, when a huge majority of young voters loathe Brexit, and when polls consistently find that a majority think that Brexit was a mistake - despite the lack of political leadership on the issue.

Do they understand the full implications of what they are saying? I don't know. They have backed Blue Labour over New Labour, and are ignoring a whole range of alternative traditions that should be part of social democratic renewal. It's an unimaginative dead end. 

Brexit was a mad idea that threw down a challenge to the political class. They have failed it, totally. And even the current mess is not forcing a rethink. As for me, I have my permanent Greek residency. I am the last generation to salvage something out of the wreckage. For every one else, some freedom of movement will still exist, but only for the rich.

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Times change

 Extraordinary courage. 


From the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan. Women demonstrating in Kabul against the Taliban.

The demonstrations were dispersed, but this was one response to the call for a 'national uprising' by the resistance.

And here:

I was broken when I first heard the Taliban took over but I told myself I shouldn’t give up my fight for my rights. I decided to take to the streets with about 40 or 50 other women & publicly challenge the Taliban. No fear, now we are united.

This is the reason why history does not repeat itself.  For all the imperfections of its democracy, twenty years of building a civil society brought hope, experience, and activity. Nothing can be turned back to how it was. The Taliban have seized a changed country that doesn't want it. Most people will seek to survive, a few will collaborate, but some will resist. The future is unpredictable, but I am in awe of the bravery of these Afghans in the face of brutality after being betrayed by allies. 

Liberty and equality in modern liberal societies is worth defending or winning - in Afghanistan as in Belarus and elsewhere. When rights are taken away, people will struggle to regain them, even at appalling personal cost.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

History

“You were given the choice between war and dishonour.  You chose dishonour and you will have war.”

There are no historical analogies, nor does history repeat itself. There are precedents, however, and the precedent of delivering an ally as a gift to your enemy is not a promising one.

And when that enemy is, in this case, an anti-democratic, totalitarian, ideologically committed misogyny with a history of ultra violence and the persecution of minorities, it is likely to be a catastrophe for the people who have been abandoned.

The trickiest question in history is to ask how wars end, rather than how they begin. And twenty years is not as long as people may think to achieve a settlement. If patience is a virtue, impatience is a weakness that feeds into a nirvana fallacy.

I don't know enough to be able to say anything more, other than express my moral disgust and sense of unease. I don't think that this will turn out well.

Sunday, August 08, 2021

No transport of delight

I like this piece, 20 reasons why there is shortage of drivers in the UK. In the media the shortage is being presented as either down to the 'pingdemic' or Brexit, depending on your ideological position. It's a bit more complicated than that though.

Of the twenty reasons Oryński gives, only one is COVID and half a dozen are Brexit related. The others are long-standing issues about working conditions and employer relations. If they had been addressed earlier, the system might have been more resilient to the temporary shock of COVID but probably nothing could have stemmed the damage of the permanent impact of Brexit. Especially when it was imposed without proper preparation and against all expert advice. It's not just the new trade barriers that are a shock, it's the interaction with structural weaknesses that were already present. And just as the shock was radical, so is the response.

And here lies the problem. COVID will end, but the social and economic impact of Brexit is long lasting. Once people and businesses have left, once the investment has flowed out to the EU to stay in the single market, they won't ever come back. We could rejoin tomorrow, but they have gone forever. The UK's reputation is ruined. Why return? Especially for people who have experienced this: 

Brexit had opened a black hole into the deepest layers of British society that we haven’t seen before. The level of harassment and hate crime has risen to unprecedented levels. If you were European, would you really want to come to the country where at every little step – from dealing with Home Office and Border Forces to the trip to your local pub – you can be reminded in a very clear manner, that you’re not welcome here?
In just seven months, decades of damage has been done - permanent damage. And every single thing was as predicted and was warned about. Experts in trade, in European law, people in the arts, business organisations, trade unions, and even the two previous Prime Ministers who negotiated peace in Northern Ireland all warned against Brexit. They pointed out the pitfalls and dangers. All were dismissed with a single phrase, 'project fear.' It was a neat formulation that meant that the warnings could be conveniently ignored without the effort of engaging with their substance. 

I am writing this in Greece. A short distance across the Aegean, the beautiful island of Evia is burning. Further south, Athens is threatened. We are safe here but on high alert. It's a national catastrophe following on from an unprecedented heatwave. And it struck me that Brexiters are peddling ignorance in the same way that climate change deniers did, and still do. Then I thought of the COVID sceptics doing the same. It's a particular pathology. People who are experts in their field, have deep knowledge and experience, are ignored in favour of people spouting what they would prefer as an alternative to truth. Comforting fictions only work for a time until reality bites. And for most of us, reality is sinking its teeth deep into our flesh. Then I looked at these denialisms again, and not only are their ways of thinking and propagandising the same, so are the people. There are exceptions, but there is a big overlap between extreme Brexiters, climate denial, and COVID scepticism. Dig deeper and you find the same sources of funding too, as Peter Geoghegan explores in his excellent book.

This is how democracy is undermined. If democracy is reduced to winning a vote through successful marketing and misdirection rather than popular and expert deliberation, when it can delay action or push a government to behave irresponsibly against the national interest, then it becomes the instrument of special interests and the plaything of political hobbyists -  people with the time and money to pursue their obsessions; a huge over-confidence in their own abilities; disregard for the consequences of their actions on others; and disdain for any institutions and processes that restrain them. 

