Thursday, June 04, 2020

The lie of the land

This is a fine, long essay from Anne Applebaum. Its theme is the Republican Party's loyalty to Trump, even as he trashes their former beliefs. It explores the phenomenon of collaboration and resistance, drawing on Czesław Miłosz's classic book, The Captive Mind. But there is much more of general relevance in there.

It illuminated several of my pet obsessions. I may come back to some of those topics in a later post. This time, I want to use just one of its themes to show why the row over Dominic Cummings and his breach of lockdown is not trivial, as some try and make out. 

Cummings is a courtier. He's unelected. He has no power base other than patronage. He can be removed at a whim, but he wasn't. He was protected. Cummings was elevated to celebrity status by the scandal and allowed to give an unprecedented press conference in the Number Ten Rose Garden. His statement contained a claim so outrageous that it launched hundreds of mocking memes and a sell-out brand of craft beer. Dishonesty filled the air as he gave an account that was completely different to the one his wife had published only a few weeks before. He confirmed that he and his family had gone on a trip to Barnard Castle in breach of the lockdown, something that had been vehemently denied previously. Then came the big one, the utterly absurd reason he gave for his visit. He drove the sixty-mile round trip to test whether his eyesight was impaired. And as he left the garden after he made his statement, he smirked. He knew that he wouldn't be sacked. Any lie would make no difference. And Anne Appelbaum tells us why:
Sometimes the point isn’t to make people believe a lie—it’s to make people fear the liar.
Cummings is powerful and protected. His excuse showed just how powerful he is. It said to his enemies, 'I am dangerous.' He can say anything with impunity. He can be ridiculed, but that only increases his power. People, however much they loathe him, know that if he can get away with something so absurd, he can't be touched.

It's all part of a style. Never apologise, never resign, never bother about the truth. In a constitution based on convention rather than law, ignore restraints. If you get caught out, shrug your shoulders and carry on. Illegally proroguing Parliament was a resignation matter. Nobody resigned.

Cummings is not a pluralist, I doubt if he is even a democrat. He is an authoritarian devoted to the centralisation of power. His thinking is banal. He is no evil genius, just amoral. This is where the appeal lies. Appelbaum again:
This, of course, was the insight of the “alt-right,” which understood the dark allure of amorality, open racism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny long before many others in the Republican Party. Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian philosopher and literary critic, recognized the lure of the forbidden a century ago, writing about the deep appeal of the carnival, a space where everything banned is suddenly allowed, where eccentricity is permitted, where profanity defeats piety. The Trump administration is like that: Nothing means anything, rules don’t matter, and the president is the carnival king.
For Trump read Johnson. His whole career is based on 'telling it as it is,' a euphemism for transgressive deceit. He built his career on writing outrageous distortions about the European Union. He introduced racist and derogatory tropes into his journalism. All were delivered in the style of his unthreatening, comic, upper-class, faux persona. He was offensive with a smile. And that, for some people, is liberating. After all,
If there is no such thing as moral and immoral, then everyone is implicitly released from the need to obey any rules.
Johnson is not a serious politician. He is a bundle of needy entitlement combined with ambition without ability. Cummings is serious, with roots in the sewer of the alt-right. Mix the frivolity of transgression with the absence of any compulsion to tell the truth, and you end up with our own version of the Trump presidency. Smaller, more modest, not as overtly unpleasant, but, in its own way, just as indecent. This is where we are now. It disturbs me.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Poles together

One of the more interesting bits of the Liberal Democrat's election review, was this observation:
... on Brexit; the electorate was divided into three groups: 20-25% passionate Remainers, 20-25% passionate leavers, and 50-60% who weren’t really that passionate either way. 
Yet, much media coverage described the nation as bitterly divided 50/50 and some even predicted violence. Commentators only saw the passionate minorities. They were more visible, and that led to the kind of sampling error that Chris Dillow discusses here. The nation was not as polarised by the referendum as is commonly depicted. The two poles grew and were animated by the referendum, but the majority weren't particularly interested, nor were they well-informed. Much of the referendum vote, on both sides, was hesitant and semi-detached.

It isn't just sampling bias that makes us see polarisation. It's something that Hans Rosling called "the gap instinct." We are naturally drawn to explanations that split the world into two easily observable categories. We like to think in terms of either/or rather than complexity.
Dividing the world into two distinct sides is simple and intuitive, and also dramatic because it implies conflict, and we do it without thinking, all the time.

... The gap instinct makes us imagine division where there is just a smooth range, difference where there is convergence, and conflict where there is agreement.

... Much more often, gap stories are a misleading overdramatization. In most cases there is no clear separation of two groups,
It happens continuously. Journalists and analysts alike love it. For instance, it's common to talk about the division between metropolitan liberals and small town social conservatives. Then there's David Goodhart's facile split between people from somewhere and people from anywhere. And talk of the culture war is everywhere. However, if polarisation exists only at the edges, if there is a gradation of views, if opinions are not fixed, and if identities are multi-faceted and evolving, then policy makers have far more scope for action than they think.

Our politics is ill-suited to this reality. The two party system and first-past-the-post encourage polarisation. Normally, the conventional wisdom is that elections are won from the centre but this wasn't true in 2019. The Tory strategy was clear. They had to hold on to the votes of the 20% of diehard Brexiters. If that section of their vote was lost, they were in trouble. The result was that that 20% drove their electoral strategy and is now determining their actions in government. They could ignore the rest because of the Corbyn factor. His unprecedented unpopularity would keep the weakly committed voters with them.

Labour's stupidity, in both agreeing to an unnecessary election at the time chosen by the Tories and going into it with an unelectable leader, meant they could never win. But to maintain their vote, they could not afford to lose the 20% of passionate Remainers. This is why Starmer was pushing for a clear commitment to Remain and a confirmatory referendum. Instead, Labour's equivocation meant that they lost more votes to Remain parties than Leave ones. The result was that we had a Tory landslide on a similar share of the vote as the one they had when they lost their majority. They gamed the electoral system better.

Two things are clear. First, our electoral system is dysfunctional as it can't represent a complex electorate. Our situation could not have happened under any type of proportional representation. Secondly, because of both it and the special conditions of this election, the position necessary to win the election is a terrible base for governing the country afterwards, as we are starting to find out.

