Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Instead of a slogan

A proper, comprehensible, and informed discussion of the withdrawal agreement and the politics behind it.


A winter's tale

This isn't a normal election. The consequences are profound and long lasting. Despite this, all I can see around here is a combination of indifference and hostility. There are no posters in windows, no boards in front gardens, little chatter, and less excitement.

What about the leaders?

On Labour, Joe Pike of ITV News tweeted:
A normally loyal Labour MP on Corbyn and prospects for #GE19 :
‘We’re led by a lunatic. He’s a nice but dim man who is being controlled by truly evil people.’
Apparently, this isn't an isolated opinion. It appears to be one of the more restrained ones. I have often commented before how the Parliamentary Labour Party reminds me of places where I have worked when we had a disastrous manager - heads down, keep smiling, reassure everyone that all is well, try and keep it going despite everything. In the meantime, Corbyn's personal ratings are the lowest since polling began.

Can it be recovered? Perhaps it can if we turn to the Tories.

What can you say about Johnson? Chosen because he was seen as popular, charismatic, and a good campaigner, rather than capable of doing the job, he turns out to be none of those. He's been swanning round the country being insulted by all and sundry, drawing visceral hatred from people in the street, while showing himself to be confused, inarticulate, and plain wrong about many things. He's bluffing his way through and making up things. Scandals threaten and he responds by lying.

An election where 'Stop Corbyn' fights 'Stop Johnson' is not healthy. No wonder there is little enthusiasm.

Hanging over this is Brexit. This is why this election will shape Britain for a generation. And it's another reason for a lack of enthusiasm. Both the main parties are trying to avoid the issue. Johnson by wittering on about getting it done, Labour are hedging their bets. Instead of forensic analysis of the proposals and consequences of Brexit, we have dire sloganising. This is infantilising the electorate. They're not daft, they notice.

All the while, Brexiters fight amongst themselves over the true meaning of Brexit. As Chris Grey comments,
... the hard core Brexiters don’t want Brexit at all: they want to be perpetual victims, perpetual campaigners, perpetually betrayed. Winning the referendum was their nightmare, not their triumph.
The result is, as Grey points out again,
... if Brexit does go ahead it will be done against the wishes of the majority, who now want to remain, but, in any form it occurs, it will leave a substantial minority of those who do want it thinking it is a betrayal of Brexit anyway.
This is the winter of our discontent. It is the season of sullen resentment and a search for escapism. The country is better than this. The Conservative Party did this to us by dumping its existential crisis on the country in an act of craven irresponsibility. God help us if they are the ones who gain as a result.

Monday, November 11, 2019

And they're off

Once it became clear that Johnson could get a parliamentary majority for his withdrawal agreement, he managed to call an election so that he could get a majority for his withdrawal agreement. The parties have now set out their main election narratives.

Conservatives: We will make the worst mistake since the War. We will make it as badly as possible. You will have a terrible time. But at least it will be over - even if it won't be. Anyway, we're only doing it because you asked us to.

Labour: We are prepared to make the worst mistake since the War, but it won't be as bad as the Tory mistake. Having told you about it, we will ask you to decide - or at least a majority of those that can be arsed to vote. If you vote for the mistake, we will make it, but it will be all your fault. In the meantime let's talk about something else.

Liberal Democrats: Don't do it!

SNP: Don't do it! (But if you do, we're outta here.)

Plaid Cymru: Don't do it!

Green Party: Don't do it!

Independents: Don't do it!

Brexit Party: Declare war on Europe, anything less is a betrayal.

Me: Help!!!

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Fun and games

I first came across game theory in international relations many years ago. It described the actions of states in terms of rational calculation and behaviour. It has one flaw in explaining the world. If you studied history you would see that states didn't do this. I always felt that it was a theory that failed its empirical tests. I thought it was ludicrously reductionist.

It's floated around economics for a while, but I am not an economist, so can't really comment. However, two devotees of game theory have come to prominence in politics recently. Ianis Varoufakis was one (that went well, didn't it?). And now we have Dominic Cummings driving Brexit strategy. That strategy seems divorced from consequences. The aim is to win, regardless of what is won, or of the collateral damage done on the way. It is amoral in the extreme.

