Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Fail

If Brexit goes ahead, in any form, it will enact a profound misreading of the nature of the contemporary political and economic world and represent an unprecedented failure of British statecraft.
This is from Chris Grey's latest assessment of British policy from his blog. It is a fine summary of the bizarre way Britain is abandoning all it's strategic and economic interests in favour of the unknown. Calculation has been replaced by wishful thinking.

This is the clearest brief description of the economics of Brexit that I have read:
It is not necessary to make or accept economic forecasts, only to understand basic institutional realities, to see that detaching a country from its regional bloc and then seeking to re-attach it on unknown, but by definition worse, terms to that same bloc, in an unknown time frame, is going to have adverse consequences for businesses and trade, and hence for employment and tax revenues. 
This is something no sane government would suggest, let alone attempt, especially one under no compulsion to do so. This is entirely voluntary and completely unnecessary. There are no benefits. The best that can be hoped for is damage limitation from the ruinous expense of leaving. This thread has gathered together more than one hundred and forty verified examples of disinvestment, costs to businesses, job losses, and extra government spending all because of Brexit. These are not predictions, they have happened. Billions have been spent - not on the health service or to fix the housing crisis, but on preparations for a no deal that may (I hope) be a bluff - such as ferry services without ferries, running from ports that can't handle them (on both sides of the Channel), with fake traffic jams as an added extra. This will continue. Unless and until Brexit is resolved everything stands in abeyance. It is no use wittering on about how we should be talking about bread-and-butter issues, because the remedies for our many complaints are wholly dependent on Brexit and the damage it will do.

It is indeed an "unprecedented failure." And it is an institutional failure on many levels.

First, it's a failure of representative democracy.

Rather than being 'the biggest democratic exercise ever,' the referendum was the biggest betrayal of representative democracy ever, and one carried out by its elected representatives.

What on earth were MPs doing when they voted for a referendum on a complex, specialist issue that was so manifestly unsuitable for decision by referendum? What were they thinking when they elevated the obsession of a small minority of fringe politicians and wealthy ideologues into a major existential question? How could hobbyists, who revelled in their intense anger over things that were not a problem and about which few others cared, be allowed to wreck the country? I suppose MPs justified themselves by legislating for it to be an advisory referendum only, but then they treated it as binding.

If that madness wasn't enough, MPs voted (on three-line-whips from both opposition and government) to give the absolute right to the government to submit article 50 notification to leave with no safeguards and without even a hint of a plan as to what we would want as a post-EU settlement. And guess what, there is still no agreement.

MPs have abandoned their responsibility and are only now, at the very last minute, wondering whether they should take some back to rescue the nation from this unholy mess.

(This is on top of the Party leadership questions showing us the folly of allowing policy to be controlled by self-selected and unaccountable party members, rather than those who have been elected by the voters at large.)

Second, it shows the failure of our attempts at the devolution of power to constituent nations in a centralised polity. What was the point of Scotland and Northern Ireland voting decisively to remain if they could be overruled by English votes and be removed from the EU regardless? And that's without mentioning Gibraltar. Brexit shows just how centralised our political system is, and how devolution has not remedied it. The devolved administrations are powerless to shape the most significant policy since the War.

Third, it was a failure of electoral systems and electoral law. The franchise was denied to some of the most deeply affected people and the law was broken with impunity, possibly with decisive effect, and with no redress for the laughable reason that the referendum was constitutionally advisory. To authorise this fundamental constitutional change on a majority of 50%+1 of the vote, regardless of turnout, was another piece of astonishing negligence.

Finally, it was a colossal failure of political communication. It didn't help that most of the electorate and many politicians, including the senior cabinet ministers, had little or no understanding of what the EU is, what it does, and how integrated we are within the single market. The result has been a debate dominated by fictions, fantasies, wishful thinking, and delusional generalities. People who actually knew something about the complications, costs, and problems were countered with fairy stories from the ideologically committed. The press had long prepared the ground with blatantly dishonest reporting. Social media became a cesspit of misinformation targeted at people through dubiously acquired data. Political parties have been more concerned with electoral strategy (Labour has also been disingenuous and delusional in offering its alternatives) rather than principle.