2019 was not the Brexit election, it was the Corbyn election, an historic failure not an historic victory.

Of course, the system had been disrupted by the referendum. Not only was it an affront to representative democracy, it was ridiculous to use a binary referendum to decide a non-binary question. The electorate was not binary either. The final result, 17 million leave, 16 million remain, and 12 million abstentions, was utterly indecisive. Neither remain nor leave could win the support of 40% of the electorate, yet it has been treated as more than decisive, as almost sacred; the 'people's will' rather than a distortion of democracy.

Whatever the result, it would have left 20% of voters thoroughly brassed off. But Brexit will not have wider salience until it directly affects the majority. That hasn't happened yet and will not do so until we exit transition. Then a lot will depend on the deal. It isn't going away.

In politics there is always the unexpected. Along came the pandemic and with it a political furore over the actions of Dominic Cummings. This has hit a nerve. There are several reasons:

First, the Cummings affair creates disquiet about the way we are governed and the power of, ironically, an unelected bureaucrat. Secondly, it asks questions about the moral qualities of our government, particularly in regard to truthfulness. Third, it raises the issue of competence. But the single most important issue is that it cuts to the heart of the relationship between the rulers and the ruled. It has pointed to a structural problem.

The main concern is about equality before the law. The reason why there is so much anger about the affair is that the lockdown has hit everyone. Not just the committed 20%s, but the uncommitted majority. We have all made sacrifices, often at great personal cost. Cummings didn't do what anyone would do, he did what everybody did not do. His disingenuous and unapologetic justifications have not helped. Though we may be tolerant of inequality, we do not like the excessive and contemptuous exercise of privilege.

There is something else hanging over this too. The outrage is an expression of collectivism. Public health is a collective issue. It's not a matter of individual choice, or of 'British common sense,' it's reliant on collective collaboration; obeying by the rules - rules set for our mutual benefit and protection. Collectivism is not just clapping the NHS, it's about a sense of social solidarity and mutual obligation. The pandemic has brought it to the fore as we face a common threat.

The scandal feels like it might be a Black Wednesday moment, the time in 1992 when a policy failure removed all trust from the government. Who knows if Johnson will recover? However, what we have seen is not polarisation or a culture war, but an expression of an underlying collectivist consensus.

This is a long term problem for the Conservative Party as it shackles itself to the uncomfortable coalition of populist right-wing English nationalism with elitist individualism. After the hubris of Brexit, I can smell nemesis in the air. That's comforting, though the real problem is the damage that they can do before they are removed when we have a system with weak constitutional restraints on a governing party with a secure majority, however that majority was won.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

How wars end

There's a curmudgeonly strand of the left that sneers at celebrations and patriotic sentimentalism. It mocks the street parties and denies the validity of popular pleasure. This joyless, censorious, and snobbish miserablism is a self-hating and self-righteous product of the 'anti-imperialist' left. However much I loathe it, I still felt uneasy about last weekend's brand new VE Day bank holiday.

It's new because the Conservative right have long hated the May Day holiday, which they associated with the European left. They've wanted an alternative for ages. The 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe was the perfect opportunity for them to ditch it. May Day was cancelled to be replaced by VE Day. The quiet dignity of Remembrance Sunday, commemorating the end of World War I, was to be eschewed in favour of public parties and singalongs. Officially sanctioned fun is not my thing and I was astonished that the call for celebrations was not cancelled because of the pandemic. But that wasn't the reason why I was uncertain.

I had a number of minor concerns, but they weren't the most important. It's imperative to commemorate the defeat of fascism in Europe, though I would have favoured solemnity over kitsch. This touching essay by Otto English about his father echoes with some of the stories I grew up hearing from my family. But then my response is personal and I wouldn't condemn anyone who enjoyed a knees-up celebrating the defeat of the Nazis.

Then there is our unhealthy relationship with the Second World War. It's divorced from the reality of experience and expressed in nationalist myths, such as us the one about us 'standing alone.' This was never true, even in 1940. Instead, we were part of an immense international collaborative effort. David Edgerton demolishes this particular one here.

These always bother me, but there was something that mattered more this time. It's about what shapes our attitude towards wars more generally. The way we remember is often decided by how wars end - not just victory or defeat, but the way they finished and by their consequences. 

VE Day wasn't the end of the Second World War. It lasted for another three months with vast loss of life. It wasn't over until the Japanese surrender on August 15th. Why don't we have a party for VJ Day instead? Part of the reason may be that making VJ Day the most significant commemoration would be to celebrate the use of the nuclear weapons. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki made the Japanese surrender. Nuclear war feels qualitatively different to the conventional methods that, despite their horrors, defeated Germany. It would be uncomfortable to approach this anniversary with anything other than solemnity and ambiguity.  

And then there's the First World War. Our image of it isn't shaped by the allied victory, but by the war that followed twenty-one years later. Much of the trope about the war's futility springs from its failure to secure a long-lasting peace. Whether rightly or wrongly, we talk about the failure of Versailles and remember the experience of the trenches, as seen through the filter of the literature it produced. We remember "the pity of war," its tragedy rather than its triumph.

How about a much more recent example? The Iraq war is rarely mentioned without the adjective 'disastrous' being tacked on to it. Why when an aggressive and murderous fascist regime was removed remarkably swiftly and efficiently? The answer lies in the post-war chaos, which was neither expected nor planned for. If a relatively stable, democratic republic had emerged from the war, it wouldn't be controversial. 

In contrast, VE Day is easy to celebrate. Not only was an unambiguous evil defeated, but the consequences, in Western Europe anyway, were benign. This didn't happen by chance. The successful post-war settlement rested on the deliberate building of national collectivist institutions - welfare states, universal health care, liberal democracy, mixed economies - and frameworks for international collaboration - most notably the European Union that Churchill repeatedly advocated in the aftermath of the war. The victory was the basis on which peace was built. And this is the reason for my misgivings. The government that was cheerleading socially distanced congas is ideologically opposed to much of the settlement that made the war one to celebrate.