The encouraging thing is that this ruthless pursuit of victory has so far produced nothing but defeats. There is one problem, though. This game only requires one win, the important one. If this were a football league, Johnson could lose every match apart from the last one and still be crowned champion. This might happen yet.

The tactics are simple, the indiscriminate use of the professional foul. The main means is dishonesty. 'Getting Brexit done,' is the latest one. It promises closure while glossing over the years of negotiation from a position of weakness that will dominate politics for years to come. Going over the ball to smash studs into the shins of Parliament is normal practice. The referee - the legal system and constitutional law - is subject to continuous abuse and harassment. The fans are vociferous. The Ultras of the right-wing press, unfurl their banners and scream their taunts at the opponents.The ordinary fans join in and stay loyal throughout. Nobody notices that their numbers are diminishing, what matters is noise. The larger opposition is quieter and more sportsmanlike. Party loyalty is trumping the national interest.

If they do win, there will be a moment of triumph. The trophy will be lifted to the roars of their fans, and the muttered hatred of everyone else. They will face the consequences of their victory - opprobrium and eventual relegation. The game itself will be damaged as foul tactics will have been legitimised. But still, that trophy will be in the cabinet.

The trouble is, politics is not a game. It's the way that we manage our public lives. The rules are important. Policies have real impacts on real lives. Brexit is not a prize. It is the complete resetting of our economics and of our international relations. It has huge consequences for people's lives. The evidence is unequivocal. It will damage the UK economy. People will lose out. It will hurt British citizens in the EU (like ones with a house in Greece!). It will endanger peace in Northern Ireland. It does risk the future of Gibraltar. It does threaten the Union. What's more, two years of polling shows a consistent majority for remaining in the EU. We have the largest pro-European movement on the continent. Remain can bring a million people on to the streets, Leave a few hundred at best. It needs careful consideration, not a sporting contest to decide it.

Brexit is the obsession of small groups of sectarian political hobbyists of left and right. It always was a fringe belief of little relevance to most people. But it was the Conservative party that kept it alive and brought it on us through a monstrous miscalculation by Cameron. It has died as a meaningful policy. But the corpse is still twitching. This is its last chance. Within a short time it would have been buried with a stake through its heart. The irony is that the cup may be paraded in the decaying hands of a zombie.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Undemocratic majorities

Saturday looms. We are heading for either the dénouement or another hiatus. The economic impact of the deal will be immensely damaging. If it is passed unamended then it will be rapidly hated by everyone. The politicians who let it happen will face ignominy, not only in their lifetime but in all future histories. The country is on the brink of committing an act of national folly that is mind-bending in its stupidity. There seems to be only one justification left, the referendum. It took a marginal right-wing obsession and placed it at the centre of our politics. And then Leave won – just. So now we are left with the cries of 'Democracy!' and 'Will of the people.' The process by which we arrived at a decision trumps the quality of the result. It's an obvious absurdity.

But the process was not democracy. A few are starting to challenge the process as well as the outcome based on a well-established principle, the tyranny of the majority. Majority rule is not necessarily democratic.

Critics are reviving the term, ochlocracy. It's been defined as majority rule, and compared with democracy, the rule of all the people. This isn't correct. Ochlocracy is mob rule. Fear of the irrational violence of the mob and its susceptibility to provocation by demagogues has always been with us. You can see it in the scaremongering about civil unrest if Brexit doesn't happen. Democracy limited rule to the demos – the people, but not all of them. The rule by the demos was wider than elite rule, but still limited. In ancient Greece it consisted of free men. Women and slaves were excluded. The democratic revival associated with liberalism, also limited the demos. For Locke, participation was restricted to the 'rational.' That became defined in various ways, mainly male property holders. The democratic struggle then became one for universal and female suffrage, in other words for a fully inclusive demos. As it did, it wrestled with another problem, the tyranny of the majority. Majorities are perfectly capable of doing extremely nasty things to minorities. A majority group can be a tyrannical as an elite one. The protection of minorities became an intrinsic feature of liberal democracy.

The solution that evolved was representative democracy. First, through the election of fully independent representatives, latterly through political parties, capable of coherent policies and aggregating large numbers of interests. Our democracy rests on a combination of the two. Party discipline holds the system together, while MPs still have the right – and the duty – to act as their conscience and perception of the national interest dictates, even if it contradicts their party.