The result is that we get caught up in a vortex of utter bollocks, convenient ignorance expressed with all the confidence that privileged inexpertise brings with it. And we all have to live with the consequences of their attempt to impose their fantasy worlds on people living in the real one.

Monday, June 28, 2021

England, my England

England's a nice country. The weather's crap though, I'll give you that. 

Yet, journalists are addicted to painting it as some sort of nationalist hell-hole, sunk in flag-waving nostalgia, and full of callous people reeking of xenophobia. It's not true. Though the country smiles, part of it presents itself with a snarl and that's what we see. Football supporters abroad, young holiday makers bingeing on cheap booze, sunshine, and freedom from restraint, and the Brexiters. Our dysfunctional and unpleasant government has joined in the snarling too. It has released a barrage of abuse at the EU though balances it with horrible and gullible obsequiousness towards any non-European who will do a trade deal with us. 

Here's the government negotiating the Australia trade deal

   
And here's the government after reading the terms of the deal it has just signed.

   
In all the coverage it's easy to see the snarl but miss the smiles, especially when they're hidden behind self-deprecating grumbles in the drizzle. And this is the problem with politics at the moment. Everyone is obsessed with trying to please the snarlers. And they do so because they share three assumptions, none of which are wholly true. The first is cultural pessimism. 

This line, by the Blue Labour guru, Maurice Glassman, written more than a year ago is a classic example. 
The loyalty of the working-class to Labour is the fundamental reason that our country did not go fascist.
Eh? There is absolutely no evidence at all that this is true. Not a single competent social historian would make that claim. The working-class did not go fascist because they were not fascists. Fascism had no appeal. Besides, the class base for fascism was the lower middle class, together with some wealthier fellow travellers. If you add age into the equation, this was also the base for the Brexit vote. 

Blue Labour have a vision of a regressive, conservative working class wanting to stick it to the Europeans with their authenticity. Glassman's support for Brexit has nothing to do with the impact of the public policy, but the symbolism of the act. It's a common view, but Blue Labour types take it further by saying that their mythical workers are right and that they are incapable of change. The result is that rather than being representatives, they think that the Labour Party has to be the agent of white working-class anger. 

Once again, it isn't true. We don't have a snarling working class needing to be appeased by making foreigners suffer. The working classes are not homogenous - white, male, and unpleasant. This was something Hobsbawm pointed out in the late 70s. You would have thought that politicians would have caught on by now. The most important thing is that values do change, and as Sam Freedman points out have changed radically. 

The second is polarisation. Hans Rosling shows why this is based on common false assumptions.
Dividing the world into two distinct sides is simple and intuitive, and also dramatic because it implies conflict, and we do it without thinking, all the time...

The gap instinct makes us imagine division where there is just a smooth range, difference where there is convergence, and conflict where there is agreement. 
We see the snarling polarities clearly. They are the zealots, Brexiter ultras and their Corbynite placard waving, self-righteous equivalents on the left. Yet the poles are not flourishing the way a hyperbolic press would suggest. For example GB News is sinking in a sea of indifference. But if we follow the noise or confine our observations to Twitter, we miss the ambivalence and variation that makes up the majority. People's views are fluid, rather than fixed. They are open to difference and change. Nor are they certain. People asked a question on an issue they know little about, will provide a gut instinct answer. It won't be informed or permanent. The referendum was like that. The leave campaign presented Brexit as meaning 'the same only a little bit better.' It was enough for a fragile majority to think, 'Why not?' We have treated that impulse as binding and the division as entrenched. If you fear the committed, you don't see the vast ranks of the sympathetic and persuadable. 

The third fallacy, linked to this, is the failure to appreciate that most people aren't listening. This piece by Jonathan Chait brilliantly shows why America was never Trump writ large. It's lessons apply just as much to the UK.
Just how a man like this managed to eke out a narrow victory in 2016 has been a source of torment for his critics. It is easy to understand if you begin with the fact that most Americans — and especially the most persuadable Americans — spend little or no time following political news. Many of them have stressful lives that do not leave much room for it. Deciding which candidate to cast their vote for is like trying to follow the plot of a television series they have never seen and have only heard discussed in snippets over the water cooler. 
 This is why he can say that: 
 America, by and large, never wanted Trump to be president. 
It's the same with Brexit. Few of the leave voters lay awake at night craving Brexit, few understood it and the same can be said for many remain voters. It just seemed like a good idea on the day and once we had the vote we were stuck with it. Remain politicians were cowed by the referendum and refused to challenge an indecisive and narrow majority, while the zealots of leave used the mandate to radicalise their demands after the result. We are where we are because of a fundamental failure in representation, blown apart by a misconceived referendum. 

So, when the left sees the stubborn Conservative lead in the polls, their first instinct is to accuse the electorate of being uncaring or stupid or worse. It's the same analysis as Blue Labour. Both think that the people are brutes, only one of them thinks that they are to be scolded rather than appeased. If they want the real answer to their question of, 'Why can't they see what we can?' The answer is that they are not looking. And if the opposition wants them to look, it must point it out in a way that they will notice and then offer something better, something nicer, something in their own image. 