We have already, tragically, left the European Union. This was the right's key demand. They have other targets now. The BBC, whose war-time role was vital, is subject to continuous attack. But the pandemic has provided a surprise defence. The welfare state has shown its worth. Collective action to secure incomes holds back the worst of the economic crisis, while the disease has mobilised the vast public sentiment behind the NHS. The right's ideological commitment remains, but will be much more politically difficult to achieve. In the middle of the economic dislocation caused by the virus, it's hard to see much popular enthusiasm for Brexit, especially for ending the transition earlier than necessary without a deal. 

And that's why I felt ambiguous. The government that was promoting celebrations wanted to dismantle much of what was worth celebrating, all under the cover of popular patriotism. It made me sad. It made me sad about the loss of our EU membership and about the state of the public sector. It compounded my anxiety about the future. And while I could celebrate the liberation of Europe, I was also mourning the casual way with which we are treating the gains that the sacrifices of the previous generation brought us. Rather than being a celebration of the past, VE Day in 2020 was, in David Reiff's phrase, "little more than the present in drag." And it's a present that I don't like.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Method in madness

As the Labour Party sets out in a struggle to regain the closest approximation to sanity that exists in politics, the Conservative Party doesn't seem to want to join in. Partly, this is to do with the strength of an influential strand of right-wing contrarian thought that runs through it. It's easy to reel off some of the names. Toby Young, James Delingpole, Peter Hitchens, Melanie Phillips, those from Furedi's Spiked cult, all supported by a range of think tanks. The same is happening across the Atlantic with people such as Jordan Peterson and, as shown in this interview, Richard Epstein.

These people are the respectable stratum under which lies wilder depths of increasingly deranged conspiracy thought on both the right and the left. In this country, you will find it in climate change denial/minimisation, Brexit, and, in its latest manifestation, opposition to the lockdown in response to the pandemic. The Epstein interview interested me, not just because of his influence on some around our government, but because it shows graphically the way that these people operate. It's a method that works something like this.

1. False expertise.

Epstein is not an epidemiologist or a virologist, he is a lawyer. Expertise in one field does not confer expertise in others. I have no doubt that he is a very good lawyer, but then he throws in this, "I’ve worked on evolutionary theory for forty years in its relationship to law." This is supposed to turn him into an expert on the evolution of the coronavirus. Real experts react in horror.

I have no doubt that these people read and study a mountain of material, even becoming obsessive about it. The big problem is that their study is unsystematic and self-selected, so their conclusions are dodgy. I heard a classic example on Radio 4's The Moral Maze quite a few years ago. Melanie Phillips was arguing against climate science. Phillips, who had previously spread the MMR/autism manufactured panic, said, and I paraphrase, "If 97% of climate scientists agree, why does most of what I read say the opposite." She hadn't realised that she had just shown the narrowness and inadequacy of her reading, rather give a clinching argument in favour of her denialism. It goes on and on. Brexiters have a huge command of detail about the EU, most of which is verifiably wrong. Jordan Peterson based his justification of hierarchy and inequality on the biology of lobsters, which was fine until a real expert in lobsters came along with this hilarious putdown.

This type of reading and reasoning is a classic example of selecting according to a pre-existing ideological preference and then bending the evidence to support it. We can see something similar with Dominic Cummings' flaunting of his self-education in science and his deprecation of the humanities (although he actually has an history degree). Each shares their particular misinformation within their circles in a continuous cycle of reinforcement and self-verification. It's a way to claim the status of erudition without submitting to the scholarship necessary to achieve it.

The importance of systematic and programmed learning is that it gives you comparators. Making a judgement is impossible without them. This is what education is. And because of the complexity of knowledge, we only have a limited scope. We have to rely on the judgement of experts. They are easily found. They are the ones sitting in the corner with their heads in their hands.

This isn't a unique fault, we all do it to a greater or lesser extent. I'm very prone to big speeches on the basis of half knowledge. But these people do it it with such certainty, with amazing self-confidence, with vanity even. They are free of doubt. It's what makes them convincing.

2. The disparagement of experts.

The enemy of false expertise is genuine expertise. The result is that much of the energy of these contrarians is spent in disparaging people who have it. This is rarely done with evidence. After all, there usually isn't any. So they use two main techniques.

The first is contempt. Experts are the elite or the establishment. They are trying to protect themselves or further their careers. They are too scared to stand up to the powerful (unlike our courageous contrarians). They suffer from 'groupthink.' They are conventional and unimaginative. They have vested interests. Forget evidence, ad hominems are sufficient in the contrarian mind. That leaves the easy emotional appeal of a supposedly special and superior knowledge, one used by every conspiracy thinker and snake oil seller to ignore the substance of the issue that exposes them as fake.

The second is doubt. This is a well-trodden path. Rather than put forward an alternative theory, they raise doubts about the certainty of well established facts. By creating a sense of controversy or debate where there is none, they undermine a genuine scientific consensus. The tobacco companies did this with smoking and health for decades, the fossil fuel industry has used the same methods to spread doubt about climate change and, more recently, to spread opposition to renewable energy. Contrarians celebrate outliers, and promote them as if they were mainstream. They feed off a media obsession for balance where someone who knows what they are talking about has to be countered by someone who doesn't.

3. False Martyrdom

Oh how they suffer, these contrarians. How they are persecuted. How they are denigrated for, horror of horrors, being wrong. How, despite newspaper columns, book contracts, and endless appearances on TV and radio, their right of free speech is being denied and they are being silenced. It's hardly surprising that they need to fight back and, like Toby Young, form a Free Speech Union. After all, the right to be discourteous, abusive, and to speak lies to truth has to be defended.

The problem that I have with all this is that they are not demanding free speech. They want the right to speak without opposition. Free speech is not agreement. Toleration does not mean approval, but acceptance, grudging and reluctant at times. J S Mill's seminal defence of free speech in On Liberty, sees contest and challenge as a fundamental element of it. He has a dialectical theory of truth. There isn't just a right, but a duty to contest. Liberalism does not mean sitting back and letting people spout nonsense, it means calling it out and saying that bollocks is precisely that, however uncomfortable it makes these 'free speech warriors' feel. They do not want to defend a robust principle, but to promote themselves and their ideologies, while receiving back nothing but admiration for their originality and daring.

