Friday, March 23, 2018

Playing the game

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

Why are we doing this?

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

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 And then there was the scare story of Turkey being about to join the EU, when it wasn't and has now withdrawn its application.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

We need to talk about Jeremy

It's been an interesting week or so for Jeremy Corbyn. I was not surprised by his presence in a secret anti-Zionist Facebook group. (I refuse to call this bunch pro-Palestinian, as they don't give a toss about real Palestinians. They see them in narcissistic terms as a cause to be rescued, victims of the wicked Jews/Zionists, and think that their future oppression by nasty theocrats or corrupt movements is a form of liberation.) Visceral hatred of Israel has long been an animating feature of Corbyn's politics. The way conflicting explanations were given for his departure from the group was embarrassing.

Then there was his response to the Skripal poisoning. He called for dialogue, his usual remedy for any conflict, though this time at least it was to be "robust." He also pointed to the Russian money that had found its way to the Tory party. This caused the usual media outrage. It shouldn't have. It should have opened a debate on the extent to which money looted from the Russian people has corrupted the UK. Unfortunately, the Labour leadership is also compromised - politically rather than financially. They have a track record of apologism, non-confrontation, and even outright support for Putin. Then there is their penchant for appearing on the RT propaganda channel. To his credit, John McDonnell's response was considerably better than Corbyn's. There has been a continuous collective misjudgement on all sides, and on more than this one issue.

Finally, there was Corbyn's dismal speech on Brexit to the Scottish Labour conference. It was depressing. Even more depressing was the fact that he won the, mainly begrudging, support of the conference. The speech was riddled with contradictions and misapprehensions. In calling for Scotland (where 62% voted to remain) to respect the result of the referendum, he was solemnly asking Scots to submit to rule by England. That will win back SNP voters. Then there were the usual fantasies. A customs union will solve the Irish border - no it won't and given the conditions he laid out for one he won't get one anyway. Regulations on state aid in the single market rule out "rebalancing the economy" - they don't. He insisted any free trade agreement must give us control of regulations, etc, etc. All impossible conditions. And he didn't mention Gibraltar, nobody does.

I don't know whether he is positioning himself for a possible u-turn by setting unrealisable conditions, or whether he is being utterly consistent with the Euro-scpeticism that he has espoused for the past forty years and is gunning for a hard Brexit. Whatever, he has set himself up in diametric opposition to the vast majority of the party members (though the diehards appear to be remarkably pliable), and, more importantly, to the majority of Labour voters. Labour's better than expected showing in the last general election was partly down to them gathering up remain voters. If he hopes to retain them by promising them a better Brexit than the Tories can offer, he is making a classic political error - mistaking opposition to policy as discontent about performance.

There was one bit of the speech that got more attention than others - immigration. It was an obvious dogwhistle to UKIP voters, implying that problems are down to there being too many foreigners in the country. But he did hit on a real issue about the exploitation of posted workers. The standard brush-off by his opponents was a dismissive comment that this is a marginal issue affecting small numbers. This is true, but irrelevant. His opponents are wrong, the margins matter. These are real people being exploited. We have a choice of solutions:

Either there is the one Corby appears to favour, to restrict immigration by pulling Britain out of its preferential membership of the EU single market, which is the source of the bulk of its earnings, thereby damaging the economy, making people poorer, increasing bureaucracy, weakening employment rights, reducing the power and standing of the nation, breaching the Good Friday Agreement, and stripping all 64 million Britons of their rights as EU citizens to live and work anywhere in the Union.

Or, we can close the loopholes in the Posted Worker Directive (as is already happening).

What a dilemma.

Let's get this straight. The cause of exploitation is not immigration. The cause of exploitation is exploitation. Just as stagnant wages and declining public services have nothing to do with the EU, but are the result of the dubious decision of our own government to remove the post-crash stimulus and restrict spending and demand - austerity for short. Exploitation can be fought using all the familiar tools of left governments - enforceable legal employment rights, strong trade unions, industrial democracy, investing in public services, a political economy that promotes growth and employment, and building a strong welfare state. There is nothing, absolutely nothing at all, in EU membership that would prevent this. There is much in it that would make it easier.