A cloud of timidity has settled over opposition politics. It's the fear of giving offence combined with liberal self-doubt. Instead, we need an opposition that recognises what a nice country we are and gives us a politics that reflects it. Sam Freedman again:
Instead of running scared of the right’s culture warriors, Labour should acknowledge that the public is largely on their side. That doesn’t mean being needlessly provocative or indulging in every spat. But progressive parties have the opportunity to build a popular counter-narrative about an out-of-touch, anti-science and intolerant right. Backing away from the fight is a terrible strategy; especially when you’re winning the war.

Sunday, June 06, 2021

It's the stupidity, stupid

There's a fabulous little 1976 essay by Carlo M Cipolla, The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity. It's been reissued recently and explains much of the mess the UK is in.

It's a transactional analysis. He divides people into four basic categories: the helpless, the intelligent, the bandit and the stupid. The helpless lose while the other party gains at their expense, in an exchange between intelligent people both parties gain, the bandit is someone who profits from another's losses, but then there is the most numerous category, the stupid.

This definition is from his third (and golden) basic law:

A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.

It's a pretty good working definition of stupidity, much more precise than than the word's customary use as a vague insult. Though I would want to de-personalise it. Intelligent people can promote stupid ideas, but as a description of stupid policy, it's pretty good. 

And it defines Brexit. There are no gains, everyone has lost something – the EU, the UK, individual citizens, business, services, Northern Ireland, the arts; everyone. There have not even been any savings, it's cost far more than it has saved in EU contributions. However devoted Brexiters are, it doesn't stop it being stupid.*

Now it has happened, it has to be dealt with. That's not easy.

Cipolla points out that the other categories of people can't understand the stupid. They think that people are behaving according to rational self-interest. Some talk about Brexiters' dark motives, claiming that they are out to make money, that they are disaster capitalists and tax avoiders, that there is some EU regulation that they want to avoid, or that there is a mysterious profit that they will make, rather than them simply being people attached to a stupid idea. Stupidity is baffling to those who are not stupid. Cipolla writes:

Our daily life is mostly, made of cases in which we lose money and/or time and/or energy and/or appetite, cheerfulness and good health because of the improbable action of some preposterous creature who has nothing to gain and indeed gains nothing from causing us embarrassment, difficulties or harm. Nobody knows, understands or can possibly explain why that preposterous creature does what he does. In fact there is no explanation - or better there is only one explanation: the person in question is stupid.

Yep, Brexit is stupid – end of.

The damage has been done, most of it is permanent. The businesses that have left will not be coming back, neither will many of the people. As for the UK's reputation, it's ruined. So, what do we do? More importantly, what does the opposition do? They face a problem. They have to win back the support of the people who voted for Brexit and, for the time being, remain attached to it. They also need the support of the more numerous of their supporters who voted against it. The solution they've chosen is to pretend either that it doesn't exist or, if it does, that there's nothing they can do, or even that we must even "embrace" it as if it wasn't stupid. They have chosen helplessness, or, at best, saying that they could do the stupid thing a little less stupidly. And that brings me to Cipolla's fourth basic law:

Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake...

Through centuries and millennia, in public as in private life, countless individuals have failed to take account of the Fourth Basic Law and the failure has caused mankind incalculable losses.

Labour's strategy, driven by a contestable analysis of strategically important voters, is to accept Brexit as immutable, just as the tide of opinion is flowing in the opposite direction. What's more stupid – a stupid policy or treating a stupid policy as if it was not stupid?

Of course it will fail. It works on the assumption that the stupid are rational. Cipolla again:

A stupid creature will harass you for no reason, for no advantage, without any plan or scheme and at the most improbable times and places. You have no rational way of telling if and when and how and why the stupid creature attacks. When confronted with a stupid individual you are completely at his mercy. Because the stupid person’s actions do not conform to the rules of rationality, it follows that:
a) one is generally caught by surprise by the attack;
b) even when one becomes aware of the attack, one cannot organize a rational defense, because the attack itself lacks any rational structure.
The fact that the activity and movements of a stupid creature are absolutely erratic and irrational not only makes defense problematic but it also makes any counter-attack extremely difficult - like trying to shoot at an object which is capable of the most improbable and unimaginable movements. This is what both Dickens and Schiller had in mind when the former stated that "with stupidity and sound digestion man may front much" and the latter wrote that "against stupidity the very Gods fight in vain."

And this is what's happening now. As we reap the reward of their stupidity, the government attacks the deal that they negotiated, on terms they asked for, whose MPs voted for, which they lauded during the election campaign and then blame the EU for its failings. How do you fight that? 

It's also explains why the current regime of the stupid is wedded to lying. If their actions have no rational structure, they aren't tied to truth. And if truth is inconvenient, why bother with it?

Mendacity and stupidity walk together. The only way to oppose a politics of falsehood is by the radical act of telling the truth. Opposition doesn't come from obfuscation. To say that a stupid policy is, indeed, stupid, isn't comfortable, it opens up some tough battles. But to appease stupidity is to allow it to reign in perpetuity. This is the challenge the opposition faces. And they're ducking it. This is how the intelligent fail. The nation needs them to win.