The one thing that they are not bound to do is to follow the dictates of the electorate. They are not delegates. Power resides in Parliament. The role of the demos is limited to one of selecting representatives or parties. This is their only power. Outside elections, the people can wield influence, but cannot impose their will. All this is pretty basic British Constitution. I used to teach it at 'O' level to evening classes back in the early 80s. It was dull.

The problem is, we have thrown referendums into the system without thinking about how they fit in. They cut right across it. Brexiters are saying that MPs should act as the delegates of the 17.4 million Leave voters and nobody else. We are now in the curious situation of an advisory referendum being treated as not only binding, but permanently so. Given that a central principle of parliamentary sovereignty is that no parliament can bind its successors, this is bizarre.

But the majority voted leave, so leave we must. I keep hearing that mantra. My answer is, so what? Votes do not change reality and majorities can be oppressive. That isn't to deny a majority can be an important deciding factor. We can't give up the idea of majority rule entirely. It makes sense when the majority represents a much larger consensus on issues of great importance, or to decide who forms a government, or if the issue is relatively trivial. We have all been outvoted from time to time.

The problems arise when there is no real consensus and if the majority hurts a significant minority of people. And if you look at Brexit you can see both. The majority in the referendum was not a majority of the electorate, it was a plurality. 17.4 million may have voted leave, but 29 million did not. Current polling has shown a consistent lead for remain for the last eighteen months or so. There is no consensus for inflicting a revolutionary change, probably not even a majority. On top of that, two groups of people who were significantly affected were denied a vote. EU 27 citizens legally resident in the UK and British citizens living in the EU for over 15 years were not allowed to vote in a decision that could wreck their lives. Their interests were decided while they were excluded from the process. This is a classic tyranny of the majority.

There was something else though. Brexit is a simple project imposed on a complex nation state. As it stands, it is impossible for it not to harm significant minorities. What's more, those minorities form a majority amongst those directly affected and in certain key locations. Gibraltar voted by 96% to remain yet is being taken out of the by the votes of others. EU membership is vital to its economy and way of life. Northern Ireland voted to remain, the border areas overwhelmingly so, as membership blurred the national identities that had killed three thousand people in a civil conflict. Scotland had voted against independence on the promise that staying in the UK would secure their place in the EU. The Scots voted to remain. The most significant is the generation gap. Remain had a majority among those under 44. The under 25s voted 70% for Remain. Young voters coming of age now, who were too young to vote in 2016, favour Remain by over 80%. It's the vote of the older generations that swung it to Leave. The figures are so striking that the simple operation of demographics mean that in a few years Remain will not just be a majority, but an overwhelming consensus.

And this is why we have Parliamentary democracy. Representation allows all these sectional groups to be considered as part of the decision-making process rather than discounted and dismissed as a minority.

Referendums cannot do this, only representation can. The decision to try and decide as complex an issue as Brexit within a multi-nation state was a catastrophe. It has produced the mess we are in now. And even though Parliament has the final say, it is being pushed to a make a decision within a time-scale that prevents proper scrutiny and deliberation. Nevertheless, at least Parliament is ultimately in control.

All this is not to say that we are doing representative democracy well, we can do much better. Our real task is to find ways of improving and enhancing representation, instead of delivering power to demagogues through plebiscitary politics, while pretending that it is in any way democratic.

Dealing from the bottom of the pack

I have always argued that no-deal was never going to happen. It was never intended to happen. The effort that went into preventing it was unnecessary, but the organised resistance was good preparation for the struggle ahead. No-deal was, first of all, a mad bluff. That was never going to work. So, given our ludicrous red lines, the only thing on offer would be a rehash of the earlier May deal. The noise and thunder coming from Johnson was the sound of surrender.

The real threat to our place in the European Union was always the deal - even more so if it could be sold as a way of avoiding a fictitious no-deal. Better still if it could be seen as a compromise. This was the trap.

What is proposed is a far harder Brexit than anything that the Leave campaign suggested during the referendum. It is a disaster for the nation. It has to be opposed. 