All of this would be a nice intellectual game if it were not for one thing, the contrarians proximity to power. They have pushed a particular agenda within the governing party and its media cheerleaders. They are not seekers after truth, but seekers after influence. This is an ideological power grab. It has consequences. Action against climate change has been delayed. The damaging stupidity of Brexit has been imposed on the country. And, if the majority of virologists and epidemiologists are right, their campaign to end lockdown early could kill thousands. They are dangerous and Brexit has taken them to the heart of government, because the Conservative Party has abandoned conservatism in favour of ideological insanity.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

They never go quietly

I've often compared the Corbyn leadership with those moments in education when we had a problematic management. It felt the same. And the experience was always independent of the various political/educational views that management identified with. It strikes me that there are some generic lessons that can just as easily apply to the situation in Labour with the leaked submission to the EHRC. It's not that there aren't specific political issues, it's just that they are manifesting themselves in a far too familiar way.

1. When the management comission a report detailing how most of the staff think that the management are sodding useless and would do anything to get rid of them, this is not the masterstroke they think it is. It doesn't show that the management are good. Spying on the staff to get details about how rude they are about management in private doesn't help their case either.

2. Management accepting some failings and then saying that they only screwed up because the staff were being nasty to them, does not exonerate them.

3. If they leak a document containing actionable defamations and evidence of civil and criminal breaches of data protection legislation, naming complainants and putting staff at risk, they shouldn't think that it puts them in a good light.

4. There are always factions in any workplace (even more so in political parties). If factionalism becomes destructive, that means that it has been poorly managed. Factionalism doesn't mean that grievances against management are not real.

5. If the management says they would have had a magnificent success if it hadn't been for the disloyalty of the staff, laugh. It's always easier to plead betrayal than to be self-critical and take responsibility for your own actions.

And here are two tips:

1. When you want to bitch about management, don't do it on your work email or server. That is dumb.

2. When a new management comes in, riding on a wave of support and goodwill, they mustn't think that they can clean up the mess by being emollient with their predecessors and fudging the issues. If they don't act swiftly and decisively to resolve the conflicts and deal with the substance of the discontent, the problems will continue worse than ever and the new management will fail as badly as the old. The old regime are never the friends of the new.

I've seen lots of similar situations in my thirty years in education, including during a horrible time as union branch secretary. None of it is fun. The discontents were always real and needed dealing with. Usually, the cost was borne by the staff in the end. We should understand that the problem was not the staff. Instead the cause was inept and incapable leadership, using its power to protect itself, just as it would in any other organisation.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Goodbye to all that

The polls are closed. He's gone by Saturday. We just have to wait for Starmer's certain coronation.

So what's Corbyn's record? 

He won: 
Two leadership elections
The local government elections of 2016 and 2018

He lost: 
The local government elections of 2017 and 2019
The EU referendum
A Parliamentary Party vote of no confidence
The European elections
Two general elections.

A comprehensive failure.

There was a moment of hope. In 2017 Labour lost nothing like as badly as expected. A late surge deprived the Tories of a majority. Labour hadn't won, but the party held a potential Parliamentary veto if May's agreement with the DUP failed. When it did and when Johnson took the leadership, the Tory majority vanished. Labour could control Parliament.

2017 was Labour's great chance. It needed to build on its gains, heal the party and build a coalition. So what did it do? Continued with the factionalism, sank into a swamp of anti-semitism and drove away Jewish MPs, ran a central administration based on nepotism and bullying with key posts filled by upper-class Stalinists, covered up sexual harassment, ignored its members over Brexit, but then released fanatical and deranged loyalists to abuse its critics.

The collapse of May's government, together with Johnson's ruthlessness towards his opponents in his own party, left the Tories as a minority government. There was now a Parliamentary coalition capable of commanding a majority. It would be able to remove Johnson and call a second EU referendum. Corbyn was the obstacle to activating it. Then, in the most astonishing act of stupidity, ignoring all advice and all polling evidence, he decided to give Johnson the one thing he wanted most, an election - an election held on the terms and at the time the Tories wanted.  Corbyn chose to agree to one despite his personal approval polling standing at minus 60% - an unprecedented level of unpopularity. He took the wrong lesson from 2017 and was convinced that he would sweep to power on another late surge. An incoherent manifesto and an incompetent campaign later, we see his legacy. A Tory landslide, Labour with the fewest seats since 1935, and Britain out of the European Union. It's fair to say that without Corbyn's leadership, none of these would have happened.

Corbyn's decision to facilitate an election was not just stupid, it was criminal.

Losing was a collective failure too. Labour has never been ruthless enough to remove an unpopular leader. Corbyn could never have won, that was always certain. He had no appeal outside the party and was broadly disliked. Someone else could have given the poll a good go. And a wise leader would have waited until after Brexit had been resolved. To a disengaged public, he didn't look like a credible Prime Minister. This was obvious in 2015. His election was a bizarre choice that rested far more on the sentimentality of Labour members than on the judgement of those who had to face the electorate.

He hasn't just been a disaster for the country, but for the left as well. Leftists saw this as their chance and lined up to defend the wrong leader. It was obvious to anybody who was mentally honest that, regardless of his politics, Corbyn didn't have the ability to do the job. The issue of his competence never went away. His inevitable failure was an existential threat to the left. As were his absurd cultish followers. They came over as aggressive, abusive, and unpleasant. A populist strategy that divided the world into villains, victims, and the virtuous could never appeal to people who didn't see themselves as victims and viewed these people as anything other than virtuous.

The whole farrago reminded me of Jonathan Rose writing about why the Communist Party got so little support amongst the British working classes.
Put bluntly, the trouble with Marx was Marxists, whom British workers found to be dogmatic, selfish, and antiliterary ... British working people judged Marxism by the Marxists they knew and concluded, with good reason, that such people were not going to make a better world.
The very moment the left won within the party, they blew it. They rallied round the wrong people, purely because of their identity.

But the left had other problems. It hadn't prepared. It hadn't renewed itself. There was little new thinking. The sectarian left had been comfortable as a minority opposition to the mainstream, while it persisted in its orthodoxies. Marginalisation suited it. It reassured leftists of their virtue without them having to carry the burdens of responsibility. Intellectually locked in to their defeats in the 1980s, they only saw this as an opportunity to refight them. To his credit, McDonnell did try and move economic policy towards different models of ownership, but there was no coherent narrative of the type that wins elections, not that they had the public's trust anyway.