The curious thing is that on all three issues - the Middle East, Russia, and Brexit - the Corbyn left is siding with the far right. They are making excuses for and lining up with ultra nationalist theocrats, kleptocrats, and Jacob Rees-Mogg.

These are not marginal issues. They are some of the great questions of our day with the most profound consequences. On all three, the Labour leadership has got it wrong. If they persist, this will not end well.

Friday, March 02, 2018


This is from the EU's draft withdrawal agreement. It is fully in line with the government's stated policy.

Think about it. This means that your inalienable right to live, work, receive health care, start a business, raise a family, etc., in twenty-seven other countries (together with any of the other ones desperately hoping to join the EU in the future) will be taken away in perpetuity. It's not just you that it affects, but your families, your descendants, and all future generations. This is what EU citizenship gives. It gives you a right, not something that may be granted as a discretion by a host nation, but a right that you can freely exercise if you fulfil the legal requirements.

It's a right that I valued as I built my second life in Greece and it determined my decision to buy a house there. It's a right that has allowed friends of mine to settle there. It's a right that my neighbours from other EU countries retain.

As things stand, both the Conservative and Labour parties, the only conceivable parties of government in the UK, wish to strip you and I of that right against our wills. They do so in the name of a supposedly democratic decision, a narrow majority in a referendum. Around seventeen million voted in favour and sixteen million against. That means that those seventeen million get to impose their will on all sixty odd million Britons - and on the tens of million more yet to be born. They get to deprive them of their citizenship and limit their freedoms. Is this really democracy?

Think about it again. One of the items that I find too painful to watch on the news is the refugee crisis. It's the suffering. It's the exploitation. It's the desperation. It's the corpses washed up on beaches that we are used to thinking about solely in terms of Mediterranean holidays. What would would these people give for an EU passport? Well, they have shown us. They would give their lives. And hundreds die every year.

This is how valuable our European citizenship is. Yet we, with our complacent and pampered existence, are prepared to see something, which others would literally die for, taken from us for no good reason, other than a bad decision mandated by a flawed process.

Yes, think about it, think again, and then put a stop to this destructive madness.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Through the looking glass

Brexit is crumbling before our eyes.

Our Prime Minister declares that no Prime Minister could agree to what she agreed to in December (once it had been written as a legislative draft by the EU). Which means that either she was dodging the issue of the Irish border or she didn't understand what she was signing. In the meantime the government has offered no alternative solutions, other than diversionary idiocy from Boris Johnson.

The leader of the opposition has begun to oppose. He made a speech in which he said that the UK must leave the EU, leave the single market, but join a customs union with the EU. That means that Labour's stance has been modified to allow the free movement of goods but prevent the free movement of people (though without being nasty about them). This is a curious position for a socialist to take. It leaves Labour supporting a policy that has to lead to some form of hard border in Northern Ireland (this can only be completely avoided by being in the customs union and the single market or something very much like it) while opposing it vehemently. The rest of the speech didn't show much understanding of the EU either. Corbyn talked of spending a non-existent Brexit dividend and picked different, juicier and sweeter cherries than the Tories, but it has been made abundantly clear that there can be no cherry picking at all.

OK there was a small positive shift, but it still means the leadership is committed to a pretty hard Brexit and remains resolutely opposed to the desires of the overwhelming majority of its members and voters on the single market. Another curious position.

Meanwhile, the Institute of Directors and the Confederation of British Industry came out in support of Labour on the customs union to the fury of the Brexiters.

Then John Major returned to the scene and appeared as an angry and eloquent political titan compared to the current lot. Yes, John Major. This is what we have become. Jacob Rees-Mogg (Eton and Oxford) called Major (Brixton, left school at 16) the elite. Nadine Dorries called him a traitor.

And what is the government doing? Search me. Bugger all if Jon Worth is right.