*There have been collateral benefits for some. Brexit was a rebellion by the stupid part of the elite against the intelligent. It was driven by resentment at their exclusion because of their stupidity. They won but haven't a clue what to do with their victory because they are stupid. This is how Johnson became PM, a position he craved despite being manifestly unsuited to the job. Other European nations have also gained much of the business we have lost, but then they recognise that their gains came their way because of our stupidity.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer

I can't stand the sneering. Criticism is fine, but the left using Starmer's title as a put-down and calling him "Sir Keith" is not just unintelligent, it's part of a contradictory war on the leadership in the name of unity. It's weirder still for middle-class activists to aim their inverted snobbery at the first leader Labour has had from a working-class background for yonks. But that's not all. Up until just over a year ago, this faction formed the party leadership and they failed. They failed utterly. 

Corbyn's leadership was the catastrophe it always promised to be. His legacy is a party that is distrusted by sections of the electorate in strategically important constituencies in a disproportionate electoral system. It gifted Johnson his election, ran an incompetent campaign, and put forward a manifesto that claimed to be 'radical' though was anything but, all under a leader whose polling figures were unprecedentedly awful. 

There isn't a sign that they have grasped the extent of the catastrophe that they visited on the party and the country. Instead, they have slipped back into their comfort zone, attacking the party leadership and demanding the same things that produced a crushing defeat. 

If you don't understand why you lost, you can't win. Which brings me to cowardice. Starmer's leadership is petrified of upsetting a minority of Brexiter and 'social conservative' voters – often mis-characterised as the white working class, possessors of an authenticity that is morally superior to the views of the dilettante liberal elite. The result is that Starmer's policy on Brexit is, "Don't mention the war." He's a convinced European who's too afraid of the consequences of his convictions.

Brexit is unfolding as a cumulative mess. One area after another meets the reality of damage and disruption. British citizens have had rights and liberties removed and their status permanently downgraded. It's crumbling before our eyes. And still, Labour is silent.

There is unease in the party but even then, the caution is overwhelming. Take this dismal offering

Labour should stop being scared of Leave voters in the red wall and be “braver” about criticising the government over Brexit failures, an aide to Keir Starmer has said.

Sharon Hodgson told HuffPost UK’s Commons People podcast the party should “stop being scared of poking the tiger” and alienating Brexit supporters.

Then she shows herself to be terrified. She tiptoes around, talking of "teething problems," "short-term pain," "not getting the best Brexit we could have got," "we’re not trying to unpick the whole thing by saying actually this could be improved." You can smell the fear. It's no good talking of the Irish border without acknowledging that if there isn't one in the Irish Sea, there must be one on the mainland, smashing the Good Friday Agreement. Starmer's circle talk about making Brexit work, but don't define how they would or even what they mean by 'work.'

It's a nonsense. If you can't say that placing barriers to trade between yourself and your largest and nearest market is going to do permanent, long-term damage, what is the point? If you don't say that ending free movement reduces UK citizens' rights permanently and will damage the economy, then you are being dishonest. If you aren't prepared to say that the permanent and sustainable solution to the Northern Ireland border issue is to re-join the single market and customs union, you are dodging your responsibilities.

Just who are they speaking for? Not for the majority, yes majority, who oppose Brexit and think it's a mistake. Not for the plurality who would vote to re-join. Not for the Labour voters and members who are overwhelmingly pro-EU. Not for the young who are appalled by this blight on their future. Not for small businesses. Not for Scotland. Not for one of Labour's greatest achievements, peace in Northern Ireland. No, the national interest must be abandoned in favour of a small group of ex-Labour voters in the 'Red Wall' seats. And even then, the analysis is questionable as the decline in the Labour vote has more to do with demographic change, housing, and the obvious fact that Labour has not lost the support of working age people, but the retired, than it had to do with Brexit. While the red wall voters don't appear to fit the Blue Labour stereotype at all. People are much nicer than they are portrayed.

I don't want to be complacent, but obfuscation on something as important as Brexit makes a politician look shifty and untrustworthy, especially when we know that it is only tactical. Starmer is not a great communicator at the best of times, he won't get away with it.

Peter Kellner gets this right

Britain’s more recent political history has dealt Keir Starmer a weak hand. He won’t escape the pincer by triangulating the rival identities that comprise Britain’s new electorate. He might just do by developing a brave and credible programme for the country’s future. Like a successful entrepreneur, he should start by getting the product right. When he’s done that, he can worry about how to sell it to his different target voters.

So, how did we get here? It seems that Corbynism has been usurped by Blue Labour in the centre of power. The best starting point for understanding why is Matt Bolton's and Harry Pitts' superb study, Corbynism: A Critical Approach.

The book comes from the left – using a critical Marxist perspective associated with people like Postone – rather than being a centrist rant. It has excellent chapters on political economy, antisemitism, and why an absurd personality cult grew up around such a mediocrity. It reinforced my view of the group around Corbyn that they weren't even left wing. Their radicalism was performative rather than substantive. 

But it also has other targets – the Lexiters and Blue Labour. Bolton and Pitts see them as the reverse side of the same coin as Corbynism. Together, they make up the left and right wings of a nationalist populism that wants to destabilise liberalism, rather than defend its gains against the attacks of reactionaries and use them for the basis of a new socialism and internationalism; one that avoids authoritarianism.