It's a mess. Though there is one way out.

Edwin Hayward added this tweet to his comprehensive list that I linked to earlier:


A functioning democracy would do just that. It would explain precisely why it is necessary. It wouldn't privilege the decision making method over the quality of that decision. Having done that, MPs and their parties would be answerable to the electorate at the ballot box. That is why we elect representatives. At last there are signs of life. The success of Yvette Cooper's amendment designed to obstruct a no-deal exit shows that MPs are beginning to realise what their job is.

I would love to be wrong, but I still don't think it will happen the way Hayward suggests. At best we could be plunged into another referendum. But, when this whole episode is over, it will be time to brush off our self-congratulatory complacency about our democracy, address the failings, and actually decide what sort of democracy we want to be. God forbid that we turn to plebiscitary populism, instead I hope that we reaffirm our nation as a representative democracy, preferably one augmented through enhanced participation and a commitment to local and national devolution of power.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

A new year

I don't make New Year resolutions. I never keep them and these days I would probably forget about them. Instead, in the spirit of such failure, I want to make some wishes for what I would like to see in 2019, none of which will come true.

1. An end to the delusion of British greatness.

Both Remainers and Brexiters cling to this. Brexiters think that we can be a global power once again, Remainers that we should "remain and reform" - take the leading role in changing the EU from within. Well, if this was a job interview for the post of EU Lead Reformer, then the way Brexit has been handled would mean we wouldn't make the short list. Remain and reform ourselves after this shambles would make much more sense. As for the global power nonsense, I though we got over that one after Suez in 1957. Brexiters forget that before we entered the EU, we were known as "the sick man of Europe." If we leave, we will become like a broken down drunk sitting in the corner of a seedy pub telling all the people trying to avoid him that he used to be an empire.

How about a bit of humility and realism. Being a partner in a successful international enterprise is not vassalage, it is not oppression, it's what a successful and prosperous modern nation looks like.

2. The abandonment of the word 'weaponise."

This is a Corbynista favourite. Anti-Semitism is being weaponised to get at Corbyn. The latest version is that the campaign for a "People's Vote" on the Brexit deal is another weapon invented to attack their hero. It's an old ploy, an accusation of bad faith. It's also a classic logical fallacy and a diversionary tactic. Actually, people attack anti-Semitism because it's poisonous and growing. They support a second referendum because they oppose Brexit. It has bugger all to do with Corbyn. But when his supporters suggest that it is being weaponised, they are saying that it can be, and that therefore there must be some truth in the accusation that he is an anti-Semitic Brexiter. I don't think that they have spotted that bit.

Can we just recognise and deal with the real issues please?

3. People stopping rabbiting on about the "will of the people" and misusing the term "democracy."

So many examples, but here's one drawn from my own prejudices. It's the tiresome Brexiter line about how 17.4 million people voted for Brexit as if the 29.1 million who didn't don't count (16,141,242 voted Remain and 12,949,258 didn't vote as opposed to the 17,410,742 who voted Leave) let alone the 4-5 million people who were most affected by the decision but were not allowed to vote (UK citizens overseas and non-UK EU citizens legally resident in the country). On top of that there is the tiresome insistence that opposing Brexit and trying to stop it is failing to respect democracy. I'm sorry, but democracy gives you the right to oppose policies, campaign against them, and overturn them. Opponents of leaving the EU are not betraying democracy, but practising it.

4. Going on about how the Brexit vote was all about "the left behind."

The Brexit vote was not predominantly working class. There was an identifiable section of working class Brexit voters, mostly from smaller urban areas, however, taken on their own they could never have won the referendum. There wasn't anything like enough of them. No, dig down in the figures and you will see that the majority of Brexit voters, as well as being older and more socially conservative, were relatively affluent and typically suburban. Fed on decades of anti-EU fabrications drawn from a genre established by Boris Johnson in the Telegraph, and embedded in a saloon bar culture of moaning about how everything has gone to the dogs, the majority of leave voters were anything but "the left behind." Brexit is the triumph of the suburbanisation of politics, a phenomenon that hasn't been discussed often enough.