Why the inaction? There is only a year left. Well, it's a difficult and complicated process - not easy as we were reassured by the Brexit brigade - especially regarding law and trade. But if you set up a series of red lines and contradictory demands, it becomes impossible. Chris Grey gives the best summary overview of the whole dismal process here.

Now we have to face reality. There are no material benefits from leaving. The only prize appears to be the sovereignty to be able to make worse trade deals than the ones we have already through the EU. The zealots' response to discussion of the details ranges from bland reassurance, through wishful thinking, to abuse. As Chris Grey noticed, it's as if we were being expelled from the EU, not that we asked to leave. They can't seem to accept responsibility.

But still we keep going. Why? Ah, the 'will of the people.' This absurd fiction would be laughable if it wasn't rooted in the referendum. But let's get it right. Referendums are a sham of a democratic process. This one took a low salience issue and showed that when asked the question the country was divided almost 50/50. This is not the will of the people. It doesn't give the right for half the voters to impose on the other half something that they don't want in the slightest. There is no talk of finding compromise or a consensus. Reductionist referendums like this are not democratic.

Like a student realising that their essay is due in tomorrow morning, the government has to start to get real. But they don't know what to do faced with a stupid policy and hounded by crazed Brexiters. If they had any sense they would stop it now before it is too late. I am not sure if they will though.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018


Most of my recent posts have been about Brexit. Other things are happening as well; like a massacre. It's a massacre that comes after half a million other deaths. It finishes off what was started with Sarin gas in 2013. It is a crime against humanity, piled on top of crimes against humanity.

I don't expect much from our unserious Foreign Secretary or a government consumed by Brexit, but what about the opposition? Labour's Shadow Foreign Secretary has spoken. Last week, she emitted this pile of sycophantic drivel. Genuflecting to the wisdom of her leader, she talks of Syria without mentioning Assad. Not a word about the man who launched the war. Silence about the person whose forces and allies are responsible for around ninety per cent of the deaths. No mention of his prisons and torture chambers. Nothing. Zilch. War without agency.

The piece is anti-interventionist in all cases, but doesn't acknowledge that there are consequences to non-intervention. We are seeing them daily, that is if we can bear to watch the news or read the reports. Mostly, I can't. But I still know that they are there and that it's happening.

There can be very good reasons behind non-intervention. I have friends who I respect who see it as a principle. Others point to the desperate difficulty of intervention in Syria, especially given Assad's allies, and the possible unintended consequences. They may be right, they may not, but at least they are in touch with reality and do not describe the results as 'peace.'

I can't be bothered to fisk Thornberry's piece. It's just a piece of Stop the War Coalition orthodoxy. But I feel nauseous when I see something suggesting that standing by and allowing slaughter to happen is the way in which we can "live in a world free from war."

Tuesday, February 20, 2018


Many of the tragedies of Irish history have been the result of an English political conflict being fought out in Ireland. Other than the UK, the country most affected by Brexit is the Republic of Ireland. It was hardly mentioned during the referendum campaign. This imperial amnesia covered an inconvenient truth. Thirty years of violence and thousands of deaths later, a classic political compromise was embodied in the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. It has held the peace in Northern Ireland for twenty years, despite the lingering residue of the "Troubles." Maintaining the Agreement makes a hard Brexit impossible.

This week Daniel Hannan, Owen Patterson, and Kate Hoey all used the deadlock in the Stormont power sharing talks to make claims about how the Agreement has failed and needed revisiting. They are all hard Brexit ultras. It's a classic ploy. People will respond by offering justifications and explaining why it isn't true and that the Agreement has been a success. By doing so, they will have validated the idea that there is a debate about its utility and put the possible revision of the Agreement on the agenda. That has to happen if the ultras are to get their hard Brexit.

The conclusion that should be drawn is not about the Agreement. It is that those three ultras are not politicians, but zealots. It appears that there is no price that they are willing to let other people pay to achieve their benighted goal. Theirs is the irresponsibility of the fanatic.

Imposing the baleful consequences of English nationalism on Ireland is something Ireland does not need or deserve. This must be resisted and condemned from all sides.