Labour is caught between its electoral failure and a national crisis. Brexit is an historic mistake, the result of a rebellion by one right-wing elite faction against another. It was won on an appeal to the past. Labour only wins when it has a vision of the future – 'Let us Face the Future,' 'the white heat of the technological revolution,' 'New Labour, New Britain.' The far left traded in nostalgia for a 1945 that never existed. Brexit was sold on an illusionary past of British exceptionalism. Being European is not refighting old battles. Britain may have left the EU, but Brexit is not over, it's a never-ending process of trying to work out a relationship with Europe. Once Theresa May decided on a hard Brexit, leaving the single market and customs union, she ensured that the war would continue. The vision of Britain as a progressive European nation can be the basis for a renewed economic and social policy - a hope for the future, not a lament for a lost past. It would be part of a revival of other left traditions – distinct from third way modernisation and fringe post-Leninist factionalism. 

Instead, Labour's current policy is like a little boy who ran away from home to join the circus. Now, lonely and unhappy, he presses his nose to the window and looks at the warmth and comfort inside. He's too scared to ring the doorbell. Instead, he swallows hard and looks towards a harsh, uncertain future instead of a prosperous one built on secure foundations. It's a tragedy in search of a happy ending.

Once more unto the breach

I haven't blogged for a long time. There are many reasons why. One is that I've been busy with taking decisions and sorting out my Greek life given the devastating consequences of Brexit. In a bitter/sweet moment I've now secured my future and have permanent residence status in Greece. It's sweet, because I'm secure; the bitterness comes from the loss of all the rights I held previously. Residence is a shadow of EU citizenship, but not as bad as the second-class status in Europe of most UK passport holders. Brexit is the biggest loss of freedom in my lifetime.


Then, in the middle of a pandemic, I've got to take decisions on my house and life in Manchester, while being locked down in Greece. With the second dose of vaccine due in a couple of weeks, I should be OK to travel back to the UK. In the meantime, I'm grateful to my neighbours who have looked after the house.


These practicalities have been compounded by despair at British politics overwhelming my irritation. Despair is as depressing to read as it is to write. You've had a narrow escape.


But I suppose the most important thing of all, is that I have been writing another book and moving in a different direction. It's speculative and may never see the light of day, but I've been short of time and thinking about different things. The first draft is done, so I reckon it's time to take up the cudgels again as catharsis and light relief. If anyone is still reading, thanks for sticking around.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

The strange death of Remain Labour

Brexit died a long time before it was implemented as a little-loved zombie by the Johnson government. Any hope of forming some sort of national agreement was wrecked by Theresa May declaring that Brexit meant hard Brexit, leaving the single market and customs union – something that much of the Leave campaign said wouldn't happen. But it was the opposition that she stirred that killed it off. The largest pro-European movement in Europe took to the streets, the majority turned against Brexit in the polls, and all hope of a consensual politics, without which such a radical and complex change is impossible, was gone. Instead, Brexit became a theatre for right-wing Tory zealots, cosplaying nationalists, and a handful of deluded Lexiters. The opposition hasn't gone away.

And now Brexit is here. Two weeks into it, rather than sunlit uplands, we are looking at a rain-sodden valley. It's hard to know where to start, but we should remember that what will get to most people is not the big national issues but the small personal costs and inconveniences. They are already accumulating. According to polls, the majority think Brexit was a mistake, the number who still support it is shrinking to no more than a third of the electorate. And it is at this moment that the leader of the opposition has decided that it's inviolate. His positioning is strategic, but I have to wonder about the strategy, especially in Scotland. 

Starmer's caution and reticence has meant it has taken Tony Blair to give a clear indication of where this thinking is coming from. I was never a Blairite, though after the Cameron/May/Johnson horror story I began to think more kindly of him. Now, I can remember why I had my reservations. He's a convincing political storyteller, but it's the story that's a problem. His narrative is an amalgam of generalities and conventional wisdom, a sort of lyrical management textbook. It's vacuous. In his Chatham house speech he returned to a familiar rhetorical formula:

... we should make a virtue of necessity and see in Brexit’s consequences, an opportunity and an obligation to renew our country and its place in the world

It is no longer: ‘Leave or Remain’ but ‘Change or Decline’.

And bafflingly:

[Brexit is] a catalyst for change which is necessary even without Brexit and could have been done without doing Brexit, but which, by the challenge it poses, Brexit somehow enables.

He starts by saying that Brexit is a mistake, but then produces a rehashed 'Global Britain' Brexiter argument, reconciling himself to it. 

And this is his aim:

... if a return to Europe is ever to be undertaken by a new generation, Britain should do it as a successful nation Europe is anxious to embrace, not as supplicant with no other options.
This is like an unfaithful husband; dump the wife, be a bloody nuisance settling the divorce, go away, get a better job, and then return saying, ' OK, I've come back to you, aren't you the lucky one.' I think I know what the answer might be.

He's wallowing in the Brexiter nostalgia that Robert Saunders describes 

... a story that reduces empire to an expression of British power, rather than its source. The myth it fuels is not that empire can return, but that it hardly mattered in the first place: that Britain can flex its muscles on the world stage without the sinews of imperial power. 

This dream is a chimera. However successful Britain is in the international arena, Europe will be what it has always been, our main trading partner and where our most important strategic interests lie. It's inescapable. This isn't new. EU membership resolved difficult structural problems. We have now reimposed them and compounded them by adding extensive barriers to trade, which we had spent the last forty years removing. We have chosen to disadvantage ourselves against every other European nation. 