Monday, September 30, 2019

Return to normality

I've been travelling, returning to the UK, staying with family in London, and am back in Manchester doing useful things. That's why I have been quiet on here.

Yesterday was a soggy, chill day. Rain poured from leaden skies, and the Tory Party Conference came to town. The security arrangements around the venue were ridiculous. The Midland Hotel was fenced off with secure turnstiles for the guests installed. Still, conference delegates roamed freely and incongruously, showing that they were from a different tribe. And there were demonstrations. The biggest was the anti-Brexit one in the afternoon. It wasn't huge, unsurprising given the weather, but it was several thousand strong and attracted people from across the region. These people made me nostalgic for my Hull days.


The rest followed the usual pattern of chants and banners, subdued a little by the rain,


 and the marchers were cheered on from a fine traditional pub.


There was a counter demonstration of Brexit supporters. I counted no more than a dozen. There were a few choruses of "we love you Boris, we do" from disturbing looking thugs. (Johnson should worry about the people he is attracting.) A few were drunk and trying to pick a fight with the police, a couple of them shouted "scum" at the demonstrators, but long before the end of the march had passed, they had all gone home. I think that sums up the respective strengths of the pro and anti Brexit movements.

But the most striking thing about the day was the many more thousands who were in the city centre, doing their shopping, having a day out, eating and drinking, going to theatres and cinemas, etc. They weren't fussed. Most smiled warmly at the marchers, there were a couple of sarky comments, but that was it. It's best summed up by someone on the tram who asked me what was going on in town. He hadn't a clue. I told him it was the Tory Party conference. He said, "Oh bloody hell. Them." And that was it. The referendum was launched into a sea of indifference about the EU, and it's still there. The excitement about polarisation, such as in this good piece, is right about the committed. Neither diehard remainers or leavers are a majority, however. Both rely on the cognitive bias of the false consensus to comfort them. Because they believe in it, they think they must be in the majority.

The evidence does show that remain is the stronger. It can mobilise many, many more people than leave. You would be much happier to meet them in a dark alley too, even if they might get a bit boring in the pub. There hasn't been a single opinion poll without a remain lead for two years. The generational aspect is hugely important as well. The young are overwhelmingly pro-remain - 70-80% - leave doesn't have much of a future.

All this makes the talk of civil disorder even more ridiculous. Not only would this be the first time in history that people have rioted in favour of food shortages, it is always the young that riot and they don't want Brexit at all. But it's the great indifference that is the key point. The electorate didn't know much about the EU, never saw it as a problem, and didn't realise that it made their lives easier even though they talked about retiring to Spain and going on a "booze cruise" to bring back car loads of cheap drink. If we don't leave, a few hundred neo-fascists may be as unpleasant as always. Elderly Brexit Party members will mutter dark threats. But I reckon most people will either shrug or breathe a sigh of relief, because the only way that it will all be over is to remain.

"Getting Brexit done" (entering ten years of complex negotiations with the EU to try and work out a worse relationship while mitigating as much of the damage as possible, all of which will dominate the work of government) is not the magic formula for social peace. Brexit was sold as something that brings material benefits and an enhanced national status. Instead, it is bringing material costs and a diminution of national status. Voters will not forgive the politicians who took us out and many leave voters will forget that they once supported the idea. The younger generation, wanting to exploit the opportunities that the EU opens up, will be bitterest of all.

The language has been terrible, the threats shocking, and the atmosphere poisonous. There's a simple reason why - Brexit is dead and Brexiters are losing. No amount of shouting fictions at reality makes it any less real. They can't answer questions about trade, production, rights, prosperity, transport, and a myriad of other questions because the answers are either unknown or unpalatable. So, they scream abuse at the people who ask them. As they do, and as they try and excuse the actions of the lousy choice the Tories made for leader, they look worse and worse to those who don't share their passions.