Monday, February 12, 2018

East West Street

Phillipe Sands' East West Street is wonderful.

That's the only word that fits. It's gripping, engaging - and about international law. That might seem incongruous, but Sands wove what could have been a dry academic narrative around stories of the people involved, together with the discovery of his own family history. It's a brilliant device for making non-fiction accessible.

The biographical approach works because of a coincidence. There are four main protagonists. The first three, Leon Buchholz, Sands' grandfather, Hersch Lauterpacht, a professor of international law who established the concept of crimes against humanity, and Rafael Lemkin, who coined the term genocide, all came from the city that is now known as Lviv, in the Ukraine. The fourth, Hans Frank, was also a lawyer, but was the Nazi governor who administered the Holocaust in Poland. Buchholz, Lauterpacht, and Lemkin all managed to get out in time before Frank murdered their families.

The book focuses on the development of two related but conflicting legal ideas, crimes against humanity - committed against individuals - and genocide - committed against groups. However, both shared a central principle, that state sovereignty should no longer be unlimited and that the leaders of states should be held accountable for their crimes.

This raised the question as to how sovereignty was to be limited?  Rather than invent some powerful supra-national body, the answer was more ingenious. State sovereignty was to be pooled for a specific purpose, the administration of international law and the protection of citizens against abuses by their own state. The result was the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal. The limitation of sovereignty protected citizens. Ordinary people gained at the expense of their governments. The Holocaust made it a humanitarian imperative. And though it took decades for the International Criminal Court to be set up, the principle had been established.

The nature and extent of the war asked profound questions about the shape of a post-war settlement. In the first half of the twentieth century the sovereign nation state brought an era of catastrophe that culminated in the Nazi war of extermination. The system based on the balance of power broke down, collective security through the League of Nations failed, while the self-determination of nations brought intractable ethnic conflict rather than peace. Nuremberg pointed to a different approach, the voluntary pooling of sovereignty where the gains were greater than the losses. Which brings me round to the single most important question facing Britain today, Brexit.

The European Union is an evolving response to the dangers of nationalism. Membership involves states pooling sovereignty in limited areas, whist retaining it overall. Describing the EU as bureaucratic misses the point, it's more accurate to describe it as legalistic. It's existence and operation is based on law, made through collective decision making processes, involving all members and embodied in treaties. By requiring democratic governance and tying it to economic self-interest, it has been the most successful of our trans-national institutions. Which is why nationalists, fascists, and revanchist neo-imperialists (such as Putin's Russia) bitterly oppose it. And in Britain they struck gold.

The narrow result of an unnecessary, poorly constructed and appallingly conducted referendum is now being interpreted in the most radical way possible. Each compromise, even the ones the Leave campaign actually advocated themselves, is treated as an act of treachery. The language is of ultra-nationalism, the very force that brought ruin to Europe. As the realities hit, any economic case for Brexit is melting away, while the huge costs of the increase in bureaucracy and new infrastructure necessary to deal with the consequences of leaving show this to be an expensive folly. The result is that nationalist rhetoric has become the first resort of the Brexiters. Given, that the heart of the European catastrophe was the Holocaust, it is both alarming and unsurprising that this rhetoric involves stepping into the sewer to drag out noisome anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about George Soros as the Jewish "puppet master" secretly plotting to sabotage Brexit. The echoes of an evil past are unmistakable.

As it all becomes about "taking back control" we have to ask the question, 'control for whom'? I can assure you that it isn't control for you or I. It's not for ordinary citizens; we will lose rights, freedoms, and protections. No, the liberty they talk about is for the government to act without restraint. This gets lost amongst all the welter of detail, as does the broader historical significance.

Reading Sands' book brings you back to a sense of national pride that Britain played a role in establishing the principle that national leaders were not immune from prosecution for the crimes that they have committed against their people. It reminds us that unlimited state sovereignty is not an untrammelled good. It tells us again that nationalism and genocide walked hand in hand throughout European history. And it shows that Holocaust remembrance is not just about pious statements, but the need to build institutions that prevent it from happening again, and never taking them for granted.