The left needs an intellectual project. Unimaginative nostalgia and token giveaways to the middle classes would never cut it. It needs to junk the campist nonsense that saw it fawning over foreign tyrannies and the theocratic far right, while welcoming in the anti-semites. It needs a new political economy for changing times. And activists have to remember that this is not a performance for their own benefit, it is not a form of personal gratification. Self-indulgence loses elections.

Corbyn's leadership was a painful lesson in political realities. In 2015 I thought the party would be facing a big defeat this year if it hadn't ditched him by now. We should have been facing an election as the Cameron government's five-year-term came to an end this May. Instead, Cameron caused an unnecessary constitutional mess over Brexit and the crushing defeat came early.

Today, there is a national crisis. We are locked down by a pandemic. We are out of the European Union. And looming is the colossal self-imposed damage of leaving the single market and customs union. In such a crisis, Labour should speak for the nation, not lecture it for its stupidity in not voting for a leader that it did not want and was prepared to tell anyone who listened that they did not want. That's the tragedy. Defeat was utterly predictable. It was also preventable if the party had listened and taken action. Listening is something that the new leader needs to do right away. The alternative is oblivion.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Viral nonsense

I was supposed to be going to Greece in a week's time. Flights were cancelled and travel advice changed, so I am locked out of my Greek home and into my Manchester one. I had no choice, but it felt wise. Coming from this country, with its lax approach to the contagion, I would be a risk to others. But I can't help but cast a wistful glance at my Greek life and be impressed by Greece's serious and rigorous reaction to the pandemic.

Greeks are locked down and restricted, but what of Britain today. It's the country without bog roll (except in millions of domestic cupboards, safely under lock and key). It's a nation of panic buyers (try and find butter, pasta, tinned food, and other basics in big supermarkets. Try and find paracetamol anywhere). And we're a people that loves nothing more than to squeeze into confined spaces and gather in crowds when told not to. This is a nation unaware of the risks it faces. It's also a country with a hesitant government, slowly abandoning a policy, which was always an outlier, once the consequences of hundreds of thousands of additional deaths became clear. It's a country cursed by an unserious and insubstantial prime minister who won power by imposing a disaster and is now mismanaging a catastrophe.

As for the people, panic and confusion was inevitable. We have always scoffed at public information campaigns. The difference this time is that there aren't any to scoff at. It's an extraordinary failure of government. In a vacuum only partly filled with Johnsonian waffle, we have become a contradictory mess of fear, ignorance, and resentment. British stoical stiff-upper-lip resilience, as romanticised in popular history, is either fictional or a mixture of complacency and fatalism. It was invoked endlessly to assure us that the disruption of a no-deal Brexit would bet met with calm determination by a special people. Who now thinks that Britain can take it? Who now wants to follow one vast economic disruption with another in December?

Alex Andreou is stranded too. He is in a surreal Greece, quietened by a full social lockdown. It has given him time to write a splendid piece contrasting the two countries. He makes a telling observation.
... Britain finds itself under attack from two pandemics: Covid-19 and a plague of inane punditry.
He could have added the word profitable. There's a good living to be earned from dismissing reality. He attacks the right, but could have just as easily included a leftist strand too. It fits Harry G Frankfurt's definition of bullshit perfectly. 
Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.
It's not the same as lying.
The bullshitter ... does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.
It's a way of talking with authority and conviction from a position of near total ignorance, thereby hiding your inexpertness from both your audience and yourself. The bullshitter does not lack confidence. As for the recipient of it, you pick your ideology and choose your bullshit according to your preconceptions. It's comforting rather than challenging. You can believe the current pandemic is overhyped or apocalyptic, you can think it will change nothing or will change everything, you can hope for a cure and vaccine or despair that we are doomed to an eternity without football. And whatever you instinctively think, there will be a bullshitter waiting to convince you that you are right.

At a time like this, we need to hear from virologists and epidemiologists. They will not give us the simple solutions we would prefer to hear. They may not be comforting or certain. They may well insist that we do things that we really don't want to do. But they will be informed, knowledgeable, and expert. They know what they are talking about. We need experts. We really need experts.

Initially, our government did not follow the policy of other countries. It did so with a sense of superiority. It was a little unnerving, and partly convincing, until it fell apart after a critical analysis of the consequences from Imperial College, London. 250,000 dead was sobering. But why did we go down that route in the first place? It's puzzling until you realise that both our Prime Minister, together with the powerful Minister for the Cabinet Office, Michael Gove, were opinion columnists. They were professional bullshitters. They have both been advised by the unelected power behind the throne, the arch-bullshitter Dominic Cummings. The core of government is Vote Leave; a campaign which paid no attention to truth at all and has lumbered us with a mad act of self-harm driven by dubious ideology. Bullshit is the essence of our government. Now it is payback time. Reality is knocking.

Reality has a habit of doing this. For anti-vaccination loons, this is what a world without vaccines looks like; for Corbynistas, yes that was a catastrophic election defeat; for eugenicists casually disregarding deaths, here are a quarter of a million of them for you to handle the consequences. We will move back into line with others with far more stringent measures because we have to. The bullshitters will continue to claim that it was the plan all along. They won't be lying, because truth has never bothered them. I doubt that it ever will. But the consequences of their illusions certainly will.

Monday, March 09, 2020

Government by delusion

This is good from Tom McTague in the Atlantic. He shows that the confrontation between the government and the civil service is structural and ideological.
The row also reveals the deeper philosophy of Brexit, which drives this Johnson administration and has yet to be fully grasped by those who routinely show exasperation at its apparent refusal to listen to expert advice. Johnson, they say, is pursuing a future that makes no sense, one in which sovereignty is prioritized over economic alignment with the EU, meaning that Britain will be poorer than it needs to be. 
But this misunderstands the core of the Johnson-Cummings project. It is not that they disagree with experts’ forecasts, or that they are attempting to be populist. They actively reject this model of government, believing it to be systemically and empirically flawed. They argue that Britain needs to free itself from centralized bureaucratic control, rather than rely on it, to be able to react both to domestic crises and the ever-changing international environment. This is a project to remake Britain into a country agile enough to adapt quickly to the dramatic change that is inevitable and unpredictable, not to perfect an existing system that avoids unwanted shocks.
This is the central assumption. Whereas the government is about delivering "the kind of change voters want," bureaucracy is about frustrating it to protect the status quo. The trouble is, it's bollocks. But it's seductive enough bollocks to base a long-running comedy series on it. This is not about what voters want, it's about what rulers want. They are projecting their ideology on to voters in order to justify it. At best, the statement should read 'what many voters want, but many others oppose.' That's why the Cummings theory of government is anti-democratic. Democracy accepts dissent as legitimate, feels it should be listened to and accommodated. Sometimes the protection of minorities should overrule the will of majorities. Democracy is slow, can be cautious, but democracies can also act decisively in response to a crisis and, because of their very nature, can effectively mobilise consent for emergency actions. 