I don't know how this will play out, but I think that there is a fair chance that we will end up not leaving. It's the easiest way out of a self-imposed mess. Anyway, my humble suggestion is that the next time we try and wreck the country, let's not do it over something most people never cared about in the first place.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

In search of lost coherence

The problem with trying to understand Brexit is that it is impossible to pin it down to any one meaning. Critics try and assign the causes to nationalism, racism, 'little England' sentiment, nostalgia, anger, etc., and none of the accusations stick. The same goes with the possible outcomes – from keeping our place in the single market, which we were told by the leave campaign would not be threatened, to the no-deal unilateral abrogation of treaties, defaulting on debts, and isolating ourselves from our main economic partners. There's a reason for this. Brexit isn't a single ideology, it's a cluster of sentiments that have emerged from an oppositional political milieu.

The milieu is a useful concept. My book is about a part of the 19th century radical milieu - libertarian anti-statism. It spread from anarcho-communists to free market anti-capitalists and proto-ecologists. They recognised each other as fellow travellers, if not as allies. The same can be said of Brexit. The common theme of opposition to the European Union was adopted by ethnic nationalists, anti-immigration Powellites, far right racists, Conservative free-market ultras, neo-feudalists, Stalinists, authoritarians, climate change deniers, neo-imperialists, Putin's 'useful idiots,' fascists, Bennite left social democrats, revolutionary defeatists, disaster capitalists, and so on. There is no coherence in a milieu, only a swirl of ideas, each feeding off each other and making and unmaking unlikely alliances. Each strand on its own is negligible, together they produce a noisy minority to challenge the mainstream.

Beguiled by the simplification of the language of a political spectrum, we try and describe this in terms of left/right positioning. I've done the same. But it doesn't fit that well. The strange allies people make within a milieu is sometimes seen as the product of a horseshoe shaped spectrum where extreme left and right meet. But in an anti-establishment milieu, red/brown alliances are natural, they share common hatreds and, above all, view the world as a vast conspiracy and democracy as a sham.

There are several things milieus have in common. They incubate some interesting and creative ideas that can spin off into the mainstream and lose much of their dangerous baggage in the process. However, they also have links with some of the crazier elements of fringe beliefs – 9/11 conspiracy, anti-vaccination, rejection of some science (i.e. GMOs, pharmaceuticals, synthetic chemicals), cultic and esoteric religions, anti-Semitism, and many, many others. 

They share an indiscriminating hostility to all things deemed mainstream. They hero worship anyone, any regime or any movement, that they see as oppositional to the establishment. They maintain their own media to remain uncontaminated. And this leads to something else, they distance themselves from reality. Sometimes they treat facts, evidence, and truth as the enemy.

Finally, they are utopian and that utopianism tends towards the totalitarian style. They have a plan, a future society that will blossom the moment their plan is adopted and its opponents swept away. How many deaths have resulted from such overconfidence? Looked at closely, the ideas are always shallow and ill-informed. And for real lunacy delve into the depths of the Brexit Party.

We can see all this with Brexit. Once Brexiters are confronted with details and important questions like trade relations, service industries, or the Belfast Agreement, they lapse into utopian rhetoric or talk about the Second World War. It can all be solved, believe in Britain, we will become global Britain again. I want to know about my house in Greece, others about their businesses and just-in-time supply chains, yet more need information about the supply of food and medicines, but Brexiters give no details other than a vision of the rosy future that awaits if we leave. All they can say in reply is that 'people voted for it,' regardless of whether it was a good idea or not. They never give us solutions. They can't. That's because they are ignorant of the way the EU works, what it is, and our role in it. They have never tried to learn about it, but have invented a series of fictions to justify their ideological preferences. There is a rock, but there is no way through. The rock is reality. Our government is still trying to wish it away rather than deal with it.

Milieus are not necessarily benign. They are persistent. They can grow and flourish in a crisis, offering simple solutions to complex problems. But these populist groupings are always permanent minorities. There is only one thing that can make them dangerous – an invitation. The energy they provide can be a temptation, either to harness it or to finally quash the movement that produced it. 2015 was the year of the invitation.

There are many examples of mistaken invitations, but the classic one is Hitler. In the second election of 1932, the Nazi vote declined from its high point earlier in the year. If the pattern had been maintained, it is likely that it would have declined further and the Nazis would have become an historical footnote. Hysteria and enthusiasm are hard to sustain. Instead, he was offered the Chancellorship in a coalition government. Fifty million died as a consequence.