Structural problems cannot be overcome by vapid calls for "unifying values, clarity of thinking, competence and delivery." Opposing the rancid politics of Brexit is not "outdated ideology." We cannot escape geography, history and economics. Reality always wins and is not going away. The Labour Party standing for doing something stupid more competently than the Tories, even as it becomes more and more unpopular, is not wise. 

The relationship with Europe is the single most important issue facing the country today. It isn't going to disappear. Our economies are interdependent. Close ties are integral to European security. Both the EU and the UK have lost. Brexit is as damaging as it is pointless. We are now locked into a process of continual negotiation and renegotiation to manage these mutual interests. Brexit has scarcely begun. Now is not the time to pretend that it's over.

No, when Britain returns, as self-interest insists it will, it will be as the penitent, not the supplicant. Brexit was a hostile act - intentionally. It has hurt other countries, it has particularly damaged Ireland and put the peace process at risk. Any hope of return means rejecting convincingly the radical right-wing populism that produced it. It seems that the majority of the people have. It's about time the opposition followed and spoke for the national interest.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Happy New Year?



It's a bittersweet New Year.

Here in Pelion, the weather is glorious, but we are under a strict lockdown because of the pandemic. The world is holding its breath, waiting for the vaccine.

And the UK has Brexit. The New Year signals us leaving transition and entering into a hard, hard Brexit that bears little or no relationship to what the Leave campaign promised during the referendum.

Brexit has turned my life upside down. I had to become a Greek resident before today to be protected by the Withdrawal Agreement. It's odd to be told by my own government to emigrate or lose my rights and it's not what I had planned. But it's worked out well for us, in a beautiful place, with wonderful friends and neighbours. It's a piece of paradise. It's brought happiness and there have been times I have been overwhelmed with the kindness that we have met.

We are the lucky ones, retirement made it possible. But I can't forget the people I know who have lost their job or had their careers ruined because their freedom of movement has been taken away. Nor can I forget the restricted futures of younger people, the businesses facing large increases in bureaucracy and costs, the loss of the European Social Fund and regional aid helping the most deprived, the list goes on. And I can't forget my native country, to my mind making the worst mistake in its post-war history. EU citizenship meant more to me than just the conveniences, rights, and liberties it conferred. It was part of my identity and losing it feels like a bereavement.

But I was in time to rescue my Greek life. Good things are happening too, for friends and family. There is sweetness to alleviate the bitterness of the awful year 2020.

So, to all my readers, friends and relatives, I hope that 2021 brings sweetness for us all, even though I feel for the victims of this awful pandemic and fret about the future of the United Kingdom. How I wish we had settled for being a nice country with a crap climate, collaborating with the rest of Europe, rather than trying to be ... well, you tell me. 

Monday, December 14, 2020

Nausea

We have a disgusting government. We have an even more disgusting and complicit right-wing press. I am not sure that they are wholly sane.

What can you say about this?







Untrue, obviously. Racist, certainly. Deeply offensive on so many levels - Kristallnacht, Merkel as a Nazi, Britain, even more offensively, compared to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. And it's about the bloody war. Give it a rest. It ended seventy-five years ago. 

We are in this mess partly because of decades of blatant, deliberate lying about the EU by these papers. Years and years of relentless nonsense, twisted interpretations, and invented drivel. It has found an audience, made money, given Johnson his career, and cost the country its place in Europe. It also tells you everything you need to know about Brexit.

Brexit was only about breaking things. True, it subscribed to the old revolutionary slogan about destruction being creative, of a new Britain emerging unchained by those tiresome reciprocal obligations that brought us wealth and security, but they never bothered to tell us how. There was nothing as messy as a programme or a plan. No, every piece of Brexiter propaganda was based on one thing - hatred of the EU, often insane hatred. Just like this piece.

I'm back in Greece. Brexit has forced me to choose to become resident here before the end of transition. I'm a Brexile. I got back early, getting a flight the day before the UK lockdown and, as it turned out, only a few days before a much tougher Greek lockdown. And then there was the unexpected. A feral dog gave birth to puppies and brought them into our garden. A local animal charity got involved and we rescued them. The local kennels were full, so the option was that they would either be housed in a room provided by a local hotel owner, or we could build a pen in our garden for them until they could be adopted. This is the result.
































There are six of them. All but one has been found a home. They will move after the next round of injections. And they will be spread all over Europe. 

The people involved in the rescue and rehoming are Greek, Dutch, Italian, German, and us. It's a European Union in microcosm. Brexit is seen as being all about trade and sovereignty, about international relations and economics. We forget the micro level, people of different nations living where they want and organising themselves to do things as small as rescuing a litter of Greek puppies. Freedom of movement was its triumph. And we have a government that is proud to have removed it, restricting British citizens' rights. Institutions matter. The EU, where it fails can be reformed, but a void is a void. A pile of rubble is no use, it has to be rebuilt. Britain has chosen demolition without reconstruction. 

Brexit is a national folly, and the attitudes behind it are a national disgrace.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Notes from a depressed country

I've been back in the UK for a week and a half. It's an odd feeling after more than three months in Greece, but it's amazing how quick it is to adjust to the old normal. Stepping from glorious warm autumn weather into the chill of a Mancunian October is less easy to cope with. But my house is nice and comfortable. It's well stocked with memories, even if the friends are fewer these days. But the country doesn't feel right. It's very easy to project one's own unease onto others and to assume that what you sense is the national mood, although I think that there is something about the way the country feels to me that might ring true to others.