If there is one compensation it is that Brexit appears to have strengthened rather than weakened the European Union. It still faces challenges within from Hungary and Poland, together with the extreme nationalism of the far right. However, The EU's economy is growing and it is becoming more and more apparent that the big loser will be Britain alone. Even so, the challenge to the delicate balance of the post-war settlement is disturbing. It is a triumph for the nationalist right, even if some left-wingers think that they can combine nationalism and socialism without the terrible consequences of the previous attempt. And it is Britain, my country, that has delivered the most damaging blow to post-war European institutions.

There has been much noise and resentment amongst Brexiters that we are not celebrating our exit from the EU. They witter on about Big Ben ringing and special stamps issued to commemorate our departure. I find their facile suggestions contemptible. If, and I really hope the day never comes, Britain leaves the EU, it will not be a moment to mark with rejoicing. Instead, it will be a day that signals our betrayal of the attempt to create a new Europe out of the ruins of the old, to establish the protection of citizens through international law, and a reversion to an historical fantasy of British exceptionalism. It will be a day of shame; deep, deep shame.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018


There's something really poignant about these comments from people who regret their vote to leave the EU. They come from wider focus group research on attitudes, mainly among older people.
"To be perfectly honest, I don’t think there should have been a referendum anyway on a subject as complex as that. I don’t think the public had enough knowledge of for and against."
"I thought we voted for politicians to actually make these decisions on our behalf!"
"We were absolutely not in a position where we should have been given the vote in the first place."
"They asked us to vote on something which, the majority of us, had no real knowledge on what we were signing. I wanted to just to come out of Europe because I thought Europe had too much control over our cards, over our system. But, I for one, didn’t fully understand the implications of coming out of Europe. And I think there are a lot of people who likewise."
Admitting that we got things wrong is rare. Normally we double down on our original judgement, rationalise it away, and slowly forget it. But, if we do recognise that we were in error, it helps to have someone to blame, and they did. It was the fault of politicians for putting it to the vote. They're right. This points to one of the many flaws in referendums. Not only are they a way of by-passing democratic institutions and giving no additional weight to expertise as against ignorance, but they are a way of passing the buck. Politicians avoid taking responsibility for their own decisions. Instead, they hide behind "the will of the people." The recriminations are then levelled at the voters, even within families. Young people accuse older ones of "having stolen their future."

You can feel the distress in these answers. They were asked to vote and did their duty to the best of their limited knowledge, sensing that the mere fact of the referendum indicated that there was a problem. Now they are shouldering the guilt they feel for a wrong decision. The referendum put responsibility on people who neither wanted it, nor were qualified to exercise it, all in a failed attempt to placate the right wing of the Conservative Party. It was cruel to put them in that position.

Which brings me round to the question being raised about another referendum (not a second one, it will be the third). Paul Evans is against. Chris Dillow makes excellent points as well.
Nigel Farage and Arron Banks are starting to agree with many Remainers that there should be a second referendum. Both sides, of course, do so for the same motive – the belief they would win.
What this misses is that the first referendum was, as Robert Harris said, “the most depressing, divisive, duplicitous political event of my lifetime.” It was dominated by lies and by ignorance of basic facts. The result in effect went simply to the highest bidder. There’s no reason to suppose that a second referendum will be any better.
There would be one difference of course, a fresh referendum would be better informed because of the experience and consequences of the first. Otherwise, it's a dismal prospect.

The problem that those of us who think that Brexit is wholly mistaken face is a different one. However rotten a decision making process a referendum is, it might be our only chance. I don't mean this is because of a Parliamentary or governmental decision being a challenge to the supposed legitimacy of the referendum, far from it. I don't think that many outside the tiny ranks of the Brexit partisans really care about the issue. It would be mainly greeted with a shrug or a sigh of relief. Brexiters are convulsed with hysterical hatreds and denunciations of treachery when winning anyway, so who would deny them the intense, orgasmic pleasure of an ultimate betrayal? No, the problem we face is that politicians are showing every sign of cowardice. They are determined to avoid the responsibility bestowed by their office. So, it isn't that Brexit shouldn't be halted by anything other than another referendum, it is that it won't be.