The Cummings approach to government is ludicrous. Reality conflicts with it daily. Look at the tardy response to recent shock events - flooding and the coronavirus pandemic. This is a political failure, not an administrative one. An inadequate political class is throwing blame around to avoid responsibility for its own failings.

The likes of Cummings are in thrall to any fashionable nonsense that panders to their narcissism and inflated egos. Only 'weirdos,' 'blue sky thinkers,' 'people who work outside the box,' and the like, have any value. Those who are still in touch with reality are the enemies of these visionaries. And so, they must be sidelined and disposed of to promote the "agility" of this new elite. Of course, the biggest enemies of all are the institutions of representative democracy. There's nothing new about this. It's the currency of authoritarianism throughout history.

What we are seeing is a crisis of the Conservative party. It has abandoned conservatism. It has embraced the cranks and loons, a disparate collection of right-wingers who had been hanging about on the fringes for years. Brexit has been their vehicle for power. Sceptics, the real conservatives, have been expelled or consigned to the margins. The ascendent faction is a destructive force, not just wrecking our place in Europe, but dismantling liberal democratic institutions. It claims the old mantle of the 'man of action,' sees bullying as a virtue, opposition as a sign of the unworthiness of opponents, and is convinced of its own doubt-free rectitude. Nothing must constrain its freedom of action.

All the institutions of the post-war settlement are under attack. All are seen as opponents of this right-wing ascendancy, the ones who would restrict its power to do something stupid. They must go - the judiciary, the civil service, the BBC, Parliament, and, of course, the European Union. This rightist ideology would dismantle all the collectivist institutions that have underpinned an enduring consensus, including the NHS. These bodies might be stuffy and unglamorous, but they can save us from the serial stupidities of ideologues who think they know best. They need to be defended from the attack by these rebels against reality.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

What a state to be in

Anarchism is an odd academic specialism to have. I often get thought of as an anarchist, whereas I am really an interested bystander. I always think that anarchism provides insights, rather than specific programmes, and those insights are valuable to anyone who is interested in politics. One thing it does lead to is a scepticism of the nation state. The anarchist rejection of government never meant that there would not be any political and economic social units, just that they were not to be conventional states. Anarchists proposed multiple forms; producer co-operatives, mutualist associations, labour syndicates, autonomous cities, extensive property rights, communal self-regulation, bio-regions, and etc. Whatever their chosen unit, anarchists often placed them within larger collaborative structures, such as Proudhon's Federalism. As per the slogan coined by the ecological anarchist, Patrick Geddes, they 'think global, act local.' The sense of global interconnectedness runs through anarchist thought.

I thought of this as I read a curious libertarian Brexiter article in the Telegraph by Allister Heath (£). It helps explain why Brexiters continue to be angry and rant about the EU even though we have left. They want to destroy the EU permanently - for everyone. Their argument is that a world of independent nation states alone, without any supra-national organisation, is the best form of political and economic organisation. The result of this thinking is that the destruction of the EU will liberate everyone.

It's a curious argument. Its universalism about the benign nature of the nation state is ahistorical. Its utopianism is unrelated to historical experience. Given that Brexit has made other Europeans shudder and has increased the EU's legitimacy amongst member states, as well as its attractiveness to those outside, it looks like a piece of wishful thinking. A controversial, non-consensual win in the UK does not make it a global model to be followed by everyone. Elsewhere, the Eurosceptic movement is minuscule and the EU has never been more popular.

The article shows that right-wing libertarians have made their peace with nationalism. It's curious, because nationalism is a collectivist doctrine. Heath's argument, like much of Euroscepticism, rests on a category error. There are two classic ideas in liberal thought describing the origins and nature of a social contract underlying the modern state. That of Hobbes is based on the willingness of people to place themselves under the power of an absolute ruler to enforce peace, while the version derived from Locke sees the social contract as a voluntary association constructed out of the rule of law and democratic governance. Brexiters see the EU as the former, its supporters as the latter.

Heath's celebration of the nation state as the only form of sustainable political organisation leads Brexiters into contradictions. The EU is at once a Hobbesian leviathan, a centralised authoritarian beast, but also weak, unstable and on the point of collapse. Both versions can sometimes appear in the same sentence. This is why they portray Brexit as liberation. The problem is that it's a mirror image of reality. The EU is a federal organisation of democratic states that is not independent of its members wishes. It has a limited area of legal competence, defined by treaty, and a functioning elected parliament. Membership of the EU means shared sovereignty and collective decision making in defined areas, but not unconditional submission to authority. However, it is powerful in protecting and advancing its members' interests through collective organisation and in accordance with the mandate given by its member states. This power is something the UK is about to experience in negotiations. Unsurprisingly, a comparatively small single nation is guaranteed to be the weaker party. The EU's federalism may not be the same as Proudhon's, but it is nothing like the Eurosceptic fiction.

Heath and others have resurrected the old 19th century liberal panacea of the self-determination of nations. And in doing so, they haven't addressed the mixed history of nationalism and national liberation. It is true that national statehood has been a way of rescuing the persecuted and freeing peoples from tyranny (Heath supports Kurdish independence, alongside the very different cases of Catalonia and Scotland), but there is no guarantee that the result will be democratic and liberal. Post-colonial states have relapsed into bloody tyrannies. National territories are not ethnically homogenous and minorities have been persecuted, expelled, and killed. With each nation comes the concept of treason, and with it the identification of groups of people as existential enemies (see this fine piece on Hindu nationalism for example). Then there is Rummel's concept of Democide, based on the statistics that show that far more people have been killed by their own state in the 20th century than have died in international wars. National self-determination has a very mixed record, hence the perceived need for supra-national organisations to mediate and protect citizens.