Brexit is not analogous, it is not the equivalent of the Nazis. But the invitation into the mainstream was the same process. In this case it was the referendum. They accepted and have now colonised the body politic. At the same time, Labour opened up its leadership election to thousands from outside the party, while MPs implacably opposed to Corbyn nominated him on to the shortlist in order to have a debate. The fringe anti-imperialist milieu seized the opportunity and organised round him. These couldn't have happened without complacency – few expected either Leave or Corbyn to win.

The irony of Brexit is that it is reaching its crisis at the very moment that it is dying. Polls show that it is slipping back into being a minority obsession. Reality refuses to shift. The supposed benefits are non-existent. Empty rhetoric is confronting damaged businesses, lost jobs, impossible situations, and ruined lives. If it is pushed through, dead and impractical though it is, it would be a national calamity. We are entering the endgame which will decide.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Slippage

Little by little the language is shifting. The crisis is becoming no deal, always unlikely, rather than exit. Johnson is winning. No deal panic will undermine opposition to a deal. A deal, rather than remaining, will become a success. I find it alarming. Tom Peck is superb here, comparing the whole mess to Shackelton's failed Antarctic expedition.
Should any kind of deal be forthcoming, Remainers will cling to it as a semi-salvation. There will be no fuel shortages, no food shortages, no medicine shortages. The pound will plummet slower than it otherwise would have done. A week in Spain for the family will remain, just about, a realistic possibility. 
We will, like Shackleton’s men, have made it to South Georgia Island. There will be a celebration of sorts. But it will still have been an expedition of profound pointlessness. We will, all of us, be worse off.
This is madness. The task is to remain. If the polls are right, this is what the majority of the country wants. Leaving with a deal is a slow-moving disaster, even if no-deal would be an immediate catastrophe.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Brexit shorts

There are three million or so EU 27 citizens living in the UK. Since the referendum their lives have been made increasingly difficult by uncertainty. This good piece is an example. These observations are acute:
The language you learned and lovingly perfected over the years and now speak every day became deafening in its attacks on the scheme that inspired you to pack up your bags and start a new, hopefully better life here...
The problem with internalising this need to remain quiet and out of the conversation is that unacknowledged melancholy only grows stronger ...

The UK has not been a pleasant place to live for European immigrants since the referendum, and phases of brief panic followed by months of denial do not make for the most stable of mindsets...
Read it all. It echoes with the submerged anxiety and stress that is the experience of the million plus Brits living in the EU and the millions more like me living part-time in EU countries. The past three years have been difficult. I suppose the reason why I keep blogging about Brexit is because it's the only way to manage the constant companion of my deep, deep anger and distress at the damage to my country and the threat to my life here in Greece, a life I love so much. It's personal. Every time I see a Brexiter argument I wonder why they want to hurt me.

******

There are reasons why people join unions. Ireland shows us why it is the same in international affairs. If Ireland was standing alone in a conflict with Britain, it would be weak and vulnerable. As part of the EU it is by far the stronger party. The UK is like a right-wing worker who refuses to join a trade union and is surprised to end up being shafted rather than rewarded. The UK will be shafted in all its trade deals and international relations through inherent weakness caused by its isolation. EU membership enhances, rather than diminishes, British power and sovereignty.

****** 
Why are we not talking about Gibraltar?

******

I don't just hope that the government starts telling the truth, I wish it would face it, or even admit that it exists. It's a juvenile mind that responds to reality by pointing at others and saying, "It's all their fault!"

****** 

When Priti Patel talks of ending freedom of movement immediately, she thinks she will be popular. Yet it's a reciprocal right, and is the one thing that young people, in particular, don't want to lose.

******

Brexiter nationalism and Johnson's evocation of patriotism are crass. This isn't because they are English rather than British. It's because they are kitsch.

******

Back in the 1980s, I went to a lecture by Field Marshall Lord Carver. He was briefly popular on the lecture circuit because he opposed the British nuclear deterrent, thinking that resources would be better spent on conventional forces. He described Britain's eternal strategic interest as ensuring that the continent of Europe was not dominated by a single hostile power. From the Hundred Years War to the Cold War this has been true. There have been many attempts to achieve it - the Westphalian nation state, the balance of powers, national self-determination - all broke down leading to war and conflict. The most successful has been the device advocated since the 18th Century, a form of voluntary federation of independent and democratic states. This is what the EU is. We are threatening to leave something that secures our most important interests.