A referendum is a way out, but is still a risk. It will have many of the same flaws as the previous one. It could go either way. So while I would prefer politicians to actually do their job as representatives, I fear that we are stuck with the prospect of another poll. I would welcome it only in so far as it would be the only chance of revisiting the decision. One thing I do know though, I hope to hell we never have another one of the damnable things.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Questions without answers

Jeremy Corbyn has set out his position on the EU single market to the PLP. If this report is correct, his thinking raises a number of questions. He said:

1. It is impossible to be outside the EU and stay in the single market. (This is untrue, as pointed out repeatedly).

Q. Is he lying or is he thick?

2. He wants a 'jobs first Brexit.'

Q. WTF does that mean?

3. He wants to retain all the benefits of membership through negotiation with the EU. (Despite the EU making it perfectly clear that no such deal is possible).

Q. Can he name any other organisation that would grant the full benefits of membership to non-members without them having to meet the obligations of membership?


Around 65% of Labour voters voted remain. 87% of Labour members voted remain. The overwhelming majority of voters and members want Britain to stay in the single market. Why then is Corbyn supporting the Tories against Labour? 

Friday, January 05, 2018

Myths and legends

Wales is full of them. The whole point of a myth is that it is a compelling story that isn't true. Mythology also sells books. For example, David Goodhart got a lot of attention for his book, The Road to Somewhere. He followed a proven recipe. Take a complex subject and simplify it down to a couple of categories and give them catchy names. Once you have done that, cherry-pick the evidence to make your argument seem credible. Goodhart divided the British into Somewheres and Anywheres. Somewheres are rooted in their locality and community. Anywheres are - well, you can't avoid the phrase - a cosmopolitan elite. The former tend to be socially conservative, the latter more liberal. Somewheres voted for Brexit. Remainers were Anywheres - classic "citizens of nowhere." It's very neat and is often rolled out to explain the Brexit vote. Convincing, until you look closer.

This superb article does just that. Richard Wyn Jones examines the impact of Brexit on one of the poorest communities in Wales, Holyhead. The future outside the EU doesn't look promising for the town, even though it voted narrowly to leave. But when you break down that vote, you can see something else.
The island’s Remain vote will have relied heavily on Welsh speakers. Indeed, fully 84 per cent of fluent Welsh-speaking, strong Welsh-identifying voters supported Remain. That itself is a statistic that should be enough to puncture the vacuous argument that “people from somewhere” voted Leave while more cosmopolitan, better-educated “people from anywhere” voted to Remain in the UK. 
Such an explanation has been offered frequently since the referendum result by English metropolitan circles. Believe me, it is difficult to be more local in outlook than to be brought up as a native Welsh speaker in Anglesey.
84%. That is a stunning figure. National identity clearly played a critical role in the vote, but not the one Goodhart would have expected.

This is a warning to avoid glib, but commercially viable, explanations and look at the vote as a complex response to an ill-framed question in a diverse, multi-national country. And when you do that, the spurious slogan, "the will of the people," melts away and trickles into the sewer labelled 'bollocks.'

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Facts and figures

Commentary on the EU referendum in the press is coalescing around one narrative, let's call it the deprivation thesis. Brexit was delivered by the economically deprived and socially marginalised. It's a convenient explanation for the following reasons.

1. For leavers, it bolsters the narrative that Brexit was a revolt of the people against the elite.

2. For the Labour Party leadership, it provides cover for their Brexit policy of non-committal triangulation.

3. It excuses and obscures the racism inherent in sections of the vote.

4. It bolsters the strange argument that although Brexit is a disaster it must be carried through because of the anger and alienation overturning it would generate. For variations on this theme see here (£) and here.

There is one problem with the deprivation thesis. It isn't true. Or at least, even if there was a broad tendency towards voting leave in some deprived areas and plenty of anecdotal examples, there are so many anomalies it would be hard to see it as a sole, valid explanation.