The EU was created as a response to the two world wars. Both were the result of catastrophic failures of nationalism. But let's not forget that they were also due to failures of other attempts at international collaboration. The balance of powers failed. Deterrence failed. Appeasement failed. Collective security through the League of Nations failed. The EU was a conscious attempt to avoid those failures by building a regional alliance based on economic self-interest and administered by an agreed legal framework overseen by national governments and a democratic parliament. So far, it's been a success. And it is this incremental, voluntary, and limited federation that Heath wants to overthrow in favour of something that has a history of collapsing into local and global bloody conflict.

It might sound odd, but anarchists had a far more realistic appreciation of the nature of nation states and the need for international cooperation than Daily Telegraph columnists. But then Brexit wants to replace a fictitious European Union with an even more fictitious nationalist utopia. And in an increasingly interdependent world, we are the ones paying the price.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

History matters

If there is one post that is essential reading, it's this from the historian Robert Saunders, the author of a comprehensive study of the 1975 referendum on membership of the then EEC, Yes to Europe!  In it, he describes the structural reasons why the UK decided to seek membership, eventually succeeding in 1973.
Membership provided an answer to three fundamental questions about Britain’s role in the world, which reached a crisis in the years after 1945. First, how could Britain maintain its prosperity, as a declining industrial power that had lost its colonial markets? Second, how could it project power in the world, once it had lost its empire and its global military reach? Third, how could Britain preserve its sovereignty, in an increasingly globalised world? Put differently, how could Britain ‘take back control’, at a time when it seemed to be leaking sovereignty to the currency markets, to the International Monetary Fund, and to big trading blocs that were setting the rules of world trade? 
From 1961 to 2016, every government (whether Conservative or Labour) started from three basic assumptions: that the best way to rebuild Britain’s economic strength was as the entry-point to an integrated, European market; that the surest route to influence in Washington or the Commonwealth was through a leadership role in Europe; and that the best way to maximise British sovereignty was to have a seat at the table where its destiny would be decided.
Those existential problems still exist. To leave the EU means that we have to once again to find solutions to the problems that membership had effectively addressed; prosperity, power, and sovereignty. The pre-73 past was not some sort of golden age. It was a period of British decline and global weakness. So, what are we going to do? We are leaving an economic superpower and intending to erect trading barriers with it. We are abandoning our European leadership role as one of 'the big three' decision makers. We have removed ourselves from the decision making structures that will inevitably shape much of our economic life. How are they to be replaced?

The answer given in Johnson's bizarre and rambling Greenwich speech appears to be little more than an atavistic assertion of British greatness, rooted in some abstract idea of a national character. The specifics are much harder to see, probably because they don't exist. The Brexiter case would have more merit if it had addressed these issues in terms other than those that guarantee failure - wishful thinking combined with over-confidence.

Intentionally damaging our economy and sitting outside regional power structures in a globalised economy and interdependent world, is not wise. This is why we will be drawn back into some sort of association with the EU, and probably try and regain our membership. It remains the best available answer to our permanent existential dilemmas. They will not go away, and neither will the EU.

Friday, January 31, 2020

A black day

No state in the modern era has committed such a senseless act of self-harm. Brexit will make Britain poorer; the British government’s own analysis predicts as much. But the real impoverishment is far broader. Its citizens’ freedoms will be curtailed. Its voice in the international arena will be weakened. Its reputation as an open, forward-looking country will be diminished.
And whatever you do read this from Chris Grey. Here's a taste.
... Britain has made an historic strategic error, leaving it poorer and weaker. It is a strategic error without even being a strategic decision. Unlike the day that Britain joined what became the EU, which was the outcome of years of careful planning and statecraft, today has come about by a series of accidents and mistakes, and an epic failure of political leadership. To undertake it in the absence of any clear national consensus is profoundly dangerous and irresponsible.

And now watch this.

Friday, January 24, 2020


Paradox number one, from Fintan O'Toole:
Revolutions unleash euphoria because they create tangible images of change and inaugurate, at least in the fevered minds of their supporters, a new epoch. Brexit can’t do either of these things. The problem with a revolt against imaginary oppression is that you end up with imaginary freedom.
He's right. On the day we leave, bongless but with god knows what sad gimmick to accompany a fascist knees-up in central London, nothing will happen. Obviously, we enter transition, but even after that is over, the great moment of liberation will not come. That's because we are not oppressed. We are not 'ruled by Brussels' we are one of the most powerful members of a supra-national organisation managing the largest and most effective free trade area in the world. We jointly run Brussels and are not run by it. Neither is the EU imposing a neoliberal hegemony. We are giving up power in the name of sovereignty, and thereby losing sovereignty because we lose the power to decide the rules that govern our trade. 

The second is from Chris Grey.
It is one of the biggest paradoxes of Brexit, because most of those who understand what it entails at a practical level do not support it, whilst most of those who support it strongly do not understand what it entails at a practical level.
Now, it is perfectly reasonable that you and I would find the complexities of international trade baffling. But I would expect that those who advocate a dramatic course of action should actually know something about it. Given the contradictory, and often crazy, statements coming out of government at the moment, I'm not sure they do. What can you make of Javid's comment on regulatory divergence that would wipe out whole swathes of manufacturing and services? Does he mean it? Does he understand it? I might have problems with the details, but he's the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

This is a brilliant must read from Ian Dunt, explaining the issues that have to be addressed. It's a long, and extremely clear Q and A. That's what the government has to get to grips with.

These paradoxes are probably why Brexiters are still angry and resentful. They like the idea of Brexit, but dislike the consequences. That's why they throw the blame for everything at the EU or remainers.

Zombie Brexit will happen. It will happen despite the fact that polls and voting show that a majority opposes it. It will happen despite it being rejected by all the devolved assemblies of the UK's constituent nations, raising the prospects of a constitutional crisis. It is the English alone that are ensuring it happens. This makes it less an act of English nationalism than one of English imperialism.  Even its claim to democratic legitimacy has crumbled. People are losing their jobs. Business is already divesting. The costs are escalating. The damage is already occurring. It can never deliver what it promised because it is based on an ideological fiction. Now that fiction has to face reality.