It could be the pandemic, it could be Brexit, it could be that so many people are isolated from friends and families, that the pubs are closed again, and that we still can't go to watch a football match, but arriving here felt gloomy and unusually quiet. Maybe it's because we are governed by the manifestly unfit who only seem capable of screwing up while describing everything as world-beating. Perhaps there's a realisation that we have not got what we were hoping for, only what we were worried about. But the country feels depressed. There's not the same cheery banter in shops or public places in general. It could be me, but Simon Kuper seems to agree.

He's written about a study of focus groups in the Financial Times. It's not behind a paywall, so you can read it easily here. He writes:

The pandemic has slashed people’s emotional investment in Brexit. Hardly anyone is following the technical, depressing trade talks. Both Remainers and Leavers want to patch up the family row — literally, as the other side usually includes their relatives. This divide has turned out to be weaker than the American red-blue split: God isn’t involved, few Britons had strong views on Europe before 2016 and there are no militias to fight this one out. People who made strong statements in the focus groups often immediately apologised: “I’ll get off my soapbox now.” 

Almost all polls show that most Britons now think Brexit was a mistake ...

I don't think that this is new. The polarisation of the country has always been overstated. The diehards are still in their trenches, but most of the population are where they always were, sharing a cup of tea in no-man's-land. And now the country looks towards January, when Brexit will become real, with a sense of foreboding. You can tell it isn't going well. The Brexiters are getting increasingly angry and hysterical, spewing out irrational hatred of the EU, including condemnation of the 'punishment' they are dishing out by not letting us use the airport gates for EU passport holders! We have to use the ones for third country nationals because that is what we will be and what we asked to be.

Of course we don't know what will happen other than a big increase in bureaucracy and barriers to trade and travel. Will it just be a pain or will the economic damage cause serious hardship? Who can say? But one thing will be missing in January, a great symbolic act of liberation. That's because we were not oppressed. Brexiters imagined it. There's nothing for us to be liberated from. The best we can hope for is that everything will only get a little bit worse.

Brexit is a mistaken revolution without benefits. We are caught in it because Cameron decided to gamble the future of the country to appease the obsessive revolutionary cranks in his ranks. The idea of being a leader and actually confronting and defeating them never seemed to occur to him.

I was reminded of the danger of giving minority cults power by this wonderful article. It's about an American town that elected Randian radical libertarians. They ignored all expert advice and dismantled the economic and administrative base of the town in the belief that private initiative would emerge to run everything better. It didn't. They ended up with bears. The type that kill people. It's a great story of ideological mayhem, but it's also a metaphor for Brexit. 'Let's set the country free to roam the world. But what about the bears? Project fear!'

And so here we are. Heads down, unenthusiastic, hoping for the best but fearing the worst. Kuper's conclusion - "anxious though most Britons are, they are still probably underestimating Brexit’s impact" - is probably true too. People are in for a shock. In the middle of a pandemic. One that could kill thousands of us. No wonder this is a depressed country.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Bring back democracy, all is forgiven

Hardeep Matharu asks a question:

[Johnson is] ... implying that his Government is only giving the British people what they already desire. While it might be tempting to dismiss this as yet another piece of blame-shifting rhetoric conjured up when reality doesn’t serve him, in his perverse projection does Johnson have a point?

Simply put, it must be asked: do the British people have a kind of death wish?
The answer is no. It's another silly generalisation.

Anything that talks earnestly about the British people, extrapolating a collective psychology from random events, is making a category error - thinking that there is such a thing as a collective will.

This type of speculation rests on two false assumptions. The first is that people are paying attention and actually know about issues. The minority of interested obsessives may be, but the majority are, to the intense disappointment of activists, at best semi-detached. They aren't willing anything, certainly nothing abstract. The second error is thinking that there is a collective consciousness, rather than a preponderance of opinions and impulses, or a bundle of commonly held prejudices.

Talking about the broad ignorance of an indifferent people is very different from the idea of a 'silent majority.' This usually conservative idea is that the bulk of people agree with you, but their common-sense voices are crowded out by vocal smart-arses. It's another example of the fallacy of false consensus. You may think that you are right, but it doesn't mean that everybody else agrees with you. And, of course, they don't. They aren't even thinking about it. Their ignorance is perfectly rational. Why do they need to know? They want to get on with their lives. It's people like me who are the weirdos. And for those battered by politics - the poor, the victims of austerity, the vulnerable, etc - they have resentments but are too busy surviving to be actively involved.

So, if we overestimate people's engagement, what becomes of democracy, the moment we ask them to have an opinion? The answer has always been representation, the selection of people to use their judgement on your behalf. But for that to maintain its legitimacy, representative institutions have to function effectively, and we now have problems.

Parts of the constitution are not fit for purpose. I have lost count of the number of earnest analyses of results that were primarily the result of poorly functioning institutions. What did Labour get wrong in 1951? Hard to say when they lost the election with the largest share of the vote that any single party has ever managed in the post-war period - a larger share than the winners. They lost because of a disproportional electoral system. The same can be said today of the national endorsement of Brexit in the 2019 election, giving Johnson the legitimacy to leave the EU - on 43% of the vote, with the majority of votes going to parties that wanted a second referendum. While recent polling shows that a clear majority now oppose leaving and think it was a mistake. The same share of the vote lost May her majority in 2017 but gave Johnson a landslide victory in 2019 - utter madness. Then there is Trump. Why did the American people vote for him? Well, three million more Americans voted for Clinton. He won an election he lost because of the electoral college system, the disproportionate way it allocates its votes, and the cynicism of his campaign in exploiting it. 