This Twitter thread has a go at presenting the data in a way that shows the weakness of the correlation. It isn't authoritative and the author is tentative about his findings, yet it asks a good question. If the deprivation thesis is true, why did some of the most deprived constituencies of the UK vote remain and some of the more affluent ones vote leave?

The conclusion drawn is:
... it was not the North, the Left Behinds or anything like that which lost the referendum. It was the Home Counties and the prosperous agricultural districts. "Why did Aylesbury vote Leave?" should be asked a lot more than why did, say, Stoke. ... So can a journalist please travel the Home Counties looking for Leavers, please?
I agree. This refutes the first two arguments, and those who don't think that racism played a part should read this other thread too. It's the fourth that needs the most unpacking.

Leaving aside the inherent absurdity of insisting that we are compelled to hurt you because you asked us to even if you didn't think it would hurt at all, there are two elements that I find dubious. The first is that it mistakes the fact of a vote with the strength of feeling behind it. Until the referendum, the EU was a low salience issue. Outside a small band of believers, most were indifferent. Even though it's a much more salient issue now, I can't see that much change in passion. Remainers have managed to call out tens of thousands of people for mass demonstrations agains Brexit, but leavers have only been able to pull together a few dozen flag wavers at best. Where is that mass anger?

The second is pure class condescension. It is based on fear of the mob. When the referendum was held the majority of voters were rationally ignorant. There was no reason for them to learn about the complexities of an organisation that they took for granted. I was much the same. I refuse to believe that working class people are incapable of learning and understanding, especially when faced with stark alternatives.

But then again, as well as the bulk of leavers being affluent suburbanites, there is one set of statistics that is robust. There was no majority for leave amongst those under the age of forty-four. Somehow I can't see bands of elderly rioters flooding out of deepest Surrey to wreak havoc as they have been thwarted in their deep desire for blue passports and, in the latest mad campaign, the return of the crown stamp on pint beer glasses.

What matters is not fear of popular reaction, but the consequences of Brexit. Our consideration should be for the national interest in maintaining our international standing and economic strength, for the stability of a democratic Europe, and for the protection of citizens' rights and liberties that the wealthy, tax evading leaders of the Brexit campaign are itching to strip from us.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018


New Year in Greece. Cats, oranges, blue skies, and the European Union.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Toothache in the rain

The Sore Tooth and the Broken Umbrella: Brexit and the Crisis of Nationalism - Fintan O'Toole from TASC on Vimeo.

This is good. It's fifty-two minutes long, but worth your time. It's a perceptive critique of Brexit from Fintan O'Toole.

His theme is the rise of English nationalism and he talks about about its purpose, consequences, and dangers, dangers about which English nationalists seem oblivious. Brexit is the consequence rather than the cause. Ironically, its language and politics is alien to English political traditions - 'the will of the people,' opposition as betrayal, plebiscitary politics, the sacred moment of the referendum - all are closer to continental revolutionary practice than British representative democracy. Nationalism is not necessarily related to real, lived experience. It is irrational and impervious to argument. And, ultimately, it can never deliver the utopia it promises.

O'Toole points to two types of nationalism, one that is positive about the nation and what it can contribute, and the antagonistic version that defines the nation against others. English nationalism is the latter. Again there are two variations of antagonistic nationalism, the imperialist one, where a nation asserts itself over others on a world stage, and an anti-imperialist one, where a nation resists imperial domination. Brexiters make a claim to both. They are utterly contradictory.

One the one hand we have the notion of a liberated Britain once more ruling the waves - "Empire 2.0." As if that wasn't enough, we have an anti-imperialist version too. The problem with that is that in the absence of an imperial aggressor, we have to invent one. And so the EU, a body that we joined voluntarily as an act of idealism as well as self-interest (and, yes, positive nationalism), a body in which we were one of the most powerful decision makers, an organisation that gave real economic benefits and protected citizens' rights, is now called 'rule by Brussels' and we have become 'a vassal state.' It's completely mad.