******

If we do leave the EU, this will not mean that we will stop talking about Brexit. Even at the height of the Empire, the bulk of our trade was with Europe. There will be decades of negotiations to reset our relationship, to find forms of integration without membership, or even to start the long process of applying to rejoin. There is no way out of the Europe that we are an integral part of. If we give up a powerful and privileged position in the closest of the three economic superpowers, then we will have to find a way of mitigating the damage caused by our folly. The only way to stop 'banging on about Europe' is to revoke and remain.

******

The referendum was called because of a problem in the Conservative Party. After the referendum, implementing the result was delegated solely to the Conservative government. No-deal rhetoric is
also about a crisis in the Conservative Party. Isn't it about time that major constitutional change was seen as cross-party issue for deliberation, negotiation, recommendation, and implementation? Shouldn't it be decided through representation rather than plebiscitary populism?

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Springtime for Johnson

In 2016 Boris Johnson famously wrote two alternative articles for the Telegraph, one backing remain and the other leave. He finally plumped for leave and reportedly told David Cameron that he expected to be defeated. It was a ploy to win a support base so that he could be next in line as Cameron's replacement. Echoing the plot of Mel Brook's 'The Producers,' he won a referendum that he intended to lose.

The consequences of winning are often more troublesome than those of losing. Losing allows rhetoric to continue unexamined. Winning brings the burden of implementing victory. That is far more difficult. In the case of Brexit, probably the most complex task any government has ever undertaken since the Second World War. The winning rhetoric was all about immediacy, simplicity, and huge benefits. The reality was that it would take many years of untangling our economy from Europe, be immensely complex with unpredictable consequences, and prove costly and yield no benefits. In the wake of the referendum, Johnson's leadership bid failed. That would have been the end of it if it hadn't been for the government making a complete mess of the process. Never a good idea, Brexit is now a comprehensive failure. The consequences are very clear. Any form of Brexit will:

a) Make the country relatively poorer.
b) Damage the country's international standing and strategic interests.
c) Reduce its power and control.

No-deal Brexit will do this in spades and adds immediate and unpredictable chaos. For what?

For the ultimate symbolism of blue passports, designed in France and printed in Poland?

Unlike 'The Producers,' Johnson profited from the mess. He got a second chance and is Prime Minister. But he arrived at No.10 in a crisis and only got there by using wild and irresponsible rhetoric to play to unrepresentative party members.

He is now demanding that the EU renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement to remove the Northern Ireland Backstop. They will not. He will fail. He says he is determined to default to a no-deal and is ratcheting up the noise. If he is trying to bluff the EU, that too will fail. He must know this. So, does he intend to carry through with no-deal against the wishes of Parliament, business, all major institutions, and public opinion? It would destroy his premiership. Is he a secret ideologue, longing to fulfil his Churchill fantasies by leading his country in an existential struggle against its … er … allies? Or perhaps he is bluffing us and his party, not the EU?

Johnson's tactic may be to defuse the ability of the Brexit Party to split the Tory vote in an early election and win a secure majority against a divided opposition, possible on as little as 30% of the vote. But even if this works, for all the sound and fury there will still be only three Brexit options for the UK: leave through the existing withdrawal agreement; leave without an agreement (no-deal); revoke and remain in the EU. One of these must be chosen.


The whole business is so strange, I can't help wondering if, whether by accident or design, this is another Producers tactic. It may be wishful thinking on my part, but, once he has glimpsed the abyss, will he refuse to jump like Tsipras before him? To be even more Machiavellian (or Mel Brooksian), his personal interest lies in failure as long as it is clear that he has tried hard and that it's someone else's fault. He may be eyeing the gathering Parliamentary opposition with glee, rather than fear. This could be the only time a Cavalier is delighted to see a Roundhead army assembling to oppose him.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Anxiety in paradise

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Monday, July 22, 2019

Historical fiction and political fact

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

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

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Sacred facts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

No deal please, we're British

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 08, 2019

Labouring the point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Denial uses two main arguments:

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

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

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

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

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

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