Of course we should deal with the problems of 'the left behind," and with poverty and inequality. But we shouldn't do it because of Brexit. We should do it because we should.

***

This post has been an exercise in futility, but wishing a happy New Year to those who pass by this place isn't. Have as good a one as possible.

Monday, December 24, 2018

The politics of fear

There is one narrative being rolled out far too often these days, and that is that cancelling Brexit will cause civil unrest or lead to the rise of the far right. Let's look at the empirical evidence.

First, it's true that the far right are organising around Brexit (something that should give Lexiters food for thought) and they have managed to stage a demonstration in London. Around 3,000 - 5,000 turned out, proving their anti-European credentials by wearing French-style yellow jackets! They were met by 15,000 counter demonstrators. Anti-Brexit campaigners managed to get 700,000 on the streets. If you want an indicator of the respective strengths of the grass roots movements, this is probably a good indicator.

OK the Brexiters were nastier people than the pro-EU crowd, none of the second referendum campaigners were carrying nooses, but there are no more of them than would turn out for an EDL march. Leaving aside the cowardly argument that we must give fascists everything they want in case they are nasty to us, the idea that there would be civil unrest is risible.

While there are far more organised Remainers, they are still a minority, though a larger one than Leavers. I can't see much evidence that the rest of the people are anything other than semi-detached, uninterested, and not that knowledgeable. Where they have taken a position, it's not strongly held and cancelling Brexit would cause little more than a wave of grumbling. The EU was a low salience issue at every election until the referendum. It was only important for a small group of obsessives. There was no big demand for leaving, or even for the referendum itself. The only way Leave could win was by disingenuously linking the EU to higher salience issues and campaigning on them instead - immigration and the NHS. (Well, let's face it, the slogan 'you might lose your job' isn't really a vote winner.)

So where does this fear of unrest come from? Partly it's another dodgy Brexiter argument, but it's also tied into a deep historical tradition - fear of the mob. Whether we are talking about collective bargaining through riot, revolutionary passions, or the jingoistic "King and Country" mob, violent unrest was widespread in the 18th and 19th century. Today, it has left a folk memory of deep prejudice about the working class. The workers are dangerous and must be repressed or appeased.

From Blue Labour to Brexiters, these fears are stoked. We must scrap the basis of all our trade, bankrupt small businesses, undermine the foundations of our foreign policy, make ourselves poorer than we would have been otherwise, strip people of their rights, damage public services, break up families, give away power to regain a nominal sovereignty that can never be used, humiliate ourselves as a nation, etc., because if we don't, there will be 'trouble at t' mill.'

I will let you into a secret. Working class people are actually people. They are all ages, come from all ethnicities and nationalities, and they have a brain. Yes, they can actually think, especially if you bother to talk with them. Believe it or not, they are not all mouth-frothing xenophobes. And here's another secret. They didn't all vote Leave. Some did, but the bulk of the vote came from prosperous elderly voters in suburbia and small market towns. The prospect of rioting pensioners in Weybridge doesn't keep me awake at night.

What this highlights is how the referendum was a failure of democracy. It was a marketing exercise amongst people -  Leavers and Remainers, middle and working class - with little real understanding of the technicalities and no great attachment to the result. The mass of people have switched off now as well. Those wanting to 'get on with it,' just want the whole thing to be over so that they can carry on with their lives. Many of those favouring no deal think that it will mean that everything stays the same. There was no deliberation, scarcely any among elected representatives, let alone the setting up of the kind of participative structures needed to produce consultation and informed consideration amongst the wider population.

Brexit is a right-wing revolution borne on a sea of indifference. Fear of the mob is one of its last lines of defence against reality.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Christmas music

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

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



UDATE

They're from Hull.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Heroic Failure

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 19, 2018

Left out to dry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Better off out?

Gosh! Look at what we would save.


Why on earth are we doing something so suicidally stupid?

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Myth and reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Respect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Tragicomedy

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

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

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

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

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

This dear reader is British Politics.


Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Back to basics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 17, 2018

Going to the dogs - a rant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then there's the spivery.

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

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

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



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

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Blaming the victims

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

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

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

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

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