There are things O'Toole missed. Wales is the obvious one, equally as committed to Brexit. And the other is that there is a left nationalism as well. Yet that too is unimaginative and nostalgic. It clings to Bennite recitations of past struggles - the Levellers, the Chartists, the Suffragettes, etc. Each are as historically important as they are distinct. But they do not constitute a coherent tradition of national independence formed through working class struggle. And those 'Lexiters' also embrace the madness. For them, the EU is an alien imposition deliberately created to crush any hint of democratic socialism and impose a neoliberal order on subject states. They say this at the same time as the right argue that the EU is a socialist regulatory nightmare, strangling business and economic liberty. This astonishing incoherence has seen Dennis Skinner and Kate Hoey rebel against a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn to vote with the Tories. Work that one out.

O'Toole reckons that there is little we can do about nationalism other than see it out. As its discontents are irrational, appeasing its demands will do nothing. Instead he argues, rightly in my view, that our focus should be on a social Europe "animated by an urgent imperative of social justice and equality." The European Union is an ally, despite the regressive economic orthodoxy of the handling of the Euro crisis, but the prime responsibility lies with the individual nation to build welfare states and abandon counter-productive austerity policies. To which I would add the importance of strong labour unions. This ties in with another aspect of English nationalism, its link to economic deprivation.

If there is one phrase I would love to remove from modern political discourse, it's "the white working class." It needs to be replaced by another one - "the working class." The qualification "white" is redolent of antagonistic nationalism. The belief that the white working class has been forgotten and disadvantaged, while the non-white working class has been privileged at their expense, is implicit in the term. It's the politics of resentment. Not only is the narrative an example of how scapegoating foreigners works, it is also untrue. All research shows that black and ethnic minority groups do worse than white ones. But once again, perception trumps reality. I have even seen a comment on Twitter from a leftist talking about how an indigenous working class has been exploited by a "cosmopolitan elite." This should send a shiver running through anyone with even the slightest acquaintance with fascism and anti-Semitism.

The other phrase that is often used, "the left behind," is much more useful. It describes deprivation as a function of geography rather than ethnicity. It is also true. It always has been. It was as true in the 1930s as it is today. The "left behind" is an apt description of areas in transition. When a place loses a staple industry, communities collapse. New replacements may spring up, but rarely in the same location. This is where investment, regional policies, social intervention, local government, and strong welfare states play a crucial role. They can manage transition and help areas resurrect themselves. EU regional aid was a huge benefit, but they took the blame for the UK government's inaction and neglect. Instead of support and investment, we see universal credit, cuts to services, exploitative casual employment, low wages, and of austerity for the poor alone. The anti-EU vote in these areas was a cry of desperation rather than of nationalism.

O'Toole speculates about why we never saw English nationalism coming. But if we didn't spot its rise, he hasn't seen its fall. It's declining. Antagonistic nationalism is weak amongst the young - in all classes and all areas. They see Europe as a source of opportunity and a guarantee of rights, not as an alien oppressor. I don't think that they yearn for imperial glory - not even at football. (We've all written that off and now the international break is mainly seen as an irritating interruption to what really matters, club football with its cosmopolitan profusion of international stars.) Only the most fervent believers cling to the expensive quack remedies sold to them by charlatans once they realise that they are killing rather than curing them. The majority for Brexit was small, weak, and ill informed. The political response has been inept and craven. Support couldn't last. This week, there was a pretty dramatic opinion poll. It may be an outlier or the product of sampling error, though all the polls have slowly slipping in that direction. Remain has a ten point lead over Leave.

I have always said that we are a nicer country than many give us credit for. People like Blue Labour may believe that we have to throw illiberal red meat at the workers, but I think they are patronising ordinary people, pandering to the worst to no effect. Brexit isn't inevitable. The fantasies of a deranged political class do not have to be implemented. But what is absolutely imperative is that we see our enemy as poverty, deprivation, and hunger - yes hunger, in Britain - and we bring determination to defeat that enemy into all our dealings with our European partners. Now that's a nationalism that would make me proud to be English once again.