On 1st February we will have completed the easy bit. Yes, that's all. What comes next is far more difficult. Expect the same stupid statements, wild rhetoric, crazed nationalism and all that goes with it. Expect too, the climb-downs, u-turns, and sophistries. We have no idea what will happen. The government seems to be rushing into this phase without a clear idea of the final destination - again. Don't expect a sudden catastrophe or vast recession, the economy will still grow, but by nothing like the rate it should. There will be a slow erosion of jobs together with gradual business closures and relocations. Nobody is anticipating any benefits. And after the transition, Britons without dual citizenship will find themselves as second class citizens in a Europe where they were once one of the lucky elite. (And if you doubt that, look at the money that the wealthy are paying to secure EU passports).

The best we can hope for is damage limitation as reality confronts belief. Reality always wins in the end, but when the end comes depends how strong that belief is. Boris Johnson thought that leading the losing leave side in the referendum would be his passport to the leadership. Winning the referendum instead nearly wrecked him. He now has what he craved, but at a price. The price is that he has to implement a catastrophe of his own making. We will have to wait and see, powerless to do more than wince in pain. And whatever you do, don't mention Gibraltar. Nobody seems to.

Thursday, January 16, 2020


However much we may dissect policy or discus technicalities, sometimes politics is emotional, based on a sense of who we are and who we want to be. It's about what we find instinctively attractive. Here are two speeches in the European Parliament.

This is what we are leaving behind.

The second is what we are staying with. You can watch Ann Widdecombe's speech if you have the stomach for it. I can't bear to post it. You will have to follow the link. She spews out hatred for foreigners (aka free movement - a reciprocal right, something she ignores) in a furious response to a request that Britain does what the Leave campaign actually promised to do during the referendum. It's English nationalism in the raw - contemptuous, paranoid, triumphalist, and immensely stupid. It's hateful, gut-wrenchingly hateful, and not wholly sane.

When nationalism has been unleashed in the past, it has destroyed Europe. It has committed genocide. It has smashed communities. It has spread misery. The EU is a conscious attempt to defuse the poison by brining independent nations together in a community. It's about taming and controlling political nationalism, not the impossible utopianism of the abolition of nations.

This is why I am an instinctive European. It's something that I feel as much as think. I am drawn to the open, inclusiveness of the EU, regardless of the institutional framework. I am a European. It is my identity, just as much as is my Englishness.

And so, at the end of this month, I will be one of the people who will be heartbroken. I will be devastated, as much for the future of my country as for myself. And I fear for our entry into the darkness of a malign nationalism. It is why I hope that Reintke is right and that we will return. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The dunces' decade

"It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way ..."


I've always loved the opening to Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, even though the novel is not one of my favourites. It captures the ambiguity of revolution perfectly. It's being revived as the theme for a TV advert for BT. I'm not a purist, I am delighted to see good literature made visible, even in this way. It may make some people read. And it got me thinking about the decade we have just lived through and how we would describe it. Could we use the same literary device?

It was the era of idiocy and the era of ... er ... more idiocy.
It was ... no, that's about it. Idiocy. We are living in an idiotcracy.

Anyone who writes a history of the 2010s in the future could do a lot worse than call it, WTF were they thinking of?

Anyway, let's try and write a brief chronicle of the politics of the decade.

The 2010 general election was held in the wake of the financial crisis and at the tail end of the New Labour governments. It resulted in a hung parliament, partly as a result of a Liberal Democrat surge on a raft of left leaning policies. Then the Lib Dems destroyed themselves by going into coalition with the Conservatives, putting Cameron in power, and instantly reneging on their promise to abolish university tuition fees. There was no way back after that. WTF were they thinking of?

The government's response to the effects of the crash was not to continue with the mild stimulus that had stopped the global economy grinding to a halt, but to cut spending, do enormous damage to public services, halt the recovery, and let the Liberal Democrats take most of the flak. WTF were they thinking of?

The 2015 general election, partly as a result of the collapse of the Liberal Democrats, gave the Conservative Party its first majority for 18 years. Cameron had a problem with fringe eurosceptic loons in his party and UKIP outside. He was certain that the one thing that Britain must not do was to leave the European Union. So, to make sure that it wouldn't happen, he called a referendum on whether it should or not. Without any safeguards. Parliament voted for one. It was advisory, but Cameron insisted that the government would treat it as binding. He lost. WTF were they thinking of?

Labour's response to its 2015 defeat was to elect a new leader using a mad method that gave a vote to anyone prepared to pay £3. MPs nominated someone for the shortlist who they didn't want to win. He won. He was an elderly backbencher of no discernible ability and with no record of achievement of anything other than support for anti-Western dictatorships and dodgy violent movements, expressed together with his visceral hatred of the State of Israel. He had never held a cabinet or shadow cabinet post in thirty plus years, with good reason. But he became a symbol of the left and the object of a bewildering cult of personality. Those of us who pointed out that not only was the emperor naked, but he also had an unsightly skin complaint and poor personal hygiene, were abused and cast into the outer darkness. Labour lost every election - local, European, and general - that he led them in to. He was hailed as a saint. WTF were they thinking of?

2016 and the new Conservative PM, Theresa May, announced that "Brexit means Brexit" as a way of not telling anyone what Brexit meant. Parliament voted to invoke Article 50 without knowing what Brexit meant either. It turns out it meant something that the Leave campaign promised would not happen. Then in 2017 she called a general election to increase her majority and lost it. She shored up a minority government with the only Northern Ireland party to oppose the Good Friday Agreement. WTF were they thinking of?

I can't possibly track the humiliations that led to May's resignation and her replacement by a man universally acknowledged as unfit to be PM, who illegally prorogued parliament and failed to resign for a resigning matter. Having lost his majority, only one thing could have saved him, a general election against a divided opposition. The opposition could have blocked it. They didn't. They gave it to him. And remained divided. WTF were they thinking of?

And now we stand on the threshold of a new decade. It will begin with a pointless and expensive act of self-harm, from which recovery will be difficult. And with our absurd, deeply unserious, and dishevelled Prime Minister begging for money - "bung a bob for a Big Ben bong" - to fund repairs to the clapper of Big Ben so that it can ring out to celebrate an event that more than half the population don't want to happen. That's how far we have sunk.

Things can only get better. Perhaps.