The electoral system is entwined with the party system. It's a bit like Scottish football. However many teams there are, either Celtic or Ranger will win the title. There is a two-party monopoly on power despite multi-party voting. That means that if cranks and loons capture either of the two main parties, they inherit votes and power that they could not win on their own and which rivals cannot take away from them. It's a system made for hobbyists and grifters to flourish.

I find it curious how people on the left are still resistant towards proportional representation. Possibly, it's the temptation of power without a majority. I used to be the same, but it was Thatcherism - another landslide on a minority vote - that made me change my mind in the 80s. Arguably, Johnson would have got nowhere near No.10 and we would still be in the European Union if we had a proportional voting system.

As if we didn't have enough problems, the failure of our representatives to understand our constitution has compounded institutional failures. There should not have been an election in 2019. It was a constitutional outrage to bypass the Fixed Term Parliaments Act with a single clause bill setting its provisions aside, without repealing the legislation. That was egregious enough without the catastrophic misjudgement of the opposition's support. And what on earth was Parliament doing when it voted for a referendum on EU membership? There was no demand for it other than from a few fringe groups. Referendums have no place in a parliamentary democracy, even leaving aside the poor design and the lack of safeguards in something so significant. The fact that MPs thought that leaving was wrong for the country, but still felt bound by the result of a non-binding referendum, shows that they didn't understand their job. 

At the same time, social media is providing a potent vehicle for the manipulation of short-term opinion. It's short-term because the denial of reality cannot last when reality bites. When the warnings of "Project Fear" start coming true, cognitive dissonance can only take you so far before regret kicks in. The techniques for the denigration of expertise and the replacement of complexity with wishful thinking are well established (as in this superb radio documentary series from Peter Pomerantsev). From voter suppression in the USA to the irregularities and illegalities of the Brexit campaign, social media and data manipulations have a bleak effect.

The collapse in support for Brexit has come too late and is unrepresented in the system. Brexit is an elite project claiming to be anti-elitist, opposed by the majority yet being carried out because it is the will of the majority. The government implementing it is from the darkest corners of the Conservative Party. It's part of an over-confident and entitled circle from a protected elite, people for whom politics is a game with few penalties for losing. 

Democracy is not a fixed event, it's a process. The referendum result was the product of particular circumstances, timing, dodgy practices, and the quirks of turnout. It opened up a process, it didn't close it. Yet, due to the insistence of its adherents, it became fixed and immutable. The preferred version of Brexit was the choice of the Conservative government. When a hung Parliament promised scrutiny, the 2019 election was held to stop it. The election was about the prevention, rather than the exercise, of democratic deliberation.

All these failures raise questions about democracy and democratic practice. How do we deliberate on policy and scrutinise the executive? How could representation work in mass societies? The answers point to the reform of existing institutions and supplementing them with something new. Paul Evans has addressed some of the issues here, while deliberative democracy offers the possibility of a democratic renewal through enhanced representation and citizen participation. Both parties are mired in constitutional conservatism and complacency. However, Brexit is a constitutional earthquake. The UK may not survive. Northern Ireland is a circle that cannot be squared. As Britain leaves its regional trade block, in order to make trade deals that are worse than the ones it has already, to revel in its increased sovereignty which it hasn't the power to exercise, and to threaten its own well-being and stability as a multi-national entity, the adverse consequences of something that was sold as consequence-free may force a rethink about democratic failures. Perhaps, we will begin to try and renew our democracy and the democratic governance that we need to protect our rights and freedoms. And then we could go back to ordinary life, caring about our families, enjoying the company of friends, and watching the telly.

Thursday, September 03, 2020

Another door closes

I read this interviewContinuous Learning as a Right and a Necessity, with Li Andersson, the leader of the Left Alliance and Minister of Education in Finland, with sadness as well as pleasure. 

I have worked with numerous adult education programmes supported by the EU. This article refers to the European Agenda for Adult Learning, the most recent of several pan-European initiatives. Given the state of adult education in the UK, it's obvious that they can't compete with hard cash and ideology. However, European networks provided support and offered models for adult education's subsequent reinvention. A lifeline is being closed off. Britain pioneered adult education; it's now a backwater of retreat and regression.

There are two splendid quotes in the piece.

"... the alternative of employment should not be unemployment but education."

That's education in its broadest sense, not skills training alone. 

And it's conclusion is spot on:

“In major turning points such as now, participating in adult education can bring content and safety to everyday life amidst uncertainty. The education system should always offer an opportunity for learning, and there should be no closed doors.”

When I worked at Hull, our aim was to embed the University deep in the community - working in outreach centres, with voluntary groups, and in the prisons. Gradually, the doors swung the other way towards generational exclusion and narrow instrumentalism. Only a few leaks in the door seals persisted in providing opportunities for something wider, something much more radical.

And now we have closed the biggest door of all, the one to our European partners and the networks they provided. It's a national tragedy - and shame.